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BEIJING—The eye-roll that transfixed the nation came on a day of tightly choreographed political theater.
For the past week or so, delegates to China’s National People’s Congress have droned about government policy, stopping occasionally to field prearranged questions.
Then came the drama of the two reporters, one in red, one in blue.
Midway through a news briefing Tuesday, the blue-clad reporter had enough. A fellow journalist in a red jacket beside her was asking how Beijing would keep tabs on overseas investment under President
Belt-and-Road infrastructure program.
Her query meandered. “The transformation of the role of state-assets supervision, centered on capital management, is currently a subject of widespread concern,” she said, then kept talking.
The clock ticked.
Disdain appeared to creep across the face of the woman in blue as she listened to the roughly-45-second softball.
When the woman in red finally got around to her main question, the woman in blue had raised a fist to her chin and furrowed her eyebrows. She cast sideways glances at the speaker and around her. Then, with a toss of the head, she executed an eye-roll to make
For viewers, it was a rare flash of unscripted emotion amid stage-managed tedium. “It was like she was expressing frustration on behalf of the rest of us” over the scripted nature of the event, says
a Beiijng-based independent historian who has written critically about the government.
A meme was born, setting phones vibrating around China.
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Online, people divided into red and blue camps—mostly blue. Animated images of Ms. Blue’s expressions exploded on the
messaging app. T-shirts and mobile-phone covers with images of the eye-roll went on sale on Alibaba’s Taobao platform.
Ms. Red identified herself as
a journalist with American Multimedia Television USA, a little-known, Los Angeles-based channel whose website says it has worked with state broadcaster China Central Television on programming.
The policy she asked about was typical congress fare. The Belt-and-Road initiative is part of Mr. Xi’s vision of Chinese global leadership, involving pledges to build infrastructure and trade links between Asia and Europe.
a television reporter for Shanghai-based Yicai Media Group, emerged as a kind of folk hero for those tired of the turgid pageantry.
“No one really cares about these sessions—not even the journalists themselves,” says Mr. Zhang, the historian. “So people will just pay attention to any interesting sideshow.”
Efforts to reach Ms. Liang and Ms. Zhang weren’t successful. A senior Yicai editor declined to comment Wednesday morning. AMTV didn’t respond to emailed inquiries. A U.S.-based employee who answered the phone at AMTV declined to comment.
Some social-media users declared their “blue” sympathies. Others deemed Ms. Liang’s reaction inappropriate. Online were photos depicting the standoff—side-by-side pictures of red Coke and blue Pepsi cans, food-delivery drivers with red and blue boxes, strawberry-blueberry juxtapositions.
One commenter mixed images of the women with photos of clashing soccer players in red and blue jerseys, saying: “When red meets blue, there will always be discord.”
A Tuesday column on Chinese online-media firm
technology news portal attempted to explain why people roll their eyes: “Human eyes feature more white areas than those of other primates, therefore we have a special ability to communicate through eyeball rotation.”
Some of Ms. Liang’s fans expressed worry she would be punished for upstaging the news briefing. Qin Weiping, a Washington-based current-affairs commentator who often criticizes China’s government, tweeted an offer to hire Ms. Liang as a guest host on his YouTube talk show if she were to lose her job over the incident.
Ms. Liang “was like an innocent child who blurted out that the emperor has no clothes,” Mr. Qin says, adding that the incident allowed “ordinary people with no opportunity to participate in politics to express their scorn and discontent in a roundabout way.”
The National People’s Congress press center said it didn’t revoke Ms. Liang’s accreditation to cover the event. It didn’t respond to other queries about the eye-rolling incident.
In a setting where every effort is made to avoid embarrassment, not to mention sarcasm, the eye-roll was a jarring departure.
Beijing likes using reporters as props during political events, says
who has covered China’s annual legislative session for decades for Italian newspapers. Every year, he notes, state media trumpets the number of foreign correspondents in attendance.
“It’s like China is more and more important,” says Mr. Sisci, who wasn’t at the eye-rolling event, “because they’re all paying attention.”
Tuesday’s excitement followed a different outbreak of enthusiasm during October’s Communist Party congress, when users of a free phone game competed to “clap” for Mr. Xi. It generated more than 1 billion claps.
Armchair analysts philosophized over the eye-roll uproar. Wrote one user on social-media platform Weibo: “It means that what we crave in these sham, everything’s-great events is something real.”
Others shared videos of their own eye-rolls, which they termed inferior. Spoof videos surfaced featuring men and women re-enacting the scene.
On Zhihu, a question-and-answer website, a user solicited tips on how to eye-roll like Ms. Liang. Someone replied: “Start by looking at the other person’s shoes, size up the person from bottom to top, and add sounds such as ‘tsk’ or ‘humph’ for the best effect.”
The discussion later disappeared from the website. A Zhihu official didn’t respond to requests for comment.
A piece published online by Southern Metropolis Weekly, a Guangzhou-based news magazine, declared that an analysis of famous Chinese epics such as “Journey to the West”—known in the U.S. as the Monkey King tale—found that the usage of the Chinese phrase “rolling eyes” had evolved over time and reflects different meanings in various contexts. But its modern connotation of disdain had been around for at least a thousand years, the magazine said.
Weibo accounts named after Ms. Liang and featuring her photos popped up in apparent homage.
Hu Xijin, editor in chief of nationalist tabloid Global Times, weighed in on his Weibo account saying he hoped censors wouldn’t muffle the conversation. “Ordinary people like this kind of thing; the DNA of humanity can’t be changed,” he wrote, calling such interest “harmless.”
His post was later deleted, according to censorship tracker Free Weibo.
By Tuesday afternoon, Weibo had blocked searches for “Liang Xiangyi.”
and Grace Zhu contributed to this article.