Author Archive

Greeted as Liberators

I recall it as being Sunday, March 17, 2003, that the administrative liaison called all six foreign English teachers to a meeting in one of our on-campus apartments, but it might have been Monday, since I also remember that the visit was precipitated by President George W. Bush’s 48-hour “High Noon” ultimatum for the Hussein family to leave Iraq or face invasion. There were six of us: three Americans, two Australians, and a Canadian, and for most of us it was our first year in China. A Chinese English teacher provided translation:

“You may have heard that your president” – the Australians and the Canadian immediately bristled – “has announced the United States will invade Iraq on Wednesday. We would like you to not go outside once the war begins. If you have any shopping to do, you can give us a list and we’ll get it for you.”

All of us had been at the school, a private K-12 headed by a former provincial deputy education minister that catered to cadre children, for little more than one semester. It was ostensibly modeled after Eton, or so they kept telling us, but as far as I could tell the similarities stopped at “expensive boarding school.” I had been in China for a total of five months, all in Urumqi save 24 hours in Beijing registering at the consulate and getting fleeced by an “art student.”

“First of all, three of us aren’t Americans,” said one of the Australians. “He’s not our president.” We had fair warning this discussion might happen, and decided to tease out exactly what the school was thinking. “Why don’t you want us to go out?”

“Well, it could be dangerous.”

“Why?” The answer was, after some deflection, basically “Muslims.” We refused to promise we wouldn’t leave campus, arguing that we weren’t going to hide in the school and that besides, we didn’t feel any threat. Eventually the administrator gave up on trying to hold us there, though they’d try again later when news of SARS belatedly reached the school. The fact was that every time we went out, we were often approached by Han and Uyghurs who were intrigued by foreigners or wanted to practice their English. And most of the Uyghurs, in my experience from 2002-2005, tended to view Westerners as a closer cousin than the Han. I heard more than once that “at least Americans believe in one God,” as opposed to the Han alternatives of atheistic Communism and overlapping polytheisms of Daoism, Buddhism, and traditional Chinese spirituality. I sometimes heard cruder, more dubious and flat-out racist theories as well, but the common denominator is that they could speak to a Westerner with less fear of getting in trouble. Reluctant and afraid to speak about religion, ethnic discrimination, politics or history with their Han Chinese neighbors, colleagues, and classmates, a fair number of Uyghur students, teachers, and professionals sought out Westerners to serve as sympathetic ears. In 2004, when pro-American feelings seemed to peak among the Uyghurs I met, a man in his 50s who loved to talk politics proclaimed in what seemed all seriousness “after Afghanistan and Iraq, George Bush will come to liberate us.”

While China’s version of affirmative action allowed Uyghurs to have more children and enter university with lower test scores, unspoken rules resulted in disadvantages in other arenas. One friend vented when, at university job fair, he was told “no minorities” before he even sat down. Another engaged in civil disobedience by inviting us to his home in Kashgar, where we only found out we had overstayed the number of days foreign house guests were allowed when all three of us were pulled into the police station. They took a long statement from him – who we were, where we met, what we did, where we would usually hang out, why we were here – and had him place his thumbprint and signature at the end while our passports were faxed to the head office for review. We chewed him out afterwards; we would never have come, or at least overstayed, if we knew it would get his family in trouble with the authorities. “My family decides who gets to stay in our home,” he said. Late one night at Fubar, an expat pub opened by friends near the center of town (now closed), with loud music blaring, a young Chinese woman at our table stood up, raised her glass and yelled “Fuck the Communist Party!” and proceeded to condemn half the Politboro Standing Committee. The young Uyghur man sitting next to her immediately stood up, raised his glass, and starting yelling “I love the Communist Party! I am a patriot! Long live the Party!” with panicked fear on his face. I don’t know if he ever went back to that bar again.

My Han friends and students, on the other hand, sometimes appeared incredibly disconnected from the Uyghur society around them. An entire university class of Han students (my English classes at the university level were almost entirely segregated, with Han students receiving better facilities and textbooks) didn’t know the Uyghur word for banmian (laghman), the staple noodle dish, the equivalent of going to UC San Diego and never learning the word “burrito.” I have lost count of how many times I heard a Han Chinese person express befuddlement at the idea that Uyghurs did not eat pork, and several occasions when someone was pressured to eat pork or drink alcohol by a superior within their company who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Han high school students eagerly took myself and another teacher on a tour of the city, only to refuse to join us in entering the Uyghur quarter south of the city center, and hastily beat a retreat looking genuinely scared, and I knew a few adults who were frightened as well, even on major streets in broad daylight. One Han professor became a drinking buddy, introduced by a Singaporean teacher who worked hard to serve as cultural interpreter. One boozy night in 2005, at his apartment, the professor asked me “Aren’t you afraid of the Uyghurs? You’re an American, they’re Muslim. They hate you.” Frustrated that for nearly three years both sides had been frank with me but never with one another, and thinking we were now drinking buddies who could tell it like it is, I looked him in the eye and said “No, they don’t hate me. They hate you.”

He went quiet. We left soon after, and my Singaporean friend said I had been way too harsh.

“Friends are honest with each other,” I argued. “He’s a smart guy, I didn’t say anything he doesn’t know.”

“Yes, he knows it, and you and I know it, but you can’t say it to his face. It’s too much.”

The professor didn’t invite me drinking again, and I left Xinjiang not long after. By then, any fondness I heard from Uyghurs in Xinjiang for Bush was dissipating as images of the ongoing violence in Iraq piled up in the media and, perhaps more importantly, as China and the U.S. aligned on many elements of the “War on Terror”. China embraced WoT rhetoric in its campaigns against real and imagined separatism in Xinjiang. The fact that Uyghur prisoners in Guantanamo Bay were not handed over to the P.R.C. showed there was still daylight between the two countries’ perspectives on Xinjiang, but after that I never heard of anyone entertaining the idea of America swooping in to liberate Xinjiang. At the time, I thought the man who told me Bush was going for a trifecta with Xinjiang was delusional; now I think he might not have meant it as a genuine prediction, but a wish that it was true, that someone was coming, or maybe just that I would understand how he felt. That someone would listen.

In Praise of @BeijingAir

June 19, 2009June 22, 2009

June 19, 2009 (left) and June 22, 2009 (right). Images courtesy of ChinaAirDaily - they need new photographers in Beijing and other cities!

There's talk over at ChinaFile that the air quality issue has reached a tipping point as a public health crisis in China, and it's worth taking a moment to remember that the US Embassy played a major role in increasing awareness - possibly one of the State Department's most effective public diplomacy moves in years, albeit unintentionally. According to a 2009 State Department cable released by Wikileaks back in 2011:
At the request of the Ministry of ForeignAffairs (MFA), ESTH Off and MED Off met on July 7 with Mr. WANG Shuai of MFA's Office of U.S. Affairs to respond to MFA's concerns about recent publicity in international and local press surrounding an air quality monitor installed on the Embassy compound. MFA registered complaints on behalf of the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau (EPB) and the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), saying that making this data (which in their view"conflicts" with "official" data posted by the Beijing EPB) available to the general public through an Embassy-operated Twitter site has caused "confusion" and undesirable "social consequences"among the Chinese public. MFA asked Post to consider either limiting access to the air quality data only to American citizens,or otherwise identify a suitable compromise. ... In August 2008 the Embassy began posting corresponding "real time" air quality index (AQI) numbers,which are generated according to definitions set by the U.S.Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to an Embassy-managed Twitter site ( on an hourly basis. While the initiative originally was primarily geared toward informing the Embassy community about levels of pollution in immediate proximity to the compound, consular "no double standard" requirements prompted Post to create the Twitter site as a user-friendly platform so that private American citizens residing and traveling in Beijing are also able to access the data. ...local and international press coverage spiked after Time Magazine published a story online about the Embassy's air monitor on June 19. Since June 19, the site's number of "followers" has increased from approximately 400 to the current total of 2500+, with at least 75 percent of the new followers being Chinese (judging from the screen names used). Additional press articles have appeared in the South China Morning Post, China Daily, and other outlets, with major local online forums like ablaze with Chinese "netizens"commenting on this issue.
Twitter was blocked on June 1 2009 in the follow-up to the June 4 anniversary, then Liu Xiaobo was arrested on June 23 for releasing Charter 08 six months earlier, and then to top it all off the Urumqi Riots started on July 5. On July 7, China shut down local Twitter clone Fanfou as well as others. Sina Weibo launched in August 2009 after China put a lid on Xinjiang and cut off its Internet, giving it a big head start over its major rivals Sohu, Netease, and Tencent, who didn't launch microblogging until the following year. But @BeijingAir had enough Chinese followers and struck such a chord in a Chinese public afraid for the health and mistrustful of government data, and as soon as Sina launched the US embassy numbers were being hoisted over the firewall. China began promising to upgrade reporting to include PM2.5 nanoparticles, which it previously didn't measure.

Chart courtesy of, on the job since 2007.

With the latest "air-pocalypse" in Beijing, it's not just expats but everyone talking about air purifiers the way that teen-age boys talk about cars. PM2.5 is basic vocabulary and a key fashion choice is whether to go with a knitted cloth mask (don't), 3M N90 disposable mask (reliable, cheap, ugly) or the Respro masks that make you look like Bane from Dark Knight Rises (Expensive, less data on effectiveness). Now you can buy Spaceballs-style cans of air! As recently as last June, government officials were complaining that @BeijingAir was unscientific and unlawful, which is not completely unfounded but no longer tenable. It's going take years to clean up the air, and @BeijingAir didn't create the issue so much as give people information in plain English (literally) that they could use to articulate what they already knew. But that's actually pretty cool. Bonus: Check out, courtesy of Frederic Blanc-Brude of the EDHEC-Risk Institute, offering a nifty chart and open data on AQI levels in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Chengdu.

Blue Devils on the Silk Road

Ministry of Education Preliminarily Approved Since December 2012.

Ministry of Education Preliminarily Approved Since December 2012.

The Duke Chronicle has reported that Duke Kunshan University, a joint venture university between Duke University, Wuhan University, and the city of Kunshan (connected to nearby Suzhou and farther Shanghai by high-speed rail),  has stalled due to communication and funding problems, the fifth delay in three years since Duke made its first agreement with Kunshan authorities in 2010. Although construction had begun by mid-2011 (in 2009, Duke announced the campus would open in Fall 2011), Duke didn’t suspect anything was amiss until early 2012 and didn’t find out that the developer, Kunshan Science, Technology and Education Park, was hiring unskilled workers and lowballed cost projections, leading to corner-cutting. Now they aim for a Spring 2014 launch.

Much of the campus’ construction has been plagued by information failings and lost or simply ignored requests. Communication between contractors and designers—sometimes between 40 and 50 different groups—was poorly managed, and there was no Chinese government team specifically charged with managing K-STEP’s progress on DKU, said Duke project manager Dudley Willis.

Duke committed $5.5 million toward design and construction oversight for the project in 2010. The money pays for several private American-based firms, including Gensler, Syska Hennessy Group, Thornton Tomasetti and Jones Lange Lasalle. The latter firm currently has five on-site people—up from three in earlier years. The firms identified problems but did not have the authority to effect change. Although Duke officials visited the campus every two or three months, there was no representative on the ground in China consistently through the first few years of construction.

For all readers who have experience working on projects in China, I’ll give you a moment for the déjà vu to pass. Credit where credit is due, though, since Duke is sticking to its guns about not only facilities, but having unrestricted internet on campus. Construction apparently wasn’t the only cause of delay, since the Ministry of Education didn’t even give DKU preliminary approval until December 2012, and the quickest they expect final approval is the end of 2013, cutting it a bit close for a Spring 2014 first semester.

DKU will initially roll out a Master of Management Studies (MMS) from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business and a Master of Science in Global Health through the Duke Global Health Institute for mainland students. Duke no doubt expects these top-shelf credentials in business and bio sciences, targeted at élite professional mainlanders, will make the entire operation profitable. It’s possible, however, that Duke’s biggest battle yet will be with its own faculty, who will submit course recommendations this month. Notice the precious usage of “unique” and “special” here:

In planning courses, the committee is on familiar ground in some respects but also will meet unique challenges as a consequence of the campus’ location in China, Robisheaux said. The committee will emphasize quality, aiming to make every course offered at DKU similar in difficulty and subject matter to those offered on the Durham campus. The Faculty Committee on Courses is following its usual procedures to approve courses while applying them to the special circumstance of DKU.

Two Duke faculty also raised concerns about the project and problems faced by other “Anglo-Saxon universities” (one of them is a German professor) in 2011, when the Duke Chronicle also urged administrators to “get the faculty on board.” It’s true that elite universities in Beijing and Shanghai enjoy much greater freedom of access to information, online and offline. I don’t know if Wuhan, though in the top-tier, has the clout of a Renmin, Peking, or Tsinghua, which boast the highest number of graduates in the 18th Communist Party Central Committee [ZH]. Duke was originally partnered with Shanghai Jiaotong University, which is higher in the lists than Wuhan both in Party bigshot alumni and overall school rankings.

Meanwhile, NYU Shanghai’s inaugural class of mainland and international undergraduates begins this fall. Their institutional partner is East China Normal University, which ranks way below Jiaotong or Wuhan, but then again the host city government is Shanghai/Pudong, which has a bit more weight to throw at these problems than Kunshan – not to mention that I bet NYU has a thriving MBA alumni program in Shanghai, whereas Duke alums are thin on the ground in Kunshan. Stanford, meanwhile, opened its program on Beijing University’s campus last spring. Duke took the hard road choosing to build an entire campus in a location comparatively deprived of wealthy elites – we’ll see if it pays off. It’ll be interesting to see, particularly with NYU and Duke’s mixed student bodies, how they navigate Chinese and American student’s differing expectations not only about curriculum, but for dormitories, student services, and off-campus activities. Which group’s norms will be the standard?

Chinese IT Startups: Get Rectified!

In my time following China’s IT sector, I’ve a lot of unfortunate English names for Chinese IT start-ups. TechInAsia a while back reported on a new carpooling site called, which is fine in Pinyin but given this list of real businesses I’ve seen over the years, I end up reading it with a jaundiced eye:

Thankfully, we here at are ready to help. With  our combined 15+ years in China IT, 20+ years in PR and marketing, and 50+ years in China, we can help you choose an English name for your company that won’t make your foreign investors snicker like third graders and then awkwardly try to avoid explaining the joke. Operators are standing by.

Playing the Meritocracy Game


A Shengguan Tu Board.

The latest issue of Foreign Affairs has dueling articles by Eric X. Li and Huang Yasheng titled “The Life of The Party” and “Democratize or Die”, respectively arguing for the CCP’s enlightened non-democratic meritocracy and its imminent destruction if it fails to implement democracy. Both have their fair points as well as their strawmen and sleight-of-hand, and others have effectively critiqued Li and his Canadian tag-team partner, Daniel A. Bell, for a flawed definition of “meritocracy.” While Bell and Li have avoided claiming this meritocratic process is the latest in a long historical tradition, the connection is implied when the mechanisms Li describes, from the national college entrance exams to the various level of bureaucratic rankings and evaluations, are so similar to the the imperial keju system, which Professor Mark Elliott argued in the New York Times was hardly “meritocratic”. He pointed out what mattered was family connections and money. In fact, this was so common it was a board game – Imperial China’s answer to Monopoly.

In a class on “Gaming in Libraries” (yup, that’s a thing now), I had to build a basic web game using MIT’s Scratch platform (most librarians aren’t programmers – yet). Years ago, in Richard Smith’s China’s Cultural Heritage, I had read about a Chinese board game called Shengguan Tu (升官圖), or “Promoting the Officials,” where players assume the of an aspiring mandarin, moving through the imperial examinations and through the bureaucracy, eventually rising to the “Da Nei” or inner sanctum Grand Secretariat in the imperial household. Along the way, players pay “donations” to higher ranked players in each department.

There are few English sources on Shengguan Tu, and almost no Chinese sources online (1). The best source I’ve found is Carole Morgan’s article on the game in Journal of the American Oriental Society in 2004 (subscription/paywall access), which draws on the work of gaming ethnographer Stewart Culin and a pamphlet published in Taiwan in the 1980s, whose author Cai Ce admitted he wasn’t clear on the rules either. Some highlights from her article (and Carole, drop me an email if you read this):

  • The game has existed in some form since the Tang Dynasty, when a precursor was invented by a Henan official named Li He 李郃.
  • There’s alot of variety, with versions alternating between square and round boards, tops and dice, and varying numbers of bureaus and positions.
  • Rules on movement and payment vary, but the dice/tops always have four possibilities: dé 德 (virtue), cái 才 (talent), gōng 功 (ability), and zāng 赃 (bribery, general skullduggery). Depending on your current post, any of these could be either beneficial or disastrous for your career.
  • Shengguan Tu and its ancestors, including Daoist versions where you climbed through the ranks of the heavenly bureaucracy, were gambling games.
  • One legend says Ji Yun, an editor of the Qing Dynasty encyclopedia Siku Quanshu, stayed up late gambling with his friends and showed up late to an appointment with a pissed-off Emperor Qianlong. To wiggle out of trouble, Ji told the emperor he was up late studying government administration and as proof showed him the game board. If that’s not true, it ought to be.

I picked up a cheap kid’s version of the game on Taobao and built the game below – it still has some bugs in the payment system, there aren’t clear rules on the amount of payment except once you’re in the Grand Secretariat, and the board I bought had typos – I think I caught all of them. Most of the title translations come from Charles O. Hucker’s Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China, and in a few places I fudged it. I wouldn’t call the online version fun (with some VC money I could make it awesome, I swear) but playing the real thing with family for pocket money isn’t a bad way to spend an afternoon during the Chinese New Year holidays. It’s no mahjong, though.

Learn more about this project


  1. The now dead websites and, available in the Internet Archive, were among the few sites about the game. A Baidupedia entry has some information about the game as well.

Chinese City Tiers: Cracking the Code

If you read Chinese news with any regularity, especially on government projects and regulations, you’ll see references to city tiers. While this terminology is used all the time, no one seems to know exactly how it is calculated, and there’s disagreement as to which tier certain cities are on. According to Baidupedia, Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzhou,and Shenzhen are first-tier cities (一线城市), but things get confusing with conflicting reports about second-tier cities, and even sporadic mention of an elusive 1.5-tier, which may or may not include Tianjin. While general consensus seems to be that a city’s tier ranking is determined by population, GDP, and possibly other factors, Rectified has obtained the official formula from sources within the State Council:


A full visual key to the variables after the break:

Read more…

10 Ways to Make the World Love Chinese Media

As in most of the world, China has a lot of awful films and TV shows,  Sure, once in a while a good one comes up, such as 潜伏 and Let The Bullets Fly, but the learning curve on these is way too steep for most international audiences, and the four seven stock plots available don’t travel very well. China is coming up on a grand 20 years of whining about their soft power deficit, but while young Chinese audiences are gobbling up “How I Met Your Mother” and the Marvel Comics überfranchise, no Chinese film or TV show has really made an impact on American audiences in that time. So here are some SARFT-friendly suggestions:

  1. Bring Back Hong Kong Fuey Dubbing: Americans don’t read subtitles, and believe that you must know 30 ways to kill a man with a soy sauce packet if your voice is not synchronized with your lips. This is a strength, not a weakness. Chinese ambassadors should try it too.
  2. Less History: How much did you need to know about American history, or anything for that matter, to follow Transformers? Nothing. You just needed a dose of dramamine and ear plugs.
  3. Less Crying: Seriously, Chinese dramas are too weepy. There’s hardly an opening titles sequence in the last ten years without someone bawling their eyes out. And crying dudes, which is straight up UnAmerican.
  4. Copy Star Trek: China has a space station, and yet still no space operas. How is that possible? It’s about a galactic government that moved beyond capitalism and doesn’t interfere in other worlds’ internal affairs. Come to think of it, from now on tell all diplomats to complain that the United States is violating the Prime Directive.
  5. More Monster Movies: Godzilla became an international phenomenon with a dude in a rubber suit (Stay tuned for an upcoming post by Will deconstructing the Godzilla oeuvre). I always thought since Beijing was originally designed according to Nezha’s body, you could have the city form a concrete giant to defeat an invading Japanese monster. You’re welcome.
  6. Aim For The Children: Stop trying to win the Palm D’Or and take a few lessons from Pixar’s Cars, which is apparently crack-cocaine for the under 12 set. This also means…
  7. Outsource Animation to the Koreans: If its good enough for The Simpsons and South Park, its good enough for anybody. Focus on the content and stop building gigantic animation industry parks.
  8. Cats: If you’re going to keep remaking Chinese classic novels, at least try and maximize your internet meme potential and film it entirely with a cast of cats, with celebrity dubbing. Low overhead, too!
  9. James Franco: He’s in everything already, including a stint on General Hospital. Who wouldn’t want to see Franco as Sun Wukong or the Bull Demon King? Rise of the Planet of the Apes was #14 in terms of box office receipts in 2011, the man prints money. If you can’t get him, get Nick Cage.
  10. Stan Lee: Oh, wait, he’s already making a Chinese superhero movie. Well done.

Google’s Lame Card Trick

Suppose a magician was inflicted upon you, and he asked you to pick a card, any card. Except that one. No, not that one either. Yes, OK, that’s a good one. Now place it back in the deck… Is that your card? Ta-da! You’d say he was an awful magician, right?

That’s what Chinese internet users are likely to think about the new and improved that tells you if one of your search terms won’t work. While many people in China know that Google doesn’t always work because of government blocking, I’d bet that the vast majority of Internet users don’t know, or care for that matter, because if you’re planning a vacation to [丽江] where you want to stay in a [锦江之星] which search engine are you going to use? The one that says: “Sorry, can’t use those words” or are you instead going to use one of those nice search engines that just deletes any politically sensitive search results and serves up those travel links? So while Google describes the move as “improving our user experience from mainland China,” from a user perspective this doesn’t really change anything unless you’re a political dissident trying to find the latest banned words, like a broken soda machine that always gives you Fresca no matter what button you push now has sign saying “In need of service: all buttons serve Fresca.”

Chinese internet users truly committed to seeking banned or sensitive information for the most part already have circumvention tools, and will use the regular like they did before, so this doesn’t really help them much unless they want vague confirmation from Google that a term is blocked. And this isn’t likely to earn Google any new friends in the Chinese government, which it already sees as in cahoots with the US State Department. If Google were serious about this, they would develop their own built-in circumvention tools, but they won’t — because that’s a bridge too far — and so I can’t help but think that the real audience for Google’s move isn’t in China but in the halls of Internet governance organizations like the ITU and global users who, they hope, will start having warm, fuzzy feelings about Google as a fearless advocate for free speech. Good luck with that.

Photo credit:

This Week in Douchiness: Oppressed Minority Edition

Last week both the Wall Street Journal and the Telegraph had articles about the World Uyghur Congress holding a conference in Tokyo, and China delivered its usual autonomic response, although, interestingly enough, they tagged in rumored Bo Xilai supporter Zhou Yangkang to do it. Western media coverage somehow managed to skirt past the fact that right-wing Nanjing massacre revisionist and nationalist MP Takeo Hiranuma spoke at the conference, and Rebiya Kadeer visited the Yasakuni Shrine. The Chinese press, of course, didn’t miss this at all, and frankly these are significant events that ought to have made it into the Telegraph and WSJ articles. Not only is the Uyghur movement associating itself with a Japanese politician who opposed a woman’s ascension to the Chrysanthemum Throne because “If [Princess] Aiko becomes the reigning empress and gets involved with a blue-eyed foreigner while studying abroad and marries him, their child may be the emperor… We should never let that happen,” but Kadeer’s visit to the Yasakuni Shrine is quite simply just spitting in the eye of not just the Chinese government, but the Chinese people. The only apparent purpose it serves is as a gesture to Japan’s right wing, which hardly seems of any value in the long-run if you’re seeking actual solutions to the discrimination and oppression faced by Uyghurs in Xinjiang. UPDATE: It appears that Rebiya also donated 100,000 yen to the Tokyo government’s fund to buy the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. At this rate I wouldn’t be surprised if she releases a statement next week endorsing the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. SECOND UPDATE: Word is that the reports of far-right funding were erroneous, and that the Uyghur dissident groups were “unaware” of the importance of the Yasukuni Shrine. Not clear whether the reports of right-wing Japanese politicians speaking at the event were also erroneous, but being unaware of the impact of a Yasukuni Shrine visit smacks of geopolitical naivete. Do they know how this game is played?

Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama has reported “rumors” of a Chinese plan to assassinate him via poisoned scarves, a delivery system that Wired’s new science blog Elemental throws some cold water on. Once again, I find myself in the awkward position of agreeing with the Global Times, who said “Let’s put it simply: If the central government wanted to “eliminate” the Dalai Lama, why has it waited for such a long time? Isn’t it foolish to take action against Dalai at such an old age?” And as Wired’s Deborah Blum pointed out, “In that interview with the Telegraph, the Dalai Lama did emphasize that he was just repeating a rumor, nothing that had been verified. So why, you might ask, even bring it up?”

Meanwhile, I heartily recommend Autonomous Region, an excellent Xinjiang blog (and one of the few left still posting regularly) where Batur has lately been turning up several good Taobao finds, including organic free trade fruits and nuts direct from Kashgari farmers, that Xinjiang consumers purchased the most numbers of bikinis and bras via Taobao in 2011 (and also the largest cup sizes compared to all other Chinese provinces), and an awesome t-shirt. Batur is also reliable for news on things like ethnic discrimination in government hiring, the upcoming Urumqi metro, the expected return of Uyghur BBS Uighurbiz, which was shut down after the 2008 riots, a Uyghur movie site, and the problem of Chinese transliteration and name-length limits for Uyghur names on ID cards and plane tickets. A must subscribe for Xinjiang news bites.

To close out, here’s a clip of American bluegrass musician Abigail Washburn jamming in Urumqi.

An Expat Comes Back From the Homeland

After a one month stint in the Twitter detox clinic in beautiful, sunny Jersey City (no, seriously), I returned to Beijing to find that China kicked the infinite improbability drive up to 11. The Party might delay Xi Jinping’s ascension, the Philippines has always been an inseparable part of China, and oh yeah, a blind guy pulled a Steve McQueen on state security, but I can’t really bring myself to write about any of it, for three reasons: first, I’ve reset to zero in the China Cycle of Funk*; second, unlike when I started blogging back in the Cretaceous Age (2003), there’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to smart commentary and reporting on China available on the Internet, for free; third, although in cases like the Bogu/Heywood kerfuffle we may never know what’s what, I can feel Twitter and Google Reader beckoning to me: What new developments are there? Did they find Bo Xilai’s secret fembot army that would’ve been buried with him in his tomb? Has Ai Weiwei base jumped nude into the US Embassy? Did Chen Guangcheng get to second base with Hillary? I need to know! And that seems more like compulsively picking at a scab than keeping up-to-date.

I never knew China without the internet, but the internet is just the latest delivery system for the information crack that expats invariably get hooked on. Raised in countries where speech is comparatively free and governments understand the rudimentary basics of public trust and information flows, we can’t help ourselves when we end up immersed in a Newspeak environment where officials try to pummel us into weary submission by hypnotically repeating the world “relevant.” Before the internet, the typical delivery systems for information and mutual commiseration were (and still are) caffeine and alcohol. But as so many of us remember when we travel back home, that shit is not good for you. There’s a fine line between being informed and being obsessed, and from time to time we cross it. We quit our jobs, even if we really can’t afford it, because we can no longer deal with the logic pretzels, jingoistic human robocalls, or toddler-esque outbursts that some Chinese employers or clients serve up whenever they encounter a nuanced political event, or even worse fail to commiserate with us when together we encounter obfuscation, bureaucracy, connivery, or just incompetence that stands athwart the completion of some basic task, like fixing your air conditioner.** We get soused or hyper-caffeinated or fat on overpriced cheeseburgers washed down with Watney’s Red Barrel*** and rage against the machine in chorus and five-part harmony, which in fact isn’t really more emotionally mature than the fenqing pouting and foot-stomping we look down on. We’ve all felt it, and I imagine most of us have seen at least one or two colleagues or friends get crushed or nearly by it.

The reality that I don’t think we grapple with quite enough is that living here is hard. It’s hard living in a political environment that resembles something like Lord of The Flies re-enacted by drunk nursery school children, and even worse to realize that we’re impotent to do anything about it. In some ways its harder for mainland Chinese, since for the most part they can’t leave, but I think there’s a case to be made that its harder for us since as non-natives our immune systems didn’t develop any resistance to the various strains of astonishing bullshit that flourish here. Americans, in particular, with our almost vicious insistence on a partially-imaginary egalitarianism, are hard hit. This isn’t simply a matter of democracy and free speech, it goes down to the personal relationship level too. While the US of A may have a rather large Gini coefficient and a storied history of people owning other people, when I walk into Best Buy in New York City there’s an unspoken agreement that while I might be a billionaire (I am not) and this service person works at Best Buy, she’s a human being with dignity and a sense of humor and deserves to be treated with respect, and she’ll do her best to get me what I need. And if I don’t, she’ll chew me out and her manager will ask me to leave. Service culture in China, on the other hand, is often based more on feudal lord-serf relationships, complete with melodramatic decrees and groveling along with the occasional peasant rebellion, and we’re never 100% comfortable with it, although who doesn’t like to have their every whim taken care of? Maybe it’s easier if you’re Russian.

Where was I? Oh right, so since we get served far more than the FDA recommended daily serving of brain-melting nonsense here, its wise to cut back on the political news. All things in moderation, because if there’s one thing China is not, it’s moderate.

*As Will has previously mentioned, the Cycle of Funk was one of the great lasting contributions of the Talk Talk China blog.

**Key phrases for mainland Chinese who must work with testy, emotional foreigners that will calm them: “Dude, that sucks”; “That’s unbelievable”; “No fucking way”; “I hate that shit.” With these, you too can be a Laowai Whisperer.

**I started this post thinking I was Palin begging for mercy, but by the end I was channeling Idle.

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