The United States is entangled in an emotional debate about antisemitism and free speech on college campuses. The latest speech debate in China is about a chef’s video on how to make egg fried rice.
Egg fried rice is a staple of Chinese home cooking and one of the first dishes many Chinese learn to cook. Think of mac and cheese in America. That was probably why Wang Gang, one of China’s most popular food bloggers, has made multiple recipe videos about the dish in the past five years. His “perfect” fried rice recipes attracted reviews, and reviews of those reviews.
Then one of those videos drew the wrath of the official Chinese media and internet.
His offense? He posted an egg fried rice video on Nov. 27, two days after the anniversary of the death of Mao Anying, son of the founder of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong. Mao Anying was killed in the Korean War while, legend has it, cooking egg fried rice.
For over a decade, China’s liberal-leaning crowds have celebrated Nov. 25 as China’s Thanksgiving Day. They believe that if the young Mao had lived, China would have become a hereditary dynasty like North Korea. China’s internet and official media have disputed the account of his death, which was based on memoirs of retired generals, and consider it an insult to both Mao Junior and Mao Senior.
It’s a precarious time for any Chinese person who engages with the public: academics, writers, journalists, entertainers and social media influencers. Cooking is one of the safest topics, and Mr. Wang, who started working at restaurants at 15, sticks strictly to food on his show. Still, he was dragged into a political whirlpool.
On social media sites, Mr. Wang was called “a traitor,” “a troublemaker” and “the dregs of society.”
Everyday life is being politicized in China. Public expression has become impossible when too many things are taboo. It’s difficult to track, and sometimes impossible to know because of censorship, what can and cannot be said in the country.
The “egg fried rice” meme emerged more than a decade ago when the Chinese internet, although censored, was freer. Now there are barely any dissenting voices.
To evade censorship on the internet, Chinese resort to code words — so much so that academics and writers lament the deterioration of the Chinese language. Young people often use abbreviations of Pinyin, the Romanized spelling of Chinese characters, for anything that can be construed as sensitive or taboo. I’ve seen Chinese criticizing my columns about the Chinese government by saying they loved their “zf,” abbreviation for Zhengfu, or government. Even when defending the state, they knew they were venturing into treacherous terrains.
China’s sophisticated and effective censorship system paradoxically leaves people in the dark about what they are not supposed to say.
After Hu Jintao, the former Chinese leader, was abruptly escorted out of a highly choreographed meeting of the Communist Party elite last year, the social media accounts of many people who posted about it were suspended. They tended to be people who didn’t usually talk about politics and didn’t know the boundaries of state censorship. Several people with experience commenting on politics told me they knew they should either use code words or abstain altogether.
I’ve written about how new recruits at a censorship factory had to be taught about history, such as the Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in June 1989 in which hundreds of innocent people were killed, so they would know what to look out for.
Around the anniversary in 2022, Li Jiaqi, China’s top livestreaming salesperson, pitched his viewers on a tank-shaped ice cream cake. He was cut off midstream and went silent for three months.
The symbolism of the egg fried rice meme is much less well known than that of tanks in Chinese online discourse. It doesn’t exist in the consciousness of the vast majority of Chinese who were taught by their government and their parents to keep their heads down and not mind politics.
Mr. Wang, a.k.a. Chef Wang, was born on June 11, 1989, a week after the Tiananmen Square massacre. He grew up in a village in Sichuan and dropped out of school at 15. Mr. Wang, who declined to comment, probably didn’t have much access to information outside of what the government wanted him to know.
Mr. Wang starts each video with a greeting, “Hello, I’m Wang Gang,” speaking Mandarin Chinese with a Sichuan accent. He combines his farm boy persona with professionalism while working behind his wok stations, cooking dishes like a farm-style breakfast and Mapo tofu. His following has grown to tens of millions on Chinese social media sites, plus two million subscribers on his YouTube channel.
He calls himself a “grass-roots head chef,” according to his intros. “I’m grateful for every experience, thankful for this era and sincerely hope that my videos can assist everyone, enabling them to step into the kitchen and fall in love with cooking.”
“Thankful for this era” is the politically correct way to say that rather than attribute his success exclusively to his personal talent and efforts, he sees it as part of China’s success as a nation. That shows Mr. Wang’s awareness of the rules for staying out of trouble.
Some nationalist bloggers pointed out that Mr. Wang had posted egg fried rice videos around the same time in the past. They said he also posted the recipes around Oct. 24, Mao Anying’s birthday.
The fact is that Mr. Wang has posted various fried rice recipes over the years, and he isn’t the only one to come under attack for it.
The Weibo account of The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, was criticized for reposting Mr. Wang’s video of egg fried rice on Oct. 24, 2018. Around the same time in 2021, the Weibo account of a state-owned telecommunications company posted the dish; its account was suspended. Last month, two elementary schools in southeastern Zhejiang Province held an egg fried rice contest with 1,000 participants on the same day that Mr. Wang posted his recipe. The schools were attacked by nationalists on social media and deleted their posts.
The consequences can be much worse. In 2021 police in southern Jiangxi Province detained a man for 10 days after he posted a comment on Weibo saying, “Thank you, egg fried rice.”
Mr. Wang’s experience shows the lengths China will go to in restricting free speech.
The Chinese Academy of History, a state institution, called anything linking Mao Anying’s death with the dish “particularly malicious.”
Hu Xijin, the former editor of The Global Times, the Communist Party tabloid, advised everyone to avoid the topic of egg fried rice entirely. “In the future, especially around the anniversaries of the martyr Mao Anying, public discourse should avoid touching on the topic of egg fried rice,” he wrote on his social media Weibo account.
Some people pushed back at the suggestion. Banning any mention of egg fried rice in October and November, they noted, is both ridiculous and outrageous.
Mr. Wang deleted the video recipe and apologized.
“As a chef, I will never make egg fried rice again. Nor will I shoot videos about it,” a sour-faced Mr. Wang said in his apology video, ending it with a deep bow. But he had to delete that video, too. Commentators said his tone was reluctant and sarcastic.