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Rectified.name June Mailbag

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

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

Why no comments?

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

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Subject: I Apologize if Anyone Felt Killed by William Moss

William,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s still time.

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

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

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

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

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

All the best, Blair

PS. William –

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

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

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

 

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

Dave Responds:

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

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

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

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

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

Win little victories.

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In case you’re interested….

The most popular posts from May on the site:

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

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

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

Melissa Chan does not Compute by The Editors

An Expat Comes back from the Homeland by Dave Lyons

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

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

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

bo guagua

Yang Rui

Bo Xilai

Gu Kailai

Bo Guagua Ferrari

Game of Thrones Chinese Title

Sheng Keyi

Nick Heywood

Instagram in China

 

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

write pretzel in chinese & pinyin

can you go on instagram in china

Yang Rui foreign bitch

china cannibalism blood medicinal

can get browsing history from my girlfriends instagram?

convincing others to do violence for me

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

jacques martin cologne

two asses with glasses on chinese shivering

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

I Apologize if Anyone Felt Killed

Apologies are an under-appreciated art. Most apologies crafted in the name of public relations sound intrinsically weaselly, often because the people making them are preoccupied with saving their prior reputation rather than getting past the mistake and rebuilding trust. I was reminded of this when I read Mike Daisey’s statement following L’affaire Daisey, which I reckon I don’t need to further explain to this audience. (If you’ve just emerged from decades frozen in an ice cave, click here. Also, get a haircut. Styles have changed.)

Here is what Mr. Daisey wrote:

 I apologized in this week’s episode to anyone who felt betrayed.

Did you see it? If not, I’ll explain in a moment.

Before I do, I should be clear: I’m not interested in a broader critique of Mr. Daisey’s work. That’s been done in so many other places that I’m too lazy to even go gather the links. Plus, I know it’s a rough gig in the performance artists. In 1974 Chris Burden crucified himself to a Volkswagen Beetle and had it driven around. So you can’t really have the same expectations of these people that you would of, say, your standard airline executive (much as you might want to crucify airline executives to moving vehicles).

But still, there it is, “…anyone who felt betrayed.” In four words, the two great sins of public apologies.

The first is the passive language. Now, I have no problems at all with passive voice in writing (or with starting sentences with conjunctions, or parentheticals, or many other things they told you were bad in your high school comp class). But that passive language is such a trope of public apologies that we pretty much take it for granted these days. It’s so common that Wikipedia has an entry on it. Vanity Fair, also citing Wikipedia, has a small collection of examples. “We apologize if anyone was offended,” was even trotted out recently by Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream in response to the (silly) Linsanity flavor scandal.

The second (and I must thank my partner in crime, Brendan O’Kane for this) is the use of the word “felt.” The passive voice subtly shunts responsibility onto the victim. The use of “felt” suggests that problem itself doesn’t even exist, and is merely some kind of unfortunate vapor or misunderstanding. You felt betrayed, but I didn’t actually betray you.

Lawyers may like apologies that don’t include a categorical admission of responsibility, but from a public communication point of view they come off as pro-forma, passive-aggressive dissembling that shifts at least some of the blame onto the injured parties. You can see how this works by replacing the standard corporate, public-conduct or ethno-gender-religious sensitivity malfeasance that people are usually apologizing for with something more heinous. I like to use a steamroller homicide, for no other reason than I appreciate the image of a maniac rampaging through town with a steamroller. Plus, as far as I know, no one has ever actually been murdered with a steamroller, so we should be safely in the land of the hypothetical (although the Internet will probably prove me wrong*).

So imagine you’re a contrite steamroller maniac attempting to rebuild your reputation. What do you say?

“I apologize for running over those people with a steamroller.”

Hell no. That’s way too direct and honest. It could be mistaken for assumption of responsibility, which might let the healing begin. We can’t have that.

Try this on instead:

“I apologize if anyone was run over by a steamroller.”

Do you see how this small change embeds whole new levels of denial and distance into that short statement? Seriously, how dumb were those people to get run over by a steamroller? The freaking thing only moves two miles an hour! I mean, head on a swivel, grandpa, this is the big city!!! But, you, know, sorry and all.

Or, even better,

“I apologize if anyone felt killed by a steamroller.”

Because they might not actually be dead. They might just feel that way. By mistake.

What the heck, let’s go for broke and dispense with the apology altogether. Some light regret is enough for the masses:

“I regret that due to this unfortunate situation anyone felt killed by a steamroller.”

Better yet, let’s disembody the regret, so we’re not sure who’s actually doing the regretting. Could be your auntie doing the regretting. You don’t have anything to regret. You’re not a culpable steamroller maniac leaving a twelve-foot-wide trail of blood and flattened personal accessories behind you. You’re just misunderstood:

“It is regrettable if, due to this unfortunate situation, anyone felt deprived of life by a steamroller.”

Now that…that is PR gold. A non apology for the ages. I almost weep reading it back.

Update:

*The Internet has proved me wrong. Apparently our friends the North Koreans have used steamrollers as weapons. Hat tip: @samuel_wade.

Thar Be Dragons

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

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

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

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

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

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

崑崙南淵深三百仞。開明獸身大類虎而九首,皆人面,東嚮立崑崙上。開明西有鳳凰、鸞鳥,皆戴蛇踐蛇,膺有赤蛇。開明北有視肉、珠樹、文玉樹、玗琪樹、不死樹。

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

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

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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