As it cracks down on 'misinformation,' China hails blogger who claims Obama spent $4M on meal

So, dear Chinese reader, you still think the American Dream eclipses the Chinese one?

Well, take a look at Zhou Xiaoping's blogs and learn that in the U.S. you would have to shell out $3,500 in mandatory car insurance a year and spend $30,000 for a low-end domestic car, and that more than half of the kids in most public schools don't graduate.

All those numbers are way off. Even Chinese propaganda officials agree he makes mistakes. But while Beijing campaigns against what it calls online misinformation, erasing critical online comments and arresting dozens of bloggers over the past 18 months, the Communist Party has embraced Zhou.

He shook hands with President Xi Jinping earlier this month in a rare literature and arts meeting, where the 33-year-old blogger sat along with Chinese novelist and Nobel literature laureate Mo Yan. Zhou said in his blog that Xi told him to keep spreading "positive energy on the Internet."

China's stodgy state-run media often fall flat as they try to portray the West in an unflattering light, but Zhou's approach has been more successful: His microblog has more than 500,000 followers, and party websites and newspapers have carried his articles. He deftly uses trendy online slang, including calling his readers "dear" with an abbreviated version of the Chinese phrase.

But his posts have drawn criticism from skeptics who say he distorts and misleads, raising the risk that official efforts to glorify him may backfire.

"People like Zhou play a role in helping the regime in guiding public opinion," said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. "But he is so unconvincing that it has reflected badly on the regime."

Low-end cars in the U.S. cost less than half what Zhou contends. His claims about car insurance are even more exaggerated. And about 80 percent of American public school students graduate high school — not less than 50 percent.

Fang Shimin, a well-known Chinese debunker, wrote an article that refutes some of Zhou's claims about America point by point. But it was quickly scrubbed from the Chinese Internet, and Fang's own blog and microblog accounts were shut down.

Chinese propaganda officials have argued that it is important to safeguard Zhou's free speech despite the criticism.

"Even though there are many blemishes in Zhou Xiaoping's articles, it is a harbinger for free speech when he can speak up," a statement posted on a government website run by the party's central propaganda department and its central office for building and guiding spiritual civilization. "We can always analyze and debate whether the viewpoints are correct or not."

Tight censorship in China constantly scrubs criticism of the Communist Party-run government from the Internet and silences dissenting voices. The party seeks to control the remaining online message, a daunting task when the country's 1.3 billion people are increasingly connected to the rest of the world.

Wary the public will look to the West for possible social changes, state-run media outlets have made a staple of articles exposing the shortcomings of Western societies, but they often fail to gain traction because of stiff language and the media's general lack of credibility among the public.

Last year, the party-run People's Daily introduced the "Dishonest Americans" series, with stories including a New York City locksmith who demanded $800 for changing two locks. Many readers sneered at the series as unfair and discriminatory.

Favorable postings about the United States often get circulated more widely on China's Internet and in its social media, with some articles going overboard in praising America and its social and political system. For example, one popular article said that health care in the U.S. is so well developed that it is affordable to all.

Then came Zhou, who said in his blogs that he needed to awaken his fellow Chinese "hypnotized by social media and corrupted by magazines, newspapers and best-sellers."

Zhou did not respond to a request for an interview.

Born into a poor family in Sichuan province, Zhou has written that after time in the military and other jobs, he became an entrepreneur involved in publishing and production of cultural exhibitions. He said his income increased ten-fold and that he joined the "many, many Chinese people like me who have benefited from China's rapid economic development."

Fending off criticism that Chinese officials are corrupt, Zhou wrote that "the U.S. is by no means a paradise" and cited an unfounded allegation that a former U.S. ambassador to China chartered planes to engage in womanizing.

He implied there was corruption in the White House by saying that the Obama family once spent $4 million on a single meal. The figure apparently comes from news reports that Obama family vacations in Hawaii cost about $4 million each time, largely because of the use of the Air Force One plane in which the first family travels.

Zhou extols China's achievements while saying its political and social ills have been blown out of proportion. Zhou calls America a black hand in spreading rumors to disparage China's political system, dismantle public trust in the government and make the Chinese people feel deprived.

Zhou's "criticism against the West is always nitpicking, and the praise for China is always that small blemishes do not take away its beauty and virtue," independent writer Zhang Wen wrote in an article published on a news site by the Hong Kong-based Oriental Press Group Ltd. "The facts and figures used for arguments are often inflated or partial, and some are sheer rubbish."

Zhang said Beijing chooses to overlook Zhou's misinformation because his blog can help persuade more people to side with the government and oppose the West. He added that it appears to be working.

"One reason is that many readers are not in a position to judge, and another is that the strong nationalist tone in Zhou's articles has appealed to many ordinary Chinese," Zhang said.