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A Tale of Two Songs


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rectified.name June Mailbag


It’s been nearly three months since we launched Rectified.name. In that time, we have received a lot of feedback for our little group blogging project.  Much of the feedback has been good, some not so much.  Our goal is about once a month (or so) to do a post in which we respond to readers comments and questions….The Recitfied.name mailbag.

As will always be the case, these are actual emails/comments from actual readers.

Why no comments?

It’s not that we don’t love “the conversation”, but in our collective experience open comment threads on China blogs tend to degenerate into mass trollery pretty quickly. However, we do welcome your feedback on our Facebook page, on Twitter, or via email from our comments page. As we hope this post proves, we are paying attention and will respond. Hopefully in some cases more quickly than we did here.


Subject: I Apologize if Anyone Felt Killed by William Moss


I will see your North Korean Steamroller and Raise you one that happened as recently as 2003.
Rachel Corrie was killed in Palestine. Love your blog. Keep writing.

Such cheerful correspondents! Technically Ms. Corrie was killed by a bulldozer. We’re sure the North Koreans have studied that situation and are considering whether they need to escalate their choice of construction equipment in order to maintain their “only we are crazy enough…” aura. Do we hear a vote for backhoes?


Hilarious ! I came to this from an Evan Osnos column in the New Yorker. I will bookmark this for more. Thanx ^gb

Thanx back at you.  By the way, Evan’s columns really are the gold standard for thoughtful reflection about what’s happening in China.


Asia resident for 20+ years, 1/2 in Shanghai, i’m embarrassed to say that i’ve just found your site — immediately RSS’ed it — ‘Thar Be Dragons‘ and ‘I Apologize‘ are outstanding — re the former, comparing Daisey to Backhouse is tremendous — total agreement with your comments policy — keep it all, er, up – thanks

Although there is limited evidence that Mike Daisey ever had clitoral-rectal sex with Cixi, he did once tell an audience in Duluth, MN that he had.  Probably.  We’re still looking for his interpreter/fixer to confirm.


 I enjoyed and agree with your comments about Bo’s case and its reflections of Chinese politics. In many ways, not much has changed since the Mao days; the only difference is that losers don’t necessarily get decapitated in the literal sense of the word. All the best,  John

There’s still time.


Hi – I enjoy reading the blog, but the paper-towel-like textured background you have for the body text makes it a little less comfortable than it could be. Any chance of something less grainy? PTH

Our current endorsement deal with Brawny (See the designer prints! Who says cleaning up can’t be stylish? Ka-CHING!) prevents us from changing the background until the autumn. The WordPress template we’re using was the least offensive in the built-in library that we could all agree on. As the site grows, we will invest more time in prettying it up but for the moment time doesn’t permit. You can, however, use an RSS reader like Google Reader or NetNewsWire to subscribe to the site and get all the awesome content with none of the off-the-shelf design.


Hi Brian, Enjoyed your post on corruption in the margins. There’s a somewhat similar phenomenon in the US, although not quite as severe. The person in charge of purchasing for a business often gets to keep the visa/amex/master card reward points from purchases they make, and use the points for their personal use. This means they have at least some motivation to go to the overpriced vendors that have partnered with the credit company to offer bonus points, rather than find the best deal for the company. 

One reason we don’t let Brendan anywhere near the Rectified.name visa card.


Hey guys, Your blog is just great. You need to know this. Having devoted my entire post-adolescent life to everything Chinese, consequently having lived in China for a decade, and now travelling back to the motherland on a monthly basis in my current self-employed capacity to work with Chinese clients, I get a lot from your postings. Not only can I relate to much of what you post, but I also greatly appreciate the sometimes unusual topics or creative analyses of current affairs. After all, I can read the print media for a high-level run-down on China, but your insights provide a much more perceptive viewpoint to any given issue. Anyway, that’s about all I wanted to say. I hope to see much more in the years to come.

All the best, Blair

PS. William –

In Australia for Christmas we actually often persevere with the full British tradition of roast turkey, ham, a plethora of sides, and plum pudding, while dressed up in our Sunday best, albeit with an often blistering sun blazing down on us. Insane, I know, but at least we get to drink lots of cold beer and go for a swim in the pool afterwards. And my partner is American, and believe me, she still can’t get used to seeing poor Santa dressed in his woolly suit with extra padding sweltering on main street in 35+ degree heat either…

Thanks for the kind words and we acknowledge that the traditional Christmas scene of sleigh bells and snow is an excellent example of North Atlantic cultural imperialism. Also, one hesitates to wonder how much beer Santa is drinking in these circumstances. I wouldn’t put my kids on his lap if I were you.


Hey- Just read the piece about Rebiya and the Dalai Lama and wanted to point something out. The Dalai Lama’s comments about poisoning came after the interviewer specifically asked him about his security, and he also mentioned very clearly that the threat was pretty vague. I think a lot of the negative reactions to this came from people who read more sensationalistic headlines taken from the interview, because as presented in the interview itself it isn’t nearly as objectionable and I don’t think really qualifies as douchery. As for why the Chinese would even consider killing him now, why did the last Panchen Lama die when he did? There might be a precedent, even if the dalai lama HAD made some kind of serious accusation. anyways thanks for listening to the opinion of some random web guy.


As a Tibet, I found it funny that in the post where you criticize western media for not doing the homework on Rebiya Kadeer, you go into the same trap youself on Dalai Lama’s security. You obviously haven’t done the minimum of homework regarding the history of threats to Dalai Lama. Great that you reference GT as a source for forming your opinion on Tibet. Because then people know they cannot take you seriously on Tibet. I recommend that you read what Chinese local and regional leaders say on Tibet (in Chinese), rather than reading GTs satirical, ironic and morally disgusting comments in english targeted at western journalist and bloggers such as yourself.  Gendun

Dave Responds:

Dear Random Web Guy: Fair point on the Dalai Lama’s comments, and it was certainly not on the epic fail level of Rebiya’s foot shot. I will say, however, that the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan movement pioneered the strategy of focusing entirely on Western opinions and governments and paying no attention to the messages they send (intentionally or not) to Chinese citizens, who ultimately will be the real arbiters of the fate of minorities in China – especially if a democracy somehow comes into being.

As I said, I am not thrilled with finding I agree with something in Global Times, but occasionally they accidentally publish something that resembles a logical point: why go through all that trouble? Go back and read the Wired post on the practicality of contact poisons. If I were the Chinese, why not just shoot His Holiness and frame Dorje Shugden Devotees Charitable and Religious Society (DSDCRS), which, as the link you sent points out, has already murdered three monks close to the Dalai Lama including his Chinese translator?


Hi guys. Love your blog. I’m casually studying Chinese in Harbin while making just enough off English teaching to support my self-imposed medical-style vacation in China. This week I hit an emotional trough reading China Daily, and the five mao comments. The topic, China’s human rights report on the US. While seemingly mostly factual, the tone was retaliatory. Like a shamed little boy. “I may have eaten the last cookie, but I saw you at the movie theater with that girl mummy doesn’t like”. Please, please, please write something to help me through this difficult time. The time will come when I can’t stand China anymore. But since I also love being here, I hope that day is a long way off. Foreign sites responding to the Chinese report are few, and mostly dismissive. Chinese Internet freedom of speech is… ok it isn’t. I need some intelligent perspective on the issue so I can forget about it and get on with tolerating living here. My emotional harmony is in your hands.

You have type-2 Chinabetes. You need to carefully monitor your intake of China-related news and commentary. We suggest restricting it to reading this blog and this blog alone. We also prescribe a healthy diet of fun, breezy modern western novels (Get a Kindle, or even better a Nook!), at least 2 hours of pointless video game playing a day, and if at all possible, recreational activities with other people that don’t involve alcohol or bitching about China, such as soccer, mahjong, karaoke, musical theater, or  drift racing.


The one final post on Yang Rui reminded me of how I was watching an English competition back in 2008 in which one of the judges was Tian Wei, the other host of Cross Talk who often takes a very “Glorious China, Evil/Stupid everyone else” type of condescending tone of voice when talking to guests. During the Q&A Session she asked one contestant a question as if to suggest he doesn’t know anything about the subject and she knows everything. The first words out of this man’s mouth were “Let me tell you why you are wrong.” If I could track this guy down I would buy him a bottle of Qingdao and tell him how great it was that he made this woman publicly lose enough face to need a plastic surgeon.

Win little victories.


In case you’re interested….

The most popular posts from May on the site:

It’s Not Just Yang Rui by Brendan O’Kane

The Devil’s Air Conditioner and other Tales of Woe by Will Moss

“Authorization Modernization always works until it quite suddenly doesn’t” by Jeremiah Jenne

Melissa Chan does not Compute by The Editors

An Expat Comes back from the Homeland by Dave Lyons

Pofu or no Pofu Yang Rui is just an Idiot by YJ


We were also grateful to have our posts picked up and linked to by a number of China blogs including The Analects (Economist), The China Real Time Report (Wall Street Journal), James Fallows (The Atlantic Monthly), and The New York Times.  Jeremiah was quoted in The Global Post and the New York Times this past month, and Internet oracle Rebecca Mackinnon gave a nice shout out to Dave in her latest piece for Foreign Policy.


Finally the top search topics for April/May at Rectified.name were:

bo guagua

Yang Rui

Bo Xilai

Gu Kailai

Bo Guagua Ferrari

Game of Thrones Chinese Title

Sheng Keyi

Nick Heywood

Instagram in China


All of which make some sense, unlike these search terms which somehow led the strange, the needy, and the possibly mentally ill to our site over the past two months:

write pretzel in chinese & pinyin

can you go on instagram in china

Yang Rui foreign bitch

china cannibalism blood medicinal

can get browsing history from my girlfriends instagram?

convincing others to do violence for me

william moss totally venal (NB: Will has asked his ex girlfriends to stop Googling him.)

jacques martin cologne

two asses with glasses on chinese shivering

intestine hangs out at dothraki wedding screenshots (Our bad – this was in our keywords.)

So, bye bye Bo Xilai. Tripped up by your wife and a dead Lao Wai.


On the scale of falling from the Party’s graces, the news of Bo Xilai’s ouster and the criminal investigation of his wife and associates ranks somewhere between “Zhao Ziyang getting Fredo Kissed by Deng Xiaoping in 1989″ and “Lin Biao hitting Outer Mongolia at 1000 MPH.” It’s certainly the most spectacular – and public – booting of a high ranking CCP official since 1989.[1] Bo’s naked ambition and high profile all but guaranteed that when he fell it was going to leave more than just a plane-sized divot in the Mongolian turf.

For nearly two months after the “Lin Biao Affair” in September, 1971, the Party was able to keep a lid on the story, knowing how confused people would be to hear the Mao’s closest comrade at arms and chosen successor had in fact tried to betray the Chairman and then died in the act of defecting to the Soviet Union.[2]  By contrast, the Party’s attempts to control the Bo Xilai story over the past few months has been like watching drunk chimps try to make wall art with a bucket of jello and a couple of nail guns.

The problem with rumors is that they’re usually not true.  The problem with rumors in China is that people believe them anyway because most people know that the ‘state media’ is nothing but an enormous firehose of steaming donkey shit. The problem with rumors in China NOW is that wild suppositions which at first glance seemed too crazy to be true turned out to be pretty accurate.

Last week the government made Sina, Baidu, and Tencent pull down their pants, lube up, and swear that they would help guide public opinion and participate in the fight against the spreading of online rumors.  Good luck with that.  At this point Boxun could probably run a photo of Wen Jiabao dressed in a gimp costume dipping chunks of Mao’s corpse in gutter oil hotpot while singing “American Pie”, and people are going to say, “Well, that shit about Wang Lijun was nuts, and look how that turned out. I dunno, this could be true as well…”

Global Times editor Hu Xijin both on Weibo last night and in the paper this morning has been gloating about how this whole mess is really a testament to China’s rule of law.  You see, we foreigners have it all wrong.  We look at the situation and see a high-ranking Party official who ran his own personal fiefdom while torturing his enemies and allowing his wife to take become the Tony Montana of Chongqing.[3]  What we’re missing is the part where…No, I don’t think we’re missing anything here.  That’s pretty much what happened.

It’s not rule of law if everybody’s doing it and you only oust the people who piss on the shoes of the top leadership. It’s not rule of law if every case of corruption is due to a lack of personal virtue on the part of the official with nary a word about the system that allows this kind of venality to flourish. It’s not rule of law if the police chief of a major city has to threaten to defect in order to get the attention of the central government.

As one Weibo user put it:

对胡锡进这条微博,看到两条神吐槽:1、什么屎到了胡老师嘴里都能吃出甜味来 2、主人的飞盘甩得再远,胡老师都能给她叼回来

“Two takes on Hu Xijin’s tweet. 1) Master Hu has a knack for finding the tasty morsels in any turd you stick in his mouth. 2) No matter how far his masters throw the Frisbee, Master Hu will always fetch it back for them.”

Lin Biao’s fall from grace marked the beginning of the end of the Cultural Revolution and, indeed, the Mao era.  It forced too many people to confront the very real possibility that the Party had been jerking them around for years.

People today are already very cynical.  The government’s annoucement of Bo Xilai’s dismissal and the investigation into his family and associates – essentially confirming rumors that for months the censors have been working overtime to squash – just might be one of those moments.

[1] Hu Jintao’s orchestrated ouster of Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu in 2006 probably comes the closest, but even then Chen didn’t have 1/10th of Bo Xilai’s charisma or pathological need for the spotlight.

[2] Which is how the Party spun the whole “Holy Shit, Lin’s gone Rogue!” story.

[3] Although to be fair, the focus on Gu Kailai (or as CCTV keeps calling her, Bogu Kailai) seems awfully similar to the way women in Chinese history frequently get blamed for political disaster.  I’m not saying Yang Guifei, Cixi, Jiang Qing, or Gu Kailai are innocent lambs, but when the same script gets used every time it’s hard not to wonder. As Hung Huang wrote on her Weibo account last night, “In China, whenever men are bad it’s the woman’s fault.”

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.

Hung Huang: “When parents sneeze, it’s the children who catch the cold”


In Hung Huang’s latest column for the Nandu Zhoukan (Southern Metropolis Weekly) she recounts a harrowing memory from her childhood and wonders what might be in store for Bo Guagua.  

When parents sneeze, it’s the children who catch the cold.

So many years have passed and I haven’t thought about these things in a long time.  Even when people talk about it, it always felt like they were telling some other person’s story.  I don’t feel anything anymore.  But I know clearly that this was one of the most important moments in my life, one which profoundly influenced who I am.

The events of the past few days have been dazzling, and make me think about what happened back then.  In October of 1976, Qiao Guanhua took part in his last meeting at the United Nations.  Before he returned to Beijing, he called me to his room and told me, “Your mother and I might have a problem, and we need to “inoculate” you, you need to be mentally prepared.

I kind of knew about their political problem, but at the time I was only 15 years old, I had been in the United States for three years and I really didn’t know much about what was going on back in China.  I didn’t know what I would do if something happened to them politically. I didn’t even know how I should “prepare.” All I felt was this enormous, invisible hammer being held over my head which at any time could fall and crush me.

Several weeks later, my American host father Tony gave me a copy of the New York Times, the top article said that Qiao Guanhua had been sacked.

Tony asked, “What does this mean for you?”

All I could say in reply was, “I don’t know.”

A few months later, the Chinese UN Delegation phoned me, and told me that all children must return the delegation for “study.”

“You only need to go back every two weeks right?” asked Tony. “Why are they calling you in on a Thursday?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. I had the same question.

Tony couldn’t accept this. He was thinking about this more than I was, and immediately called the Chinese delegation, demanding to talk to the person in charge of managing the students.

I sat there dumbfounded watching him call, knowing my life was about to dramatically change.

After Tony hung up the phone he told me that all the children studying in America were to return to China, not just me.  But Tony still took time off on Thursday afternoon and we went together to see the delegation.  I remember the person who was in charge of me telling Tony that in just a few days I would be returning to China.

Tony became furious.  He banged the table saying, “Who do you think we are? Who do you think these children are? You say come they just come, you say go and they just go? Huang is part of our family; she can’t go just because you say she’s going.”

At this point, the person in charge of me left the room, telling me to talk to Tony.

“Do you wish to stay?” Tony asked me in a low whisper.

“Stay here?” I asked, although I knew perfectly well what he had said.

“Stay in America, I can raise you,” Tony whispered.

“No, I want to go back,” I said firmly.

“Why? Do you know what they will do to you when you go back?” He replied.

“I don’t know. But if I don’t go back my mother will be in a lot of trouble.”

At the time I only felt I must not “betray my country.”  If in addition to being lackeys of the Gang of Four, Qiao Guanhua and Zhang Hanzhi also had a traitor for a child they’d never be able to defend themselves.

After the meeting, a member of the delegation accompanied me back for my last trip to Tony’s house. I packed my belongings and said goodbye to the whole family.

I and three other exchange students, who like me had to leave school in the middle of the term, boarded a plane and returned to Beijing via Paris.

Once back in Shijia Hutong,[1] I lived in a little room near the garage. At the time, I felt I was treated much better than the children of the “Black Fifth Category.”[2]  I saw my mom once when my mom had been locked in the attic at the Foreign Ministry building.  At that time it wasn’t called “shuanggui” (detain and investigate) it was “quarantined for investigation.”  I also saw Qiao Guanghua once. He still lived in the back of our courtyard, supervised by a 12-person working group.  When he saw me, he just patted my head and didn’t say anything.  Later I learned that not long after he broke his glasses and tried to kill himself by slashing his wrists.

The next time I saw Qiao Guanhua and my mom was at the Worker’s Stadium during the the “Session to Struggle Against Qiao and Zhang of the Foreign Ministry.”   I was given a very good seat where I could be sure to see everything clearly.  The struggle session was held in the afternoon, with a circus being performed in the same space later that evening.  They had already set up the round wooden stage used for the bears and I saw Qiao Guanhua and my mother being pushed into the ring just like bears.  Then all the people in the stadium started screaming, “Down with Qiao Guanhua! Lackey of the Gang of Four! Down with Zhang Hanzhi!”

My teacher stared at me, a slight smile forming on his mouth.  I was stunned.  Even if I had been “inoculated” a hundred times, I could never have mentally prepared myself for what I was seeing unfold in front of me.

So many years have passed and I haven’t thought about these things in a long time.  Even when people talk about it, it always felt like they were telling some other person’s story.  I don’t feel anything anymore.  But I know clearly that this was one of the most important moments in my life, one which profoundly influenced who I am.

Last week, I couldn’t help but think about Bo Guagua. Did his father inoculate him? Did he know what was about to happen? Did his American friends try to convince him to stay in the United States? Will he stay?

At least there won’t be any struggle sessions.  I guess we can call that progress.

[1] Where Hung Huang’s mother and step-father lived at the time.

[2] Reactionaries.

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.

Bo knows Hollywood

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

JEREMIAH: Thanks for meeting with us today.

BRAD GREY: What’s the project?

BRENDAN: Bo Xilai.

HARVEY WEINSTEIN: Never heard of him.

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

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

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

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

BRENDAN: It DOES involve a dead Englishman.

HARVEY: I’m listening…

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

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

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

JEREMIAH: Neil Heywood

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

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

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

BRAD: Where have I heard that before?

BRENDAN: Backhouse.


HARVEY: Bo finds out and has the guy killed?

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

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

BRENDAN: But he has a change of heart…

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

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

BRAD: Why not “Iron Fist Choo”?

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

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

BRAD: And then what?

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

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

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

HARVEY: Bo in a cell plotting his comeback.

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

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

BRENDAN: Actually, that’s just Jeremiah.

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

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

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

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

BRENDAN: There’s a son

HARVEY: Tell me about him.

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

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

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

BRAD: What’s he saying?

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

HARVEY: What the does that even mean?

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

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

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


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

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

JEREMIAH: So what do you think?

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

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

BRENDAN: We got it from the Wall Street Journal.

HARVEY: Oscar Gold!

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


Robin Arryn: Mom make the little man fly now?

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

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


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

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

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

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


Eddard Stark: Who do you serve?

Varys: I serve the realm. Someone must.

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Winter is coming…

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Tyrion: And here we have Bronn, son of…

Bronn: You wouldn’t know him.

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

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


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

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

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

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

Which brings me of course to Bo Xilai.

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Ned: You’ve chosen your opponents wisely.

Jaime: I have a knack for it.

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

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


Ned: War was easier than daughters.

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


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

Robb Stark: Well, that makes it simple then.

Catelyn Stark: I suppose it does.

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

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

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

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

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


Click here for Part 2.

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

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

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

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

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

Thar Be Dragons


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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