The death of North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il last December set off a period of mourning unlike anything I had ever seen.
The footage broadcast by the country’s state-run media showed tens of thousands of people in the capital Pyongyang, weeping and buckling over in grief. Women fainted, and even grown men sobbed uncontrollably. A New Year editorial published by the North’s leading newspapers called Kim’s death “the greatest loss our nation had suffered in its 5,000-year-long history and the bitterest grief our Party and people had experienced … The tears our service personnel and people shed with greatest sorrow were tears of the unity, unaffected and crystal-clear, and tears of their firm determination to follow the Party to the end of the earth.”
A few days after Kim’s death, I met with my Chinese teacher Cathy for our twice-a-week language lesson. Cathy is in her mid-40s and has lived in Beijing her entire life. Some days we choose a topic to discuss, and on this day we decided to talk about international news.
“What do you think about Kim Jong-il’s death?” I asked.
Cathy said the coverage reminded her of Beijing in September 1976, after Mao Zedong died. She was at school when her teacher made the announcement to the class. Some of the students were so upset that they went home, she said. The mourning continued for several days, with millions attending a memorial for Mao in Tiananmen Square.
But those people in North Korea are faking it, I said. They can’t be happy with their government. People are starving and cut off from the rest of the world. This is all part of a highly orchestrated propaganda effort by the government.
Cathy seemed offended at the suggestion. “No, of course it’s real.”
She said that people in places like North Korea have a deep sense of connection to their leaders that doesn’t exist in the West. They’re heroes and idolized by the masses. When a “revolutionary” like Kim or Mao dies, it’s like losing a member of the family, she said.
I thought of our conversation on Tuesday when I read a story about Kim’s successor and son, Kim Jong-un, on the English-language website of People’s Daily. Under the headline “The Onion’s Sexiest Man Alive for 2012,” the government paper quoted The Onion’s glowing report on Kim, listing all the physical attributes that made him worthy of the honor. It featured a 55-picture slideshow of the young Kim, including one of him trying to look regal astride a horse.
Reports by The Onion, as Americans very well know, are complete fiction. But the Chinese editors who published the story apparently didn’t know that The Onion is a satirical newspaper.
By Wednesday, they’d found out, because the story was quickly taken down from the website. But the damage was already done. Western journalists, and even some Chinese bloggers, were making fun of the paper for being duped. By any subjective standard, Kim Jong-il has to be one of the least physically unimpressive leaders of the modern world. How could this have happened?
China isn’t the closed-off country that North Korea is, but it’s still an authoritarian state. The government controls the media and the Internet, blocking information critical of the Chinese Communist Party. Mao, a controversial figure in the West for his role in the Great Leap Forward (1958-61) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), remains revered for freeing the Chinese from the “Western imperialists” and Japanese invaders. To enter one of Beijing’s top historical sites, the Forbidden City, visitors walk under a gate displaying Mao’s portrait.
Is it so far-fetched then that the journalists at People’s Daily who read The Onion’s story assumed it was true because they would never poke fun at their leaders?