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An Expat Comes Back From the Homeland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


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.

OMG, They Killed Lei Feng! Those Bastards!

My god, you knocked a utility pole down on Kenny and then built a posthumous cult around him!

Another Hollywood soft power triumph.

Zheng-ing the Ming

Blogging about China isn’t dead, but it sure has changed.  When I began my own blog six years ago, I joined an already crowded field.  Most of those sites were personal, with stories or posts about people’s lives and interests or were focused on a particular area of expertise.  Some were good.  A few were great.  Many are now gone or slowly going dormant.

This year marks my tenth in Beijing. Why stay so long? Because every morning I wake up knowing that I’m going to see something I’ve never seen before.  Something which will make me stop and say, “You know in any other country…that might seem strange.”

And I’m not the only one with a few tales left to tell.

So it is with great pleasure I introduce a new blog about China.  And no, “Like a Hole in the Head” was not one of our working titles.

What I think will make this space special is that it will be a collaboration of writers, bloggers, hutong rats, and academics, many of whom are already pretty well-known in the small pond of Beijing expat social media.

Will Moss, the Imagethief, is the rare writer who can make a failed trip to the bank into a 1500-word side-splitting meditation on frustration and perseverance.  Dave Lyons is a long-time China resident who has blogged from Xinjiang, Fujian, as well as Beijing, and can be found on Twitter as @Davesgonechina.  Brendan O’Kane has the arguable distinction of being one of the very first Beijing-based bloggers, and is a founding member of the translation guild known as Paper Republic. YJ, who previously worked for the Beijing bureau of a major American newspaper based in Boston, keeps the boys honest and adds her own perspective on current events and the way the media covers her home country.   I have written the history blog Jottings from the Granite Studio since 2006, and will continue to do so, but I’m excited about being part of this larger community of writers.  We’ve also invited many of our friends, colleagues, and the occasional enemy, to join us.

正名 (zheng ming) means “to rectify the name,” or as one of Confucius’ students said (although the little kiss-ass gave the credit to his teacher): “If the names are not correct, then language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.”

One of the things on which all our collaborators seem to concur is the appalling amount of ‘truthiness’ when it comes to talking about China.  While we cannot presume to rectify all that is imperfect, making sure that what is said is in accordance with the truth of things seems a worthy place to start.

We hope you agree.

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