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Survey Says… Oops

Cross-posted at the unmothballed Mutant Palm.

Max Fisher at The Washington Post ran a blog post last week featuring a world map of “racial tolerance” based on data from the World Values Survey (WVS), and it didn’t take long before the collective peer review power of Tufts University and Reddit found at least two examples of “fat fingers” where a “no, I don’t mind living next to other races” was mistakenly swapped with a “yes, I’m totally racist when it comes to choosing neighbors” for Bangladesh and Hong Kong, thanks to mistranslation and poor survey design. Others have pointed out the inherent flaw in assuming that the construct of “race” is universal and that news organizations’ need to feed the content beast creates a game of telephone where complex data is oversimplified and misinterpreted without real scrutiny.

I first encountered the WVS last year in my coursework on International Librarianship, where Geert Hofstede’s book Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind was used as a primary text and it served as solid jumping-off point for discussion. Hofstede is the granddaddy of cross-cultural studies quants, building a cross-cultural theory and corporate consulting brand out of data he developed as head of HR for IBM Europe in the 1960s, the same time Robert McNamara was using IBM mainframes to plot effective firebombing raids of Japan. Those were the salad days for punchcards. Like the WVS, Hofstede has survey datasets from dozens of countries over decades from which he and others glean tantalizing correlations (which so easily slip towards causation) between conceptual frameworks that “emerge” from the data (individualism vs. collectivism, for example) and GDP, economic growth, war, etc. At first, the book was fascinating as an American living in China – “wow, this validates so many things I anecdotally observe with hard data!” By the end of the book, however, I was completely disenthralled. The assumptions, generalizations, and seeming contradictions piled up in a doomed effort to render “national culture,” if such a thing is quantifiable, legible (yes, I’m finally reading Scott’s Seeing Like a State), looking like nothing more than the psychologist and sociologist equivalent to the old hack joke “White people drive like this, but black people drive like that!” Unless you’re a committed professional like Michael Harris Bond (who developed the original Chinese Values Survey) who will spend years wrestling with the data and appreciating its limitations, you’re better off watching Russell Peters.

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 Wodache.com, 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 Rectified.name 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.

Getting On In Chinese Media

 by Mike Cormack

I feel a bit foolish making myself out to be any kind of success in media. I am not a trained journalist, and there are many practitioners of that fine calling in Beijing, such as Tania Branigan, Christina Larson and Gady Epstein, who really show how it’s done. However, I have made my way up to managing editor of a Beijing magazine from having been a freelancer only three years previously, so my story might be useful to those looking to get on in the English-language media in China.

I know myself how baffling the media can seem when you’re just starting out. If you have a headful of ideas, a keen interest in the news, and good writing skills, media work can seem the ideal career. I felt this when freshly graduated in English and politics, with no real idea how to go about getting any kind of writing job. Getting an internship in London was an absurd impossibility, and there didn’t seem to be any other kind of entry-level posts: every advert I saw in the Guardian Media Jobs section required experience. I remember reading Private Eye’s “In The Back” section, as written by the campaigning journalist Paul Foot, seeing the phone number listed at the bottom, and wanting to call up to demand: “How did you get started? How do you get a foot in? Where can I begin?” There were practically no entry-level posts and no doubt the few that were advertised were responded to by avalanches of naive, fresh-faced, would-be writers.

Eventually I gave up even the idea of media work and settled for being an English teacher, the great fallback career. However, this wasn’t satisfying, and I moved to Huia’an, Jiangsu province, in 2007, ostensibly to finish the zombie novel I had been plodding on with for the past several years. Though I’d only intended to stay a year, China got its claws into me, and I decided to stay. Huai’an not having any particular charm, when I was offered a job with English First in Tianjin I made the move north.

Tianjin was far bigger than Huai’an, of course, large enough to host English-language media. A few weeks after arriving, so say about October 2008, I saw an ad in Jin, the expat magazine delivered to the teachers’ room, looking for freelance writers. Swiftly I wrote up a review of the local expat dive bar and emailed it in. The editor invited me in for a chat, and I began doing some occasional freelance work for them. The assistant editor would call me up and ask me to go to some shop or restaurant; I would meet them there then write-up a 100 word piece: about one or two per monthly issue. Then sometime in 2009, I saw an ad for the rival expat magazine, Tianjin Plus, and applied. They offered more articles per issue and more money per word, so I defected.

At Tianjin Plus, I got more to do: as well as bar, shop and restaurant reviews, I did opinion pieces, then interviews with expats of note (such as there are in Tianjin). Then I got invited to do the “Last Words” article in the sister magazine, Business Tianjin, like what Kaiser Kuo did in the Beijinger. Then, after I grumbled about the copy editing in one issue, I got invited to do that too, so once a month I would receive about eighteen articles to do over the weekend. Then, in about January 2010, the owner of the magazines asked if I’d be willing to come into the office during my weekend, which as an ESL teacher was Monday and Tuesday, for a consideration on top of the payment per word. I was willing, of course. So for the next four months I didn’t have a day off. The good thing was, though, that after a day in the office, I didn’t feel tired or drained, as I did when teaching: I felt energized. You always know when you’re doing the stuff you love.

As they seemed to like my work, I asked the editor if there was a possibility of going full-time, but we couldn’t agree on salary so I looked to Beijing. Come May 2010, I got a job with an editing house, and I’ve been here since. Fortunately, Tianjin Plus were also looking for someone to write about Beijing at that time, so I became their Beijing editor and kept on copyediting. As Beijing editor, I reviewed two shops, bars or restaurants, interviewed one expat of note (I think I was the first person to interview The Beijing Beatles, for example), and wrote a short general column on Beijing life.

In Beijing I continued to accumulate obligations: a monthly column for Pregnancy and Parenting magazine, the website director for Tianjin Plus. By this time my full-time post was senior copywriter for Dentsu, a big advertising agency, so to say I was busy is a comical understatement. I was looking for editorship of a magazine by this time, but such posts are few and become available only rarely. However, when the post of managing editor of Agenda came up I was straight in there, and took it up at the start of February 2012.

That is a bald summary of three and a half years. Obviously it’s mostly been a case of taking it step by step. Sometimes I’ve been lucky when opportunities have just fallen into my lap, but all the same you have to be there to take advantage. Looking back, then, perhaps I can draw various lessons.

  1. The first and most essential one is: if you have any kind of writing gig, deliver copy on time (preferably earlier), and make as good a go of it as you can. This is always the most important thing. There’s nothing worse than being let down when someone is promising you an article. Get it in!
  2. If you’re looking for outlets, in Beijing there are lots. There are Agenda, the Beijinger, beijingkids, City Weekend, City Weekend Parents & Kids, Time Out, That’s Beijing, Global Times, China Daily, eChinacities, the Beijing Review, and more. If you’ve got an idea for an article, most are very easily approachable. It would be a foolish editor who did not at least consider the idea, regardless of whether you’ve got experience writing or not – all that really matters is the quality of the piece.
  3. Having a good knowledge of a particular field is very helpful. For myself, I have been following the Beijing and China blogosphere/Twittersphere closely since about 2009: this has been a great help in writing for the expat media. If you’re into something niche like welly-throwing or cross-stitching, there are magazines and websites out there, but necessarily exposure in China will be limited. If you haven’t any particular interests, you won’t have anything to say.
  4. Similarly, lots of people think they can just “start writing”, as though it’s as natural as breathing, or that their undergraduate essay-writing skills will see them through. I disagree. Writing is a skill which can be practised and improved upon, but which nevertheless requires some degree of innate talent: just the same as with playing the guitar or assembling code in C++. Writing a snappy blogpost is far different to the 3000 word humanities essay, and both are especially remote from headline writing. If you haven’t been practising writing through having a blog, a journal, or whatever way of writing you choose, those skills and techniques have not been developing.
  5. Social media, then, is I think today utterly essential. You don’t have to be into Twitter or Instagram etc, but a blog of some kind is fantastically useful for the budding writer. You hone your ideas and opinions; you find what you can write about well; you get good at finding appropriate pictures and trying to write arresting headlines; you get into the habit of writing regularly and to order; you get used to fumbling around for ideas; you learn how to link with other bloggers and try to drive up traffic. Your ideas written down can look very different to how they feel in your head.
  6. For a writer, the ability to handle prose is not, I would suggest, the essential skill. The most important thing is insight. Are you observant – of people, of trends, of your field of interest? Can you draw parallels, see similarities, discover underlying patterns? If so, can you look back at stuff you’ve written and find the observations stay relevant? That’s the real stuff every editor is looking for.
  7. Every day, I read and write for fun, beyond work. Before I was writing professionally, I would read and write about 20-25 hours a week. If you don’t put in the time, you ain’t gonna get good. If you think about doing a job reading and writing for 20 hours for free and the idea fills you with horror – you’re in it to make money, you say – I suggest you find something better to do.
  8. If you’re an English teacher and working evenings and weekends, you’re in an ideal position to get an internship, if you’re seeking an entry-level post. Once you’ve got some credits to your name and some feedback from an editor, you can move onto doing freelance or part-time work, and so on. It’s just step-by-step.
  9. Ultimately it comes down to what energizes you. I did not find teaching energizing – I could do it professionally, but it was draining. Advertising writing at Dentsu was better, but still not quite there. But I knew from working in the Tianjin Plus office on my weekends that media work was satisfying, and exactly what I’m most suited to. If you’re writing about your time in China already, in a blog for example, that’s a good sign.
  10. Nonetheless, I’ve no doubt there will be lots of candidates for media work in China. Despite the restrictions, there’s a lot of great content out there. If you think you can do better, get writing.

 

The author is the managing editor of Agenda Magazine.

Is Mo Yan a Stooge for the Chinese Government?

Spoiler alert: in keeping with the general rule about headlines posed as yes-or-no questions, the short answer is ‘no.’ The more interesting question is: why are people insinuating that he is?

Yo, man, Mo Yan. Even before the Swedish Academy announced Mo Yan as the 2012 Nobel Literature Prize winner, the Chinese internet was abuzz with discussion of his work and his relationship with the Chinese government. (Raymond Zhou’s October 9 piece in the China Daily gives a good, even-handed overview of the discussion.) The announcement on Thursday night that Mo had become the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel for literature set off a miniature firestorm of criticism, almost all of it from liberal-minded Chinese Twitter users, that seems mostly to have centered on several issues: Mo’s silence (now broken) on Liu Xiaobo, his vice-chair position in the China Writers’ Association (作协), his role in an unbeliev– all-too-believably boneheaded event in which 100 authors copied out Chairman Mao’s Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art, his behavior at the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, and a bit of Weibo doggerel that he allegedly wrote in support of Bo Xilai. Some of the criticism is fair, but much of it isn’t, and I feel honor-bound, as a translator and as an EU citizen and fellow Nobelist, to point out which is which.

There’s no question that Mo’s win was welcomed by the Chinese government. CCP propaganda chief Li Changchun wrote a letter to the CWA congratulating Mo on the win, coverage occupied front pages of newspapers across the country, and foreign media coverage of the win was translated in Cankao Xiaoxi (albeit in censored form, as Bruce Humes shows). Given China’s Nobel complex, however — or, more charitably, China’s sense that a country with more than 2,000 years of literature under its belt should have a slightly higher profile on the international literary stage than China currently does — a win by any novelist not banned outright would in all likelihood have been welcomed just as warmly.

Mo may not be a ‘dissident’ in the model of Liu Xiaobo or Vaclav Havel, but his work is filled with depictions of the venality, cruelty, and stupidity of power and authority. The Garlic Ballads (天堂蒜苔之歌) opens with a farmer who organized a protest against the corrupt local government being arrested in front of his blind daughter. In The Republic of Wine (酒国), one of Mo’s more experimental works, the protagonist is invited by Diamond Jin, the corrupt Vice-Minister of the Liquorland Municipal Party Committee Propaganda Bureau, to a boozy banquet at which the pièce de résistance is braised child. The still-untranslated Frogs (蛙), whose heroine is a midwife turned abortionist, is an explicit critique of China’s one-child policy. Red Sorghum (红高粱家族), the novel that made Mo Yan (and Zhang Yimou) famous more than 20 years ago, depicts the Communist guerrillas in a decidedly unflattering light, and they don’t come off much better in his 1996 novel Big Breasts and Wide Hips (丰乳肥臀). His more recent Life and Death are Wearing Me Out (生死疲劳) begins its survey of the past 50 years of Chinese history with the protagonist Ximen Nao being unjustly shot in the head in the land reform struggles that followed the establishment of the PRC in 1949. One of the recurring themes in Mo’s novels is the juxtaposition of personal tragedy with the long, slow-motion tragedy of history, and whether you think he does this successfully or not, it’s hard to imagine coming away from his novels thinking that they are encomia to the Communist Party.

Mo’s position in the China Writers’ Association is discomfiting to observers, but the CWA is a big and diverse organization containing talented, edgy authors as well as Audi-riding talent vacuums. Mo has written movingly about growing up as a hungry, lonely child in an impoverished backwater, and his novels show a keen awareness of the smallness of individuals in the face of forces beyond their control. Given this, it seems unsurprising that Mo would prefer the security of a position that offers him some kind of official cover. As Mo said in 2009:

“很多人说莫言是官方作家,我在中国文化部艺术研究院有一份工资,余华、苏童都有,享受福利医疗。这是中国现实。国外无论在哪都有保险,在中国如果没有职业,生病我治不起啊。”
In the NYT’s translation:
“A lot of people are now saying about me, ‘Mo Yan is a state writer.’ It’s true, insofar as like the authors Yu Hua and Su Tong, I get a salary from the Ministry of Culture, and get my social and health insurance from them too.
“That’s the reality in China. Overseas, people all have their own insurance, but without a position, I can’t afford to get sick in China.”

He is, of course, not just talking about health insurance here.

Mo Yan’s role in the CWA likely explains his public silence (until the day after the Nobel announcement) on Liu Xiaobo and his copying-out of Mao’s Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art. It most certainly explains his leaving the stage at the Frankfurt Book Festival when Dai Qing tried to ask a question. CWA authors, even very well-known ones, are told in no uncertain terms what they are and are not to say internationally — so much so that at the London Book Fair earlier this year, one normally brash author was almost comically careful not to be photographed with the dissident author Ma Jian — and Mo said as much in the 2009 Chinese interview linked above, immediately before the “health insurance” remarks:

没有办法。我看有的人说秦晖教授怎么没有离席,他是单独由德方邀请的。我是新闻出版署和作家协会他们让我去的,我属于代表团团员。
I didn’t have any choice. Some people have said that [historian and public intellectual] Qin Hui didn’t leave the stage — but he was invited on his own by the German organizers. I was sent there by GAPP and the CWA as a member of their delegation.

Some of the strangest criticism is revolving around a snippet of doggerel that Mo posted on his microblog on November 8, 2011. The verse, addressed to one or more “literary friends” (文友) in Chongqing, is being cited as a sign that Mo was a fan of Bo Xilai, the unbelievably corrupt, fantastically twisted former Party secretary of the municipality. Seeing Red in China has a translation of the poem, but the translator’s reading is based on the assumption that the poem is in fact in praise of Bo. I’ll put up a longer post about the poem with an alternative gloss within the next couple of days, but for now I’ll just say that the poem can be read, Rorschach-like, either as a paean to Bo Xilai or as a suggestion that the reader not get mixed up with either the pro-Bo or anti-Bo crowds. The latter reading would seem more consistent with Mo’s personality.


T.S. Eliot was a stone-cold anti-semite. Ezra Pound was a fascist-sympathizer who spent the end of WWII in a cage. Roald Dahl was mean to just about everybody. If we’re willing to accept The Waste Land and the Cantos and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as the works of flawed men, men who were subject to all of the limitations of their condition, then it seems grossly unfair to condemn Mo Yan for the lesser sin of keeping his head down. The fact of the matter is that there are many excellent Chinese authors who are not banned or in jail. They choose to work within the confines of officially acceptable discourse, pushing at the boundaries wherever they can, because the alternatives are banning, or jail, or at best an honorary professorship in Berlin and the lonely irrelevance of the exile. The people insinuating that Mo and other CWA members are lightweights incapable of writing lasting or eternal literature seem to be saying that such privations are a prerequisite for literary legitimacy — for Chinese authors, at least.

Exceptional courage is a rare quality. It may be admired and praised in others; it cannot be demanded of them. People might feel better about Mo Yan if he were more publicly outspoken, but I wonder if the people now calling Mo a lapdog of the Chinese government have given much thought to the very real costs that he would pay were he to do so. His remarks on Liu Xiaobo’s case may be a sign that the Nobel will inspire him to speak up on behalf of Liu and other censored or imprisoned writers, but it seems unfair to demand that he join their number in order to make himself more immediately appealing to outsiders.

Mo Yan is a serious writer with a substantial body of work, much of it dealing with Chinese social and historical issues as directly as he dares. We might wish as readers that he were more daring, but we don’t get to make that call — he does. He has chosen to ensure that he will have the freedom to keep writing and publishing. Mo’s novels and stories do his speaking for him, and they do so eloquently and forcefully.

A Tale of Two Songs

Tyler Cohen got his B.A. from McGill, is starting his J.D. at the University of Toronto, represented Canada at 汉语桥 in 2010 and has been plagued with dreams/nightmares of Yunnan monkeys stealing peanuts from his pocket since 2007. He’s worked as a translator, researcher and marketing manager, and also put in his time in the wilderness of ESL. Tyler’s new blog, The Yamen, will be opening soon.

Interest in the ‘Soft Power’ question in China seems to have hit an all-time peak. From the Bo Xilai scandal to the ongoing hassling of Ai Weiwei, from Chen Guangcheng to Shanghai Metro’s recent double down on the ‘she was wearing a short skirt’ defense, 2012 has been no less disastrous a year for the China PR crew than any other. As necessary and plainly fun as it is to point out how events ranging from the tragic to the absurd take a toll on China’s ability to develop soft power abroad, I’d like to turn back to one question on cultural soft power often answered superficially.

Soft Power & Art (and I use both terms lightly…)

The reason most often cited for China’s struggles in producing art that makes people overlook self-immolations in Qinghai is “censorship”. Whether it’s Joseph Nye or the NY Times, articles often begin and end with, ‘How can Chinese artists produce great art with the censorship regime?’ I find this a rather unsatisfying question/answer – while all art may intrinsically be political and in some sense subversive, love of God, State or the authorities has produced great and/or popular art in every corner of the Earth. Gospel can draw the most ardent atheist to a church, and Pearl Harbor somehow pulled in over $250 million outside the States. The difficulty the Chinese state has with its contemporary artistic offering to the world is, at least in part, more basic and subtle than the censorship question.

When poor Jack asks wealthy Rose to close her eyes and feel the wind in Titanic, he’s asking her to see the commonality of their experience – despite coming from “two different worlds,” they share humanity. When Jagger complains about not getting no satisfaction, it’s not “British” satisfaction that he lacks, but the base urge to have hoards of satisfying groupies that we all feel. Even Pearl Harbor, for all its inane nationalism, tries hard to communicate the usefulness of American values to world goals. In their soft power offerings, America, Britain, France, Germany, etc. hope you realize you are part of the same human experience they have, and that you find their cultural norms and forms the best tools to explore that experience. The art that the Chinese state has chosen to put forward to represent itself sends a very different message. Instead of asking you to find the shared humanity you have with China and then explore that humanity through Chinese tools, the art put forward by the Chinese state asks you simply to marvel at Chinese tools. (To be fair, they do hope you find yourself having something in common with China – a love of China.) A quick comparison of the two most recent Summer Olympic songs shows the stark difference in the two approaches.

Say what you will about Muse’s Survival – I’ll wait till the laughter dies down. One thing it can’t be accused of is being about Britain. The official video accompanying it makes this even more radically clear, as images of Britain don’t even appear. The video and song are about sport – the pain, the heartache, the glory, the determination, the abject tears of loss and startled triumph of victory. It’s in English, obviously, and has an implied link to Britain. It hopes that through recognition of the commonly shared experiences of pain, glory and all the rest, the viewer will (a) watch the Olympics and boost ad revenue, (b) understand that you and Britain share the human experience of sport in common, and that Britain’s representation of it is awesome.

Nothing could be more the opposite of this than the video for ‘Beijing Welcomes You’. Most obvious is the fact that it has almost nothing to do with sport, being entirely about China. It is essentially an ode to the belief that China is a great marvel to see, that you will enjoy being its guest,that everyone runs around in cheongsam writing poems, and that the air quality is totally fine, trust us, it’s cool, we’ve taken care of it.

The Muse video does a number of things inconceivable from the point of view of the Chinese state. First is the aforementioned lack of Britain in song and video; were the CCP or SARFT in charge of London’s video, I would half expect to see Shakespeare jumping hurdles as a chorus of Dickens’ characters led by Mr. Bean sang atop the Tower of London. Beijing’s video is about traditional poetry and calligraphy, clean air and Chinese hospitality. Britain’s video is actually about sport. Where London’s offering could be the video for any other country’s Olympics, ‘Beijing Welcomes You’ could be the video for any other Chinese event.

Second, it puts the pain and hardship of loss in the same frame as the glory of victory. When two bikers spin out of control after a crash, there’s an implied recognition of the fact that victory doesn’t come without loss. Chinese artists couldn’t get away with that in anything made officially for the Beijing Olympics – (a) the gold medal push was so important that anything implying Chinese athletes might not win was quieted, (b) loss seems to fall under the same category as ‘negative news’ in Chinese state thought. Instead, ‘Beijing Welcomes You’ says, bluntly, that “as long as you have dreams, you’re awesome” and “as long as you have courage, miracles will happen”. The idea that one can try hard and fail is not part of the narrative Beijing would allow about itself, let alone celebrate.

Third, whatever attraction towards Britain it tries to create in viewers – the soft power feature – is done through an overt claim to the universality of experience overlaying an implied claim that Britain is a great place to explore this experience. Viewers are encouraged to revel in the eternal glory of sport, and because you already know the Olympics are in London, to associate that emotional connection to sport with your connection to Britain. China’s offering was an overt claim to Beijing being a great place to explore…Beijing, overlaying the suggestion that all of us being together is pretty cool. The video and song work hard to make viewers feel they would be welcome and comfortable guests in the home of something amazing – the eternal, though changing, China.

That more subtle thing that the Chinese state has yet to get, or doesn’t wish to get, is that cultural products become effective soft power resources only when they first appeal to the commonality of human experience. It’s not, as Nye says, trying to make others find your values attractive,but trying to show them that they always were shared values. You can call this surreptitious or slimy marketing or genuine faith in universalism – the point is that it’s effective. Titanic works because we all want to be allowed to marry above our pay grade or find someone who cares about us rather than our family background. After accepting Jack’s fundamental wish, we’re then open to the suggestion that good old fashioned (American) straight-forwardness and honesty of emotions is the right way to fulfill that wish.

So the answer is still, in some sense, ‘censorship’. But censorship takes many forms and has a wide array of effects, not all of which constrain the ability to create art effective as soft power. All religious institutions are involved in censorship, and a Baptist church would likely ban any song that doesn’t overtly glorify God. So gospel appeals first to our shared concerns: that life is painful, that answers are hard to come by, that the personal future is unknown, and that the world can be beautiful. And then it makes sense of these emotions by way of its own answer (God), inviting you to adopt its approach. Gospel sells itself as human-first, Christian second, and Titanic as human-first, American-second. Chinese soft power makers will struggle as long as they put China first and humanity second.

Update: I was as happy to see Mr. Bean appear in the opening ceremony as I was disappointed to not see Shakespeare competing in track and field. The opening ceremony, as opposed to the song, is traditionally, and since the 1980 Olympics increasingly so, intended to celebrate the local country’s culture and history. I don’t argue that the U.K. or U.S. aren’t ever capable of crappy ‘soft power’ products with lame themes, just that the Chinese state both makes an art of it and seems incapable of the human-first approach.

Where Are You From?

In his very checkered career Justin Mitchell has worked at Pulitizer Prize winning US newspapers that no longer exist as well as hopscotching across China, Hong Kong and Thailand to stay employed. His past includes interviewing Yoko Ono, James Brown, Johnny Cash, Miles Davis and Ray Davies as a music writer, as well as Japanese porn star Suzi Suzuki. He also broke ground-breaking stories for The Weekly World News such as “Mermaid Found in Tuna Can,” and “Irish Built the Great Wall of China.”

“Where are you from?” is a common icebreaker when meeting new foreigners or Chinese colleagues.

I’m from Boulder, Colorado, but my answer always varies slightly. If I’m talking to an American or Canadian, I usually simply say, “Boulder.” It’s an admittedly small conceit, as if it’s LA. Or Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary or DC. Or New York, Philly, Chicago or Boston.

It’s none of those, of course, but it does have a slightly hip cachet and is a combination of a rocking college town, high-tech, environmentally progressive haven nicknamed “The People’s Republic of Boulder” for things like being the first city in the US with a smoking ban and strict limits on growth and a small thriving medicinal marijuana market. It sits at the foot of where the Rocky Mountains begin. There are no high rises or sky scrapers in Boulder and it has miles of hiking green belts off limits to developers.

Boulder attained one-word status like Berkeley during the late ‘60s and into the ‘70s as a hippie alternative. Many light years ago, I ran into the late beat poet Allen Ginsberg in line behind me at a Boulder Safeway grocery check out and asked him to autograph my frozen pepperoni pizza box, which he kindly did, as well as giving me friendly advice to go vegetarian. That’s the kind of place it was.

If the query comes from a Brit, European, Aussie, Kiwi or Chinese person I say “Colorado.” Though like my knowledge of Chinese geography and geography in general is hazy, most can’t connect it with anything except maybe the old John Denver song, “Rocky Mountain High” or the NBA Denver Nuggets. Or the Grand Canyon, which is in Arizona.

I never mention “Columbine” as in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre; though it’s also the official state flower and the name of the street on which I grew up.

That is until the other day when a Welsh colleague asked me. “Where did you say you were from in Colorado?” We had introduced ourselves a day before and I’d confessed the only things I knew about Wales were Dylan Thomas, Cardiff, an incomprehensible native tongue, chronic unemployment, hard drinking and coal mining.

“Boulder,” I replied, starting to go into my usual Boulder Chamber of Commerce spiel.

“Not Aurora?” he interrupted me politely.

“No, it’s a piece of shit suburb of Denver. Why?”

Then he told me about the movie theater massacre. I mentioned Columbine, which he knew about and then I excused myself and began frantically Googling and quickly felt sick and sad.

Chinese colleagues and friends began asking and texting me, too. Some even asked if I knew the shooter (WTF?) and, some, more gently asked if my family was okay. I assured them that all was well and I didn’t have a clue about the killer.

I saw CNN and online photos and footage of the theater, which I recognized as a place I’d driven by perhaps a dozen or so times in the past on my way to other destinations in sprawling, soulless Aurora.

“It is like Columbine, maybe?” asked a Chinese coworker who also asked me point out Colorado on a fading world map pinned on the office wall. I showed him.

“So it is in the western United States? Why do you have so many guns? Like a cowboy or gangster movie maybe?”

I didn’t want to go there and the right to bear arms or arm bears, etc, excused myself and went back to editing a glowing piece on the harmonious relations between Han Chinese and ethnic minorities in Tibet.

But the next day the same coworker and two others wanted to know more. They were fascinated with the booby-trapped apartment and how one man could walk into a movie theater dressed like some kind of futuristic grim reaper packing three or four guns.

“Your country is so violent,” one said, stating the obvious and not with malice. Indeed, and Aurora, a mostly downtrodden home for many unemployed which sees about 20 of its 320,000 or so residents murdered annually, is particularly so.

But I felt defensive and asked about the recent hostage taker who was shot dead by a police sniper in the No. 10 line Hujialou subway station. Why hadn’t that received more press?

“But he was a professional man,” one coworker said. “A white collar.” As if that explained anything. I pressed on about past atrocities – some worse then the Aurora massacre – such as the rash of young school children decapitations, kidnappings and murders in Shenzhen and other cities a few years ago.

“What ever happened to the men who did that?” I asked. “And what about the other children who saw their schoolmates hacked to death? How do they handle the memory of seeing their friend’s head chopped off with a meat cleaver? In the US or elsewhere these would all be relevant, newsworthy. Here it seems it is quickly mentioned at most and then swept aside in favor of harmonious unilateral relations with Africa or squabbles over tiny islands.”

China also has its fair share of serial killers, as Robert Foyle Hunwick pointed out in an excellent piece in Danwei,though unlike the US or UK, these crimes are underreported and often virtually ignored due to  the low social status – migrant workers, hookers, etc – of the victims. The reverse side of the coin that says a hostage taker in a sport coat who is taken out by a police sniper is not worthy of much press because he’s a “professional man” and it might offend others in that class.

There are obvious answers to these questions for anyone who has done hack work or “PR for the PRC” as I have since arriving in 2003 and – exceptfor 3 and a half year stint at The Standard in Hong Kong – has otherwise toiled in the belly of the beast at state publications, including China Daily, Global Times and China Radio International.

It was at my first Chinese English language paper, a small, friendly and never feisty publication called Shenzhen Daily where I first learned how these things work. A wealthy Hong Kong family connected with Phoenix TV had been murdered and robbed in their Shenzhen luxury home.

Juicy stuff. “If it bleeds, it leads,” as the journo cliché goes.

The suspects were caught shortly thereafter and all I had to do was to clean up the grammar and slap a headline on it.

“Phoenix TV murder suspects nabbed” was what I wrote. Simpl7e and to the point.

Alas and alack, my chief Chinese overseer came to me shortly thereafter and asked me to tone it down.

“It is too harsh,” he said.

“I don’t understand,” I replied.

“There was also a robbery,” he said. “Perhaps you might say, ‘Robbery suspects arrested.’ Murder is too harsh for a headline.”

Flash forward. Okay. How about “Colorado ‘Dark Knight’ premiere interrupted by discord, experts say.”

The Soft Power Own Goal: China, Leeds, and Mad Men

I will admit that I have no idea where Leeds is.  I know it’s in England.  I know the Who played a concert there before I was born but I only know that because I listened to “Live at Leeds” about 9,474 times one summer while commuting back and forth to work.  A quick survey of the – decidedly Yankish – Rectified.name office reveals that there was also a halfway decent movie made about the local soccer/football team a few years back.

I’m guessing that your average Beijinger knew as much about the city as I did…that is until today’s full-on state media blitz castigating the Leeds City Council, England, the Queen, and possibly the Queen’s kennel of championship Welsh Corgis for all having the shocking temerity to allow the Dalai Lama to speak at that well-known den of international subterfuge: the Yorkshire International Business Convention.

Of course these things matter to China, who react to anything involving the Dalai Lama the same way, say, a championship Welsh Corgi reacts when presented with its own poo wrapped in bacon, and right now it matters to the Leeds City Council because the Chinese government has chosen Leeds to be a training and preparation site for the Chinese delegation to the 2012 London Olympic Games, an arrangement, according to The Guardian, worth about 250 million pounds (USD $388 million).

Event organizers swiftly moved to defuse the crisis using carefully crafted diplomatic language specifically written to assuage Chinese sensitivities.

“Here we have an unelected communist state coming and dictating to local politicians. What we pride ourselves on in this country is freedom of speech. Clearly, they don’t.” – Mike Firth, Founder, Yorkshire International Business Conference

Or not. Whatever works.

The state media hissy fit over Leeds comes days after the Chinese government denied a visa to Kjell Magne Bondevik, former Prime Minister of Norway.  Norway, as you may remember, is that northern country known for salmon, Fjords, and giving Nobel Prizes to people the CCP really wished the world would just shut up about, and so apparently somebody in the Chinese government thought the opportunity to slap the Norwegians around a little was just too tempting to pass up.

Trying to put the best spin on the situation, the People’s Daily published comments made by Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Liu Weimin urging foreign skeptics not to read too much into the denial decision, and suggesting that the Chinese government, like governments around the world, rejects visas for no apparent reason all the time.

But today an op-ed appeared in the nationalist rag The Global Times which made it quite clear that anybody who messes with China’s dignity should expect a flaming bag of cat hurled in the general direction of their front door sometime in the very near future:

“They must pay the due price for their arrogance. This is also how China can build its authority in the international arena. China doesn’t need to make a big fuss because of the Dalai or a dissident, but it has many options to make the UK and Norway regret their decision.”

You get the idea.

This is China at its soft power worst, scoring goals in its own net and making it exponentially harder to convince the rest of the world that the country is being run by grown-ups.

Take the case of the new documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, produced by Alison Klayman.  It’s received some decent buzz at Sundance and other stops on the festival circuit, but that wasn’t sufficient for the Chinese government who apparently want EVERYBODY to go see this movie.

Faced with the possibility of appearing at the same film festival as Klayman’s documentary, a Chinese delegation, including representatives from CCTV, pulled out of a planned appearance rather than validate the promoter’s decision to…I don’t know, show films.  Anybody not high from inhaling industrial solvents could have predicted what happened next, because as sure as cows shit hay the festival organizers then called a press conference, chastised the Chinese delegation, and reaped a bonanza of free publicity for their festival, Ai Weiwei, Klayman and her film.

Seriously, if the powers that be really wanted to kill this film they’d have SARFT publicly give the documentary its seal of approval.

And that’s the rub. The Chinese government can’t help itself.  They’ve become so predictable that any organization, cause, event or movement that wants some buzz knows it only has to take a stick and poke China because they know a) the government will always take the bait and b) they know the response will be a staggering overreaction ultimately undermining whatever point the Chinese government hoped to make in the first place.  It’s become too easy.  The government fails to see that no matter how insecure you might feel on the outside, by acknowledging the source of your frustration and your doubt you give that source power.

As James Fallows wrote on his Atlantic Monthly blog last week:

To adapt a line from The Usual Suspects, the greatest “soft power” strength comes from appearing not to care about appearances at all. Billions for international PR campaigns, and defensive censorship about public health data? Huffiness about “the Vienna Convention”? Sigh. The country is better than this.

If the Chinese propaganda professionals really wanted to end this game, they would approach the Leeds invitation to the Dalai Lama or the next Nobel Prize winning dissident or provocative documentary about China with the same mix of disdain and hollow bravado that Don Draper used on new copywriter Michael Ginsberg this season on Mad Men. Every time the Ginsberg’s of the world get in an elevator and talk about how sorry they feel for China, just take a line from Don Draper’s playbook:

“Really? Cause I don’t think about you at all.”

That’s not really soft power, but at least China won’t be helping the other team by kicking the ball into its own goal.


A Bite of Food, A Whole Lotta Love

One thing about Chinese people, we love to eat. And we’ll eat (just about) anything.  If it’s chewable then it’s edible, no matter how funny-looking or stinky. Forget oysters. The first person who accidentally ate a piece of stinky and moldy tofu or considered a thousand-year egg for his supper was really a brave man.[1] And when other people noticed that this courageous gastronome didn’t die, they decided to put whatever it was on the menu.

We’ve always been a nation obsessed by food, so when CCTV produced “A Bite of China,” (舌尖上的中国 shejianshangde zhongguo) a seven-episode documentary all about Chinese food, it immediately became super popular.  Some people online are calling it propaganda designed to distract from our country’s ongoing struggle with food quality and food safety, but if it is propaganda then it’s the first actually effective piece of propaganda CCTV has produced in a long time, maybe ever.

First of all, for all the state media blather about some nebulous ‘national unity,’ CCTV finally found a subject that everybody can get behind: Eating.

Second, instead of endlessly bragging about how China is the best or the oldest or the most special, this documentary lets the subject do the talking, with beautiful images of our culinary culture.  Shot in high-definition, it feels like we are seeing these dishes for the first time, even as the images are so familiar that they immediately conjure up nostalgic memories of home and family.  It reminds us of the food our mom used to cook and the families on the program are just like our relatives back in our hometown who generation after generation worked hard to put the best food they could on the family table.

Food is life. But in China, it is so much more…it is love.

My family is a traditional family. My parents never show their love to each other or to me through the kind of physical affection I see in the US between parents and children.  They’ve never gone out of their way to tell me how much they love me, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard them say those words to each other. My dad has never hugged me. To be honest, if he did I’d probably freak out and think he was dying or something.  Nevertheless, our home was always full of love and I never doubted my parents’ feelings toward me or toward each other.  Especially at dinner time.

When I was a kid  my parents would cook many kinds of food for dinner every night and as we sat around the table I would tell them what happened at school that day and then they would share the latest gossip from their danwei. For me, and I think for them too, it was the best time of every day.  Even though we were not rich, my parents would always save the best parts of each dish for me. Watching me happily eating the food that they had cooked especially for me seemed to make them so happy.

When I moved to Beijing for university, I missed my parents’ cooking most of all.  When I told my parents I was coming home for a visit, my Mom would start preparing food right away – even if I wasn’t planning to be back for another few weeks.  Even now that I’m married and have been living in Beijing for over a decade, they still are in the habit of making tons of food to bring to Beijing, filling our refrigerator with dumplings and stewed pork and all the things they know I like to eat.

For busy young people struggling to make it far from home, food brings back all of those wonderful memories of a time when we were safe, and protected, and loved.

Last week I was discussing the documentary with one of my friends who now lives in the US.  She was back in China visiting family and she said that the nostalgia and emotion she felt when watching this program had given her a strong desire to move back to China permanently.  Now THAT’S soft power.

I don’t know if non-Chinese will have the same reaction to the documentary, but it’s certainly caused many of us to think about our country differently.  Rather than shouting about bombing some rocks in the South China Sea or whining about evil foreigners, CCTV has finally given us a show which instills a sense of true pride in our culture and our nation. Since I complain about CCTV all the time, I think it’s only fair that when they do something good they should get the credit too. So…well done, CCTV.


[1] As Jeremiah likes to joke, “Of course Chinese food is good. Your people were cooking banquets for kings when my ancestors were picking pine cones off the ground and thinking, ‘that’s real crunchy.’”

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 Google.com.hk 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 Google.com 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: www.buy-magic-tricks.com

Okay, seriously…one last Yang Rui story

Editor’s note: We really meant for YJ to have the last word on L’Affaire Yang Rui, but friend of the blog Luke Hambleton sent us an email describing a recent close encounter of the Yang kind.  It was too good not to post.  Enjoy. – JJ

———————–

Last summer, I was in the studio audience on a brand new Chinese culture show hosted by Yang Rui on a Chinese language CCTV channel. Yang ‘warmed’ the audience up by admitting that none of them would know him and then spent ten minutes chatting ‘at’ me in English, which was clearly nothing more than an effort to show off. You could tell he was very sensitive about his lack of fame among ordinary Chinese, but that he holds his ‘communicator with the great laowai masses’ role in very high esteem.

As the show went on it got better (worse) with Yang making frequent Chinese mistakes, mostly messing up lines of poetry that were corrected by heckling from the audience. We frequently had to shoot bits again due to Yang tripping over chengyu or the odd couplet or three. Yeah, Tang poetry can be obscure, but these were famous pieces every middle school student should know.

The subject of the show was an interview with Li Xiangting 李祥霆, one of China’s greatest guqin (zither) masters. When it came to studio Q&A with the master, he turns to me and, in English, starts asking me about my favorite part of the show. I reply in English that I liked the tune the master played, one that had been composed in the Han dynasty supposedly to commemorate the attempted assassination of Qin Shihuang, to which Yang switches into condescending mode, speaking in a laowai voice: “Ohhh…you know Chin Shhii Huuuang?!” He then invites me onto the stage for me to put my questions to Master Li.

We step-up together and he places himself right between us ready to translate and I begin: “李老师,您好!”With this the audience claps and cheers and Yang looks like I’ve just winded him in the stomach. Before I can ask my question he gives a closed-lip smile and accuses me of ‘tricking’ him into thinking I couldn’t speak Chinese. No, Yang, you never asked (by the way, how the hell he thought I understood the Qin Shihuang bit, I’ll never know).

I then ask the master a couple of questions about what advice he might have for people outside of China wanting to learn the guqin.

But it wasn’t over. I had taken away Yang’s position of ‘laowai whisperer’, he needed to reassert his face and authority. So, very unprofessionally, he turns his back to Master Li, the focus of the show, and starts grilling me (almost literally under the heat of the studio lights) about the innate differences between YOUR Western music and OUR Chinese music and how Western music is so suibian but Chinese music should be played with the soul – how could a non-Chinese ever achieve this? I began answering in Chinese but he pressed me, I kid you not, to stop and answer in English. So I gave an answer about music being fundamentally based on the same principles etc. He didn’t like my answer and didn’t bother to translate, just told me to sit down.

The whole sorry episode ended up on the cutting room floor, with only my question and Master Li’s answer making it into the final show.

On the way out the door I overheard audience members engaged in fierce agreement over Yang’s unimpressive Chinese skills and how poorly the show was hosted: “Master Li was awesome, just a shame the host came across as so uneducated!”

 - Luke Hambleton is a difangzhi monkey and real ale enthusiast residing in Beijing.

 

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