The Real Story Behind Sister Hibiscus

Here I start with the blog post titled "K post" at Miss and Hit.  The idea is simple, but as usual the vivacity of the Chinese language is difficult to capture in translation.  Anyway, all I need to borrow here is the idea even as I pay tribute to the original post.

The idea is that many of us are avid blog readers, and when we read something interesting, we quote them in our own blogs.  Fair enough.  What are the 'hot' issues at the moment in Hong Kong?  Internet hit songs such as "He dates me to Disneyland" and "He dates me to Hui Lau Shan"; Google Earth and Google Moon; MS Virtual Earth; Yahoo! Widgets and so on.  This makes for a kara-oke post ("K post"): everybody sings the same popular song of the day.

For the blogger, it serves the purpose of documenting for the reading public and oneself that one is contemporaneous with the 'hot' issues at the moment.  Cool!  Very cool, indeed!   Unfortunately, for the avid blog readers, this can be a turn-off experience.  By the tenth time that you have seen the lyrics of "He dates me to Disneyland" in blogs, you are ready to throw up in hands in despair at the diminishing return of the blog reading experience.  Waaaaaaaaa!

As a blogger, I do not write about every subject under the sun.  For one thing, I am an individual who has only a finite number of hours per day.  More importantly, as an avid blog reader, I am clearly aware of the fact that you don't need me to repeat the same old stuff about the 'hot' issues.  What was I going to tell you about the RMB re-valuation or the London police shooting a Brazilian?  I know nothing more.  I serve my readers and myself best by keeping my mouth shut if I have nothing new or interesting to say on something.

A case in point is this: the case of Sister Hibiscus (芙蓉姐姐).  If you read Chinese, you must have read far too much about her already.  If you read only English, you can go to Edward Cody's In Chinese Cyberspace, A Blossoming Passion at the Washington Post.  I have no interest in re-iterating all that.

But here is a story in Zhejiang Online to put things in perspective:

"One, two, three, four ... two, two, three, four ..."  Following the pounding musical beat, Sister Hibiscus began to dance on the outdoor stage at a Hangzhou plaza.  But her dance moves drew only boos from the crowd, including a number of plastic bottles being tossed on stage.

Sister Hibiscus is certainly 'hot', as evidenced by the more than one hundred people who showed up at the start of the event.  More than 80% of the people brought their own mobile phone cameras and digital cameras to take photographs.  But how many of them are true loyal fans of Sister Hibiscus?  The reporter sampled ten members of the audience randomly and found none.

Mister Wang at a Hangzhou IT company said: "I'm not!  I came here to shop today and so I also took a look.  Actually, I feel that she is weird.  Young people may have too easy a living today and that is why they want to show off on the Internet.  This sort of 'courage' is actually not praiseworthy.  I regard it as being very shameful.  Only in an abnormal world can people like that be 'bred'."

Sister Hibiscus was in Hangzhou to act as a judge in a model contest.  Her appearance fee was on the order of 10,000 yuan or more.

Isn't this strange?  She is popular and renowned, but nobody seems to really like, appreciate or respect her.  Actually, there is a genuinely interesting and important story in the case of Sister Hibiscus, but it is not about her at all.  Somewhere out there, there are a couple of anonymous and faceless people who enabled Sister Hibiscus to become such a public figure.  On her own, Sister Hibiscus could never have achieved these heights.  The gatekeepers at the key BBS's were the ones who promoted Sister Hibiscus, and they had the ability to feature her repeatedly at the home pages of their tremendously popular BBS's (with millions of visitors per day).  I have to wonder if these anonymous people deliberately chose an unlikely figure precisely to test if they have the power to sway popular preferences.  So now that they have proven to themselves that the power is there, what next?  How will they use that power?  How will they derive financial value from that power?

This comes as no shock to Americans.  A story on this day is in the Los Angeles Times (via The Standard):

When executives at Sony BMG in the United States needed to drum up support in 2002 for Jennifer Lopez's album This is Me ... Then, they called the program director of a San Diego radio station and offered her a 32-inch plasma TV in exchange for adding the artist's songs to her play list.  Sony BMG Music Entertainment knew such payola, or "pay-for-play,'' was illegal. Nonetheless, the company asked the programmer to provide a fictitious contest winner's name and Social Security number to cover up her involvement.  The station executive got her TV, and J-Lo got her spins.

The alleged exchange was disclosed in a treasure trove of e-mails, Blackberry messages and other documents made public by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. That electronic paper trail led the second-largest music company to a US$10 million (HK$78 million) settlement.  Spitzer said Sony BMG executives offered "outright bribes'' to radio programmers to make sure the company's artists got heard. Among the goodies Sony BMG gave employees of stations owned by Infinity Broadcasting, Clear Channel Communications and others: airline tickets, cash, vacation packages, PlayStation video game systems, DVD players and laptop computers.  In one e-mail that Spitzer released, a station manager who allegedly accepted gifts joked to Sony BMG executives: "I'm a whore this week. What can I say?''

Radio airplay is considered the most powerful promotional tool for record companies. Payola has plagued the music industry since the 1930s, with disc jockeys accepting cash, drugs and prostitutes in exchange for airplay.


Spitzer took his sharpest aim at radio stations, saying they "are the ones most fundamentally who are violating the public trust.''

In the United States, radio was and still is the principal target of corrupt practice in the music industry and the subject of anti-payola legislation and prosecution.  In the case of China, as illustrated by the case of Sister Hibiscus, the Internet is now the place in which the public opinions and tastes for entertainment can be shaped with ease.  The subject of public trust does not even come into this because those BBS gatekeepers have the discretionary power to feature whatever subjects that they wish.  So what will we have to put up with the next time?

In this post, I hope that I have contributed something to your understanding of the Sister Hibiscus phenomenon.  More importantly, I hope I have alerted you to the implications about media manipulation behind the scene.  In other words, I hope that you didn't think that this was just another "K post".

(Red Herring)  China Net Star Cries Censorship.  Kaiser Kuo.  August 26, 2005.

Are you a Chinese Internet phenomenon whose 15 minutes are nearly up, but who isn’t quite ready to go gentle into that good night? Just cry “censorship!” to members of the international press, and they’re likely to come to your rescue, transforming you overnight from marginal freak to free speech poster child.

Dissidence, after all, sells. It’s a packaging strategy that Shi Hengxia, better known to her public as Furong Jiejie (or Sister Hibiscus), hopes will rescue her from an oblivion many in China believe she richly deserves.

Think of Sister Hibiscus as China’s answer to William Hung, the U.C. Berkeley student whose painfully bad American Idol audition won him cult status. Hers, like his, is a fame of the lame. Her now ubiquitous photos and writings contain no nudity, no seditious ideas, no cultist heresies. She’s guilty, at worst, of criminally bad taste and shameless self-promotion.

Yet Sister Hibiscus, a 28-year-old native of rural Shaanxi province who first drifted onto the pop culture radar with the self-satisfied snapshots of herself she posted on Internet bulletin boards, now claims that the Beijing authorities have it in for her.

“They’ve cracked down on me,” she recently lamented to a Reuters correspondent in Beijing, who reported that the Communist Party was now moving to wipe this icon off the Internet.

The corroborating evidence? The fact that “after blanket coverage earlier this year, newspapers, magazines, and television have recently given almost no time to Sister Furong,” the reporter wrote. The journalist’s story also repeated a claim made in July by the British newspaper The Independent that Party authorities had instructed the country’s leading blog host to bury Sister Hibiscus-related links in the deeper recesses of the site.

That someone like Sister Hibiscus could find an audience in the West willing to accept, at face value, her claims of persecution says something about the often over-simplistic nature of Western perceptions on media in China.

But at the same time, the Sister Hibiscus phenomenon itself—the new media that made her rise to fame possible, the societal attitudes that turned her into a household name, her most recent attempts to preserve it by appeals to foreign media—provides a useful window into some of the major changes now afoot in Chinese society. The view through that window is anything but black and white.

If there’s been pressure on Sister Hibiscus from on high, it comes as news to (formerly, which hosts her blog. A spokesman for flatly denied that any such instructions had been handed down. “No one from the government has said anything to us about Sister Hibiscus,” said Mai Tian, director of’s Interactivity Center.

Mr. Mai noted that her blog, at, is still being updated several times a day and remains, by far, one of Bokee’s most visited blogs.

A Beijing Youth Daily reporter who covers society, Internet, and entertainment also said she had heard nothing about a government pronouncement on Sister Hibiscus.

Jeremy Goldkorn, Beijing-based publisher of, a web site devoted to media in China, compares Sister Hibiscus to Gary Brolsma, the Saddle Brook, New Jersey man who rode to unwelcome fame when a self-shot video of his lip-sync and dance routine to Romanian dance-pop tune “Numa Numa” hit the web.

“That kid is conspicuously absent from Hollywood and the American news media today, and that certainly isn’t because of some clampdown,” said Mr. Goldkorn. “The whole idea of a Furong Jiejie clampdown is absurd.”

Absurd as it might be, it’s not hard to see how her claim to have been targeted might have been swallowed. In recent years, Western reporting on Beijing’s efforts to restrict Internet content has created the impression of draconian control: legions of Party stalwarts, filtering for sensitive keywords and all too ready to muzzle offenders. Never mind that American companies—Cisco, Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo—have been all too ready to compromise on commitments to free expression for a piece of that fabled China market.

The trouble is, there’s much truth to it. Beijing does restrict Internet content: many web sites, including most of the popular U.S.-based blog hosting sites like Blogger, Blogspot, Typepad, and Google’s cached pages, the BBC web site, and most sites related to Tibetan independence or the banned Falun Gong cult are not accessible without resort to proxy servers.

But as with so many things in China, there’s far more to the question of how state and society are dealing with the disruptive power of the media, and especially the Internet, than meets the eye. The Sister Hibiscus phenomenon is very much a product of the flux that now characterizes the relationship between the state on the one hand and, on the other, a media that has grown bolder as it has grown freer.

“If you compare the media environment today with 1999, there has been an extraordinary expansion in free, individual expression in China,” said Mr. Goldkorn. “Publishing—online and in print—and broadcasting are still tightly controlled by the government. But there is much, much more room to write, say, and film what you want in China than there has ever been.” 

He also pointed to Condé Nast’s recent launch of Vogue in China, in partnership with a publisher directly under China’s State Council. There’s also been the publication of openly gay men’s magazines and candid articles in major papers about homosexuality, he said. What’s more, a front-page article appeared in August in the widely read newspaper Southern Weekend, detailing the mechanisms and motivations behind Internet filtering and reporting candidly on the debate over government regulations requiring BBS and IM chat operators to register real names of users, he added.

“There are cyclical clamp-downs on media, but it is, for the most part, usually two steps forward and one step back,” said Mr. Goldkorn. The Sister Hibiscus phenomenon, he said, is part of the new media revolution: “With the Internet, reality TV, digital photography, and cheap filmmaking—anyone can be a superstar for a day. This is the same in China as in the United States.”

Within China, discussion about Sister Hibiscus has moved beyond mere sniggering over her vulgar poses, tacky outfits, and mawkish prose and into a serious discourse on what the phenomenon means. Is the laugh Net-savvy Chinese elites have had at her expense rooted in classism—hostility toward an “uppity” girl from the countryside with the audacity to post on the bulletin board systems of prestigious Tsinghua and Peking universities, where she first gained attention? Or does the collective national guffaw young Chinese have had over her represent the first appearance of cheese-based humor in what has traditionally been an irony-deficient media diet?

More seriously, what does the sudden, explosive emergence of an Internet phenomenon like Sister Hibiscus mean for a regime accustomed to dictating who gets famous? Beijing may not have cracked down, but her sudden celebrity can’t have escaped their notice.

“What I have found interesting about the Furong Jiejie phenomenon is that now netizens, not Chinese Central Television or approved channels, have great power to make or break stars—which if I was in the Propaganda Bureau would concern me,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and former CNN Beijing bureau chief.

“Even if the netizens are sarcastically star-making... that’s still really powerful and out of any government agency’s control. The total lack of control over who becomes famous may be a new feeling for certain cadres,” said Ms. MacKinnon. “It means the Party loses control over who is a role model.”

China’s first full-fledged Internet phenomenon was harmless enough, after all—hardly a role model of any sense. But, Ms. MacKinnon asked, “what happens if one of the net-appointed stars turns out to be a Christian—or a Falun Gong member?”