Authorities in China have detained at least five people for making disparaging comments about Yuan Longping, who died over the weekend at the age of 90 after developing a number of hybrid rice strains that revolutionised agriculture.
According to an official Weibo post, police in Beijing detained a netizen with the handle @nanwangshanxia on May 22, the day Yuan died from organ failure, after they posted comments deemed disrespectful of Yuan on the social media platform WeChat.
The Chaoyang district police have placed the individual in criminal detention.
On the same day, police detained an 18-year-old man named Jia in Rizhao, Shandong’s eastern province, after he posted critical comments on Weibo in response to a flurry of state media coverage hailing Yuan as the “Father of Hybrid Rice.”
Yuan, who died on May 22, was awarded the “Order of the Republic” as part of a new honour system instituted by ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping for his contributions to agriculture.
The National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s rubber-stamp parliament, passed a law in 2018 criminalising anyone who slandered the “reputation and honour” of the ruling party’s canon of heroes and martyrs.
The law, which took effect on May 1, 2018, is intended to “protect the reputation and honour of heroes and martyrs.”
It forbids “insults or slander” against heroes and martyrs, as well as any damage to memorials to revolutionary martyrs or heroic deeds.
Meanwhile, a social media user named Li was detained in Tianjin’s northern port city, a social media user named Wang was detained in Xiamen’s southeastern port, and a user with the handle @shiwaitaoyuan was detained in Jiangsu’s eastern province.
The detainees had “posted insulting comments along the lines of ‘dead at last’ online,” according to a Beijing police report, without providing specifics about the posts.
All detained users had commented in support of Yuan’s death.
Weibo said in a statement that all of the detainees’ Weibo accounts had been deactivated.
According to independent journalist Liu Quan, the punishments are most likely being meted out in accordance with new laws governing “insults” to revolutionary heroes.
“Once people start questioning these heroes online, the state’s power can be mobilised to detain, prosecute, and imprison them,” Liu said.
However, he claimed that many of the CCP’s heroes and martyrs were fabricated characters created for propaganda purposes.
“In many cases, they fabricated reports of their deeds in order to project this image of somebody totally amazing and covered in glory,” Liu said. “In reality, it’s all about enhancing the CCP’s image.”
According to an online writer going by the name Lu, anyone awarded Xi’s Order of the Republic is a national hero.
“Criticizing and questioning state leaders, including those who have died, can also result in arrest,” Lu explained. “You will also face arrest if you criticize or attempt to investigate the government.”
The Weibo official account issued a statement saying that some posts on the platform promoted “insults and attacks” on honoured heroes, and that the accounts that generated the comments were shut down for a year as a punishment.
“We will deal harshly with any harmful content of this type and will make an announcement if we find it,” the statement said.
“We have a zero tolerance policy for content that distorts, degrades, vilifies, or denies the spirit and actions of our heroes and martyrs,” the statement said.
Yuan’s death sparked widespread coverage in state media, including a segment on the main CCTV news broadcast on May 22.
His accomplishments, on the other hand, are well-documented and far from fabricated.
Yuan’s breakthrough discoveries earned him the World Food Prize in 2004, and one-fifth of the world’s current cultivated rice strains can be traced back to his work.
Yuan conducted much of his research in his own time, conducting scientific experiments involving asexual crop crosses and eventually outlining unique genetic tools in a 1964 paper that laid the groundwork for the first hybrid rice crop.
Yuan’s first hybrid rice strain, dubbed Nan-you No. 2, produced yields that were 20% higher than previous varieties when he finished the project in 1973.
Almost half of China’s rice production area is now planted in hybrid rice, which feeds an additional 70 million people per year in China alone.
According to the World Food Prize Foundation website, researchers and crop producers in China have used Yuan’s research to develop high-yield hybrid sorghum and rapeseed varieties.