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Archive for the tag “Chinese Politics”

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss? Xi Jinping and the future of political reform

The Super Seven – New members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo

by James Cuffe

Obama’s brief post-election message “Four more years.” became the most forwarded tweet of all time, but we won’t see a similar expression of delight on China’s weibo platform. Although people appreciated Xi Jinping for appearing warmer and more human than Hu Jintao, not a difficult task to be sure, there was less enthusiasm for his policies or for the future direction of political reform. The Party’s new leader received a positive – if cautious – welcome from China watchers and the media, but he is recognised more as a steady hand than as a reformist. The absence of Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao compounds the conservatism of the new team making it extremely unlikely we will see any major reforms over the next five years.

Li was appointed to the CCP Central Organisation Department in 2007 granting him the powers to modify the rules and framework for promotions within the party and is recognised as an advocate for political reform. Wang, through his experiences as Party Secretary of Chongqing and subsequent promotion to Party Secretary of Guangdong province (both regions economic powerhouses) showed him to favour economic reforms that are market orientated and business friendly. With these figures losing out we see political strategist Zhang Dejiang who was trained in economics in North Korea and Zhang Gaoli, a statistician with expertise in the oil industry making the leadership team. Both are supposedly protégés of Jiang Zemin.

Much is being written about Jiang Zemin’s recent public appearances and continued influence at the highest levels of informal politics. His recent appearances and presence at the Party Congress should be considered the norm. As a previous leader he offers a ‘guiding hand’ and ‘sage advice’ during such uncertain political practices – uncertain as the leadership transition process is still not well institutionalised. It suits foreign spectators who do not have full access to the processes that decide the leadership to turn the event into a factional power struggle between two opposing sides. (It is how we play and understand sports.) Examples of this are media reports citing the continued influence of Jiang Zemin represented in the new nominees. Jiang’s authority alternatively seen as an acquiescence by Hu Jintao and a sign of his weakness in the face of the old guard.

Too much can be read into factional support between the candidates. While factional politics is certainly at play, this largely plays out behind closed doors and speculating as to who is on which team can quickly turn analysis into guesswork. It is worth being aware that the seven men who walked out on stage on Thursday will know each other extremely well having worked together and moved in similar political circles for years if not decades. The overlap between factional politics and personal networks ensures that when one is emphasised over the other we will have more attractive, more defined conclusions albeit on far shakier ground. We need to resist the desire for neat answers in order to better understand processes that are not yet fully out in the open.

Liu Yunshan was considered a supporter of Bo Xilai and earlier this year there was a petition calling for Liu’s removal by 16 retired members of the CCP in Yunnan. Yu Zhengshen’s brother defected to the United States in the 1980’s being denounced as a traitor yet both Liu and Yu have made the top seven despite these events. These facts point to the difficulty in knowing how relationships are played out politically within the CCP and at times how the importance of personal networks wins out over both ideology and factional politics.

Wang Qishan appears to be taking the discipline portfolio, a hint that some attempt is being made to tackle corruption, His financial expertise would lend him to reforming the financial sector but as the team appears conservative and his appointment to the disciplinary office might suggest he is better able to enforce some manner of curtailment of the endemic corruption eating the CCP from the inside.

Seven men, no women; to many people the absence of the only female candidate will be a surprise. Liu Yandong ticked all the boxes for a promotion and it is hardly her gender that kept her out in the end. The argument for her inclusion highlighted her contacts to both major political factions, family ties to Jiang Zemin and professional ties to Hu Jintao via the Communist Youth League. With Bo Xilai’s removal there appeared to be a space for contention between her and Wang Yang yet neither in the end were successful. Gender at such a high level of politics with so much at stake is not as relevant as one’s power base and personal networks and ability to command authority. Presumably she was out-manoeuvred or even uninterested in the closing months.

The most interesting aspect of the new line up is the ability for the Xi-Li partnership to bring in a new team in five years time when all but these top two Standing Committee members will have to retire. It allows Xi-Li to enact a real legacy over the fortunes and direction the PRC will take during the next decade. And the next decade is shaping up to be a tumultuous one. The challenges that China faces are many and are changing year on year. At the next Party Congress in 2017 there is a window of opportunity for the leadership to change direction more radically. Their power and authority will have infiltrated the lower echelons of the Chinese political world. In five years time there will be a generational shift in China with those born in the 1980’s entering their late 30’s – not having the memories of China that the current leadership are wary of.

Xi Jinping is all too aware the dangers that mass campaigns and poor governance can bring. During his speech Xi stated: “To be turned into iron, the metal itself must be strong.” – a clear reference to the experiences of those under the Great Leap Forward and his own  experiences. During the Cultural Revolution he was “sent down” to the countryside living in a cave while his father – purged by Mao – spent 16 years imprisoned. A period of history he has referred to as a mood:

In the past when we talked about beliefs, it was very abstract. I think the youth of my generation will be remembered for the fervour of the Red Guard era. But it was emotional. It was a mood. And when the ideals of the Cultural Revolution could not be realised, it proved an illusion.”

– Interview with CCTV in 2003

Such quotes about darks periods of Chinese history show a willingness to engage diplomatically with China’s shadows. Before China can truly enter a new stage of development, China needs to come to terms with her past. Xi has the experience, the memories, and ten more years to do so.

James Cuffe is an anthropologist interested in the impact communications technology has on social change, specifically interested in current developments in China. Currently associated with IES Abroad in Beijing, Irish Institute of Chinese Studies at University College Dublin and Editor of the Journal of International Political Anthropology.

Hu Jintao and the Ghost of Mao

Hu Jintao is wandering the Great Hall of the People during his last nights in power.  Drunk on baijiu and hubris…he hallucinates that he sees Mao before him…

Yo Mao! I would tell you we only changed the drapes but actually we messed up your whole world.

Sure there might be a couple of useless tools who run a bookstore and (until recently) a website called Utopia…they’re still into you, but the rest of the kids who spent their formative years shoveling shit while you were sampling teenage minority girls now have their own children to think of, ones with investment portfolios and overseas addresses.

(Any Leftist wannabes unhappy with my brand of Socialism should just let me know and I’d be happy to ship their pseudo-intellectual asses to Pyongyang.   The North Koreans will work them like $5 Tijuana hookers on rent day.)

25 years at “The Helm” and all you left us with is a bunch of buttons, a warehouse of red books, and a signed souvenir photo of Henry Kissinger in drag.

And it could have been worse!  Jesus, best thing that ever happened to this country was your kid getting blown up in Korea.  A Mao Dynasty?   I wake up at night in a hot sweat sometimes just thinking about it.

Your morbidly obese grandson keeps running around protecting your legacy and for some reason the PLA brass keeps promoting him.  Frankly, when they get enough tin on his chest we’ll use it for ballast and drop him in the Bohai Gulf.  Screw the brass. They never liked me anyway.

(Maybe I’ll nuke Hanoi just to mess with them.  HowulikemenowPLAbeeyatches!!!!)

Everything we built is DESPITE YOU.  You crazy paranoid syphilitic bastard.  My society is harmonious.  Your idea of harmony was tuning up Liu Shaoqi by having your goons apply an iron pipe to different parts of his cancer-riddled body.  No wonder Lin Biao wanted to snuff you. If it wasn’t for the druggy son, he might have succeeded. After all, you were pretty out of it toward the end.   Papa Doc Kissinger once told Deng Xiaoping that the only time he ever saw anybody shake that badly was when Judy Garland played the White House while trying to quit Quaaludes.

Because you see…nobody liked you.  We still love Deng.  Saved the country.  Lifted millions out of poverty and definitely knew his way around a tank division.  And you? I’m seriously considering my last act to be ordering your orange desiccated corpse ground up and flushed down a hutong.

Wait…where are you going?  Damn hallucinations wearing off.  I have more to say.  Xi Jinping likes women’s clothes!  We once tricked Wen Jiabao into embracing a fully-erect capuchin monkey by telling him it was a suffering earthquake victim!  Bastard!

I will not fade into history.  I WILL NOT FADE!!!

How Shanghai Saved the Jews

I spent National day in Shanghai with my family, our first leisure trip back since we lived there in 2007. Like Beijing, Shanghai has caught a serious case of fabulous in the past five years. The French Concession, already precious when I lived there, now has more coffee houses, boutique bakeries and fashionable bars per hectare than San Francisco’s Mission District, which is no mean feat given SOMA’s hipster factor.

Case in point: the street behind the apartment I lived in while I was in Shanghai used to be a wet market where you could have your Sunday chickens slaughtered and plucked while-u-wait (very convenient). It’s now a strip of coffee houses, boutique bakeries and fashionable bars. The apartment block itself is as dingy and miserable as ever, but I’m sure rents have gone up.

I have no philosophical objection to this transformation. Wet markets and Shanghai summers go together exactly like you’d expect a bunch of unrefrigerated animal carcasses, dismembered frogs and fish innards to go with 35C temperatures and relentless humidity. And I have a taste for coffee and fine baked goods. Anyway, such is progress.

My mom, who had never been to Shanghai, was in tow, so we made a round of The Sites, braving the staggering holiday crowds at the Bund, Luzjiazui, and so on. But one place where the crowds were not staggering was the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, in stubbornly un-fabulous Hongkou district. Jews, it turns out, have an extensive history in Shanghai, originating from the Iraqi Jews who established trading houses there in the 19th century. Although I’m not observant, I am mostly Ukrainian Jew by ethnicity — Moss comes from my great grandfather, Abraham Mosiusnik, who emigrated at the turn of the 20th century — so it seemed something worth exploring.

Before and during World War II tens of thousands of Jews fled Europe and arrived in Shanghai. Stateless, and disconnected from the established Jewish communities, they were settled in a ghetto in Hongkou, north of Suzhou Creek. Constructed in 1927, the elegant, brick Ohel Moishe synagogue served the Russian Jewish refugee community in the ghetto. About ten years ago it was converted to a museum with the support of the Shanghai city government.

I don’t generally hold Chinese museums in high regard (though there are some exceptions, such as the Shaanxi Provincial Museum in Xi’an). Many Chinese museums have spectacular artifacts, whether lacquerware or locomotives, but, regardless of language, they are often bad at explanation and storytelling and beholden to the imperatives of The Official Narrative. This is a minor tragedy. The Forbidden City should be one of the great museums of the planet. It’s not. It’s a glorious structure holding a bunch of disconnected and poorly explained stuff. And, no, it’s not because Chiang Kai Shek took a lot of the good stuff to Taiwan (although he did).

Following a Chinese volunteer docent on a tour, it didn’t take long to see that the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum suffers from a variety of the Chinese museum syndrome. Among other things, the tour led off with a comprehensive review of the awards and honors that have been bestowed upon the museum by Jewish groups and diplomats, and a recounting of the Chinese notables who have graced the premises. Always a worrying sign.

The museum does, however, have a very clear and effectively transmitted narrative. It is this: the east-European Jewish refugees were saved by the charity and benevolence of China, welcomed in Shanghai when the so-called leaders of the free world, the United States and the United Kingdom, turned them away. This point is drummed home by multiple exhibits, including a brief but eye-catching movie presented on multiple overlapping translucent screens.

The story is accurate, insofar as it goes, but as with many Chinese museums the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum is interesting less for what it includes than for what it elides. For example, it is true that Shanghai accepted the Jewish refugees at a time when the US and UK shamefully didn’t. But that was because Shanghai didn’t require an entry visa, so anyone could (and did) land there. Left unmentioned is that the open borders were the result of Shanghai’s status as foreign treaty port under the infamous Treaty of Nanking (the same one that ceded Hong Kong to the British after the First Opium War – and we know how the Chinese felt about that).

Also absent is a full explanation of the reason why the Hongkou Jewish ghetto wasn’t liquidated late in the war, as the Germans were demanding. The decision to spare the Jews was made by the Japanese, who actually administered the city during the war. As the story goes, the Japanese were persuaded by the Shanghai rabbi Shimon Sholom Kalish. When asked by the Japanese government why the Germans hated Jews, the rabbi replied it was because, “we are orientals.” Or words to that effect; exactly what he said is a matter of dispute. But Chinese museums aren’t in the business of giving credit to the Japanese. It’s not their thing.

Finally, due recognition is given to Ho Fengshan, the Chinese diplomat in Vienna who defied the orders of his superiors and distributed possibly thousands of exit visas to European Jews, allowing them to depart Europe for Shanghai. Nowhere, as far as I recall, is it mentioned that he was a Nationalist diplomat (or that he retired to the United States). This strikes me as a missed opportunity, given that defying the orders of your Nationalist superiors in support of something the Communists claim as a triumph would seem worth mentioning. (It’s also possible I misremember that display, as I didn’t take notes when I was there.)

Whether or not the museum is worth a visit depends upon what you’re looking for. The ghetto is still there, in a row of tenements with graceful, Georgian facades, but it’s an unreclaimed Chinese ghetto now. The building housing the Ohel Moishe synagogue is beautiful, and some of the exhibits are interesting despite the layer of Chinese-style political correctness. The third floor is a sort of mini-Holocaust museum, which doesn’t add much to the story of the Jewish refugees in Shanghai, but does illustrate the perfidy of Europeans toward each other and explains why the refugees fled. The history of the Jews in Shanghai is genuinely interesting, and I was inspired by the museum to learn more about it, which is a good thing.

Ultimately the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum may teach you less about the Jewish ghetto in wartime Shanghai than about how the Shanghai government wants to use that part of history in service of its own agenda. Still, if you’re willing to read between the lines, that’s pretty interesting in itself.

Hongkou Ghetto

In the ghetto…

 

Sacred Maos

Communiques from the CCP Politburo tend to be of interest to only the most committed China scholar or the most wretched insomniac.  With the 18th Party Congress just two weeks away, however, several recent policy statements including an article in the Chinese Communist Party’s main ideological journal Qiu Shi (Seeking Truth) on October 16 have managed to attract attention for what they fail to mention: reference to Mao Zedong Thought.

The theories of Deng Xiaoping and the concept of “Scientific Development” associated with Hu Jintao remain, but the absence of Mao has led to a round of speculation as to what the omission might mean for the upcoming 18th Party Congress.

Some see this as a sign that the Party intends to commit itself to deeper reform than was previously thought. On Monday, the Party announced plans to amend its constitution and several statements issued in the last two weeks have emphasized the need for greater reform and touting the Party’s commitment to “democracy” during the upcoming congress.  This has led to even wilder speculation that the party may be planning to drop Mao from the constitution altogether.

There are also suggestions that the omissions are the result of doctrinal feuds between competing Party factions, noting that Chongqing’s deposed Party Secretary Bo Xilai once wrapped his brand of leftist populism in the garb of Maoist nostalgia, the most famous example of which was urging citizens to sing “red songs” usually associated with the 1960s and the Cultural revolution.

But the decision to cut Mao from a few articles or party documents is not news. In the early 1980s, the Party rendered its historical verdict on the Mao years, proclaiming the Great Helmsman to have been 70% correct and 30% incorrect, even as Deng Xiaoping and his protégés were working to dismantle major parts of Mao’s legacy.  Since that time references to Mao Zedong Thought have been in steady decline, reduced mostly to boilerplate attached to speeches and Party documents.

The actual moment of their disappearance from key Party-published materials, while eye-catching, does not mark any major political shift away from current policies.  Rather it is a matter of rhetoric catching up with reality.  It was long time ago that the Party jettisoned the concept of class-based revolution in favor of gradualist reform.

Dropping Mao from a few documents is not a harbinger of great change, nor does it mean that the specter of Mao does not still loom large over Chinese politics.

Just last month, anti-Japan demonstrators held up portraits of Mao as they marched. The unspoken but unsubtle message to China’s leaders: The Chairman would never have let Japan get away with claiming our islands. Perhaps coincidentally the government called for an end to the protests a few days later. Mao’s image is often used by farmers protesting the seizure of their land by corrupt officials. He appears hanging from the rear-view mirrors of taxi cabs. Mao’s birthplace in Hunan sees millions of visitors each year. Every morning in Tiananmen Square, hundreds of people wait in line for a chance to enter his mausoleum and pay their respects. Many elderly Chinese, even those who suffered during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, see Mao as representing a simpler time, free from the corruption, avarice and inequality of today’s China.

 

While the Party may sometimes try to mask the traces of “Mao Zedong Thought” left in its DNA, it can never completely abandon the man himself. At the height of his paranoia, Mao feared that his fellow leaders would do to him what Khrushchev had done to Stalin. When Chinese president Liu Shaoqi was removed from power during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, he was denounced for being—among other things—“China’s Khrushchev”. Yet the Party’s present dilemma suggests that Mao might have been worrying needlessly. Nikita Khrushchev could denounce Stalin because Khrushchev was always able to appeal to the ghost of Vladimir Lenin. Mao’s successors have no such luxury.

 

For good or ill, Mao is credited with founding the country and being the Party’s original leader. To denounce him is to undermine its historical legitimacy. Little wonder that the National Museum of China, which occupies most of the eastern flank of Tiananmen Square, contains room after room devoted to the horrors of imperialism, and to the glories of Deng’s Reform and Opening era, but relegates both the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap to a single black-and-white photograph each.

 

Mao continues to mean something in today’s China, but his absence from Party pronouncements is not as significant as some would suggest. It reflects the CCP’s ongoing effort to emphasize the progress and reforms made beginning with Deng Xiaoping. The 18th Party Congress is historic for marking the first generation of leadership chosen without the involvement of the revolutionary generation. Whether their ghosts linger to haunt the new leadership is another matter altogether.

Hong Kong’s Daddy Issues

If the Hong Kong-PRC relationship were a marriage, it would be Ashton and Demi.[1]  Face it. The only crazier math than “One Country + Two Systems” is “27-year-old actor marries actress 15 years his senior with 3 kids and a psychotic ex-husband.” It was only a matter of time before Hong Kong – I mean, Ashton – started stepping out on his own leaving Demi/Beijing to wallow in a growing pile of recrimination, hurt feelings, and used whippet canisters.

When a marriage goes this badly, there’s not much left to do except see how profoundly you can fuck up the children.

This past Sunday, thousands of demonstrator marched to protest the “National Education Curriculum” planned for Hong Kong public school students.  The new materials, modeled after the “Patriotic History” taught in mainland schools since the early 1990s, have drawn sharp criticism from Hong Kong citizens concerned that it amounts to little more than pro-CCP brainwashing.

Who do you love, kids?  Tell the nice man.

First of all, the timing sucked. This has been a weird year for identity politics in the SAR.  In January, researchers at the University of Hong Kong released the results of a poll – one which has conducted every year since 1997 – that found nearly twice as many residents preferred to identify themselves as “Hong Kongers” as opposed to “Chinese.”  A month later, a bitter spat erupted on the InterWeb over a video showing Mainlanders cavalierly eating on the Hong Kong MTR and berating fellow passengers for not speaking Mandarin.  The kerfuffle reached a new low when an advertisement appeared in a Hong Kong newspaper depicting mainlanders as locusts and that reliable source of patriotic douchebaggery Kong Qingdong took another giant steaming dump on his family’s legacy by calling out Hong Kongers as “British Running Dogs.”

Earlier this month the carefully choreographed 15th Anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to the Motherland was upstaged by irate Hong Kongers who took to the street to protest…just about everything. C.Y. Leung. Hu Jintao. The Mainland. Housing Prices. The stagnant economy. The disturbing trend of people dying their dogs to look like pandas. Whatever.

While the new curriculum was in the works long before Beijing started sleeping on the couch, the Hong Kong government handled the announcement with all the subtlety of a fart in a bathysphere.  A fart which got just a little juicier when Jiang Yudui, a member of the pro-Beijing Civic Education Program, proclaimed that some brains did indeed need washing.

Parents were furious, opposition lawmakers smelled an opportunity for cheap publicity, and before you could say “But we saved you from the British you ungrateful curs” the streets of Hong Kong filled again with demonstrators this time waving signs channeling Pink Floyd (“We Don’t Need No Thought Control’) and wearing black and white to show, you know, that people in Hong Kong understand right from wrong.

Patriotic Education is of course nothing new in the mainland. Two decades ago CCP leaders – with their characteristic blend of denial, stupidity, and blinkered batshit paranoia – attributed the 1989 Tiananmen Demonstrations to a “failure of propaganda.” Basically all those kids in the 1980s who were reading “Pride and Prejudice” and listening to “Country Roads” needed to be reminded that Jane Austen and John Denver were the opium-soaked faces of naked aggression.  Oh, yeah and that Fang Lizhi was a bad, bad man.

The goal of “Patriotic Education” in mainland schools, at least in principle, is to boost the nation’s spirit, enhance national cohesion, foster national pride, and to rally the massses’ patriotic spirit to “build Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.”  In practice this means highlighting the crimes committed against the Chinese people by foreign imperialists and traitorous collaborators while skipping over atrocities of a more domestic vintage such as the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution.

Now, I have no problem with calling out the imperialist powers for the damage they did to China in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Even the most gung-ho British apologist has to admit that going to war to turn South China into a Victorian-era version of Hamsterdam is pretty messed up.  Nobody should want to gloss over that or any of the other humiliating and atrocious crimes committed against China during the 100 years from 1840 to 1949.  But the problem with “Patriotic Education” is that focusing all the attention on “China the Victim” does little to actually encourage students to love their country or nation, instead it teaches them to fear and loathe other people while giving sole credit for all that is good and glorious in China today to the Party.

Lucien Pye once wrote that China is a “civilization masquerading as a state.” Allowing for a generous dollop of overgeneralization, the basic problem Pye identified would have been immediately familiar to Sun Yat-sen and other early state builders.  Before China could rise again, it needed to be unified. William Callahan, in his book The Pessoptimist Nation, argues that at the time nationalism based on shared culture, language, or ethnic identity would have been problematic because the Qing Empire was made up of many ‘national’ groups with almost nothing in common and little incentive to stick together.  Forging a nation would require the artificial imposition of a higher form of identity, one which eschewed narrow definitions of nationalism in favor of a strong shared identification with The State and, ultimately, The Party.

The new Hong Kong curriculum describes the Chinese Communist Party as “progressive, selfless, and united” while criticizing as sloppy and inefficient multi-party systems like the United States and, presumably, Hong Kong.  It presents history as a morality tale of venal foreigners with their native lackeys being defeated by the Party.  Historical actors are either “Patriotic Heroes” or “Race Traitors,” a sensitive subtext for a city which spent nearly 160 years under foreign rule and which continues to pride itself on being a bastion of cosmopolitanism.

Unfortunately for Hong Kong, it can’t just pull an Ashton and spend anniversaries cavorting with naked blondes in a $4000/night suite at the San Diego Hard Rock.  In fact, it can’t even move out of the house, so instead the uneasy coexistence between Hong Kongers and Beijing will continue while the grown-ups fight endlessly over just what to tell the children…

 


[1] Will suggests Tom and Katy because of the whole Scientology-brainwashing thing. I disagree. That’s over the top even for the CCP.  There’s crazy. Tanks in the Square crazy. Great Leap Forward backyard steel furnace crazy.  And then about three levels beyond that you get Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

I’ll Be the Judge of the Air Quality in These Parts

When I was young, lithe* and had elastic knees I studied the Japanese martial art Aikido. Aikido is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, despite what you saw in all those Steven Segal movies, it is very much bound with a philosophy of acting in defense only. Second, in keeping with that philosophy, much of Aikido is designed around using an attacker’s energy against him. The harder you swing, the more you give an Aikido master to work with.

The Vice-Minister of Environmental Protection swung hard two days ago when he called out the US Embassy for monitoring air quality and publishing the results through its well-known @BeijingAir Twitter feed. The Vice-Minister said:

“Some foreign embassies and consulates in China are monitoring air quality and publishing the results themselves. It is not in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, as well as environmental protection regulations of China.”

For “some foreign embassies” you may read, “The Embassy of the United States of America,” which launched its Twitter feed back in 2008, that marvellous Olympic year when everything seemed possible.

The Chinese government first complained about @BeijingAir in 2009, so this isn’t a new issue. The latest demand seemed like a classic soft-power own-goal: a prickly and legalistic attack on a service many people, foreigners and locals alike, rely upon. Journalist James Fallows, who has written at length on China’s soft power challenges, summed it up: “The country is better than this.” But leave it to the US State Department, which runs the embassy, to take the Ministry’s mighty swing and apply a little soft-power Aikido:

[State Department spokesman Mark Toner] denied on Tuesday that publishing US air quality readings was in violation of the Vienna Convention as far as he was aware. He also said that Washington would have no problem if Chinese embassies wanted to start monitoring air quality in the US capital and sending out their own reports.

That’s a nice bit of work, not only rejecting the legal argument but also reinforcing the relative openness of American society by extending a reciprocal invitation to the Chinese. Naturally, the Chinese wasted no time in declining the invitation and reiterating their argument:

The Chinese government has no interest in monitoring and releasing air-quality readings for US cities, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said at the ministry’s regular news conference on Wednesday.

“Foreign embassies and consulates are not legally qualified to conduct environmental monitoring and release this sort of data in China, nor do they have the professional capacity and conditions to do so,” Liu said. “

There is a less charitable reading of the US comments, which could be interpreted as rubbing in the faces of the Chinese that the US is fully developed and has awesome air. (I have no idea what the air in DC is like, but it’s undoubtedly better than here.) But given the expressed interests of the Chinese people in better air and better information, Mr. Toner’s invitation seems ultimately an effective and graceful way to redirect the energy of the Ministry’s attack.

What’s the Ministry’s main beef here? Is it legalistic? The Ministry claims that US monitoring is illegal under the convention that governs the establishment of diplomatic missions. Is it the publication of the data? Is it the application of international standards to the categorization of the data? Is it all of the above? Despite my admiration for the State Department response, the Chinese government does have some legitimate complaints. The US Embassy has only one monitor for an immense city. The Chinese have improved and expanded their own monitoring, including publishing hourly readings of PM2.5 information (see the second tab). And it is unfair to expect China to achieve today the same level of quality that the US had to implement the Clean Air Act to achieve. That was a 27 year process.

But air pollution in Beijing isn’t just bad, it’s Ben Hur chariot race epic. And it isn’t just pampered foreigners that care about the air, as a burst of Chinese outrage demonstrated last year. Despite a certain amount of desensitization, the air pollution issue in Beijing encroaches on two of the most sensitive areas of public communication: public health and your kids. For a public health risk communication program, trust and interpretation are critical. And they’re both at the heart of the reaction to @BeijingAir.

Trust is in short supply these days, as we’ve seen from the rumor campaigns, and anything that calls into question the level of trust invested in official government information is likely to be considered sensitive. I’d guess that the biggest thorn in the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s side is not just that the US government is tweeting its own air quality readings, but that its readings appear to be more trusted than MEP’s own. There have been several instances of divergence between the Chinese and US readings, and this is a country where data have a history of being suborned to politics, even in air quality. Every time the US results are conspicuously worse than the Chinese results, it’s a slap in the face.

Interpretation is what enables you to act on data.  AQI numbers and “micrograms per cubic meter” are pretty abstract without some kind of framework for interpretation. The Chinese framework (bottom of the first tab) is conspicuously more liberal than the US one. The Chinese “acceptable” limit for micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5 is up in territory that the US considers “unhealthy.” The Chinese AQI band for “moderately polluted” covers territory that any normal person considers awful. As for the bad days, the less said the better.

People will drive without seatbelts, drink themselves into the gutter and smoke a carton of Zhongnanhai Lights a day, and still get bent about the air quality. But air quality is an imposed risk, and people always react more forcefully to imposed risks than risks of choice. Especially when those risks are imposed on their children and aged parents. (At least air pollution isn’t exotic. You want to have a major crisis? Have an imposed exotic risk like a nuclear power plant disaster or pandemic.) In such situations, a conservative framework seems much more appropriate, but it is politically more dangerous because you spend more time with the needle in the outrage-generating red zone. It’s telling that although the Chinese government now reports hourly PM2.5 data there is no framework for interpreting it on the page. All you get is raw milligrams-per-cubic meter and an unexplained “limit” of .075 mg/m3 in the fine print at the bottom. Pretty binary. Meanwhile, @BeijingAir merrily tells you how you should feel about the air from hour to hour, using unfortunate words like “hazardous” when things get thick. And let us not forget the infamous and murky “crazy bad” episode.

Given that @BeijingAir is apparently both more trusted and painting a darker picture of the situation in Beijing, it seems likely that it will continue being a sore spot with the Chinese government. Maybe this is the real reason Twitter was blocked, although the rise of dozens of Chinese smartphone applications that relay proxied versions of the Twitter feed has rendered the block moot as far as @BeijingAir goes.

As for me, if I could pick one thing to change in Beijing, I’d fix the air quality. Beijing on a clear day is a genuinely nice city. The colors pop, the parks look beautiful and you can see a huge stretch of the mountains from my office. Also, I long ago gave up the martial arts for running, which I find similarly meditative and a lot less bruising. When I get up at 6AM the first thing I do is check the Chinese Android app that relays the latest @BeijingAir information to my phone in a very easy-to-interpret graphical format (it has a handy homescreen widget, too!). The information has to be hourly, and it has to be accurate. I have very strict rules: If AQI is below 100, I run. If it’s between 100 and 150 it depends on how long my planned run is and how long since my last run (the less running I have been able to do and the shorter my planned run, the more liberal I am). If it’s above 150, I go to the gym and lift weights instead.

I go to the gym a lot more than I used to, and I run a lot less. This sucks for my running and peace of mind, but on the bright side, check out the shoulders on me.

Another moderate day.

*OK, I was never really “lithe.”

It’s Not Just Yang Rui

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

“Authoritarian modernization always works until it quite suddenly doesn’t”

Among China watchers there has long been a holy schism/false dichotomy between those who argue China’s model is inherently doomed to fail and those who are more bullish about the future.  Where one stands in this debate can depend on a host of factors including (but not limited to):

  1. Political inclinations
  2. Confirmation of pet economic theories
  3. A pathological need to know that, deep down, my country/system of origin is just better.
  4. The extent of China-based investments (stocks, start-ups, restaurants, real estate, or modern art collections)
  5. Wanting to sell books, no matter how dubious the research
  6. Wanting to piss people off on Twitter, no matter how dubious the tweet
  7. Because blogging (Read: Writing for free) is much more rewarding when people hate you.
  8. Because the mustache needs feeding.

We need not name names but I think you get the idea.

Central to the debate is how an authoritarian, one-party government can continue to provide the benefits of economic growth, development, and modernization to a growing number of people while maintaining a tight grip on power.  Faced with this conundrum, most watchers react in one of five ways (and yes, I’m oversimplifying):

  1. It works. People are happy. Besides, what we are seeing is sui generis, past economic/historical models don’t apply.
  2. It kinda works. Most people are happy (especially if you have an urban hukou, some real estate, and good connections) but does anybody else think it’s weird that all my friends — especially those who claim to be so happy and that they support the government — are applying for Canadian citizenship?
  3. It works but it’s completely immoral.  People need democracy and human rights.  Waaaaahhhh.
  4. It doesn’t work.  It’s all a façade which will come crashing down in…wait…hold it…just a little bit longer…and….oops, one more second…let’s all count down together….3….2…1…1/2….1/4…..
  5. White people suck.

Sticking with number one, for a moment, while it’s hard to argue against the efficiency of the system, those who say that this is a novel and fresh approach to government tend to remind me of the people I knew in back in college who thought Guns ‘N Roses had written “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” (Best parallel metaphor, a friend who thought everybody else was an idiot, because he had the Clapton album with the “original version” on it. And again, I’m not naming names.)

Walter Russell Mead posted a long-ish piece yesterday on this very subject in which he argues:

Authoritarian modernization always works until it quite suddenly doesn’t; many observers hailed Stolypin’s reforms in late Czarist Russia and spoke in awe about Russia’s rapid industrial growth in the years before World War One. At Via Meadia we’re not able to give assign a date to the China correction that lies in store; the current slowdown could be a blip on the screen or the start of something more consequential.

I know there will be people (see above) who are going to nitpick Mead’s argument, but you have to give him credit, he attacks a basic supposition of contemporary China with a fury most people reserve for malfunctioning, poorly maintained office equipment* and there are sure to be plenty of people who are going to be upset by this comparison:

China babble has reigned among exactly the kinds of people who used to marvel at Hitler’s autobahns, Stalin’s steel mills, and Mussolini’s ability to make the trains run on time.

Nothing like risking invocation of Godwin’s Law to spark a little debate. For what it’s worth, I’m not quite as pessimistic as Mead, but I do think the cracks are showing and the incoming leadership will need to make some difficult political choices if it is to continue pursuing its twin goals of economic development and one-party rule.

—————–

*Even over a decade after I first saw it, few scenes in film history can make laugh out loud as reliably as this one.

The Last Scoundrels

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

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

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

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

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

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

The essayist writes:

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

Later she laments:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————————————-

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

Read more…

Good News! The Press is Out to Get You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound familiar?

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

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

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

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

See also:

On the Al Jazeera situation:

On the difficulty of reporting in China:

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

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