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Archive for the category “Media”

“Pofu” or no “Pofu,” Yang Rui is just an idiot

As the only Chinese and the only girl on the masthead, the boys from rectified.name kindly asked me to write a piece commenting on Yang Rui’s statements from a women’s perspective, especially his calling Melissa Chan a “泼妇”, a word Brendan and others translated as “bitch”.

It is very sweet of them, and I feel bad for what Yang Rui wrote about Melissa, but let’s be clear, there is no women’s perspective, there is only the universal sense that this guy is an IDIOT.

First, Yang’s Chinese is very bad. I don’t think anything Melissa did deserves the word “泼”. She didn’t sit on the ground yelling or screaming. She was just really good at her job. Where does the “泼” come from?  I feel Yang, as an anchor for an influential Chinese TV station, should improve his Chinese and find a more suitable word to describe a peer, especially one who does actual journalism, rather than showing off his sort of English language skills in a TV studio and writing shameful microblog posts.

Second, I don’t care whether he is xenophobic or nationalist or racist, as long as he keeps those thoughts to himself. Who the hell cares what this guy thinks? In China we have many so-called journalists like this and they are not the pride of my country.  It would be nice if they didn’t go out of their way to put their naïve and simple ideas on Weibo and the Internet. Weibo posts are public. People, both Chinese and foreign, will judge the quality of Chinese journalism on the stupidity of the brainless “patriotic” few.  It’s not fair because, trust me, there are many good Chinese journalists.

That’s all I have to say about this. I am not going to waste my time on Yang Rui. Guys, 散了散了。There are better things to worry about.

It’s Not Just Yang Rui

Is Yang Rui a xenophobe? Wait, back up. The sort of people who read this blog will almost certainly have heard about Yang Rui, the anchor of CCTV International’s program “Dialogue,” and his postings on Weibo and the shit-storm that ensued, but if you haven’t, you can bring yourself up to speed by reading WSJ Realtime, James Fallows, and ChinaGeeks‘ takes on the whole sorry situation, and Bill Bishop’s run-down on Sinocism. Or you can get the same effect more quickly and less harmfully by ramming your head into the wall a few times as hard as you can; it’s your call.

Now that we’re all on the same page: is Yang Rui a xenophobe? Has CCTV picked a racist to head up one of the highest-profile programs in its bid for international media relevance? The WSJ post translates one of Yang’s Weibo postings — the one that started the whole mess — but there is more to Yang’s outburst than that, and since I failed Mind Reading 101 in college and have not got access to the inside of Yang Rui’s head, it seems fairest to let him speak for himself via his Weibo updates, which I’ve translated below as fairly and directly as I can.

公安部要清扫洋垃圾:抓洋流氓,保护无知少女,五道口和三里屯是重灾区;斩首洋蛇头,美欧失业者来中国圈钱贩卖人口,妖言惑众鼓励移民;识别洋间谍,找个中国女人同居,职业是搜集情报,以游客为名义为日本韩国和美欧测绘地图,完善GPS;赶走洋泼妇,关闭半岛电视台驻京办,让妖魔化中国的闭嘴滚蛋
5月16日 06:55

The Ministry of Public Security must clean out the foreign trash: catch foreign lowlifes and protect innocent girls (Wudaokou and Sanlitun are the worst-affected areas). Eliminate foreign human traffickers,1 unemployed Americans and Europeans who come to China to make money by selling people abroad, misleading the public and encouraging them to emigrate. Learn to recognize the foreign spies who find a Chinese girl to shack up with while they make a living compiling intelligence reports, posing as tourists in order to do mapping surveys and improve GPS data for Japan, South Korea, the United States and Europe.2 We kicked out that shrill foreign bitch3 and shut down Al Jazeera’s office in Beijing; we should make everyone who demonizes China shut up and fuck off.4
— May 16, 6:55 AM

我十年前就碰到过中文暴粗口的美国人。扫洋垃圾必要,但也要警惕排外情绪,警惕义和拳运动的变异。反省一下自己,许多中国人的种族歧视也很严重,歧视自己,有自卑感,忙崇白人,对其他有色人种颇有微词。
5月18日 14:23

[In reference to Oleg Vedernikov] I first came across Americans who were foul-mouthed in Chinese ten years ago. It’s important to sweep away all the foreign trash, but we must be cautious of xenophobia and new variations on the Boxer Uprising.5 We should reflect on our own shortcomings. Many Chinese people are seriously racist: they look down on themselves and have a sense of inferiority; they bow and scrape before white people while being more than a little dismissive of colored peoples.
— May 18, 2:23 pm

说到中国如何和平崛起,如何二十年后综合实力接近美国。越琢磨越觉得TMD和平二字被人利用了。我们忍气吞声埋头建设尽量与邻为善,结果恶邻蚕食鲸吞我们的岛礁,我们韬光养晦,他们以为我们不作为怕惹事,于是兴风作浪!其实,和平崛起也必须声明不要妨碍我和平,别折腾我,不然老子不客气!
5月18日 23:38

So far as the “peaceful rise” of China and how China will be similar to the United States in terms of overall power in another 20 years: the more I think about it, the more I feel like the word “peaceful” is just being f-ing exploited by people. We keep quiet and swallow our anger; we keep our heads down and build our country; we do everything we can to treat our neighbors well, and our malicious neighbors encroach on our islands and reefs one nibble and bite at a time. We choose to hide our capabilities and bide our time, and they take that as a sign that we’re afraid to start things and as license for them to run rampant! Peaceful rise or not, we must make a statement: don’t try to break our peace; don’t try to mess with us; or it’ll be no more Mr. Nice Guy!
— May 18, 11:38 pm

清扫洋垃圾,华尔街日报这么在意?暗示我排外,扯吧!在华的外国人渣不少,优秀的友好的和尊守中国法律的外国人也很多。甄别一下,打扫卫生,理性相处,中国人是非常好客的,有些好客得有些媚外,丧失了人格和国格。周末愉快,buddies, have fun on weekend 5月18日 23:47

Why does the Wall Street Journal care so much about cleaning up foreign trash? Implying that I’m xenophobic? Bullshit! There’s no shortage of foreign scum in China, and there are also plenty of outstanding, friendly foreigners who respect Chinese law. So filter them out, clean things up, and let’s coexist rationally. Chinese people are extremely hospitable — sometimes so hospitable that they worship foreigners to the detriment of their own personal and national nature. Have a good weekend, buddies, have fun on weekend
— May 18, 11:47 pm

看到菲律宾军人荷枪实弹逼着中国渔民脱下上衣,在烈日下暴晒,若非海监船及时赶到制止他们的辱华行为,这些在自己的领海附近捕鱼的中国人又得被扣,罚个倾家荡产,有的中国渔民甚至直接被杀,沉尸灭迹。这些西方媒体不报道,我说些真相,他们指责我是monologue, 意思是独白,不是对话Dialogue.
5月19日 00:37

Philippine soldiers forced Chinese fishermen at gunpoint to take off their shirts under the baking sun. If the [Chinese] maritime patrol boat hadn’t gotten there in time to stop their humiliation of China, these Chinese people who had been fishing near their own country’s territorial waters might have been arrested, fined everything they owned — some of them might even have been killed and thrown into the ocean to hide the evidence. Western media doesn’t report that. I tell the truth, and they accuse me of engaging in monologue, not “Dialogue.”
— May 19: 12:37 am

我们搁置争议,越南大肆开发,组织各界人士登岛劳军,要把南海据为己有。海洋局的专家说,河内在玩圈地运动,中海油的钻井台立足未稳,越南就组织几十艘船搞狼群驱赶,我们军方不在,中海油的弟兄们只好撤!败退!越南还故意鼓励渔民挑衅中方,一旦被抓,就煽动反华和民族仇恨
5月19日 01:20

Setting aside the controversy for a moment, Vietnam is stepping up development on a large scale and mobilizing people to settle islands and ramp up troops so that they can make the South China Sea their own. An expert from the State Oceanic Administration says Hanoi is pursuing a policy of encirclement: it doesn’t yet have enough of a footing to drill a well, so the government organized several dozen ships to drive away other vessels. Our navy isn’t there, so our brothers in CNOOC have no choice but to pull out! To leave in defeat! Vietnam has also deliberately encouraged fishermen to provoke Chinese [vessels]; if they get arrested, Vietnam will fan the flames of anti-Chinese and racist sentiment.6
— May 19, 1:20 am

求证:菲外长罗萨里奥可能持美国护照,是美籍人士,一个月来他烈士一样的激烈言辞,想必认为他的祖国美国会无条件保护他客居的菲律宾?同理,2008年格鲁吉亚总统萨卡什维利下令军队镇压邻近俄罗斯的阿布哈兹和南奥塞梯自治省,他毕业于哈佛大学,美国律师出身。结果他败得很惨,俄不尿他,美不理他!
5月19日 08:47

Seeking confirmation: Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario may hold a US passport and US nationalist. For the past month he’s been delivering impassioned speeches like a wannabe martyr — doubtlessly because he thinks his motherland the US will unconditionally protect his right to live abroad in the Philippines? In 2008, using the same reasoning, the Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili ordered his troops to suppress the nearby Russian autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He graduated from Harvard and worked as a lawyer in the US. In the end, he lost badly: Russia paid no attention and America ignored him!”
— May 19, 8:47 am

(I chose the last post as the ending point because everything after this is written in light of Charlie’s petition to get Yang Rui fired. Up until this point, Yang was carrying on, except for the mention of the WSJ post, more or less under the impression that he was talking to his usual audience, so these posts may be a fairer representation of his thoughts.)


So is Yang a xenophobic racist? Yes and no — well, mostly yes, really — but “nationalist” might be a more accurate term. (Yang uses the word himself in one of his more recent posts.) The racism and xenophobia are subordinate to the nationalism in a way that will be familiar to anyone who’s spent much time on the Chinese internet. None of what Yang Rui said is particularly beyond the pale for nationalist discourse online. It’s slightly surprising to hear it coming from a public figure supposedly involved in international dialogue, but frankly the only really astonishing part has been the surprise at his outburst.

I’ve translated Yang’s Weibo posts above as fairly as I can, but in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I have never found Yang’s show to be balanced, intelligent, or intellectually honest. I last paid attention to “Dialogue” in spring 2003 and distinctly remember an episode from that period — a time when the Beijing government was actively lying about and covering up SARS fatalities, and Chinese and foreigners alike were eager for any scrap of accurate, unbiased information — in which Yang spent most of the show badgering a foreign epidemiologist into saying that SARS could possibly be of foreign origin, as if that was what really mattered. This was pretty typical of the discussion, as I recall — almost exclusively point-scoring, zero-sum, yes-but-one-Rod-Blagojevich-equals-one-Bo-Xilai whataboutery.

It may be embarrassing from a soft-power standpoint to have an allegedly cosmopolitan TV host speaking this way in a public forum, but Yang is basically a human weathervane with a bad William F. Buckley impression, and he wouldn’t be saying these things if he didn’t think the political winds were at his back. His rant showed up in the context of a lot of other nationalist wharrgarbl about the Philippines and Vietnam — topics that have been notably prominent in the media recently as part of an overall campaign to unify public opinion in the face of what can only be described as “interesting times.” Some aspects of this (particularly the recent hyping of videos showing a drunken British would-be rapist and a jerk-off Russian cellist mouthing off in Chinese) have been stunningly successful; others (particularly the Beijing Daily’s repeated bullseye shots at its own feet) have been less so.

It’s hard to see Yang suffering any serious repercussions from this.7 His opinions are not new or rare or particularly extreme in the context of fenqing nationalism, and if the current climate is any indication, I suspect we probably will have a lot more of this stuff to look forward to in the coming months.


  1. The WSJ’s translation renders this literally, as “Cut off the foreign snake heads,” but “snakehead” is a term used for human traffickers, similar to “coyote” w/r/t Mexicans entering the US.
  2. Boy, has he ever got my number.
  3. I threw out the question of how to translate 泼妇 to a table of translators and interpreters yesterday afternoon. Consensus was “bitch,” since terms like “shrew,” “scold,” “blowen,” “harridan,” etc. are no longer in common usage, but the native speakers of Chinese — both female — said that it actually struck them as nastier than “bitch” in this context, since it is possible to be a reasonable bitch but not a reasonable 泼妇.
  4. 滚 on its own is a rude-but-common term meaning “piss off.” 滚蛋 is more in “fuck off” territory.
  5. Is it too late to make “The Fists of Righteous Harmony” the standard translation for this? Because it’s more accurate and way cooler.
  6. Slightly ropier on this translation as I’m not entirely clear on what incident he’s talking about here. Corrections very welcome.
  7. From CCTV, that is. One hopes that people invited to appear on his show will think twice before doing so, and ask themselves if this is really a person they want to be associated with by the entire Internet-using foreign population of China.

Of quackery and rhinos…

Earlier this month, stories in the Korean media sparked concerns in China and abroad about – almost unbelievably — the possible processing of stillborn and aborted babies into powder and used as traditional medicinal food supplements.

Chinese authorities have asserted that past and current investigations have not found any instances of such illicit trade, and that Chinese law strictly prohibits such practices and regulates the institutions that handle medicinal materials, including the placenta, which, unlike corpses, has historically been legitimately used to make medicine, although the effects of doing so have never been particularly well explained.

Accusations of child cannibalism have been long practiced as a method of demonizing people and groups all over the world. In the 19th century, missionaries in China were accused of purchasing babies to make medicine and lurid tales of kidnapping and mutilation for the purposes of medicine or sorcery can be found in many cultural and historical contexts.

In the late 1990s, installation artist Zhu Yu’s provoking cannibalism-themed pieces caused a furor in China and abroad. Inside China, domestic conspiracy theorists pointed the finger – naturally – toward Guangdong.  Abroad, critics of China used the accusations to paint all of the country in the worst possible light.

The allegorical significance of consumption of human flesh along the lines of Lu Xun’s “A Madman’s Diary” should also not be missed. Children have to be protected from the agents of a decrepit social system hell-bent on eating them, the Madman implores the reader. Of course, the guy himself is mad, and the people around him wish only the best for him, or do they?

Parts of human bodies do indeed get used in traditional medicine in China. Ming Dynasty scholar Li Shizhen devoted a whole section in his monumental Compendium of Materia Medica to various human parts that can be used for medical purposes.

Li himself, though, makes a distinction between human sourced materials that are morally acceptable and those which are repugnant. Li states that human flesh and other abhorrent materials get used by magicians and he only lists them so that the discerning reader can make a decision for themselves.[1]

While the current media and online furor could — and probably should — be dismissed as one of the many rumors and otherworldly accusations floating around the Internet, it does point to a striking failure of science as it relates to traditional Chinese medicine. How to separate the quackery from the possible, particularly in regards to practices which so abominable as to be nearly unbelievable, but also debunking medical myths involving the use of ingredients — such as bear bile, rhino horn, and tiger portions — which do great harm to biodiversity and the protection of endangered species.

Traditional medicinal practices which are popular far beyond China’s borders — but are seen as inherently Chinese by both the PRC government and Chinese society at large — rely on an interpretation of human physiology that is largely incompatible to the conventional understanding of anatomy. It also sources materials that are complex and their chemistry and effects are not well-understood.

Particularly since the founding of the PRC in 1949, Mainland Chinese science has attempted to quantify and discover both the effects and chemical workings of traditional medicinal medicals practices. With increased prosperity in China since the 1980s, domestic demand has increased tremendously exerting pressure on both domestic suppliers and foreign sources of various materials, some of which have led to environmental destruction and a rise in illicit trade.

It is not surprising that desperate people in poor health would be willing to spend significant amounts of money to buy life-saving medicine, however such people should also be protected in terms of the safety of the treatment they are receiving. So should those who purchase remedies for lesser ailments, be it a cold or impotence. They should have the right to know whether there is any chance of actually seeing results from such a treatment.

While the moral impact of a middle-aged man spending prolifically on concoctions to enhance his amorous life seems benign (as long as he stays away from the damn rhinos!), what to make of the 2007 half a year prison term to Guangdong parents who stole another couple’s deceased child to make a healing soup for their sickly child?

While it’s easy to brand their actions as backwardness and ignorance, especially since such practices have been dismissed already by ancient medicinal masters not least Li Shizhen himself, it’s not too much to ask from those in the know, how one is to figure out the difference between medicine and superstition.

This is partially addressed by making a distinction between TCM, which has a long written history, and “folk medicine”, which is passed down generations orally and is usually local. The latter is usually seen as based on superstition, but then again, it can sometimes be tapped for advice.

Although TCM is practiced around the world, the PRC has willingly taken on the role of the main proprietor and the guardian of the TCM, and as such, received justified and unjustified criticism for the harm caused by poaching rare animals, such as tigers and destroying fragile ecosystems when plants are overharvested.

This puts Chinese government officials in the uncomfortable position of having to speak up for a medicinal industry that the Chinese state controls only partially (not least because Taiwan’s position in international conservation cooperation is tedious due to the sovereignty dispute). Demand for medicines that contain rare species or other questionably sourced materials puts pressure on the government to permit such trade. As a result, the trade goes on illegally but somewhat openly.

If sound qualitative data of the clinical results of using rare animal species as medicine would be available, this could be used as a way of addressing demand for them directly. After all, who would buy tiger bone liquor if its benefits for sexual potency were shown to be non-existent?

If it were possible to show (run a T-test, or do whatever else is needed to get one of those pesky ”something significant”) that tiger bones, or baby powder for that matter, kills cancer cells or kills a disease of your choosing, then we could decide if it’s worth looking at selling and buying this stuff.

Of course, as with the white crow which might show up any time to disprove the truth that crows are black, it’s harder to prove that something is not effective than to show its efficacy, because we might simply not have the necessary technology yet.

Oh wait! It is actually possible to run those T-tests. However, in addition to the abovementioned difficulty to disprove things using the scientific method, such results are not being published because either (1) good old publishing bias that preferences positive results rather than inconclusive ones, and more likely (2) because such research is not performed, which has been the view to ethnobothanists I have talked to personally.

Research is driven by funding, and there is little if any money to be made in knowing whether something is not an effective medicine. In addition, when it comes to traditional medicine, there seems to be reluctance to invest in research that rejects tradition, even if it means rejecting superstition.

For now, the man who is willing to shell out cash for tiger bones, is being let down by science, which has not managed (or perhaps not wanted) to assess the efficacy of such treatment. Equally, science has let down the Chinese government which simultaneously faces accusations of lackluster dedication to protecting endangered species while at the same time satisfying the demand for them by the public.

Everyone is left hanging, and when preposterous accusations like this current infant powder cannibalism report arises, have to resort to awkward denials. Even worse, the specter of another Lu Xun masterpiece haunts everyone involved: spending the last bit of money to buy a lousy hunk of steamed bread dipped in the blood of the righteous and vulnerable; and all that for nothing.

——————

Karlis Rokpelnis is a PhD Candidate in Ethnoecology at Minzu University in Beijing and earned his MPhil from the University of Cambridge.  Karlis would like to thank two of his fellow students for the discussions which led to this essay. 



[1] See page 189.

The Last Scoundrels

William Inge, Anglican priest, Evening Standard columnist, and long-time dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral once remarked, “A nation is a society united by a delusion about its ancestry and by common hatred of its neighbors.”  Given that he wrote this during one of Europe’s more terrible periods, who can blame him for being something of a pessimist.  But given the rhetoric in China today, the gloomy priest has perhaps never seemed more prescient.

Many people in the United States and especially in China take for granted the nation-state, and are oblivious to its relatively recent provenance (The Peace of Westphalia, anyone?) and rather specific origin (Western Europe).  That this particular form of social organization has – for the most part and with notable exceptions – been internalized as the default form of socio-political organization in the last century is a rather remarkable process, one upon which better scholars than I (not the least William Inge) have written voluminously.

One of the divides in 20th century Chinese history, especially in the first decades after the 1911 Revolution, was that between nationalism and cosmopolitanism: those who sought to be part of a greater global movement or civilization versus those who thought first of the strength, power, and independence of their own nation and people.  During the New Culture Movement of the 1910s, the forces of cosmopolitan, tolerance, and innovation were in ascendance, but following the debacle of Versailles and the gradual realization by a generation of Chinese intellectuals that perhaps the world (in particular the West) didn’t have the solutions for China’s problems, nor much interest in helping China find its own solutions, there was a sea change and many former internationalists, Utopians, anarchists, socialists, and other cosmopolitan thinkers turned toward the more practical realities of building a Chinese nation capable of standing up for itself in the world.  Under the KMT and the CCP, patriotism, in its rawest, bloodiest form, was something to be celebrated, while internationalism and cosmopolitanism became synonymous with capitulation and collaboration.  To borrow a metaphor, to be patriotic was to be yang, virile, strong, facing the sun, all that was goodness and light, whereas to be cosmopolitan was to be yin, trading in the dark, yielding your moral character to outside forces, and surrendering your birthright.  Little wonder that in China, as much as anywhere in the world, patriotism became a highly-gendered concept.

In this past week, we have seen a reporter expelled from China amidst rumors that one reason she grated on the authorities was her ethnicity (a little too much “A & B”, not enough “C”), as well as a growing shit storm over some rocks in the South China Sea over which China claims historical sovereignty based on…well, Chinese maps showing there are, in fact, rocks in the South China Sea.  The Internet was also abuzz about an Englishman assaulting a young woman and paying a price with the video prominently displayed on Youku’s homepage and the comments section brimming with racial hatred and invective.[1]

You live here long enough, you get used to it.  I’m guessing it’s easier for Americans.  After all, we pretty much invented “Love it or Leave it” jingoism and exceptionalist moral grandstanding.  But after awhile, the infantile obsession with patriotic virtue and national purity in China gets a little tiresome.

There are, of course, reasons for hope.  The comment thread related to “French Fry Brother,” the young American college student who shared his fast food lunch with a beggar woman in Nanjing, showed a great deal of introspection and even a couple of head fakes in the direction of universal values – compassion being the most commonly cited – which could be shared by both East and West.  And for several days one of the most popular posts on Weibo has been an essay entitled “Confessions of a Former Patriot,” which was translated in its entirety by the good folks at Offbeat China. (Original Text here)

The essayist writes:

 The first summer after I started my first job, I went to Yangshuo in Guangxi Province for a trip. There, I met a middle-aged German man. We got along quite well, walking and rafting together. That was until one night when we were having dinner together, he said to me in English: “China doesn’t have a very good human rights situation.” At the time, I didn’t even know what human rights were, just that the US published a China Human Rights Report every year. With the heart of a patriot, I started a quarrel with the German man right away, shouting to him in English: “You are not a Chinese. What do you know about China’s human rights situation? We are much better than you.” Out of the persistence and the seriousness of a German, he didn’t give up at saving a silly girl like me and continued to explain the issue. But at the time, all that I thought was: “No matter how bad China is, a foreigner is in no position to judge.” With that thought, I stood up and left the unhappy dinner. I traveled to Longsheng the next day. Not long after I went back to Nanjing, I got a postcard from him from Germany – we left each other contact information before the fight.

Later she laments:

The conflict over Huangyan Island between the Philippines and China stirred up quite some debates among the public. Nationalism reaches new high. Countless people are gearing up and shouting “A patch of land, a piece of gold. No concession in national territory. It’s very likely that most of these loudest voices don’t even know where Huangyan Island is located and what it looks like. What’s more that these people don’t know is how much land the government has ceded since its founding days. All they know about is a Huangyan Island. They follow celebrities and stars on Sina Weibo, write about their trivia emotions, show off what they eat, drink and play with. Discussions of politics and people’s livelihood are nowhere to be found in the content they post. Brother Yewu used to say to me: “Those who turn a blind eye to the injustices happening near them act like they love this country more than anybody else. These people are patriotic douche bags.” The little Huangyan Island is your g spot, nationalism is a strong dose of Viagra, and under the influence of the two, orgasm is easy. You groan with excitement, bashing those who are anti-war as traitors. Why don’t you travel back to Qing Dynasty to the day when the Treaty of Nanjing was signed (The first unequal treaty between Britain and China at the end of the First Opium War in which Hong Kong was signed off). You feel so pumped with justice that you cannot wait to transform into an atom bomb aimed at Luzon (the largest island in the Philippines).

Compare that with this recent piece of dreck published in the Beijing Times (full translation below the fold):

A person who does not have this idea of the nation doesn’t not know who he is and has lost the most basic and fundamental sense of identity, consciousness, and values.  There are people now who are obsessed with “universal values” and wholeheartedly want to be “global citizens,” forgetting that they are first and foremost a Chinese person.  These sorts of people worship foreign things and foreign people, at every turn relying on the support of foreigners, even whoring themselves for glory, ever subservient and servile, and acting in such a way that they forget their origins while engaging in shady dealings.  No matter on the Internet or in real life, there are those people whose main task is to discredit, slander, and defame all of China, including its historical and cultural traditions, economic and social development, the living conditions of the people, or the course and events of China’s recent history…

….If we lose ourselves, forsake who we are, we will be reduced to being the servant of others and slavish imitation, and we will only crawl when we should walk. Unfortunately, although China’s achievements of development are universally acknowledged, some people cannot see it or feign blindness.  In their eyes, China is nothing but a mess, devoid of any merit, while they view the West as a paradise on Earth and a perfect world.  China’s recent past and modern history does not lack for those who would seek glory by betraying their country.  And today, we cannot but help notice that there are still those kind of people, the ones who suck up to foreigners and who — as did their historical predecessors — do things which only hurt their own people while making glad the enemy.

A common trope on the Internet is the false dichotomy between those who love their country and those who loathe themselves.  In fact, I would argue that this kind of “Patriotism” betrays its own form of self-loathing, a profound crisis of confidence.  The great historian Joseph Levenson once identified as a central theme in Chinese intellectual history the conflict between, “That which is mine and that which is true.”
I asked YJ for her take after reading the two articles and this was her reply:

“Patriotism is a subjective thing, people love their country in different ways.  I can keep saying that ‘China is Great” or “China is the Best,” but I feel that when you point out problems you make things, and the country better.  If you think that loving your country means feeling like everybody else is conspiring against you, that behind every criticism on the Internet is an American conspiracy or a Running Dog is to be small-minded.

One of the best things over the past few years has been the Internet.  Finally people have a place to speak their minds, before there was nowhere to do that.  Finally, online, people can love their country any way they want.  The guy who wrote the article, even though I think it’s total f——g bullshit, he still has a right to love his country that way.  The thing is though, he cannot force other people, people who disagree with him or criticize China, to shut up and go away. They have their rights too and they have the right to love China in their own manner.

But I will say, if this bastard writes this and ignores those people who lose their homes, or ignores all of the corruption, or ignores the discrimination against minorities then maybe he’s the one with the problem.”

I grew up in a country where a presidential candidate has to defend themselves if they can speak a foreign language or have lived overseas.  I know brainless jingoism when I see it.  China, you’re better than that.  All over Beijing there are signs touting “Patriotism, Innovation, Inclusiveness, Virtue.”  Hopefully, the first does not preclude all the others.

——————————————-

[1] Just now I started typing “老外” into the search field on Youku’s front page.  The first suggested entry was “Laowai Rape.” Nice.  Also, the front page now has a video of yesterday’s anti-China protests in Manila. And just to be clear, if the assailant really is the one who assaulted that girl then it doesn’t matter where he comes from, he needs to face the legal consequences for his actions.

Read more…

Good News! The Press is Out to Get You

A couple of weeks ago I gave a talk about PR in China to a journalism class at Beijing Foreign Studies University. In any student talk the Q&A is always the most fun, and this group was no exception. Among the many good questions asked was whether it was easier to do PR in China because, as I had discussed in my talk, the Chinese media is generally cozier with businesses than their Western counterparts.

Easier to get stories? Yes. Easier to achieve meaningful results with the public? No.

I was reminded of this question by the recent expulsion of hard-charging Al Jazeera English correspondent Melissa Chan, and subsequent closure of the AJE bureau in China after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to accredit another AJE journalist. I didn’t know Melissa well, though I had met her, but I respected her reporting and willingness to insert herself into uncomfortable situations, and I was disappointed to see her go. Reporting on China will be impoverished a bit.

That, of course, was the point. The Chinese government has never been comfortable with an adversarial media, and Melissa’s reporting was, like that of much of the foreign press corps, pretty adversarial from their point of view. This discomfort is deeper than cursory annoyance at embarrassing foreign gadflies (although I presume that is part of it). It arises from one of the fundamental philosophies of Leninist political parties: the media are considered Party organs and, as with other Party organs, expected to serve the interests of the Party first and foremost. Media that don’t fit into that model are suspect by definition. You can see this philosophy expressed in the mechanisms of control that the Chinese government maintains over all domestic media, and in the government’s struggles to come to terms with the rise of social media that resist conformity with established power structures.

The Party’s model is rather different from the fundamental philosophy of Western media: that it should be the fourth estate, entrusted with challenging the business and government establishment in the interest of the people. You are welcome to argue about how effective Western media have been in this role in recent years, and there are plenty of exceptions, but as a founding principle the idea of the fourth estate is alive and well and inextricably bound up with our Western ideas of what the media should be (and with the value judgments we render on media that doesn’t conform to that principle). A functional, adversarial media is a necessary component of Western-style liberal democracy, unless you have total faith in politicians and institutions.

I am not going to comment further on the specifics of the Al Jazeera situation (some links to good articles below), but in light of the Chinese government’s recent struggle with rumors and trust issues, it’s worth reflecting on why an adversarial media is sometimes useful, even to the establishment. This is what I discussed with the students at Beiwai.

As a news junkie who still pays for several subscriptions, I’m most definitely a fan of adversarial media model (you could also call it an “independent media” model, but independence is only valuable in that enables an adversarial position). There is nothing like a fantastic piece of investigative reporting that rips the lid off of some secret or scandal or that illuminates the dark corners of business or politics. As long as it’s not my dark corner, that is.*

As a PR practitioner with a company reputation to defend, I’ve experienced firsthand the adversarial media model’s short-term ability to create sleepless nights and great puddles of cubicle sweat. But nevertheless, I still appreciate its value in the long-term. That’s because people are more likely to trust media that challenges me than one they know to be compliant with me, and I need media that the public trusts to get my message out, whether that message is a corporate one, a product review or whatever. If I have to do more work to get coverage in that kind of media, and tolerate some negative coverage as well, so be it.

In China, on average, relationships between businesses and the media tend to be closer and less adversarial than in the west. There is also a range of ethical problems, including poor separation of advertising and editorial, the “transportation claim” subsidy-in-disguise, and more. Together, these make it easier for companies to earn –or buy– good coverage in local media than it would be in many other markets. But they also mean that the public is relatively more skeptical of much of the coverage and turns to alternative voices for much of its information and insight, many of them on microblogs . The result is a devalued media that makes even our best earned coverage less useful and influential, and that makes it harder for me to manage misinformation and rumors about my company.

Sound familiar?

These are generalizations. There are excellent journalists and excellent media in China, and crappy ones in the west. But the overall gap in trust is real. The real sign of progress here will not be in the government showing more tolerance for confrontational Western media, but in its tolerating the emergence of a fully independent, professionalized and adversarial Chinese media. That change, when it happens, will be driven by Chinese journalists. In some ways, it’s already happening.

For those of us in the establishment, there is value in learning to deal with an adversarial media, and in being good at telling our stories and getting our messages across in media that are willing to challenge us, and that therefore lend credibility to the claims that survive their scrutiny. But if you’ve never had to deal with that kind of media, you haven’t developed the skills necessary to do so, and you rely on a tradition of control and management to get your message across, then you are in the realm of propaganda and will face the consequences in terms of diminished trust.

And if your situation is so precarious that there is no way to tell a positive story when engaging with adversarial media? Well, then, your problems are much bigger and deeper than PR skills. Or one uppity journalist.

* Just kidding. Naturally, I have no actual dark corners.

See also:

On the Al Jazeera situation:

On the difficulty of reporting in China:

Good news? A magazine stand at SFO's international terminal on Monday.

Melissa Chan does not compute

It would be a disservice to Melissa Chan, one of the most dedicated journalists covering China, to not to make at least brief mention of the craven and shameless decision by the Powers that Be to deny her application for a new visa, a move which is tantamount to her expulsion from the country.[1]

Some might see it as a badge of honor to be the first foreign journalist in 15 years to be kicked out of China – and I suppose on some level, like Dan Schorr being included on Nixon’s Enemies List – it is.  But for those journalists who remain, and the world at large who depend upon them to make sense of the rapid changes in China today, the decision is a chilling reminder that the government knows its attempts at managing China’s international image are flailing badly.  Since 2008, when new regulations were announced (if not always followed) allowing greater freedom for international organizations to report from China, the government and its representatives have been barely tolerant of coverage they deemed damaging to their own national self-interest and self-image.  In several cases, especially those involving the thugocracy which passes for ‘local administration’ in many areas of China, that tolerance has crumbled into threats and acts of violence and intimidation against foreign journalists and their employees.

Now that frustration has reached higher levels of the government and Melissa is the victim.  Of course, this being China, nobody in the government has the actual balls to say why they chose to expel her.  That would be too embarrassing.  But if you’re going to send your minions out to obfuscate and cover up your own shamelessness, at least send people who can – you know – do a job.

Compare these two press conference transcripts, both starring MOFA spokesperson Hong Lei.

Q: I just want to know whether the expulsion of Melissa Chan should be seen as a warning to other journalists operating in China?

Hong Lei: “I have just answered relevant questions. On the issue of foreign journalists our policies and moves are easy to see. We will continue to provide convenience for foreign journalists reporting in China and we welcome foreign journalists to report in China. At the same time we need to stress that foreign journalists should abide by Chinese laws and regulations, as well as professional ethics of journalists while reporting in China.”

Q: Under what circumstances will Al Jazeera be given press credentials and visas for a new reporter?

Hong Lei: “The Beijing branch of Al Jazeera is still functioning normally.”

Q: Can you tell us who made the decision to deny Ms. Chan, was it the Foreign Ministry or another department?

Hong Lei: “We deal with relevant matter in accordance with law.”

Q: Can you give us any specifics on why Melissa Chan was expelled from the country because there is a lot of confusion here and unless you’re more specific about it it’s very difficult for us to get a picture of exactly what’s going on.

Hong Lei: “I have already answered this question.”

——————————————————————————–

Q: Can you tell us who made the decision to deny Ms. Chan: was it the Foreign Ministry or another department?

Hong Lei: Honestly? Not a clue. I’m gonna refer you here to our mysterious laws and regulations.

Q: Can you give us any specifics on why Melissa Chan was expelled from the country… because there is a lot of confusion here and unless you’re more specific about it it’s very difficult for us to get a picture of exactly what’s going on.

Hong Lei: She was not expelled… as far as I know, she left of her own volition.

[Laughter]

Q: I think the main concern of the journalists is that the Chinese government, you use the issue of visa as a way to censor journalists’ work in China. Is this a precedent of how the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will behave in the future?

Hong Lei: We do this every 14 years or so. So, yeah. No. Maybe.

Q: What could the Chinese government say if a Chinese journalist was expelled from a foreign country?

Hong Lei: Anybody else going to see Hanggai play this weekend?

One is the China Daily Show.  The other is a VOA transcript of an actual MOFA presser from this past week.  Once again China’s government teeters drunkenly on that oh so fine line between “self” and “self-parody.”

One question nobody seems able to answer though is: Why Melissa?

Certainly the timing wasn’t great.  The government has had to deal with a number of embarrassing incidents in the past few weeks.  Not a good time to apply for a visa.  Melissa was also one of the most active correspondents in the foreign press corps.  Never content to report “Dateline: Jianguomen,” she spent a large amount of her time in the field, often tweeting about another narrow escape from the forces of Public Insecurity or of being rousted from hotels in the middle of nowhere as she bravely covered stories few others would.  It is also one thing to cover a story with a notebook and pen, quite another to do so with cameras, lights, and sound equipment.  Officials hate reporters with notebooks, but the sight of a camera in the hands of a professional journalist will generally cause even the sternest cadre to experience a sudden involuntary fecal event.

A quotation which was making the rounds on Twitter this past week – and which ended up in a few different posts on the subject — was the old Orwell chestnut: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.”

Something rags like The Global Times fail to understand.

China didn’t give a specific reason for expelling the reporter. This ambiguity cannot be criticized. According to foreign journalist sources here in Beijing, Melissa Chan holds an aggressive political stance. According to foreign reports, she has a tense relationship with the management authorities of foreign correspondents. She has produced some programs which are intolerable for China.

We don’t want to see any confrontations between the Chinese government and foreign journalists here in China. Local authorities are more willing to cooperate with them, while foreign media should take an objective and balanced view toward the country. Foreign media should reflect on China’s complexity, which is well-known to almost all foreigners in China. However, some media are only keen to show the wickedness of China to the world.

According to some Chinese people who work or used to work in foreign media bureaus, it is common practice for some foreign journalists to just piece together materials based on their presuppositions when reporting on China. If a foreign reporter cannot stay in China, we can only assume that he or she has done something cross the line.

Finally, Isaac Stone Fish put forward a somewhat controversial theory, that Melissa was the victim of racial profiling.

Issac writes:

Executives and reporters with Chinese backgrounds have many advantages operating in China. Besides language skills and local networks, they can blend in a country where different color skin clearly identifies one as an outsider. Anecdotally speaking, they seem to be given less leniency when they don’t follow China’s laws; like they’re supposed to “know better.”

Many foreign news bureaus are hosted in two diplomatic compounds in the Jianguomen neighborhood. As a reporter based out of the compound for two years, I entered freely, while foreign reporters who looked Chinese (and, of course, those that were Chinese), often had to show their IDs to get in. Injustice in China affects more than just the locals.[2]

One wonders – and it helps here to consider the mentality of those officials who make these decisions – if they expected a young woman of Asian descent working for Al-Jazeera to be more…sympathetic, and when she turned out to be tough as nails as well as a highly independent and keen observer of the complexities of China, it was all too much to bear.

I remember an anecdote Melissa once told a group of my students.  She said that when she first arrived, the Ministry folks were all smiles, figuring that any network which plays Osama bin Laden’s mix tapes must be alright.  Six months later the same ministry folks complained to her that she was just as bad as CNN and the BBC.  “Thank you?” she replied.

Melissa was a journalist who, more than most, gave voice to the voiceless and shone a spotlight on those corners of the country in grave need of international awareness and recognition.  A more confident government would applaud her professionalism.  By expelling Melissa, however, the Chinese government has shown how little it really knows about ‘soft power’ or, indeed, how little it cares about showing this glorious country – in all of its nuance and complexity – to the world.

She will be missed.


[1] The further decision to refuse accreditation for a replacement journalist effectively kills the Al-Jazeera English bureau.  One of the less reported casualties were the Chinese staff at the bureau, one of whom, who shall remain nameless, is something of a legend among the Chinese news assistants for his long service and professionalism.

[2] YJ once led a mini-revolt at the compound when she was stopped for the 1000th time while her husband, who had absolutely no business being there except to play basketball, blithely wandered in and out of the gate without so much as a glance.

Peking Opera Masks and the London Book Fair

The organizers of this year’s London Book Fair, where China is the country of focus, seem to have learned from the lesson of the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, which invited and then dis-invited dissident writers in an even-handed attempt to piss off as many people as possible. This time around, the LBF saved itself time by not bothering to consider writers who might have made the Chinese side of the equation uncomfortable. As a result there was a spate of more or less predictably lazy media coverage, some of it by people who should know better1 implying that the Chinese delegation to the LBF is made up of politically reliable hacks and that “real” Chinese literature is best represented by others. (Richard Lea and Isabel Hilton both offered fairer takes on the situation; they were in the minority.)

There is no way to have a fair or reasonable conversation about the literary merits of dissident or exile authors — some of whom, like Yang Lian and Liao Yiwu, are very good indeed — compared to authors who are read in China. We can probably all agree that in a better world, or at least a world in which the British Council had more backbone and the Chinese government had more maturity, the list of Chinese authors at the London Book Fair would have been a different one. Here on Earth One, though, things were never realistically going to go any other way, and so we may as well look at the authors who were on offer. Fortunately, many of them are much better and more interesting than the prevailing tone of the English-language coverage might lead you to believe.

Some examples, chosen entirely non-randomly:

1) The Shenyang-based author Diao Dou (刁斗) wasn’t actually in attendance at the LBF as far as I know, but his short story “Squatting” (蹲着) is featured in the new Comma Press anthology Shi Cheng: City Stories from China, which is being released during the LBF.
“Squatting” tells the story of a group of concerned citizens in a Manchurian city (which is never identified but is clearly Shenyang) who urge the municipal government to take action against summer crime waves. The municipal government (rather, the Counter-Criminal Crackdown Command Office, or “CrackCom”) responds with a blanket order dictating that from sundown to sunrise, all citizens are to go about their business in a mandatory squatting position — an order hailed by the “intellectuals” as a masterstroke of judicious urban governance. It’s one of the sharpest, funniest stories I’ve read in Chinese in a long time, and was a lot of fun to translate — though challenging, too, given that it’s written in a spot-on parody of the prose style — not so much “purple” as “cyanotic” — typical of a certain type of writer:

My colleagues and I weren’t People’s Congress delegates or People’s Political Consultative Committee members, nor indeed were we employees of any governmental authority. We were writers of reportage, teachers of history, players of oboes, designers of computer software, extractors of teeth, translators of foreign languages, creators of advertisements, students of calculus, researchers of pharmaceutical compounds. We’d all gone to university and taken at least undergraduate degrees, and if forced to give an account of ourselves we would shyly admit to being intellectuals. Engaged in different lines of work, living in different neighbourhoods, of different ages and genders, we shared nonetheless a common concern for the development and growth of our city, and wrote regular letters to a succession of highest-ranking municipal administrators addressing the strengths and shortcomings of our city and the strengths and shortcomings of municipal policy in the hopes that our suggestions would aid them in the performance of their duties. Our efforts were motivated not by a desire for official recognition or pecuniary reward, but by a sense of righteousness and justice, of responsibility, of social morality, and of love for our fellow man.

2) Sheng Keyi (盛可以) has gotten some notice in the foreign press for her novel Northern Girls: Life Goes On (北妹), which will be out in Shelly Bryant’s English translation next month. I haven’t read Northern Girls, and was basically unimpressed by the short Sheng Keyi story that I translated for World of Chinese magazine last year, but her short story “A Village of Cold Hearths” (一个没有炊烟的村庄), which appears in the new “Revolutions” issue of 天南/Chutzpah magazine, completely changed my opinion of her work. (Free PDF over at Paper Republic – it’s Issue 6.) It’s a tightly written, disturbing account of the more or less pointless suffering and violence of the Great Leap Forward:

“Grain” was a magic word that held everyone in its sway. The higher-ups came for an inspection, and the starving villagers roused themselves and affected expressions that they hoped would show the perseverance and correctness of Socialism. The yards were piled high with grain: a thin layer of rice at the top of the baskets and heaps of chaff and weeds beneath. Having placated the higher-ups, the village leaders were awarded Major Commendations, and promptly went back to searching for stockpiled grain, beating and interrogating the villagers ever more harshly.

No wedding banquets. No gatherings. No celebrations. No farewells. No cooking smoke. The village canteen closed down. Some people lay down and never got back up, some people got fat all of a sudden, some people fell down all of a sudden, some people got locked up, some people got put on trial. It was all very quiet. The village was as quiet as the grave.

Sentries patrolled at the village gate, their guns fully loaded. Vultures circled. A growing wind swept the land.

The bark was gone from all the trees, and the white wood beneath it had gone brown and then black. The earth was scored and lined where it had been clawed at, the mud churned up like the ground around a mouse’s nest.

Liufu’s mother racked her brains to find ways to fill her stomach. When the weeds, rats, roots, and bark were all gone she began to chop up rice straw and corncobs, which she would cook and crush and mash into a paste late at night. She would go out and collect egret shit by the paths to wash and steam. The secret was to imagine that they were your favorite foods when you ate them. That the egret shit was egg custard.

3) Feng Tang’s (冯唐) short story 麻将 (“Mahjong”), which I translated in the latest issue of Pathlight magazine, is not his best work, but it does give an idea of the qualities — a sharp ear for dialogue and a sharper sense of humor — that make him one of the most enjoyable young authors on today’s scene. It’s also a nice examination of the internationalized yuppie, an aspect of contemporary Chinese culture that is only just beginning to enter the literary consciousness:

She had been a small-town superstar from way off in the exotic southwest with beautifully clear Mandarin and a good head for figures, and she tested into Tsinghua University before she was eighteen. There she was the fairest flower of her department, though that particular flowerpot only had three flowers in it and the competition was not exactly fierce. She’d gone straight from college into an analyst job at a top consulting firm, where she worked on enough corporate group strategies over the following three years to give her more experience than all of the graybeards at the Tsinghua School of Economics and Management combined. No tallyman ever worked his abacus beads as nimbly as she manipulated Excel spreadsheets; no campus revolutionary ever painted big-character posters as pithy as her Powerpoints. Some of her projects had taken her to Europe, where she’d penned journal entries in Spain and picked forsythia in Greece. And now, turning her sights to the future, Shang Shu was preparing to wrap up the strategy planning project she was working on for a major northern port, go back southwest to say goodbye to her parents, and then head to Harvard Business School.

My point here — besides naked self-promotion — is that even a small sample of the writers at the London Book Fair (i.e., “writers I was asked to translate”) contains three writers, two of them relatively or totally overlooked by the Anglophone world, whose stuff I think is really good. This isn’t necessarily representative of all of the writers who went to the London Book Fair, but hopefully it should serve to show that things were a lot more complicated and interesting than you would have had any way of knowing if your sole source of information was the English-language media coverage of the LBF.


So the writers who were on offer are actually pretty interesting, or at least some of them are. That’s one side of the story. The other side of the story, tying into the point of people who’ve criticized the LBF for only featuring authors recommended by the  General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP), is that there are many, many more Chinese authors out there, dissident and otherwise, who are equally deserving of a spot at the fair. (Yan Lianke [阎连科], for instance, was invited and then abruptly disinvited — despite the fact that his novel Dream of Ding Village, in Cindy Carter’s lovely translation, was recently shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction prize.) And going beyond the London Book Fair — since it’s over now anyway — there are many, many other writers whose work deserves to be translated (or translated better), but who have never made it to the attention of non-Sinologues.

The problem is that there has historically been a pretty limited amount of interest in Chinese literature, and an extremely limited amount of money to fund it. Publishers are wary of putting out translations — partly because literature in translation is always a hard sell; partly because they have generally not got a very good idea of what’s out there in Chinese. 2 But the times, they are a-changing. Some of the change is on the demand side of things — the result of a growing interest in China — but most of it is on the supply side: since the start of the 12th Five-Year Plan period last year, there has been money available for the project of helping Chinese literature “zǒu chūqu,” i.e., make its debut on the world stage. Like exporting Chinese animation, filming Iron Man 3 as a joint production, and getting people to start calling Mt. Everest “Mount Qomolangma,” literary translation into English is one of the ways to unlock achievements in whatever imaginary arcade game the Chinese government is playing here, and so the government has been plugging quarter after quarter into the machine in hopes of leveling up.

Given the origins and the goals of the funding for literary translation from Chinese, and the roles of the players involved, it is perhaps not entirely shocking that Liu Xiaobo was not granted early release from prison to attend the London Book Fair, and that the party paying the piper — in this case, mostly GAPP — got to call the tunes.

But!

A few years ago, a few other translators and I were talking with employees of a Chinese publishing house who said that they had some books that they wanted to translate into English — things that they said would show foreigners the real China. There was a brief and intense period of excitement, until the publishers said that these were coffee-table books about Peking Opera masks and different varieties of tea. Ever since then, I’ve used “Peking Opera masks” as mental shorthand for the Chinese habit of attempting to interest the world in aspects of itself that most Chinese people don’t give two-tenths of a rat’s ass about. (This same thing affects Chinese-language instruction, but I’ll save that rant for another post.) Even just a couple of years ago, almost all officially backed Chinese cultural offerings were of this sort — books about tea and opera masks, yes, or Foreign Languages Press translations by non-native English speakers, or poorly subtitled documentaries about the Potato Festival in some godforsaken corner of the Shandong peninsula. (“Since late Ming dynasty, the town of Pirang is acclaimed as ‘hometown of potato!'”)

What we’re seeing now is something different — a willingness, even an eagerness, to promote authors whose work presents a more complicated China than the one on the front page of the China Daily. The group of authors that visited the London Book Fair may not have contained Liu Xiaobo or Liao Yiwu — and as long as GAPP was involved there was never any chance that it would — but it was a more diverse, talented, and interesting group of authors than has been generally acknowledged. It represented an earnest attempt to present a more nuanced image of contemporary China than has been presented before, and is deserving of a similarly earnest and nuanced response. So far, it has mostly not gotten one, to the detriment of Chinese authors and foreign readers alike.


  1. I was going to let this pass without further comment, but Mirsky’s article really is a shocking piece of hackery. It is very difficult — for me, at least — to read it without concluding that he went to the LBF knowing exactly what his story was going to be, and then did all of the things necessary to enable him to write the story he wanted to write. This would be just about excusable (or at least unremarkable) in the case of a journalist who was simply ignorant about China, but Mirsky is a well-informed and intelligent observer of China and has no such excuse.

    Imagine the converse situation: a Chinese journalist shows up at an American literary event and buttonholes every person in sight, demanding in heavily accented English to know what they think about “Nom Chompski, your greetist living pooet.”
    “What?” they say.
    “Chompski! Free Brodley Mooning! Apollygize for Wounded Knee!”
    “Sir, this is a literary event.”
    “Ship! You are baa-baa-ing shiip! Baaaa!” Mirsky’s Chinese double shouts, sweeping pamphlets off of display tables as he storms out the door. That night he will file a piece about how the mean Americans took away his stuffed animal.

  2. From the perspective of an outsider, it sometimes looks as if international publishers end up picking books to translate based on (1) what sold well in China, (2) what sold well to people going on beach holidays in Ibiza the year before, or (3) the guidance of voices that only they can hear. Fame and fortune — at least by translator standards — await the person who successfully pitches a novel to publishers as “a Chinese Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but with teenaged vampires.”

A little bit of history repeating

A very powerful and popular leader, with an equally strong wife, who organizes patriotic campaigns for ordinary people while at the same time allegedly orders the torture of his political rivals. For many Chinese, this all sounds very familiar.. Reading Bo Xilai’s story, it feels like it’s all just a little bit of history repeating. It was enough of a similiarity, that Premier Wen Jiabao could use it against Bo at the NPC meeting.

How to avoid making the same historical mistakes again and again? There is no better way than having an informed public who can look to the lessons of history, particularly the darker periods in the past.  Slavery in the United States. Apartheid in South Africa. The Holocaust in Europe.  These all have had profound and lasting effects, none of which can be fixed overnight or even over many generations, but without a discussion of those horrible moments in a country’s past then progress is not possible.  There is still a lot of racism in America, but could the US have elected its first African-American president in 2008 if the government prevented schools from teaching about the history of slavery and racism in America or if If it had kept African-Americans from writing about their own stories and own experiences, no matter how uncomfortable that might make the majority?

However, in China, history is neglected and often intentionally manipulated. A good example is the famine which occurred from 1958 to 1961. Over 30 million Chinese died of starvation and many of those deaths can be attributed to bad CCP policies during the Great Leap Forward. However, in our history text books, the tragedy was solely the result of “natural disasters.”

Former Senior Xinhua Reporter, Yang Jisheng wrote a famous book called Tombstone, which uses primary materials, many unreleased, to analyze the real political reasons behind the famine. Of course, the book is officially banned in China, but I was lucky enough to get a copy from my friend who went to Hong Kong.  I couldn’t believe how much I never knew and was never taught.

Many Chinese, even the ones who lived through the starvation never mind the younger generation, don’t know about the real causes of the famine.  My parents were only children back then. They remember being hungry all the time. A small piece of candy was their breakfast and their lunch.  They also called the time the “Three Years of Natural Disasters” and never questioned the real cause.  One of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century happened right here, and nobody talks about it.

Without proper introspection, the problems have a history have their way of resurfacing.  The Great Leap Forward was over fifty years ago but the Great Leap Forward mentality still exists.  China’s push to build the fastest train in the world as quickly as possible, whatever the economic and human cost.  Local governments competing with eachother to report the highest GDP figures or have the biggest, tallest, or fanciest new buildings built in their district.  Even in the private sector, Chinese companies want to be worldbeaters, expanding rapidly without always considering product quality for consumers or the environment.

One of my aunts was sent to Shanxi when she was young. The only thing she had to eat was a kind of cornbread and porridge. Whenever she came home to visit, my grandmothers would ask her to take as much food as she could carry with her.  She always ended up dragging bags and bags of flours, pickles, pancakes, and snacks with her on the train.

Today her own children aren’t interested in her stories.  Even I am surprised by how my aunt sounds like she is telling some other person’s story. There is no anger or discussion of why it happened or who started the campaign that took away a decade of her youth.  We talk about what happened, but not why.  I don’t know if it’s because she never thought about it, or tries not to think about it, or whether growing up in such politically sensitive time makes her reluctant to speak openly about her experiences.

Many people in my parents generation, even those who lived through the political movements of Mao’s era, can relate to what Bo was trying to do.  During the Reform and Opening up, the restructuring of state owned companies meant a lot of people lost their jobs and fell behind as others became richer and richer. After 35 years as a worker in a factory, my dad is still a big supporter of Mao. The reason is simple and straightforward: During Mao’s time, people enjoyed equality and there wasn’t any corruption.  Bo is connecting with that feeling and it won him a lot of support.

But there was corruption during the Cultural Revolution and it appears from the stories coming out of Chongqing that Bo wasn’t any less corrupt than the officials he may have tortured.

Once again, we do not know what is the truth and what is the lie.  Will we ever really know what happened in the Bo Xilai case?

Every society has its problems, but my country will continue to suffer from the scars of history until we, and the Party, has the guts to face the unpleasant things and to learn from our mistakes.

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.

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.

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