NPC 2018: An eye-roll that went viral has Chinese censors scrambling to put a lid on it

Yicai financial news service reporter Liang Xiangyi sighed and raised a sceptical eyebrow at another journalist's query to a delegate at a National People's Congress press event on March 13, 2018.
Yicai financial news service reporter Liang Xiangyi sighed and raised a sceptical eyebrow at another journalist's query to a delegate at a National People's Congress press event on March 13, 2018.SCREENGRAB: YOUTUBE/CAO NIMA

BEIJING (AFP) - It was the eye-roll that launched a thousand gifs.

China's censors are scrambling to put a lid on a social media frenzy unleashed by a journalist's reaction to a softball question during the mostly scripted annual Parliament session.

Impeccably coiffed and sporting a bright blue suit jacket, Yicai financial news service reporter Liang Xiangyi sighed and raised a sceptical eyebrow at another journalist's query to a delegate at a National People's Congress press event on Tuesday (March 13).

As the question about China's Belt and Road infrastructure project dragged on for 45 seconds, Ms Liang grimaced, glanced sideways to give the woman dressed in red a disbelieving once-over, and concluded with a majestic, head-turning eye-roll.

Caught on camera by state broadcaster CCTV, the moment at the usually staid Great Hall of the People went viral and turned Ms Liang into an instant online celebrity.

Social media platforms were flooded with gifs, cartoons and parody reenactments, with people dressed in red and blue. Some began superimposing footage of her eye-roll on clips of celebrities spouting nonsense.

Ms Liang's image was plastered onto T-shirts and cellphone cases sold on Taobao, China's ever-reactive eBay equivalent.

But China maintains tight control of its Internet and is extremely wary of viral stories about politically sensitive subjects like the NPC.

By evening, Ms Liang's name had become the most-censored term on China's Twitter-like Weibo platform.

And on Wednesday, the authorities released an "urgent notice" prohibiting all discussion of her in all mainland media outlets.

"Anything already posted must be deleted. Without exception, websites must not hype the episode," according to the US-based China Digital Times, which posted the leaked directive.

This year's NPC gathering has been historic.

A vote on Sunday abolished rules limiting heads of state to 10 years in power, setting President Xi Jinping on a course to potentially rule the country for life.

On Tuesday, the congress also unveiled plans for the biggest shake-up of government structures in at least a decade, including the merger of its banking and insurance regulators to better handle financial risks.

But Ms Liang's epic eye-roll has now grabbed the limelight.

"With this outfit and your meaningful expression, you've left a deep impression in the hearts of the whole nation's people," wrote one of thousands of commenters on her Weibo account, which had soared to over 200,000 followers.

Ms Zhang Huijun, the reporter who posed the long-winded question, works for American Multimedia Television (AMTV), a Los Angeles-based company whose website describes itself as a CCTV partner.

Reporters from media outlets based abroad but with ties back to China's state media apparatus are often called on at government events so that Beijing can appear to cede the floor to "foreign" journalists - who will nonetheless toe the party line.

Leaked screenshot of an Yicai group chat showed Ms Liang explaining herself.

"Her question was even longer than the answer," she said, using a colourful obscenity to describe Ms Zhang and calling her "stupid".

Yicai Media declined to comment and the NPC press office said they did not know anything about rumours that Ms Liang's press credentials were revoked.

AFP journalists did not see Ms Liang or Ms Zhang during a session on Wednesday of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the top political advisory board that holds its annual session at the same time as the NPC.

Online commenters were sympathetic to Ms Liang.

"Sister, if you've lost your job," one fan told her, "you can always work in social media."