Too Weird To Be True? In China, You Never Can Tell : Parallels Foreign news coverage of China is often deadly serious: corruption, pollution and the like. Then there's the funny and bizarre that often goes viral — like the zoo that swapped a dog for a lion. A number of websites are making these offbeat and satirical tales increasingly available in English.
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Too Weird To Be True? In China, You Never Can Tell

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Too Weird To Be True? In China, You Never Can Tell

Too Weird To Be True? In China, You Never Can Tell

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Foreign news coverage of China is often deadly serious and predictable - corruption, pollution, food safety. But day to day, the country, like the U.S., also produces a stream of funny, occasionally bizarre news stories in China. And thanks to a growing number of websites, those offbeat tales are increasingly available to English-speaking audiences. NPR's Frank Langfitt explains from Shanghai.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Here are some of the recent stories that went viral in China that you might have missed - the man who tried to smuggle his pet turtle onto a plane inside a hamburger box; the zoo that tried to pass off a Tibetan mastiff as a lion; and an investigative TV report about an exotic fungus unearthed by a farmer in western China's Shaanxi Province.

JAMES GRIFFITHS: A villager in Shaanxi purported to have found this incredible rare mushroom.

LANGFITT: James Griffiths is the editor of Shanghaiist, an English-language news blog here that draws about half a million readers a month.

GRIFFITHS: And the woman picks up the mushroom and shows it off, and the villagers are all standing in the back looking proud. And basically, the moment it hit the Internet, everyone pointed out that's a sex toy.

LANGFITT: The next day, the TV program issued an apology, pointing out that the reporter was still very young and, quote, "unwise to the ways of the world."


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking foreign language)

LANGFITT: Soon afterward, cell phone video surfaced - believe me, this was inevitable - of a street vendor trying to sell more magic mushrooms for up to $3,000 apiece. He played the TV report on his laptop as a testimonial. The news is real, the con man says straight-faced. How can it be a lie? The guy recording the scene can't contain himself.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking foreign language)


LANGFITT: Griffiths says China's Internet is a target-rich environment for stuff like this.

GRIFFITHS: We've got over a billion people here. It's not hard to find kind of weird stories.

PETER NIE: My name is Peter Nie, and I'm freelancing for ChinaSMACK.

LANGFITT: ChinaSMACK, which is written by Chinese people, launched in 2008. It now claims about 750,000 readers a month. Translated comments from Web users follow most stories. Nie helps edit from his home in Chengdu in southwest China, in exchange for beer money.

NIE: You know, what ChinaSmack provides that people don't get from the other English-language coverage is the genuine reactions from Chinese netizens.

LANGFITT: Recent posts include a photo of a Chinese official eating a pear with his phone off the hook, explaining why it's often impossible to get through to government offices. Another shows pictures of a 22-year-old intern who parked a Maserati in the middle of a city street. Chinese readers figured she was the daughter of a tycoon, a military officer or worse. Again, Peter Nie.

NIE: Some may think, you know, this car is bought by, you know, a government official to his mistress.

LANGFITT: Mistresses are big on social media here because they're so common.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language).

LANGFITT: ChinaSMACK posted this episode of a TV show that was supposed to be about traffic safety. A cop pulls over a couple for not wearing seat belts. Having forgotten his license, the man calls his wife to bring it to him. His passenger, a pretty, 20-something in a blue sundress, panics and flees the scene. After the wife arrives, the cop indicates someone else was in the car.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language).

LANGFITT: The wife quickly figures out who that was. Among the comments from Chinese netizens: Now you guys know how important respecting traffic regulations is, right?

ROBERT: Hi, I'm Robert. I'm a British national living in China.

LANGFITT: And that's all you want anyone to know?

ROBERT: That's all I want anyone to know.

LANGFITT: That's because Robert doesn't want any trouble with the authorities. He edits one of the newest sites, China Daily Show.

ROBERT: It's a satirical news site with fake headlines. Of course, being in China, quite a lot of those headlines either end up becoming true or very close to being the truth.

LANGFITT: China Daily Show sometimes picks on the government, including its reflex to issue boilerplate denials. A few years back, some foreign reporters found black jails where the government detained ordinary citizens without charge. At the time, China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman was adamant.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through translator) I don't know what prompt you to ask this question. Things like this do not exist in China. China is a country with a rule of law.

LANGFITT: Answers like that inspired this joke article in China Daily Show. It's about a new government answering machine that issues stock denials on a wide variety of stories, ranging from official malfeasance to censorship. Robert reads from the piece.

ROBERT: (Reading) Foreign media agree that the new answering service is both useful and saves time. Press one if your call concerns purchase of organs harvested from executed criminals; three for kid got crushed by official; four for inexplicably banned from Twitter.

LANGFITT: Of course, there are limits to how far anyone can push satire here. All three sites avoid politically sensitive topics such as Tibet and Taiwan; none is currently blocked by authorities. James Griffiths of Shanghaiist says that's because Chinese officials can be quite tolerant of humor on the Internet, especially if it isn't in Chinese. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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