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Archive for the month “March, 2012”

And the reaction becomes the story…

Early last week there was a flood of sensational rumors on Chinese microblogs alleging political unrest and splits among the Party’s top leadership. Last night news broke that the relevant authorities slapped China’s two most influential microblog platforms, Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo, for not acting strongly enough to suppress the rumors.  Today, attempts at commenting on Sina’s popular Weibo site receive the following message: “3月31日8时至4月3日8时,微博评论功能暂停使用,给您带来的不便深表歉意.” (From 8:00 March 31 until 8:00 April 3, the Weibo commenting function has been temporarily suspended, we deeply apologize for any inconvenience this has caused you.”)

More ominously, the BBC reports this morning that six people have been arrested for spreading false rumors relating to the ‘coup’ in Beijing.

As journalist Adam Minter said on Twitter, “Well, if there were any weibo users who didn’t know about the coup rumors before, they surely do now.”  Other Chinese and foreign journalists are also commenting online and the Wall Street Journal has already run a story.

Once again, the reaction has become the news.  Just when it seemed like crazy rumors of a possible coup in the capital were mostly a jape, easily traced back to a certain heavy-breathing religious society based in the US, the CCP leadership has taken direct aim at the tops of their imported Italian loafers and pulled the trigger.  The story had already largely played itself out in the foreign press. Even the tantalizing threads of scandal emerging on a near daily basis from Chongqing had started to run their course as journalists who traveled there found it nearly impossible to confirm any of the wild and tawdry tales being told about Bo, his wife, the corpse, and the cop.  This is sure to keep those stories going for (at least) another week.

Moreover, Chinese Weibo users are now having their Brave New Weibo World disrupted: “What do you mean I can’t tell my friend that her funny cat picture is soooo cute?  Why?”  

Singer Faye Wong’s Weibo account offers a nice capsule summary of the reaction — and a glimpse at what the big story of the day would have been if not for the comment freeze:Faye Wong's first Weibo update today, posted at 8:17

A cod reworking of a famous Meng Haoran poem — “I slept the spring night away, not noticing the dawn / And tossed and turned all night and didn’t get a good sleep / There was a big old wind at night / So bundle up today!” — about the sandstorm that hit Beijing overnight.
Wong is an extremely — not to say pathologically — active Weibo user, and apparently sat there in her jammies refreshing her Weibo page to see if anyone had commented for thirteen minutes before realizing that something was amiss:

Faye Wong's second Weibo post, at 8:30, asking what's going on

“Huh? I didn’t turn off comments. What’s going on? Am I ‘sensitive’ all of a sudden?”

The ‘forwarding’ function for Weibo (similar to Twitter’s RT) still works, and Weibo users are now rapid-forwarding theories and jokes about the shutdown, with one Weibo follower of YJ writing, “Why do you say there are rumors? We have freedom of speech and didn’t violate any laws.”*

The Weibo platforms have been flirting with a showdown with the government for some time. Time will tell if this is a one-off lesson, or the beginning of some very trying days for Sina and Tencent.

——

*We have a screenshot but in light of recent events are not posting it here or identifying the user.

Facebook’s China Playbook

As you have undoubtedly heard by now, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his girlfriend* were spotted in Shanghai on Wednesday. This has lead to a completely predictable round of speculation as to whether this signals some new development in Facebook + China. This sort of navel gazing takes off whenever Zuck comes to China, or looks in the direction of China, or gets lunch at P.F. Chang’s, or whatever. And why not? Facebook is the biggest social network in the world. China has the biggest population of Internet users in the world. Facebook is going public soon. Zuck is learning Chinese, etc. So a Zuck sighting in China is, to invoke the memory of Arsenio Hall, one of the things that make you go, hmm…

Despite all of that, leave to our friends at the excellent Tech in Asia blog to have the most sensible take, “Zuckerberg is in China…Who cares?” Indeed.

Obviously, we don’t know a thing about Facebook’s designs on China. But to make sense of the speculation it’s helpful to consider the actual scenarios by which Facebook or Twitter or indeed any foreign social network might enter China, and to look at how different stakeholder groups will react to the possible scenarios. This is different than analyzing business strategy or financial implications, but ultimately it’s all connected.

At the risk of oversimplifying, there are four major scenarios that we can envision: extending the mothership service to China; developing a separate “splinter” service for China under the original brand (this could be disconnected from the main service, or just enforce dramatically different policies); buying an existing Chinese social network; and doing nothing. Obviously, they’re not all immediately practical. Facebook is blocked in China, which makes extending the mothership difficult. There are also intermediate possibilities that blend aspects of these scenarios, but that’s a deep rabbit hole to go down. Along with these scenarios there are five major stakeholder groups, not including Facebook themselves: the Chinese government; Chinese Internet users (potential customers); Western activists and governments; investors; and the Western public (aka Facebook’s current users).

The easiest way to look at all these moving parts is to simply throw the whole thing in a table that considers for each scenario the risks and how each of the stakeholder groups is likely to react (click the table for a larger, EZ-reading version):

Admittedly this format throws a lot of nuance overboard, but nevertheless there’s a clear three-way conflict that emerges. The approaches that are more acceptable to the Chinese authorities are both riskier with regards to Western activists and regulators and, importantly, less relevant to Chinese users. The approaches that are most relevant to Chinese users and have the highest potential return to the business are unacceptable to the Chinese government. Ultimately the Chinese government calls the shots.

The basic math is that to even have a chance of operating here Facebook would have to apply the mandated censorship policies either just to users of its core service in China or to a spinoff service that is kept separate from the core service. It would also have to be prepared to surrender Chinese user information to the authorities if requested. That will raise eyebrows as Facebook knows a ton about its users by design.

The risks of these approaches are clear to anyone who has studied the history of Yahoo in China and followed the congressional grilling of US Internet firms operating in China back in 2006. That was the stone age of social networking (Rupert Murdoch bought MySpace, Facebook turned 2, Twitter was hatched), and the political atmosphere around such things has not become any less sensitive since then. If anything, the messianic aura that clings to social networks and of which Chinese authorities have always been so distrustful has been exacerbated by last year’s political events in the Middle East. And let’s not forget recent events here in China and the leadership transition later this year.

There are ways to create distance between the core Facebook brand and service and the Chinese government’s likely requirements, but those ways don’t eliminate political risk at home, and they all make the service less appealing to Chinese users. These same users are already being wooed away from traditional social networks by microblogs and have a colorful history of rejecting foreign online services as irrelevant even when they’ve been allowed to operate here without restriction. Remember MySpace China? Me neither, and a friend of mine helped launch it. Owning a local social network would provide a layer of insulation from the risk of Western backlash, but at the expense of sacrificing much of the point of entering China.

None of this predicts whether Facebook will enter China, or how they might attempt such a thing. They’re probably playing a very long game. Whatever path they choose, it won’t be easy, either in China or at home. Bear that in mind next time Zuck is spotted in China and the tongues start wagging.

*Note to editors: Can we get over the fact that Zuck’s girlfriend is Chinese American? Everyone is compelled to point this out, but net impact on the Facebook-in-China story is zero-point-zero.

Martin Jacques Might Be On to Something

I enjoy the panicked comedy doom-screechings of Martin Jacques as much as the next man, but sometimes I stumble across something that suggests the West is right on track for getting its lunch eaten:

The Avengers Cologne Set (four 60ml Eud du Toilette Vaporisateur Spray Colognes, $59.99). Set includes four heroic fragrances:

Patriot Cologne, Your Attack Plan: inspired by Captain America, pays homage to the confident, stand-up to bullies, hard working average Joe in everyman. The cologne features hints of green lime and white pepper with finishes of dry oak wood, sandalwood and tequila.

Mark VII Cologne, Armor Up: inspired by Iron Man, combines mandarin and jasmine with light patchouli to create a contemporary expression of “I don’t play well with others” confidence; leaving you ready for whatever a genius, billionaire, playboy-philanthropist might encounter throughout their day.

Worthy Cologne, Posses the Power: inspired by Thor, is a woody citrus cologne with a combination of bergamot, frozen ginger and wheatgrass blended with a hint of fresh natural grapefruit and layered with cypress; creating a deep dry masculine almost “God-like” musk.

SMASH!, Be Angry: inspired by Hulk, is a clean scent with clear top notes of water lily and nutmeg, which carries on an intense woody dry down, enriched with Indian sandalwood, dry musk and warm cedar. Complimentary to full range emotions, it wears well at work, in the lab, or an evening out on the town.

The decline of Western civilization in press release form. Or, conversely, the sheer reality-usurping power of mature Western capitalism, depending on which side you dress.

For an actually informative critique of Jacques’ book and some better reading choices, read Perry Link Anderson’s review in the London Review of Books before it gets bricked up behind a paywall.

China’s Alternate History of Gadgets

Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic recently posted a chart showing which consumer electronics gadgets were most quickly adopted by US households in the last 50 years. What would a Chinese version look like? China has a radically different history of popular technology adoption and penetration that is shaped not only by a 20th century dominated by poverty, war, and limited access to universal education, but also by cultural idiosyncracies. Some gadgets found in most American households, such as the answering machine (I have yet to hear a compelling explanation why no one uses one, or voice mail) and the clock radio (now leapfrogged to cell phones), were never embraced in China despite being available and are only seen in Western movies. Some were skipped entirely, such as 8 track players, dying overseas before they ever crossed over. Others, such as the VCR, arrived late and, while popularly adopted, never enjoyed the ubiquity they had in the US because they were followed too soon by VCD and DVD players. Only 17% of urban households had a color TV set in 1985 while 12% of rural homes had a TV set at all, but by 1999 both figures were over 100% – a level reached in the US as early as the late 1960s. Considering how gadget-obsessed the world is these days, its worth keeping in mind how radically different another culture’s relationship with consumer electronics can be compared with our own. One of the most radically different technological histories in China involves telegraphs, typewriters, printing presses and computers – how IT tackled the Chinese written language.

This weekend I met an employee of China’s Founder Group, a state-owned enterprise focused on IT and pharmaceuticals, told me the company takes great pride in one of its founders, Wang Xuan, a Peking University professor who led Project 748, a national scientific research project which developed laser photo-typesetting technology for Chinese characters in the 1970s and 1980s, enabling Chinese-language publishers to move into the digital era. Hong Kong newspapers were still typesetting by hand in the 80s, some 20-odd years after digital printing technology first emerged in the US market. Wang, celebrated in the mainland as a “modern Bi Sheng,” referring to the Song Dynasty inventor of movable type, was one of a long line of Chinese developers who tackled the immensely complicated problem of creating printing, typesetting, communications and input systems for the Chinese language, which arguably only became truly universally accessible with the development of computer-based Pinyin input systems and laser printing.

Thomas S. Mullaney, Assistant Professor of Modern Chinese History at Stanford, has been working on a book about the history of Chinese typewriters and the early history of information technology in China. He previously wrote about it on our comrade academic group blog China Beat – I highly recommend taking a look and then watching this Google Tech Talk he gave in February about how techniques developed in Maoist China prefigured modern technologies such as predictive text. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the ever-prolific Victor Mair, who would say all this trouble over typewriters could have been avoided if everyone had just adopted Pinyin and dispensed with characters, has also blogged about Chinese typewriters on the indispensable Language Log.

Bo knows Hollywood

Corrupt Official. Murder. Intrigue. Knowing they have a scorching hot property, Brendan and Jeremiah travel to Los Angeles to meet with Brad Grey and Harvey Weinstein. The project is called: “Operation Bo Bo Bidding War”

JEREMIAH: Thanks for meeting with us today.

BRAD GREY: What’s the project?

BRENDAN: Bo Xilai.

HARVEY WEINSTEIN: Never heard of him.

BRAD GREY: We used him as a stunt double for MI:3

BRENDAN : No, Bo Xilai. Godfather of Chonqing. Hubris. Power. Crazy Wife. Shakespeare in Sichuan.

BRAD GREY: Nice. Like The Departed…but in China. Can’t miss.

HARVEY: I did Shakespeare in Love. Is that like this?

BRENDAN: It DOES involve a dead Englishman.

HARVEY: I’m listening…

JEREMIAH: Bo Xilai was a rising star in the Chinese Communist Party. Did good things in the coastal port of Dalian before being transferred inland to a big city on the Yangzi River. Once there, he launched an aggressive campaign to wipe out organized crime in the city. Over time he gets crazier and crazier. Makes people sing Cultural Revolution songs and starts talking about himself in the third person. The madness continues until somebody has to take him down.

BRAD: I love it! We get…the Rock as Bo Xilai, paint his face in chicken blood and send…I’m blanking here…Matt Damon up river with a Taiwan Special Forces Team. Apocalypse Now on the Yangtze. I’m sold.

HARVEY: Spoken like a man whose summer tentpole is GI Joe: Retaliation. (LAUGHING) Tell me about the dead English guy. Audiences LOVE that. I’ve been killing Brits on screen since 1993. Oscar Gold. What’s his name?

JEREMIAH: Neil Heywood

BRAD: Great name! We’ll give him a back story as an SAS trooper in Afghanistan. He travels with a sidekick, an Afghan tribesman whose life he saved….we’ll call the sidekick “Jablome.”

BRENDAN: Okay, so Nick is a drifter, a loner with a mysterious past. Might be former MI6, probably not…we don’t know. Now working as Bo Xilai’s butler/fixer/investment adviser. But Bo works nights. Takes long trips. So it’s not long before Bo’s wife, the ruthless and beautiful Gu Kailai, daughter of a PLA General…

HARVEY: Oscar Gold! Dragon Lady makes well-born Brit her sexual slave in exchange for access to power.

BRAD: Where have I heard that before?

BRENDAN: Backhouse.

BRAD: Gesundheit. (HANDS BRENDAN A TISSUE EMBROIDERED WITH TOM CRUISE’S TEARS)

HARVEY: Bo finds out and has the guy killed?

JEREMIAH: No. He has his number two guy do the deed. Martial arts expert. Head of public security. Personally led Bo’s war against the Chongqing mafia.

BRAD: Yes! Need the karate angle for the 99% of Americans who will not watch a Chinese movie unless it stars Jackie Chan.

BRENDAN: But he has a change of heart…

HARVEY: I can visualize this guy. Tortures prisoners, slaps around whores, sodomizes puppies…but the whole time we know he’s got a heart of gold.

JEREMIAH: So this henchman, we’ll call the character “Wang Lijun.”

BRAD: Why not “Iron Fist Choo”?

JEREMIAH: Because that’s not his name. Wang Lijun confronts his boss and learns that the boss now wants him out. So Wang makes a daring late night dash…
BRAD: For the Mexican border!

JEREMIAH: …for the US Consulate in Chengdu. Tries to seek asylum there and is finally led away screaming by the Chinese state police. He’s doomed, but he knows that he has taken down the Godfather.

BRAD: And then what?

JEREMIAH: And then the Godfather is subjected to a thorough investigation by the relevant departments.

BRAD: Seriously? That’s the best you got. Come on boys. My time is valuable.

BRENDAN: Bo falls from power and the last scene is…

HARVEY: Bo in a cell plotting his comeback.

BRAD: Bingo! I’m thinking four-part trilogy.

HARVEY: I’m in boys. It’s a noir-crime-romance-action-foreign-spy-mystery-thriller, you can practically smell the opium den from the opening scene…

BRENDAN: Actually, that’s just Jeremiah.

HARVEY: For the Brit, let’s get Danny Radcliffe down here. I think the world is ready to watch Harry Potter get tortured by the Chinese police for at least 20 minutes of film.

JEREMIAH: I’m pretty sure the actual Neil Heywood is closer to 40….

HARVEY: Doesn’t matter. CGI. We’ll age the little fucker 20 years and THEN we’ll torture him.

BRAD: Okay, we got the wife, the politician, the henchman and the dead British guy. We need more characters.

BRENDAN: There’s a son

HARVEY: Tell me about him.

BRENDAN: Wealthy scion of corrupt family. Likes fast cars and faster women. He’s the one who introduces the British guy to the family.

HARVEY: I’m thinking “Fredo Corleone as interpreted by Jay Chou.” Who else? We’ll need quirky characters for stunt cameos. I owe Rob Schneider a favor, anything he can sink his teeth into?

JEREMIAH: Okay, um…before the team heads up river, they stop in Shanghai. And they come across this seemingly deranged figure who walks the streets, muttering the same thing over and over and over again.

BRAD: What’s he saying?

BRENDAN: “FYI the book ‘The End of Cheap China’ http://t.co/VRfIV4sv surprised Economist didnt mention as they know about it…”

HARVEY: What the does that even mean?

JEREMIAH: That’s the beauty. Nobody knows. Is he a lunatic? Is he just some unhinged narcissistic self-promoter with an axe to grind? Or…is there an even darker secret?

BRAD: Okay, I’m in. Chow Yun-fat for the Godfather. Jackie Chan for the henchman. Lucy Liu for the wife…

HARVEY: Are you casting or just listing the only Asians working in Hollywood right now?

(BOTH LAUGH)

BRENDAN: We’d like to suggest Bai Ling for the role of the wife. She’s from Sichuan.

HARVEY: Yeah, well, it’d save money. Probably sign her for a $50 bus ticket and a case of Drambuie.

JEREMIAH: So what do you think?

BRAD: Well, we’d love to help you boys.

HARVEY: Yeah, but the whole thing is…I mean who even thinks up shit like this?

BRENDAN: We got it from the Wall Street Journal.

HARVEY: Oscar Gold!

I Apologize if Anyone Felt Killed

Apologies are an under-appreciated art. Most apologies crafted in the name of public relations sound intrinsically weaselly, often because the people making them are preoccupied with saving their prior reputation rather than getting past the mistake and rebuilding trust. I was reminded of this when I read Mike Daisey’s statement following L’affaire Daisey, which I reckon I don’t need to further explain to this audience. (If you’ve just emerged from decades frozen in an ice cave, click here. Also, get a haircut. Styles have changed.)

Here is what Mr. Daisey wrote:

 I apologized in this week’s episode to anyone who felt betrayed.

Did you see it? If not, I’ll explain in a moment.

Before I do, I should be clear: I’m not interested in a broader critique of Mr. Daisey’s work. That’s been done in so many other places that I’m too lazy to even go gather the links. Plus, I know it’s a rough gig in the performance artists. In 1974 Chris Burden crucified himself to a Volkswagen Beetle and had it driven around. So you can’t really have the same expectations of these people that you would of, say, your standard airline executive (much as you might want to crucify airline executives to moving vehicles).

But still, there it is, “…anyone who felt betrayed.” In four words, the two great sins of public apologies.

The first is the passive language. Now, I have no problems at all with passive voice in writing (or with starting sentences with conjunctions, or parentheticals, or many other things they told you were bad in your high school comp class). But that passive language is such a trope of public apologies that we pretty much take it for granted these days. It’s so common that Wikipedia has an entry on it. Vanity Fair, also citing Wikipedia, has a small collection of examples. “We apologize if anyone was offended,” was even trotted out recently by Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream in response to the (silly) Linsanity flavor scandal.

The second (and I must thank my partner in crime, Brendan O’Kane for this) is the use of the word “felt.” The passive voice subtly shunts responsibility onto the victim. The use of “felt” suggests that problem itself doesn’t even exist, and is merely some kind of unfortunate vapor or misunderstanding. You felt betrayed, but I didn’t actually betray you.

Lawyers may like apologies that don’t include a categorical admission of responsibility, but from a public communication point of view they come off as pro-forma, passive-aggressive dissembling that shifts at least some of the blame onto the injured parties. You can see how this works by replacing the standard corporate, public-conduct or ethno-gender-religious sensitivity malfeasance that people are usually apologizing for with something more heinous. I like to use a steamroller homicide, for no other reason than I appreciate the image of a maniac rampaging through town with a steamroller. Plus, as far as I know, no one has ever actually been murdered with a steamroller, so we should be safely in the land of the hypothetical (although the Internet will probably prove me wrong*).

So imagine you’re a contrite steamroller maniac attempting to rebuild your reputation. What do you say?

“I apologize for running over those people with a steamroller.”

Hell no. That’s way too direct and honest. It could be mistaken for assumption of responsibility, which might let the healing begin. We can’t have that.

Try this on instead:

“I apologize if anyone was run over by a steamroller.”

Do you see how this small change embeds whole new levels of denial and distance into that short statement? Seriously, how dumb were those people to get run over by a steamroller? The freaking thing only moves two miles an hour! I mean, head on a swivel, grandpa, this is the big city!!! But, you, know, sorry and all.

Or, even better,

“I apologize if anyone felt killed by a steamroller.”

Because they might not actually be dead. They might just feel that way. By mistake.

What the heck, let’s go for broke and dispense with the apology altogether. Some light regret is enough for the masses:

“I regret that due to this unfortunate situation anyone felt killed by a steamroller.”

Better yet, let’s disembody the regret, so we’re not sure who’s actually doing the regretting. Could be your auntie doing the regretting. You don’t have anything to regret. You’re not a culpable steamroller maniac leaving a twelve-foot-wide trail of blood and flattened personal accessories behind you. You’re just misunderstood:

“It is regrettable if, due to this unfortunate situation, anyone felt deprived of life by a steamroller.”

Now that…that is PR gold. A non apology for the ages. I almost weep reading it back.

Update:

*The Internet has proved me wrong. Apparently our friends the North Koreans have used steamrollers as weapons. Hat tip: @samuel_wade.

The Game of Thrones Guide to the 2012 Transition, Part 2

The HBO series Game of Thrones returns for a second season this month.  The show, which could be described as either “Soft Core Porn Lord of the Rings,” or “Harry Potter for  Middle-Aged White Dudes,” is set in a fantasy realm loosely modeled after medieval Europe with a plot that is equally loosely based on the history of the War of the Roses.

Given that the entire series revolves around a series of bloody power struggles in which amoral individuals quickly kill off the few characters with integrity before then turning on each other in a highly stylized circle jerk of naked ambition, I thought the show would make a useful guide to 2012 and the current leadership transition in China, a transition which is not going quite as smoothly as the Party leadership perhaps hoped it would.

So, with that…the Game of Thrones Guide to the 2012 Transition, Part 2.  Part 1 can be found here.

(Yes. There are all kinds of spoilers but I figure if you’ve made it this far then you’ve already seen the show.)
What is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger.

Writing in the Analects blog yesterday, Beijing correspondent James Miles argued that even though Bo Xilai might be down, he was far from out and that the erstwhile Chongqing Party Secretary remains popular, even going so far as to compare Bo to Hu Yaobang.   Maybe. But there’s some evidence that Bo is not as popular with his base as many believe/fear.   Also, Bo Xilai is not Hu Yaobang just as Justin Bieber is not, say, Sam Cooke.  But the idea that the reanimated political corpse of Bo someday rising again to cause problems for the Party is not outside the realm of possibility.  The thing about preventing an infestation of the undead, as I now know from watching Game of Thrones, is that eliminating your enemies is not enough, you must also burn their corpses to ash.  Given that the CCP has some experience on this front, I would not want to bet on leniency when and if Bo ever goes to ‘trial.’

 

Eddard Stark: The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.

Bo’s initial mistake: entrusting his Chongqing crackdown to an underling.  On one hand you can’t blame the guy for not wanting to personally get his hands bloody, but whenever you put that kind of power in the hands of a subordinate you invariably face the possibility of the whole plan blowing up in your face.  Option A is your henchman is incompetent. Option B is that he is too good at his job and starts gunning for yours.  Either way you’re probably going to have to eventually kill the bastard.  This is why Ned Stark wanted no part of being Robert’s “Hand.” Sour cream has a longer shelf-life than henchmen and “Closest Comrades at Arms” in these situations.

 

Tyrion Lannister: I have a tender spot in my heart for cripples, bastards and broken things.

One of the weirder stories floating around last week involved a Ferrari which crashed on Sunday morning.  Anybody who has seen these douchebags racing around Sanlitun in the small hours after the clubs close knew it was only a matter of time, but what made this particular Ferrari the subject of so much online speculation was the cone of silence that descended over the circumstances of the crash and the driver.  The most persistent whispers – albeit ones fueled in part by overseas websites belonging to a certain banned cult – is that the car was driven by the illegitimate son of Jia Qinglin.  Jia’s been on television a lot these days and last night was shown practically removing the arm of a visiting KMT functionary in an overly enthusiastic man-hug, so either the rumors are untrue or Jia is slowly coming unhinged while being filmed for the nightly news broadcast.  Either way of course, the fact that the rumors spread so rapidly in absence of proof, a common theme this past week, is suggestive of how primed people are to believe these stories.    Schadenfreude is an ugly thing,  but people can see the children of China’s 1% living large in the capital and the growing sense of resentment is at least…understandable.

 

Robin Arryn: Mom make the little man fly now?

Tyrion Lannister: Not this little man, this little man is going home.

Zhou Yongkang was on the nightly news broadcast for Friday looking happy and relaxed.  Either the rumors of his imminent demise are untrue (most likely), he’s a great actor (less likely), or he hasn’t received the email yet (not impossible).  In any case, looks like the Zhou deathwatch will have to continue into the coming week.  I’d say with each passing day it’s looking more likely that Zhou and Hu, if the stories of their tiff had any validity in the first place, have since kissed and made up.

 

Tywin Lannister: [speaking to Jaime] You’re blessed with abilities that few men possess. You’re blessed to belong to the most powerful family in the Kingdoms, and you’re still blessed with youth. And what have you done with these blessings? You’ve served as a glorified bodyguard for two kings, one a madman, the other a drunk. The future of our family will be determined in these next few months. We could establish a dynasty that will last a thousand years…or we could collapse into nothing, as the Targaryens did. I need you to become the man you were always meant to be. Not next year, not tomorrow…now.

Does anybody else imagine a scene with Hu Jintao calling Xi Jinping into his study at 2:00 in the morning and giving him a version of this speech?  There’s no doubt Xi and Li have their work cut out for them.  Look, anybody who has ever played team sports can tell you that winning solves a lot of problems in the locker room.  Not to mix analogies too much, but check out at the Red Sox over the last decade.  When they were winning championships and making the playoffs every year nobody seemed to care that players were taking shots of whiskey before big games and generally behaving like overgrown frat boys.  But when the team tanked the last two months of the 2011 season all the shit which had been going for years suddenly became a problem.  Players started turning on each other.  The owners turned on the manager and the whole organization became a toxic nest of lies and recriminations ultimately resulting in ownership cleaning house.

What does this have to do with Game of Thrones, never mind Chinese politics?

I’m neither a China ‘bear’ or a China ‘bull,’ I still think it can go either way, but this new administration is going to be tested in ways that neither Hu Jintao or Jiang Zemin ever were.  First of all, eventually the economy is going to slow down.  Hard. Soft. Whatever. How that landing is managed is going to be absolutely critical to the Party’s ability to govern.  That doesn’t mean managing the last few years has been easy, but the benefits of economic development have benefited enough people, and enough of the right people, that the Party receives — and possibly deserves — the benefit of the doubt for a lot of unresolved issues.  The test, and it’s likely to come within the next ten years, is whether the Party can also maintain harmony and social stability when that sense of continued prosperity fades.  This is not the same as saying if the economy declines then the Party automatically goes, which is obviously a facile argument that ignores the adaptability of the Party in dealing with changing circumstances, but Xi Jinping and the incoming leadership will be forced to make some hard choices.  Xi Jinping seems like a very able guy, tough and willing to listen to criticism and advice from those around him, but it may not come down just to managerial competence but rather the ability to demonstrate political courage under tough circumstances.

 

Eddard Stark: Who do you serve?

Varys: I serve the realm. Someone must.

It’s not easy to be the court eunuch.  Not the Meng Jianzhu lacks physical balls, but once Zhou Yongkang finally is put to pasture/dumped in a river Meng will be last man standing from the Jiang Zemin patronage network.  He’s likely to be in the Nine, but you have to think that every time Old Panda Eyes gets heartburn Meng starts to update his resume.  Even as odd man out though, anyone holding the public security brief must resist the powerful temptation to engage in all kinds of shenanigans, as we’ve since learned from the Chongqing experience this past month.  Not sure if Meng is that kind of guy, but I wouldn’t count on Chinese society getting any less rambunctious in the next decade and if anything Meng is going to have his hands full enough putting out fires without playing palace intrigue.

 

Tyrion: What do you want from me, Bronn? Gold? Women? Golden women? Stick with me and you’ll have them all.

Bronn: Alright, but don’t expect me to call upon your lordship whenever you take a shit. I’m not your toady, and I’m not your friend.

Tyrion: Where I would treasure your friendship, I’m mainly interested in your facility with murder. And if the day ever comes where you’re tempted to sell me out, remember this: Whatever the price, I’ll beat it. I like living.

Another great exchange in the ongoing odd-couple Tyrion/Bronn bromance.  It’s nice they’ve worked out the basic parameters of their relationship in such a clear manner.  I wish the same could be said for the PLA and the CCP leadership.

Richard McGregor argues in his book The Party, that one of Hu Jintao’s early challenges as leader was developing a working relationship with the military.  Lacking real military experience and without close ties with the PLA brass, Hu faced a problem not dissimilar to that of Bill Clinton in his first term trying to earn the respect of his commanders despite never having served.  Xi Jinping benefits to some extent from being his father’s son, but that might only go so far and there are indications that the military is growing increasingly fractious and restless and prone to act in its own (especially fiduciary) interests when necessary.  Statements in the Chinese press by both civilian and military leaders reaffirming Party control over the PLA have become so frequent over the past few months that the cumulative effect is hardly reassuring.  For now, the Party continues to feed the beast by increasing defense spending.  Should Hu Jintao, as expected, hold on to his role as head of the Party’s Central Military Commission for a couple more years this might ease the transition but it’s certainly a situation that bears watching.

 

Tyrion Lannister: Ferocious? Last night a Moon Brother stabbed a Stone Crow over a sausage. Three Stone Crows seized the Moon Brother and opened his throat. Bronn managed to keep Shagga from chopping off the dead man’s cock, which was fortunate, but even still Ulf is demanding blood money, which Shagga and Gunter refuse to pay.

Tywin Lannister: When soldiers lack discipline, the fault lies with their commander.

Pity those central government organs responsible for doing anything that requires the cooperation of local officials.  Tensions between the center and the local in Chinese politics date back to when Confucius was still wearing split-bottom pants, but there are signs that recently the problem has grown particularly acute as the central government tries to get a handle on local government finances.  It won’t be easy.  The Yongzheng Emperor once became so exasperated with the extent of graft by local officials that he gave everybody a huge raise and told them to steal less.  I’ll let you guess how well that worked out.  The Party right now is trying to get several thousand of its most venal and corrupt administrators  to stop lining their own pockets because…well, because it’s not nice to steal things.   Li Yuanchao might be the guy who steps in and takes over from He Guoqiang as chief hatchet man for the Party/Hu Jintao, but like the public security brief this is an area where things are only going to get more complex during the next administration and whoever gets the job could learn a thing or two from Tyrion on barbarian management.

 

Eddard: “What you suggest is treason.”
Littlefinger: “Only if we lose.”

Such a great scene. Ned asks Tommy Carcetti to arrange for the palace guard to back his play against the new boy king and his wicked mother/aunt.  You just know it’s going to end badly and as Omar might say, “If you come at the king, you best not miss.”

All this week rumors of palace intrigue and a possible coup have been floating around most of them involving a possible split among the Standing Nine and the ouster of Zhou Yongkang.[1]  Frankly, I don’t see it happening, but once again the fact that so many people are ready to believe is suggestive in itself.  There are splits in the leadership for sure but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to take the fight out into the street.  That said, it’s worth mentioning the Party doesn’t make it any easier on itself by keeping the public in the grey about what the hell is going on with the government.

 

“Is this meant to be your shield, my lord? A piece of paper?”

The climactic throne room scene were Ned Stark, loyalist to the old regime, confronts King Joffrey and his mother.  All Ned had to do was kneel, swear fealty, act contrite and then all would be forgiven.  How hard is that shit? But no, some people learn these things the hard way and Ned instead thought it a better idea to denounce the king as a bastard princeling. Nice.  Of course he was counting on the palace guard siding with him and when that failed to happen…well Ned was proper and truly fucked.

It seems that Bo Xilai had a similar opportunity at his annual NPC press conference.  He could have been contrite, humble, and probably lived to fight another day.  Instead, he denounced his enemies and counted on the support of his buddy Hu Jintao…who promptly whipped a knife out.

Bo’s performance at the press conference pissed off so many people that within 72-hours he was done.  He wasn’t likely to stick around long anyway, but the non-apology apology he used to ‘save himself’ would have made Mike Daisey blush.  It remains to be seen if, unlike Ned, Bo will be allowed to keep his head.

Winter is coming…



[1] One of the funnier outcomes of the coup rumors has to be the code language being used to discuss the rumors without running afoul of the Internet censors.

The Game of Thrones Guide to the 2012 Transition, Part 1

The HBO series Game of Thrones returns for a second season this month.  The show, which could be described as either “Soft Core Porn Lord of the Rings,” or “Harry Potter for  Middle-Aged White Dudes,” is set in a fantasy realm loosely modeled after medieval Europe with a plot that is equally loosely based on the history of the War of the Roses.

Given that the entire series revolves around a series of bloody power struggles in which amoral individuals quickly kill off the few characters with integrity before then turning on each other in a highly stylized circle jerk of naked ambition, I thought the show would make a useful guide to 2012 and the current leadership transition in China, a transition which is not going quite as smoothly as the Party leadership perhaps hoped it would.

So, with that…the Game of Thrones Guide to the 2012 Transition, Part 1.  Part 2 can be found here.

(Yes. There are all kinds of spoilers but I figure if you’ve made it this far then you’ve already seen the show.)

 

Tyrion: Where do I begin, my lords and ladies? I am a vile man, I confess it. My crimes and sins are beyond counting. I have lied and cheated, gambled and whored. I’m not particularly good at violence, but I’m good at convincing others to do violence for me. You want specifics, I suppose. When I was seven, I saw a servant girl bathing in the river. I stole her robe and she was forced to return to the castle naked and in tears. I closed my eyes, but I could still see her tits bouncing. When I was 10, I stuffed my uncle’s boots with goat shit. When confronted with my crime, I blamed a squire. Poor boy was flogged, and I escaped justice. When I was 12 I milked my eel into a pot of turtle stew. I flogged the one-eyed snake, I skinned my sausage. I made the bald men cry into the turtle stew, which I believe my sister ate. At least I hope she did. I once brought a jackass and a honeycomb into a brothel….

My initial list of ‘favorite Game of Thrones Quotes’ turned out to be 90% Tyrion, which shouldn’t be too surprising to anyone who has seen the show.  Peter Dinklage as Tyrion is basically the series’ Omar. He gets all the best lines and doesn’t waste any of them. This is, by far, my favorite Tyrion moment from Season One.  Facing probable defenestration unless he confesses to a crime he actually didn’t commit, he instead breaks into a veritable sonata of humble brag vulgarity.

The Chinese Internet sensation for this particular nanosecond is a series of pictures supposedly snapped by a Chinese gangster doing…well, gangster things.  Counting money. Driving his car. Stepping on a dude’s neck.  There’s a heavy whiff of the South China Tiger about the photos, but these days people here are so conditioned to believe any crazy ass rumor that involves gangsters or officials (and the line is often thin in many local jurisdictions) mainly because those rumors that turn out to be true usually end up involving unbelievably jackshit stupid and craven examples of human behavior.  After awhile you get used to just being witness to all kinds of corruption, whether the egregious deeds of high officials or the local hot pot restaurant that recycles gutter oil.[5]

Nevertheless, in nine decades of self-criticisms and forced confessions it’s doubtful that the CCP ever came across anyone so archly proud of their depravity as Tyrion, but there’s also little doubt that between his stature, his hobbies, and his gift for amoral politics, the little man would have made a sterling cadre.

 

Robb: If we do it your way kingslayer, you’d win. We’re not doing it your way.

Give Wang Yang some love. Last December with Wukan doing its best impression of South Carolina circa 1860, the Central Government getting increasingly agitated with Wang running his own offense in the province, and Bo Xilai telling every cadre and peasant who would had a minute to listen about how Bo “cleaned up” Chongqing after the mess left by the last guy (BTW: That would be Wang), the “Guangdong Model” seemed like a risky political foundation for a rise to power.  Well, look who rolled in shit and came out smelling like lavender bath bubbles…Ladies and Gentlefolk, Wang Yang.

So after finishing the first season of the show I started reading the novel because, you know, I have so much time on my hands and nothing else to do (that sound you hear is me repeatedly attaching a copy of the UC academic handbook to my thumbs with an industrial stapler) but one major change had to do with the ages of the characters.  Robb Stark in the book is like 15-years old.  Christ, when I was that age I wore my hair in a hockey mullet and I’m pretty sure I only remembered to zip up my fly about 54% of the time…there is no way 15-year old me could have led my father’s banners into battle. [1] I don’t know if George R.R. Martin is going for a whole “People didn’t live as long back then” theme (book Ned Stark is an old man at 35) but I’m glad they changed it for the show.  I’m guessing HBO might have also faced some legal issues had they chosen to honor the author’s creative vision by faithfully recreating the Dothraki wedding night scene in which Dragon Barbie is stripped naked and deflowered by a barbarian…at the age of 12. Those of my friends who have read the whole series  have said one of the criticisms of the books is that Martin seems to have some kind of weird problem with women.  Hmmm…12-year old princess forced to consummate her marriage to a 30-year old warlord who just purchased her from her own brother…Even Kublai on a bad China day would be like, “Dude, that’s messed up.”

 

Joffrey: Tell me, which do you favor, your fingers or your tongue?

Where does it say the “evil kid” in a British fantasy series needs to be a bottle blond?  I get it that this is an important plot point for this particular series but the kid who plays Joffrey is just a little too much from central casting like he’s constantly channeling Draco Malfoy’s inbred cousin.

The parallels here are too much low hanging fruit, except to say that Inbred Draco would totally have supported China’s new detention regulations.  Anyone else see a parallel PSB Deputy Minister Joffrey making Ai Weiwei retype his entire opus of tweets while ordering the guards to chop a finger for each typo?

The message  from the Party is now quite clear (as if it were ever in doubt). Type it. Say it. Whatever. If you piss us off sufficiently, we now have all the legal authority we need to make your ass disappear.  Although we promise that if you die in custody we won’t harvest your organs so…progress!

 

Tyrion: And here we have Bronn, son of…

Bronn: You wouldn’t know him.

I like Bronn which means I’m almost positive he will die in season 2.  Having come to this show uninitiated, I have since learned that any sympathetic or popular character will eventually have their head lopped off or their entrails torn out which I guess saves HBO some money on long-term deals with its actors.

Bronn is the closest thing the show has to representing the 99%.  In China we call that group “The people who DON’T race their Ferrari around Worker’s Stadium at three in the morning.”  Hey, not everybody’s dad is Bo Xilai or even a Li Gang and yet they still have to make their way in the world.  That’s Bronn. Put him on the payroll and watch him work.  Fight a duel to the death for money. Sure. Play wingman for a dwarf. No problem. He’s just happy to have a job and watch those uppity bastards kill each other, knowing it’s not going to affect him…until Season 2.[3]

 

Viserys: No! You cannot touch me. I am the dragon! I want my crown!

Every great TV series has that one moment in the first season where we, the viewers, have to stop and go…Holy shit, what the fuck just happened? Tony Soprano grabbing the pillow to smother Livia. Bodie and Poot capping Wallace. Don Draper’s “Carousel” speech.

For the first five episodes of Game of Thrones we were continually subjected to creepy Aryan prince as he fondled his sister, insulted a horde, gave himself a nickname, slapped around a whore, and generally behaved like the lost Hanson brother on an episode of Celebrity Rehab.   I like my irony and violent imagery as much as the next guy, but asking for a crown and then having a 6’5 barbarian give you a molten gold hot comb instead? That’s the kind of moral symmetry that would have had Sima Qian waving his ball sack in the air like a party favor from a Chinese wedding banquet.

The irony is delicious of course because it was Drogo’s response to the 153rd time Viserys had whined about how he let the barbarian king marry Viserys’ sister, Dragon Barbie, in exchange for Drogo using his horde to reclaim lost territory.  Leaving aside the fact that this USUALLY does not go as planned (Cut to shot of Wu Sangui and the Song Emperor Huizong nodding sadly) you just don’t nag barbarians with your delusions of power. You certainly don’t make a spectacle of yourself at one of their parties.  And if you do, you damn well better be sure that your allies are secure.

Which brings me of course to Bo Xilai.

Wang Lijun’s not doing too many (televised) interviews at the moment, but I’m willing to be bet that he would have no problem whatsoever being able to identify with The Look (define: “Withering”) that Dragon Barbie  gives as Drogo the Barbarian is preparing to fricassee her brother’s brain matter.

If Viserys had just waited, bided his time, and played the game according to Dothraki rules then he might have had his horde and even, possibly, his crown.  It’s also entirely possible the Dothraki would have eventually stuffed him into a pony’s colon and called it sausage. That’s just the way it is. When you play power games with the CCP – or the Dothraki – it’s often hard to tell who will become king and who will be made into horse haggis.

In any case, while the exact nature of Bo Xilai’s crimes, real or invented, has yet to be established, most pundits agree that he brought at least some of this misfortune crashing down on him by grandstanding just wee bit too much…Actually, forget that.  Bo’s campaign to be part of “The Nine” made Newt Gingrich seem like a master of nuance and subtlety.  Shit, Newt could campaign au naturel stomping the stage like the lust-crazed silverback ape we always knew lurked within and still not achieve the same relative level of naked ambition Bo Xilai showed in the last few months. [4]

 

Tyrion: But, I don’t believe that giants and ghouls and white walkers are lurking beyond the wall. I believe that the only difference between us and the wildlings is that when that wall went up, our ancestors happened to live on the right side of it.

Apropos of nothing except  history…researchers using recently re-discovered a section of the Great Wall, or at least a great wall, in Mongolia.  The “Genghis Khan Wall,” as it has been dubbed, dates from the 11th century and may have been built by the Tanguts who ruled large sections of what is today Northwest China and Southern Mongolia as the Xi Xia.  Of course anytime you start talking about historical boundaries between “China” and “Other People” (especially Mongolians) you get the revisionists who want to backdate the current borders of the PRC and claim Genghis Khan as a son of China and there are quite a few historians in China who would totally agree with Tyrion’s view of wall building. While that is likely true for some groups, the Mongols were not the “Wildlings.” They were “The Others.” Bad ass, kill you quick and reanimate your corpse so they could kill you again winter-is-coming you pastoral little bitches.  Seriously, if Genghis was Chinese, then somebody forgot to tell the Song and Ming courts.  Could have saved them a lot of trouble.  And a few emperors.

 

Ned: Very handsome armor. Not a scratch on it.

Jaime: People have been swinging at me for years, they always seem to miss.

Ned: You’ve chosen your opponents wisely.

Jaime: I have a knack for it.

Ah, Wen Jiabao…you crafty bespectacled devil.  Not since Zhou Enlai has a premier been able to tweak his boss so consistently and (more or less) get away with it.  Count me among those who don’t read too much into Wen’s periodic head fakes in the direction of political reform, but even if nothing will come of them, it’s fun to watch him do it because you KNOW that every time he gets up and makes some cryptic comment about how China needs more freedom or the inevitability of political reform, it causes the hardliners curse out their staff and start throwing old issues of “Seeking Truth” at the closest available wall.  This is a guy who not only was closely associated with ousted premier Zhao Ziyang but was famously photographed with Zhao when the latter was out tearfully telling the students in the square that Li Peng was an unholy douchebag and, by the by, they should probably get out of the way of any large military vehicles that may or may not be heading their way.  If you can come back from that, ain’t nothing that a corrupt weasel like Chen Liangyu can do to you, or even Hu Jintao.

Moreover, I’m excited about Wen in retirement just as I’ve enjoyed the last few episodes of “Zhu Rongji Says Whatever the Fuck He Wants.” Wen is just invested enough in his historical legacy that he’s not going to leave alone any opportunity to be sure he exits the stage as the good guy, no matter which way the political winds blow in the future.  This will displease people.

 

Ned: War was easier than daughters.

More unintended fallout from the Bo Xilai debacle: Shed a tear for poor Chen Xiaodan?  Being the granddaughter of Chen Yun (who played the “Fifth Beatle” role in the original Standing Committee) can’t be nearly as cool as riding around in Bo Guagua’s Ferrari, right? Actually, whither poor Guagua, you get the sense this is not a kid who has heard the word “no” a whole lot in his life. I’m guessing Miss Chen can probably do better.

 

Catelyn Stark: If you lose, your father dies, your sisters die, we die.

Robb Stark: Well, that makes it simple then.

Catelyn Stark: I suppose it does.

I like this exchange so much better than the “When you play the game of thrones, you either win or you die” line which was kind of done to death in the promos.  One of the most common questions I’m asked by students (after “How do I find Great Leap Brewery?”) is about the chances of a “Jasmine Revolution” in China.  Both YJ and I wrote about this quite a bit last year so I’m not going to rehash all the many reasons why it’s highly unlikely HOWEVER…just because something is unlikely doesn’t mean you don’t worry about it.  It is unlikely that I would ever be eaten by a bear, but if I’m camping in New Hampshire and I hear something in my campsite, even if it’s only a raccoon or a coyote, it’s natural to jump to the worst case scenario.  Rational me knows that the last fatal bear attack in New Hampshire was in 1786.  Human me hears a raccoon outside my tent and thinks “Holy shit! Grizzly stampede!”

I bring up this up because the other day I was wondering what it must be like to want a job in the Standing Committee.  You know that society, especially in the urban areas, is relatively stable and certainly light years ahead of pre-revolutionary Cairo or Libya under Gaddafi & Sons, but you just can’t get those pictures of Muammar looking like a buck strapped to the hood of a drunkenly-driven F-150 in deer season or the video of Hosni being led away by his jailers out of your mind.

The chances of this happening in China are infinitely remote,  but the CCP is so wrapped up in their own après moi le deluge worldview that they seem unable to see any other possibility and so start jumping at every sound and shadow no matter how insignificant.  Who knows? Maybe they’re right.  The Party runs a pretty tight ship and even then it can get a little…feral at times.[2]  In a state of anarchy who knows what would happen. Replacing the Party would likely involve a complete reboot of the whole system and I’m not sure there are too many people in China today who have the stomach for what that means.

That said, the security apparatus are coming dangerously close to being That Guy who is  convinced that his loyal and loving girlfriend is really a lying cheating whore and so starts making her call him every hour, hacking her email, checking her phone, and generally stalking her.  In case anyone in the CCP high command had to ask…NOBODY likes that guy.

There are some real stakes in the game but I think everybody would win if the public security apparatus took it down about seven or eight notches.

 

Click here for Part 2.


[1] But I could recite my father’s favorite drink order from memory.  Go figure.

[2] By way of example I give you “The Beijing Line 1 Subway at 5:45 p.m. on a weekday.”

[3] Full disclosure: I don’t actually know if Bronn dies in Season 2 although I’m guessing that I’m the only one on the Rectified.name masthead who doesn’t have this bit of information.  We are, as you might have surmised, something of a nerdy bunch.

[4] Did I just spend fifteen minutes Googling ‘silverback apes’ and ‘mating habits.’  Yes, yes I did. And my mom wonders why it’s taking me over four years to finish my dissertation…

[5] Good question for the next time you go speed dating: “Would you rather eat hot pot out of swill oil or soup flavored with Peter Dinklage’s DNA?”

Thar Be Dragons

Much ink has been spilled, many hands have been wrung, countless bits have been flipped over discussion of Mike Daisey’s bullshit about Foxconn. Abler keyboards than mine have gone at the issue — the pieces by The New Yorker‘s Evan Osnos and our very own YJ are the ones to read —  but to my mind an important aspect of the whole sorry affair is going overlooked, namely, that Mike Daisey’s bullshit was really boring.  It was titillating enough for what it was, of course — it certainly got him plenty of attention, and gave vaguely well-meaning people a welcome opportunity to wax shocked-shocked at the news that global capitalism was screwing overseas workers and passing the savings along to them — but ultimately his bullshit bore a dreary resemblance to the truth.

Not long ago, a publishing house asked a friend of mine to read over a book it had commissioned about a certain high-profile Chinese figure. He promptly found the manuscript to be shot through with a combination of embarrassingly basic factual errors and authorial fantasy about being trailed by agents of Chinese state security — almost certainly bullshit, but bullshit of a singularly unimaginative variety. Who cares, really, if Mike Daisey saw armed guards at Foxconn (a transparently bullshit claim), or if he met factory workers who were more than five years under the minimum age for employment and told him so, or saw in Shenzhen people who had been crippled by hexane 1,500 kilometers away in Suzhou? If people can get away with making up more or less any story they like about China, then why aren’t they making up better stories?

Things didn’t used to be this way. Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse (peace be upon him) — compulsive liar, senile amateur pornographer, cunningest of linguists and patron saint of Beijing freelancers — hoodwinked the China-watcher community for decades with China Under the Empress Dowager, a book based largely on his claimed inside knowledge of the Manchu imperial court. Much of this derived from The Diary of His Excellency Ching-Shan, a fake composed by Backhouse or someone close to him that took in even J.J.L. Duyvendak, one of the brightest Sinologists of the day. Even Backhouse’s deathbed recollections, in which he claimed (among other things) to have first-hand knowledge of the Empress Dowager’s clitoral abnormalities, were taken as fact by the Swiss doctor who served as his amanuensis.

The art hasn’t been wholly lost — who could forget the New York Times article last year that claimed that eavesdropping Chinese robots hate Shakespeare, or David Brooks’ occasional “Asian societies drive like this” irruptions, or pretty much everything Tom Friedman writes on the subject of anything — but the chief exponents these days are retired British submarine commanders and newspapers operated by tai-chi cultists. The latter have been more active than usual lately — Zhongnanhai coup rumors, anyone? — but still track reality too closely to be any real fun.

If we’re going to be writing scurrilous bullshit about the upper echelons of Chinese government, let’s make it juicy. I want to read that Bo Xilai was arrested because he planned to make himself immortal by consuming a scrap of Mao Zedong’s embalmed flesh, 舍利-style. Forget about rumors that Hu Jintao is a secret Buddhist; I want in-depth coverage of how the underground Manichaean lobby is behind the inclusion of cucumbers at all state dinners (you laugh, but the evidence is all there), and of how princeling officials are actually encouraging their brats to drunk-drive their Ferraris in front of news cameras while tripping balls as a way of heightening the contradictions and bringing about another proletarian revolution of the kind that swept their parents to power. Claim that androgynous TV talent-show winners are part of a CIA plot to undermine Han manliness while simultaneously promoting bourgeois notions of grassroots democracy, and that Tibetan monks and nuns are spontaneously combusting because the act of repeatedly rubbing cellophane-wrapped portraits of Hu Jintao against their thighs at high altitudes causes a buildup of static electricity. Tell me China’s economic rise is the result of an upswing in hardworking Protestant converts — no, wait, Niall Ferguson’s already got that one covered.

As with so many other things, the Chinese invented bullshit about China 5,000 years ago. Here’s a little of The Book of Mountains and Seas (山海經) on the western lands:

崑崙南淵深三百仞。開明獸身大類虎而九首,皆人面,東嚮立崑崙上。開明西有鳳凰、鸞鳥,皆戴蛇踐蛇,膺有赤蛇。開明北有視肉、珠樹、文玉樹、玗琪樹、不死樹。

South of the Kunlun Mountains there is a watery chasm 300 fathoms deep. There you will find the Beast of Firstlight, which has a body as large as a tiger’s and nine heads, all with human faces, that face to the east as it perches atop the Kunlun Mountains. West of Firstlight you will find phoenixes and rocs that wear snakes as headdresses, tread snakes underfoot, and wear vermillion snakes at the breast. North of Firstlight you will find the Carnoscope, the pearl-tree, the marbled-jade tree, the coral-tree, and the Neverdie.

We need a better grade of China bullshit. We need to ditch bullshit artists like Mike Daisey and embrace bullshit artistes like Edmund Backhouse. We need to rediscover the monopods, the blemmyes and anthropophagi, the forgotten Christian kings (helloooo, Prester John!) and deaths-by-a-thousand cuts that once made the Orient such an object of fascination. The truth will do as well, if we really must, but in any event let’s not allow our bullshit to be so small-time.

Pushing up the Daiseys: Can a lie tell a greater truth?

I am huge fan of This American Life and I was surprised when I learned that they had produced a 57-minute episode retracting an earlier story from January featuring Mike Daisey describing his visit to Foxconn in South China.  I really admire their courage to face their mistakes and spend an entire episode explaining to their audience what happened. Their attitude and commitment to such a high standard of journalism impressed me. Not only do they set a good example for international media, but the Chinese media could learn from the professional way they handled what is every news organization’s nightmare – what to do when your correspondent turns out to be making things up?

I was disappointed that the original episode was fabricated.  As a former journalist, I have been to the factories in Shenzhen many times and was personally involved in researching and reporting on several stories about migrant workers in Shenzhen, although I haven’t been to Foxconn.   I’ve also followed these stories as covered by my former colleagues, most of whom have done a great job reporting on factory conditions and labor tensions in Chinese factories.  However, the first time I listened to this story I was on my way to work.  The entire way on the subway I was totally fascinated by Daisey’s theatrical, sometimes poignant sometimes humorous way, of presenting the story.  The problems of these workers came alive in a way I hadn’t heard before.  Like many people, I was particularly touched by the stories of disabled workers.  At the time, I thought it was one of the best pieces I had ever heard about migrant workers in China. As soon as I arrived in the office, I recommended the program to my husband and many friends.

Today, listening to Daisey’s confessions and defense, I have to say that I am not angry, and in fact I feel kind of bad for him. No doubt, This American Life is doing the right thing to uphold a higher standard for reporting and emphasize the distinction between a work for the theater and one produced for a show like TAL. However, to be honest, when I listened to the piece in January, I didn’t consider it serious journalism. This American Life frequently uses monologues on their show all the time.  The theatrical way that Daisey presented the show made me feel that it might be one of those shows even though it addresses a real serious issue in China.

While everybody is right that the guards at the factories never wear guns, the issues about migrant workers he addressed in the program are not fiction. Some workers are underage. Migrant workers do suffer from long work hours. Some factory workers get horribly injured and far too few have insurance.  The problems faced by migrant workers in China are real, even if some of the scenes in Daisey’s story were not.

Finally, I know that the popularity of Daisey’s show is quite unfair to many correspondents in China. Many of them have been covering the same issue for years. However, as a Chinese person I am  glad that the migrant workers’ issue finally  received so much attention in the US through a popular radio program, no matter if Daisey interviewed three or three hundred people. As long as he helped these workers to raise the public awareness, I am happy about it.

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