June 5, 2020 at 7:14 a.m. EDT
Not Hao Haidong.
The retired soccer forward, the Chinese national team’s all-time top goal scorer and an idol in the 1990s and early 2000s, stunned his country this week after he called for the downfall of the ruling Communist Party and the formation of a new government.
In a highly unusual YouTube appearance as part of an apparent publicity campaign by the fugitive billionaire Guo Wengui, one of the Chinese government’s most reviled opponents, Hao read an 18-point manifesto for a vision of a “New Federal State of China.” Sitting for an accompanying hour-long interview alongside his wife, the badminton champion Ye Zhaoying, Hao launched into lengthy criticisms of the government’s handling of almost every domestically sensitive subject: Hong Kong, Tibet, the covid-19 pandemic.
“This Communist Party should be kicked out of humanity,” Hao declared in the videos released Thursday, on the politically sensitive anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
Coming from an international athlete, Hao’s comments would be fiercely criticized by the Chinese government. Coming from a Chinese soccer legend, they were unthinkable, almost disorienting.
By Thursday afternoon, Hao’s videos had caused a sensation in China even though they appeared on YouTube, a blocked platform. They seemed to confound Internet users and authorities alike. Was the entire episode fake? Should it be condemned or ignored?
Titan, a leading state-run sports website, quickly issued a statement that said “Hao Haidong has made a speech that subverts the government and harms national sovereignty and uses the coronavirus epidemic to smear the Chinese government and spread falsehoods about Hong Kong … we strongly condemn this behavior.”
Shortly after, the statement was edited to replace Hao’s name, which had become sensitive, with the Roman letter “H.” Hours after that, the statement was removed outright as the government opted to erase all mention of the incident on the domestic Internet as if it never happened.
Hao’s Weibo social media account, which had close to 8 million followers, vanished. Hupu, a leading online hangout for Chinese sports fans, warned users against all discussion of Hao’s “harmful remarks.”
Then the warning, too, disappeared.
Within 24 hours, according to the Internet monitor freeweibo.com, Hao’s name had become the most heavily censored term on Weibo — topping even “6-4,” the perennially censored reference to the Tiananmen crackdown on June 4, 1989.
On Friday, the government addressed the videos for the first time, dismissing Hao’s video as farce. “I don’t have any interest in commenting,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.
Hao, who is believed to live in Spain after retiring as China’s greatest striker, has been known for sharply criticizing Chinese soccer authorities but not the ruling party itself. At one point in his videos, he says his disillusionment with the corrupt sports system morphed into a deeper discontent. He also lambasted the prevalence of fraud and a lack of social welfare.
His salvo couldn’t be seen as a gauge of popular sentiment toward the party, but Hao is probably the highest-profile Chinese national to speak out so forcefully against the country’s political leadership under the rule of President Xi Jinping.
Hao’s videos amounted to a minor publicity coup for Guo, the New York-based businessman who has been sought by Chinese authorities on a litany of charges, including fraud, blackmail and bribery.
After fleeing China, Guo, who once worked closely with top Chinese intelligence officials, refashioned himself in 2017 as an anti-government crusader who promised to topple the Communist Party by revealing its secrets on his YouTube channel. Despite dominating Chinese political chatter in 2017, many of Guo’s disclosures emerged to be unsubstantiated or fake and his profile waned.
The former real estate developer hired Stephen K. Bannon, the former White House chief strategist and China critic, in 2018 on a multimillion-dollar deal to promote him in the United States, according to Axios.
As Guo’s YouTube channel aired Hao’s videos this week, it also showed Guo and Bannon in a boat in the New York Bay floating in front of the Statue of Liberty, from where Bannon read an English version of a manifesto calling for the creation of the new China.