It's not every day that the leader of the world's most populous country gives a shout-out to a blogger – after all, how much time does Chinese President Xi Jinping have to troll the Internet?
It happened last week to Zhou Xiaoping – and the ensuing crush of media attention may have been more than the 33-year-old writer, or the president himself, bargained for.
Zhou, whose writings often express pride in China and criticize the United States with little regard for facts, was invited to attend a symposium with prominent authors, actors, scriptwriters and dancers in Beijing where Xi was speaking. He and Hua Qianfang, 36, were both asked to represent "outstanding Internet writers" – though it's not clear who invited them, or whether Xi was actually familiar with their works.
During the session, Xi lectured the assembled guests that "fine art works should be like sunshine from blue sky and breeze in spring that will inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste and clean up undesirable work styles."
The president stressed that art should present patriotism as the main theme and foster correct viewpoints of history, nationality and culture, as well as strengthen pride in being Chinese, according to the official New China News Agency.
At one point, Xi paused and said: "I heard two Internet writers are here today. Where are you?" Zhou and Hua rose from their seats and waved nervously toward the president. "I hope you guys can produce more work that carries positive energy," Xi told them before the symposium concluded.
The apparent endorsement from the most powerful man in China brought instant fame – and withering scrutiny -- to Zhou and Hua. Both have been bombarded with interview requests from domestic and foreign press, which they politely declined via their social media accounts.
Since then, Zhou has come in for particular criticism, with many Internet users pointing out scores of factual errors in his writings. Fang Zhouzi, another Chinese blogger who is well-known for exposing fake stories on the Internet, posted an article pointing out numerous factual flaws Zhou's blog post, "Broken Dreams in America," which was published online by the state-run newspaper Reference News.
In that piece, Zhou had said: "When it comes to eating, the situation for Americans is worrying. Many Americans bring their own lunch, which usually consists [of] only two slices of bread with pieces of ham, cheese, tomato and lettuce in between. Why do they have to be so cheap? On top of their underdeveloped taste for food, the excessive cost of tips is an important factor here."
Fang countered: "Most people only have one hour for lunch. That's why they choose to take their lunch instead of going to restaurants. Zhou thought Americans are afraid of paying tips and couldn't afford going out to eat."
After Fang posted his take-down, Reference News deleted the mistakes in Zhou's post, leaving a much-shortened version on its website. At the same time, Chinese censors ordered Fang's article to be taken offline, although copies of it are still widely available on overseas-based Chinese-language websites.
Fang was hardly the first to question the accuracy of Zhou's writings. Three months ago, Chinese Internet users on the popular Baidu Tieba forum had already compiled a list of more than 30 factual errors in his writings.
One piece that came under particular fire was entitled "Please do not fail this era," in which Zhou tried to argue that life in China is not as bad as many people think and emphasized life in America is chaotic.
"In 2006, a Chinese woman from Hunan finally got her green card to stay in the America," he wrote. "But she was raped by seven to eight young people in the subway in New York. When nobody tried to help her, she just decided to have sex with an additional 200 men and claimed it's the 'sex freedom in America.' Can you imagine something like that happening in the subway in China?"
Users on Baidu Tieba pointed out that there was no proof the woman Zhou mentioned exists – and even suggested he might have borrowed the storyline from an infamous adult film featuring Singaporean-born American porn star Annabel Chong.
With so many obvious mistakes in his blog posts, many Chinese were wondering how Zhou could have been invited to a high-profile event with the Chinese president.
But Xi's remarks at the forum provide some guideposts.
Even as China's Communist leaders crack down on dissent and continue to fill the official media with propaganda-style jargon, the Internet has become a plainspoken forum for many people who complain about the government. Though China censors many topics on the Internet viewed as sensitive, there remain lively discussions about problems such as forced evictions, food safety scandals and corrupt officials. Such subjects are constantly among the "Top 10" topics on Weibo.
Since Xi took over as the Communist Party's leader in late 2012, Chinese officials have been pushing for more "positive energy" on the Internet. And they're aware that writers such as Zhou – who has a half-million followers online -- may be more effective conduits to transmit the party line than traditional propaganda.
Zhou has said that he decided to speak up online and defend the government after he became fed up with critics saying "there's no freedom of expression in China." By his estimate, "over 80% of the voices on the Internet in China are criticizing the government."
Zhou has called Chinese who emigrate "cowards." "I don't believe there is not a group of real men among the 1.3 billion Chinese who proudly believe in our country, our socialism, our culture and our government," he wrote.
But Zhou's string of factual errors appears to have given Chinese authorities second thoughts – at least briefly. After the symposium with Xi, the New China News Agency ran a piece about Zhou which conceded his blog posts "lack logic and are full of amateur mistakes on facts."
That story too was pulled offline.