The United States is embroiled in an emotional debate over anti-Semitism and free speech on college campuses. The latest debate speech in China is about a chef’s video on how to make egg fried rice.

Egg fried rice is a staple of Chinese home cooking and one of the first dishes many Chinese learn to cook. Think about macaroni and cheese in America. That’s probably why Wang Gang, one of China’s most popular food bloggers, has made multiple recipe videos about dish in the last five years. His “perfect“The fried rice recipes attracted criticism and opinions of those reviews.

Then one of those videos drew the ire of official Chinese media and the Internet.

Their offense? She posted a video of egg fried rice on November 27, two days after the death anniversary of Mao Anying, son of the founder of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong. Mao Anying died in the Korean War while, according to legend, he was cooking egg fried rice.

For more than a decade, China’s liberal-leaning masses have celebrated November 25 is Thanksgiving Day in China. They believe that if the young Mao had lived, China would have become a hereditary dynasty like North Korea. China Internet and official media They have questioned the account of his death, which was based on the memoirs of retired generals, and consider it an insult to both Mao Junior and Mao Senior.

It is a precarious time for any Chinese who engages with the public: academics, writers, journalists, artists and social media influencers. Cooking is one of the safest subjects and Mr. Wang, who started working in restaurants at age 15, sticks strictly to food in his program. Still, he was drawn into a political whirlwind.

On social media sites, Mr. Wang was called “a traitor,” “a troublemaker” and “the scum of society.”

Everyday life is becoming politicized in China. Public expression has become impossible when too many things are taboo. It is difficult to track, and sometimes impossible to know due to censorship, what can and cannot be said in the country.

The “egg fried rice” meme emerged more than a decade ago when the Chinese Internet, although censored, was freer. Now there are hardly any dissenting voices.

To evade Internet censorship, the Chinese resort to keywords, to such an extent that academics and writers lament the deterioration of the Chinese language. Young people often use Pinyin abbreviations, the romanized spelling of Chinese characters, for anything that could be interpreted as sensitive or taboo. I’ve seen Chinese people criticize my columns about the Chinese government, saying they loved their “zf,” short for Zhengfu, or government. Even as they defended the state, they knew they were venturing into treacherous terrain.

Paradoxically, China’s sophisticated and effective censorship system leaves people in the dark about what they are not supposed to say.

After Hu Jintao, the former Chinese leader, was abruptly expelled from a highly choreographed meeting of the Communist Party elite last year, the social media accounts of many people who posted about it were suspended. These tended to be people who normally didn’t talk about politics and didn’t know the limits of state censorship. Several people with experience commenting on politics told me they knew they should use keywords or refrain altogether.

I’ve written about how new recruits at a censorship factory had to be taught about history, such as the Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in June 1989, in which hundreds of innocent people were killed, so they knew what to pay attention to. for.

Around the anniversary in 2022, Li Jiaqi, China’s top livestream seller, offered his viewers a tank-shaped ice cream cake. He was interrupted midway and remained silent for three months.

The symbolism of the egg fried rice meme is much less known than that of tanks in Chinese online discourse. It does not exist in the consciousness of the vast majority of Chinese, who were taught by their government and their parents to keep their heads down and not worry about politics.

Mr. Wang, also known as Chef Wang, was born on June 11, 1989, a week after the Tiananmen Square massacre. He grew up in a Sichuan village and dropped out of school at 15. Mr. Wang, who declined to comment, probably did not have much access to information outside of what the government wanted him to know.

Mr. Wang begins each video with a greeting: “Hello, I’m Wang Gang,” speaking Mandarin Chinese with a Sichuan accent. He combines his farmer’s personality with professionalism as he works behind his wok stations, cooking dishes like a farm style breakfast and mapo tofu. His followers have grown to tens of millions on Chinese social media sites, plus two million subscribers on his Youtube channel.

He calls himself a “base chef,” according to his introductions. “I am grateful for every experience, grateful for this era and I sincerely hope that my videos can help everyone, allowing them to enter the kitchen and fall in love with cooking.”

“Grateful for this era” is the politically correct way of saying that, rather than attributing his success solely to his personal talent and efforts, he sees it as part of China’s success as a nation. This shows that Mr. Wang is aware of the rules to stay out of trouble.

Some nationalist bloggers pointed out that Mr. Wang had posted videos of egg fried rice at around the same time in the past. They said he also posted the recipes around October 24, Mao Anying’s birthday.

The fact is that Mr. Wang has published several fried rice recipes over the years and he is not the only one who has been attacked for it.

The Weibo account of The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, was criticized for reposting Mr. Wang’s egg fried rice video on October 24, 2018. Around the same time in 2021, the account from a state’s Weibo- its own telecommunications company published the dish; his account was suspended. Last month, two primary schools in the southeastern province of Zhejiang held an egg fried rice contest with 1,000 participants on the same day Mr. Wang posted his recipe. The schools were attacked by nationalists on social media and their posts were deleted.

The consequences can be much worse. In 2021, police in the southern province of Jiangxi arrested a man for 10 days after posting a comment on Weibo that read, “Thank you, egg fried rice.”

Mr. Wang’s experience shows the lengths China will go to restrict freedom of expression.

The Chinese Academy of History, a state institution, called Anything linking Mao Anying’s death to the dish is “particularly malicious.”

Hu Xijin, former editor of The Global Times, the Communist Party tabloid, advised everyone to avoid the topic of egg fried rice altogether. “In the future, especially around the anniversaries of martyr Mao Anying, public discourse should avoid touching on the topic of egg fried rice,” he wrote on his Weibo account on the social network.

Some people rejected the suggestion. Ban any mention of egg fried rice in October and November. they noticedIt is both ridiculous and outrageous.

Mr. Wang deleted the video recipe and apologized.

“As a chef, I will never make egg fried rice again. I won’t make videos about it either,” Mr. Wang said with a bitter face. saying in his apology video, ending it with a deep bow. But she also had to delete that video. Commenters said his tone was reluctant and sarcastic.