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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.

Facebook + Instagram + China = Take a Deep Breath

So, Facebook bought Instagram for a billion bucks. Awesome for those guys. I, alas, did not get rich in either of the Internet startups I participated in. But you can’t put a price on experience, right?

Deep sigh.

Anyway, Instagram is freely accessible here in China, at least for the moment, and apparently has a small but growing user base. It’s been limited to a certain slice of the China market by being an iOS-only app until last week. It may get picked up more now that it’s on Android as well, especially given Android’s whomping share of the smartphone market in China.

Because Instagram is accessible from China there has been some speculation that it might provide a back-door into the market for Facebook. Well, color me embarrassed, because when I looked at how Facebook might get into China a couple of weeks ago, one scenario I didn’t explore was Facebook buying another, unblocked western social network.

Instagram certainly functions as a posting back-door to both Facebook and Twitter. Instagram posts route to Facebook, Twitter and other social networks through Instagram’s unblocked servers (actually, Amazon’s cloud servers for the moment). There are similar middleman workarounds for posting on blocked social networks, such as Ping.fm, but none come close to providing full access to Twitter or Facebook. And, from what I can see, neither does Instagram. That’s important.

The question that wins you the brand new car is: Will Instagram now be blocked in China? The reason why you don’t have the car yet is that the answer is complicated. China doesn’t block all foreign social networks. It does block the established, heavy-hitting, horizontal sites like Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus. But many vertical social networks and newer sites are unblocked. I can get on LinkedIn, Quora, Path, Flickr and Pinterest just fine, without a VPN (your mileage may vary). I can even get on MySpace.

I cannot read the minds of the bureaucrats who decide what gets blocked and what doesn’t, and if I could I’d probably be in a position to be less wistful about the fates of the startups I joined. But there do seem to be a few key factors in determining who stays safely outside the firewall. These include size, perceived influence, how closely the network has been associated with political movements, power to function as tool of mass organization, and whether or not the network has been explicitly associated with content or activities that the Chinese government considers sensitive. On all three counts, I’d rate Facebook and Twitter considerably higher than the rest of the pack. As for Google Plus, I trust this audience doesn’t need much explanation.

So, what happens with Instagram now that it is part of planet Facebook?

It depends. Assuming people don’t suddenly start posting pictures that annoy the Chinese government, maybe nothing. At the moment, Instagram seems pretty harmless, and its one-way posting features to other social networks don’t look like a big red flag. Posts to Chinese social networks like Sina Weibo essentially outsource the content monitoring and censorship. Of course, Twitter once looked pretty harmless. In 2007 I even wrote a short article mocking its triviality, possibly betraying the lack of vision responsible for my current un-billionaire status. Twitter has been blocked for a while now. So much for harmless. The fact that Instagram is essentially mobile only has also probably helped keep it under the radar.

But if Instagram is integrated more tightly into Facebook’s core service and stops looking and feeling like an independent platform, then the risks go up fast. Everything hinges on where Facebook sees the value in Instagram, and whether or not it pulls Instagram into the mothership. The more integrated Instagram is, the more powerful it is as “back door into China” for Facebook, but the more likely it is to be blocked. And if Instagram is suddenly used to post a lot of pictures of a sensitive event in China, it might not even matter if Facebook doesn’t change a thing.

Meanwhile, local photo-sharing clones have been blossoming for a while. Early enthusiasm for foreign social networks in China does not reliably translate into long-term success, while mainstream success in China often does translate into closer scrutiny. Instagram may indeed be a back door into China for Facebook, but if it wants to stay open, it might have to stay a rather small door indeed.

Other links:

Instagram

Smile.

Facebook’s China Playbook

As you have undoubtedly heard by now, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his girlfriend* were spotted in Shanghai on Wednesday. This has lead to a completely predictable round of speculation as to whether this signals some new development in Facebook + China. This sort of navel gazing takes off whenever Zuck comes to China, or looks in the direction of China, or gets lunch at P.F. Chang’s, or whatever. And why not? Facebook is the biggest social network in the world. China has the biggest population of Internet users in the world. Facebook is going public soon. Zuck is learning Chinese, etc. So a Zuck sighting in China is, to invoke the memory of Arsenio Hall, one of the things that make you go, hmm…

Despite all of that, leave to our friends at the excellent Tech in Asia blog to have the most sensible take, “Zuckerberg is in China…Who cares?” Indeed.

Obviously, we don’t know a thing about Facebook’s designs on China. But to make sense of the speculation it’s helpful to consider the actual scenarios by which Facebook or Twitter or indeed any foreign social network might enter China, and to look at how different stakeholder groups will react to the possible scenarios. This is different than analyzing business strategy or financial implications, but ultimately it’s all connected.

At the risk of oversimplifying, there are four major scenarios that we can envision: extending the mothership service to China; developing a separate “splinter” service for China under the original brand (this could be disconnected from the main service, or just enforce dramatically different policies); buying an existing Chinese social network; and doing nothing. Obviously, they’re not all immediately practical. Facebook is blocked in China, which makes extending the mothership difficult. There are also intermediate possibilities that blend aspects of these scenarios, but that’s a deep rabbit hole to go down. Along with these scenarios there are five major stakeholder groups, not including Facebook themselves: the Chinese government; Chinese Internet users (potential customers); Western activists and governments; investors; and the Western public (aka Facebook’s current users).

The easiest way to look at all these moving parts is to simply throw the whole thing in a table that considers for each scenario the risks and how each of the stakeholder groups is likely to react (click the table for a larger, EZ-reading version):

Admittedly this format throws a lot of nuance overboard, but nevertheless there’s a clear three-way conflict that emerges. The approaches that are more acceptable to the Chinese authorities are both riskier with regards to Western activists and regulators and, importantly, less relevant to Chinese users. The approaches that are most relevant to Chinese users and have the highest potential return to the business are unacceptable to the Chinese government. Ultimately the Chinese government calls the shots.

The basic math is that to even have a chance of operating here Facebook would have to apply the mandated censorship policies either just to users of its core service in China or to a spinoff service that is kept separate from the core service. It would also have to be prepared to surrender Chinese user information to the authorities if requested. That will raise eyebrows as Facebook knows a ton about its users by design.

The risks of these approaches are clear to anyone who has studied the history of Yahoo in China and followed the congressional grilling of US Internet firms operating in China back in 2006. That was the stone age of social networking (Rupert Murdoch bought MySpace, Facebook turned 2, Twitter was hatched), and the political atmosphere around such things has not become any less sensitive since then. If anything, the messianic aura that clings to social networks and of which Chinese authorities have always been so distrustful has been exacerbated by last year’s political events in the Middle East. And let’s not forget recent events here in China and the leadership transition later this year.

There are ways to create distance between the core Facebook brand and service and the Chinese government’s likely requirements, but those ways don’t eliminate political risk at home, and they all make the service less appealing to Chinese users. These same users are already being wooed away from traditional social networks by microblogs and have a colorful history of rejecting foreign online services as irrelevant even when they’ve been allowed to operate here without restriction. Remember MySpace China? Me neither, and a friend of mine helped launch it. Owning a local social network would provide a layer of insulation from the risk of Western backlash, but at the expense of sacrificing much of the point of entering China.

None of this predicts whether Facebook will enter China, or how they might attempt such a thing. They’re probably playing a very long game. Whatever path they choose, it won’t be easy, either in China or at home. Bear that in mind next time Zuck is spotted in China and the tongues start wagging.

*Note to editors: Can we get over the fact that Zuck’s girlfriend is Chinese American? Everyone is compelled to point this out, but net impact on the Facebook-in-China story is zero-point-zero.

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