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Archive for the tag “Media Coverage of China”

Is Mo Yan a Stooge for the Chinese Government?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Last Scoundrels

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

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

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

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

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

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

The essayist writes:

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

Later she laments:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————————————-

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

Read more…

Good News! The Press is Out to Get You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound familiar?

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

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

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

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

See also:

On the Al Jazeera situation:

On the difficulty of reporting in China:

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

Melissa Chan does not compute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————————————————————————–

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

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

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

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

[Laughter]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something rags like The Global Times fail to understand.

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

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

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

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

Issac writes:

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

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

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

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

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

She will be missed.


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

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

Peking Opera Masks and the London Book Fair

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

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

Some examples, chosen entirely non-randomly:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

But!

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

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


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

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

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

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.

Pushing up the Daiseys: Can a lie tell a greater truth?

I am huge fan of This American Life and I was surprised when I learned that they had produced a 57-minute episode retracting an earlier story from January featuring Mike Daisey describing his visit to Foxconn in South China.  I really admire their courage to face their mistakes and spend an entire episode explaining to their audience what happened. Their attitude and commitment to such a high standard of journalism impressed me. Not only do they set a good example for international media, but the Chinese media could learn from the professional way they handled what is every news organization’s nightmare – what to do when your correspondent turns out to be making things up?

I was disappointed that the original episode was fabricated.  As a former journalist, I have been to the factories in Shenzhen many times and was personally involved in researching and reporting on several stories about migrant workers in Shenzhen, although I haven’t been to Foxconn.   I’ve also followed these stories as covered by my former colleagues, most of whom have done a great job reporting on factory conditions and labor tensions in Chinese factories.  However, the first time I listened to this story I was on my way to work.  The entire way on the subway I was totally fascinated by Daisey’s theatrical, sometimes poignant sometimes humorous way, of presenting the story.  The problems of these workers came alive in a way I hadn’t heard before.  Like many people, I was particularly touched by the stories of disabled workers.  At the time, I thought it was one of the best pieces I had ever heard about migrant workers in China. As soon as I arrived in the office, I recommended the program to my husband and many friends.

Today, listening to Daisey’s confessions and defense, I have to say that I am not angry, and in fact I feel kind of bad for him. No doubt, This American Life is doing the right thing to uphold a higher standard for reporting and emphasize the distinction between a work for the theater and one produced for a show like TAL. However, to be honest, when I listened to the piece in January, I didn’t consider it serious journalism. This American Life frequently uses monologues on their show all the time.  The theatrical way that Daisey presented the show made me feel that it might be one of those shows even though it addresses a real serious issue in China.

While everybody is right that the guards at the factories never wear guns, the issues about migrant workers he addressed in the program are not fiction. Some workers are underage. Migrant workers do suffer from long work hours. Some factory workers get horribly injured and far too few have insurance.  The problems faced by migrant workers in China are real, even if some of the scenes in Daisey’s story were not.

Finally, I know that the popularity of Daisey’s show is quite unfair to many correspondents in China. Many of them have been covering the same issue for years. However, as a Chinese person I am  glad that the migrant workers’ issue finally  received so much attention in the US through a popular radio program, no matter if Daisey interviewed three or three hundred people. As long as he helped these workers to raise the public awareness, I am happy about it.

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