The 2018 Boao Asia Blockchain conference threw up an unlikely spot of controversy with a promotional stunt using an impersonator of ex-PM Mao Zedong that blew up into a significant social media storm.
Blockchain Stunt Goes Viral
Held in the village of Bo’ao in Southern China on May 28, 2018, the conference attracted the usual mix of enthusiasts, blockchain developers, and investors on the world’s most cryptocurrency-centric continent.
Perhaps looking to up the ante and create a bit of publicity, the event organizers arranged to have local actor Xu Guoxiang dress up as former Chinese head of state Mao Zedong. He addressed the conference with the words, “You are worthy of being called the great sons and daughters of the Chinese nation, and I thank you in the name of Mao Zedong.”
What they did not expect was the spectacular manner in which the stunt backfired, creating a social media firestorm of outraged Chinese users, leading to a tersely worded statement by the Boao Forum for Asia dissociating themselves from the conference.
The apology eventually ended with a dazed apology and government-sanctioned deletion of conversations and videos about the incident from Chinese social media platforms.
Illegal Use Of Likeness
In China, it is illegal to use the images of Chinese leaders for commercial purposes, a fact that seemed to escape the awareness of the event organizers.
Under regulations from the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, the images and likenesses of past or present Chinese leaders are not allowed to be exploited for the promotion of any private business enterprise. While this law is not always enforced with maximum strictness, it was still unlikely that the social media-amplified stunt would escape the notice of Chinese authorities.
Addressing a stunned audience in the trademark grey suit complete with the distinctive haircut and Hunan province accent of Chairman Mao, Xu welcomed them to the event, openly evoking the memory of the man who remains one of China’s most respected historical figures.
Videos of the event posted on WeChat quickly gained thousands of reactions, the majority of which expressed outrage and shock at the stunt. Eventually, after several hours of angry responses to the incident, videos and search terms linked to it were scrubbed from Chinese social media by the notoriously censor-happy system.
The “Shameful” Act
Since his death in September 1976, Mao Zedong has remained a larger-than-life figure in China, with his face still appearing on Chinese banknotes and statues dotting several Chinese cities. Officially recognized by the Communist Party as the founder of modern China, Chairman Mao is the subject of a quasi-religious level of respect among many Chinese people. His mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, Beijing attracts millions of tourists every year.
Immediately news of the stunt broke, the Tencent-owned social media giant WeChat recorded several enraged responses from users ranging from “This is shameless!” to the unprintable. Other responses feared that such an ill-advised publicity stunt could even jeopardize the future of blockchain development in China by making it a target for government antagonism. One user commented:
“Blockchain is a fledgling business that warrants the attention and open attitude from the government, and we will not tolerate any scam behavior that disrupts industry order in the name of the blockchain.”
After a few hours, event organizers issued a red-faced apology as government censors imposed social media filters that dumped the incident and its reactions into the Chinese internet black hole of censored content.