Why Are “Little Emperors” Killing Themselves?

They’re called “Little Emperors” — children whose experience has been shaped by the twin forces of increasing financial prosperity and the Chinese government policy dictating that they are only children — and the first real generation of them is coming of age. They are arguably the richest and best-educated generation of Chinese ever. So why are they killing themselves in record numbers?

Horror stories abound about the selfish, socially awkward, and materialist tendencies of China’s younger generation. They are the beneficiaries and the victims of the One Child Policy, China’s thirty-year-old population control initiative, which focuses their parents attentions (both good and bad) on them from the day they are born until the day their parents die. Critiques of the policy abound, but one of the most frequently-voiced concerns is that when these kids grow up (as some of them already have) the nation is going to be overrun with a bunch of spoiled brats.

Interestingly, that might not be anything to worry about. A 2008 article in Psychology Today reports:

Despite the stereotype […] research has revealed no evidence that only kids have more negative traits than their peers with siblings—in China or anywhere else. “The only way only children are reliably different from others is they score slightly higher in academic achievement,” explains Toni Falbo, a University of Texas psychology professor who has gathered data on more than 4,000 Chinese only kids. Sure, some little emperors are bratty, but no more than children with siblings.

The Downside of High Expectations

A much bigger problem, and one perhaps less frequently discussed, is the intense pressure these children face to excel, and the perhaps more intense disappointment and depression that comes when they are grown and confronted with the reality that not everyone can succeed in a nation that produces 4 million university graduates each year but only 1.6 million new college level jobs.

Parents face increased pressure too, since many plan to rely on their children for financial support in their old age. One child means that they have only one shot. Parenting approaches vary, sometimes to extremes, on both ends of the spectrum, with some parents spoiling their kids rotten while others attend classes with them daily to be sure that they are constantly paying attention. Many parents fill their children’s after-school hours– those that aren’t already full with homework — with review classes or supplementary resume-boosters like piano or art lessons. Although the government has, in recent years, encouraged people to let their kids play every now and then, it’s a hard sell. Everyone wants their kid to go to college, and with 9.5 million applicants and only 2.6 million spots (2006), it may be hard for many parents to justify a break.

The problem is that success isn’t as simple as getting into college anymore, especially with the world economy sliding. Even college graduates are having a very hard time finding work. As Vanessa Fong, author of Only Hope: Coming of Age under China’s One-Child Policy, put it, “In this generation, every child is raised to be at the top. They’ve worked hard for it, and it’s what their parents have focused their lives on. But the problem is that the country can’t provide the lifestyle they feel they deserve. Only a few will get it.”

Depression is a common (and understandable) reaction from the kids themselves, given that many Chinese students spend their pre-college lives more or less exclusively studying for the GaoKao, that all-important university entrance exam. To spend your whole life studying for something and then fail it — or, perhaps even worse, pass it and discover college doesn’t promise you the bright future you’ve been told it would — can be psychologically devastating, and the results in China are plainly evident.

Some students abandon their schooling almost entirely in favor of online realms that may offer some sanctuary from parental pressure and disappointment with society. This problem has been widely reported in the West, and the Chinese government has taken steps to address it including discussing recognizing internet addiction as a disease and building boot camp-like rehab centers to reform the afflicted.

A more serious problem, though, is the rising suicide rate. Suicide is now the leading cause of death among those aged 20 to 35, and China’s overall suicide rate ranks among the highest in the world. There appears to be a direct correlation between this and the high-pressure environment many Chinese urban youth find themselves in; according to the China Daily:

A two-year survey by researchers at Peking University found over 20 percent of 140,000 high-school students interviewed said they had considered committing suicide. And 6.5 percent of the students surveyed said they had made plans to kill themselves.

The Psychology Today article (more recent than the 2007 China Daily piece cited above) cites even more grim statistics: “A study by the Society Survey Institute of China concluded that over 25 percent of university students have had suicidal thoughts, compared to 6 percent in the United States.” They also report “the news agency Xinhua estimates there are 30 million Chinese under 17 with significant mental-health problems,” although the original Xinhua piece is not cited.

It continues:

Faced with bleak prospects, elite only children often don’t know how to cope; they’ve been brought up to do only one thing: succeed. Indeed, in a 2007 survey on stress in young people by the Chinese Internet portal Sina.com, most respondents—56 percent—blamed their misery on the gap between China’s developing-world reality and their own high expectations.

Expectations may be difficult to change in this generation, which has been promised a China whose opportunities rival those of America (of course, with the American economy in its current state, perhaps this is just a case of “be careful what you wish for”). The government could release some of the pressure through reforming the education system, the question is how.

Can Education Reform Solve the Problem?

Lots of reforms have been suggested, but many of the suggestions are impractical or otherwise difficult to implement on a national scale in a nation as massive as China. Recently, Study-in-China.org collected common, recent education reform suggestions, some of which may serve to illustrate the difficulty of alleviating academic pressures through systemic reform. Among their suggestions:

  • Primary and high school students should be released from heavy burdens of homework

While reducing homework loads is a good idea, according to Psychology Today‘s report, required homework may not make up a significant percentage of the homework Chinese students do every night: “Out of Yanming Lin’s five hours of schoolwork per night, four hours went to ‘voluntary’ homework designed to boost test scores. The extra homework is not required by the teacher, explains Lin. ‘But all the other students do the extra homework, so if you do not do it you will lag behind.'” The high level of competition for college spots virtually ensures that a reduction of required homework would be met by vigilant parents with an increase in extra classes, voluntary homework, or other education-based activities.

  • The college admissions system should be reformed to something similar to the American system, where students are judged on more than simply test scores.

Such a system would indeed be ideal, as the current system lacks any sort of qualitative analysis of students, nor does it take into account their unique backgrounds, abilities, and talents in the way the American system does. However, the sheer number of students applying to college yearly in China make implementation of the American system virtually impossible. “Name brand” colleges would likely be overrun with applications from literally millions of prospective students; any real qualitative analysis of applicants would be complicated by vast numbers of applications. Admissions offices at competitive American colleges are already swamped, but it seems safe to assume that, were China to institute a similar system, the number of applications Beijing University or Qinghua University would dwarf Harvard’s application pile by hundreds of thousands.

That, of course, doesn’t mean China couldn’t adopt elements of the American or other, more qualitative, college admissions systems, but the more complex the system becomes, the more expensive it also becomes as colleges have to pay larger and larger armies of staff to evaluate applications. Such a system would also be less transparent than the current system, perhaps not ideal for a country that already struggles with corruption on almost every front.

One of the more compelling ideas is to implement widespread, high-quality vocational schools and training programs. This would potentially take some of the pressure off of colleges, might help realign the expectations of the young urban middle-class “emperors”, and could potentially also decrease unemployment. It’s not exactly the high-tech economy of white-collar scientists some Chinese people may have been hoping for. But Chinese people, especially students, are killing themselves at an alarming rate. In the end, something will have to give.

In Defense of the Western Media in Tibet

At the risk of boring everyone and getting this website swept under the Great Firewall, we’ll add a few short thoughts about Tibet.

As the CCP keeps a lockdown on Tibet, information is scarce and hard to come by, even more than usual. There’s a certain sore spot on China’s part against the Western media for its coverage of Tibet. A China Daily article shortly after the riots last year quotes a Chinese netizen railing against Western media outlets, saying “To tarnish China’s image, the West is doing whatever they can, no mater how mean and vicious.”

On the other hand, the Chinese people aren’t the only ones that can have hurt feelings. That netizen’s words reflect the utter contempt that the Chinese government has for the Western media’s “ignorance and prejudice.”

If the Chinese government’s goal is to offend the Western media, they’ve accomplished their mission. Even ostensibly professional organizations like Time are letting their feelings show. A recent article offers a glimpse into their wounded sense of journalistic self. The overall tone of the article is that of someone both angry and frustrated at the government, on a personal and professional level.

And who can blame them? A journalists’ job is to report things, and the CCP doesn’t make friends with them by not letting them do their job. This is not meant to excuse biased reporting (which certainly exists) but to point out that in some ways the media has no choice. They can either pack up their backs and go home or take their facts from the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala. From a personal standpoint it’s easy to see what they’ll choose.

This leads to another problem: the tendency to only include the official Chinese government statements on Tibet and the official Tibetan government-in-exile statements. There’s no room for middle ground because the middle ground is often difficult for reporters to get to.

Take the following NYT excerpt that quotes Xinhua and Dharamsala in the same breath:

“Last March.…At least 19 people were killed in ethnic rioting in Lhasa, most of them Han civilians, according to Xinhua….In the ensuing crackdown, 220 Tibetans were killed….according to the Tibetan government in exile, which is based in Dharamsala, India.”

The situation now almost forces Western media to get the facts wrong, by forcing them to choose between one set of propaganda and the other. It just so happens that Dharamsala has a better PR campaign and so their propaganda wins out.

The Time article ends with a certain stab at the Chinese government. Written during the pre-Olympic media blackout in Tibet, the article says that only when the government opens Tibet up for reporting will Western media “be able to say — without bias — just what has been going on behind closed doors.”

Next time the Chinese government whines about the unfairness of the Western press, resist the temptation to feel a bit sorry for them and remember who started this mess. No one should blame the Western media for being outraged at the CCP expecting them to play along with their propaganda games.

Paranormal China (Part II)

[Paranormal China is an ongoing series investigating whether the “paranormal” is as commonly witnessed and as popular in China as it is in the US. This series was inspired by an X-Files DVD-watching binge, but its purpose is not to argue for or against the existence of paranormal phenomena; rather it seeks only to illuminate a little more about China.]

Paranormal China Part II: Hauntings

As long as people have been around there have been reports of ghosts. Indeed, Chinese culture has a long and rich history of belief in otherworldly spirits, especially the spirits of the dead, and the ways they affect the living. These days, many people (Westerners and Chinese) have written off these traditional superstitions, yet science has facilitated the emergence of another group of belivers, whose convinctions are, in the West anyway, based in personal experience but supported by the discoveries of (pseduo-?) scientific ghost hunters who attempt to technology to document paranormal phenonmena. TV shows documenting “real life” hauntings are popular in America, especially around Halloween. Do they share the same sort of following in China?

To investigate, we first tried a simple comparative keyword search. Representing China are Baidu’s results for the Chinese search term “闹鬼事件”, representing the English-speaking West are Google’s results for the Chinese term’s relative equivalent, “hauntings”. We chose to use the plural because “haunting” brings up lots of results using it as a verb in figurative settings that don’t relate to ghosts at all. The Chinese term “闹鬼” actually has a similar figurative meaning, but adding “事件” to the end hopefully filters out many of those results.
Baidu: 724,000
Google: 1,410,000

A decent percentage of Baidu’s results are somehow connected to the film A Haunting in Connecticut (in Chinese, 《太平间闹鬼事件》), so it seems fairly clear that there is less interest in modern hauntings in China than there is in the West, at least according to the results of our admittedly unscientific search engine test.

What does exist seems mostly to be collections of personal reports with little or no scientific evidence. Many of them are also second or third-hard, and though sometimes they are accompanied by exhortations that “this is really true,” one wonders if these are simply provided to make the stories scarier rather than as a result of any actual belief. We’ve translated a few below so you can judge for yourself:

For example, this site has a number of “real life haunting” stories. One tells of a man, his cousin, and some other family members driving home late one night:

It was already past 10 at night […] at this time, the driver suddenly spotted a headless figure fifty meters ahead floating quickly from left to right. He scared the driver so badly that he slammed on the brakes […] his cousin in the passenger seat asked him what happened, but he didn’t dare to say for fear of scaring the woman and child in the back […] but not long after he starting driving, it happened again, he saw a headless figure fifty meters ahead floating quickly from left to right […] this time he was less scared because he didn’t believe in ghosts, [so he sped up], but when he reached the spot the apparition suddenly disappeared.

Another netizen related the story of a classmate who was frequently sick in middle school:

…At that time, the school’s playing field was built near a cemetery for ‘revolutionary martyrs’. He liked quiet, and at that time he was also quite courageous, so during gym class when the other students were exercising he went to the cemetery to find a quiet spot to sit, always sitting on the first headstone in the first row but never looking at the name on the stone […] but every night when he was falling asleep his head hurt, and in the middle of the night he would see a fat woman standing at his bedside looking at him and laughing. After three days of this, he discussed it with his father […], who taught him a curse for subduing ghosts called the “5 Thunderstrikes Curse” (五雷咒) […] nights [after that], he felt that the fat woman had returned again, and had brought with her a gaunt woman. With the two of them standing before his bed, he began repeating his father’s words, and thus fell asleep. He said when he was sleeping at night, he could hear the woman crying and constantly repeating “I beg of you, release me!” By morning, his hands were numb but his fists were still tightly clenched.
His mother went to ask the Grand Immortal to look into it and said he had offended someone [with the curse] and that he should release them, he just had to go to a crossroads outside down and burn some paper…
Later, he returned to the cemetery to see what was on the headstone where he always sat, and discovered the picture was of the same fat woman in his dream…

These stories are, to say the least, suspiciously similar to any number of poorly-composed ghost stories that get read around campfires worldwide on summer nights. They are generally presented thusly; short stories with no specifics and no real attempt to provide or claim any kind of credibility. Unlike UFOs, which many Chinese seem to be discussing quite seriously, these ghost stories look like they’re probably purely for entertainment.

There are some reports of actual hauntings by netizens, but precious little in the way of information on them (searches lead back to the original question on “Baidu Knows” or to other questions with no answers), and the few that you can track down are quite clearly faked:

This video, one of the most common results of video searches, is somewhat creepy and potentially authentic totally a hoax (thanks to commenter NickC for the heads up), but it didn’t happen in China. Despite erronious reports that it’s from Shanghai, the footage is from Singapore:

Interestingly, the “ghost” and what it does in this video is very similar to one of the ghosts from what may be China’s most famous horror movie, The Eye (Recently there was a horrible American remake starring Jessica Alba). Regardless, it’s certainly significant that there are so few “real ghost” videos from inside China that people have to re-label hoaxes from other countries in Chinese, whereas English-language Youtube is virtually crawling with ghosts.

The lack of evidence for serious interest in ghost-related research in China was also clear in search results; a search for a variety of ghost-related terms on Baidu’s image search failed to bring up anything resembling a photo of a real life ghost, whereas Google’s results are comparably full of blurry photos and unexplained spots of light (considered by many Western believers as evidence of the presence of ghosts).

Official research sources are also difficult to find. While a quick search turned up hundreds of paranormal research societies in the West, there were no serious looking research groups evident in Baidu’s search results.

Of course, none of this necessarily means anything about what Chinese people really think about ghosts, since the CCP has been known to censor ghost and haunting-related information and entertainment. Since exactly what they’re censoring at any given time can be difficult to pin down, it’s impossible to say whether internet results are really representative of the greater whole. Generally speaking, one can probably assume that at least some censorship is occuring, but “how much?” and “of what?” are harder questions to answer.

It’s also worth noting that belief in this sort of thing is probably much more widespread in the country than it is in cities, and that country people are much less likely to share their experienecs online, so there may well be plenty of people with “real life” ghost stories to tell to those who can make their way into the countryside; however, a comprehensive survey of rural China is beyond the abilities of this blog (for now).

We’re by no means experts, and we may well have missed something (or lots of things), so feel free to drop your China ghost stories (or whatever) in the comments. Also check out the first part of our Paranormal China series: Paranormal China Part I: UFOs.

Lessons on How to Love China

Gao Zhisheng is a Chinese firebrand lawyer-turned human rights activist. He’s taken up the cross for cases ranging from underground Christian sects to democracy activists, displaced homeowners and more. Gao’s opponent in and out of court has traditionally been one face or another of the CCP, and he’s been a thorn in the Party’s side for years. Himself an ex-member of the Party and former PLA soldier, Gao says the day he tore up his Party membership card was the proudest day of his life.

A cursory look at some of Gao’s statements gives an insight into just exactly what he is all about. In an open letter to the U.S. Congress in 2007, Gao declared:

“The only law that the communist regime treat with any seriousness is ‘the constitutional law ensures the permanent reign of the Chinese Communist Party in China.’”

Gao is no stranger to run-ins with the law. He was imprisoned and tortured for several months, and was finally coerced into admitting to “inciting subversion” by appealing to top leaders on behalf of a certain banned religious organization. Now he’s facing the same plight: Gao went missing from his Shaaxi home in early February 2009 and it is assumed that he’s been taken into custody by Chinese authorities.

Now it’s not just Gao Zhisheng that’s gone, but his wife and children as well. His family had been under house arrest and Gao’s 15 year-old daughter unable to attend school, spurring them to pay human traffickers a small fortune to carry them overland to Bangkok in January of this year. From there they flew to the United States, where they are currently seeking asylum.

Gao Zhisheng is neither the first nor last lawyer of his breed in China, but he is perhaps one of the bolder and, some might say, reckless human rights activists on the mainland today. Himself a victim of torture and imprisonment in the past, Gao understood well the consequences of his actions, once stating that “you cannot be a rights lawyer in this country without becoming a rights case yourself.”

Western observers of China should always be careful not to commit the sin of allowing our own prejudices and preconceptions to color our view of events that are entirely domestically Chinese. It’s instinctual for us to paint Gao Zhisheng as a flawless knight in shining armor.

A debate could be had over whether his particular brand of rights activism is preferable to more subtle approach. Zhang Sizhi, another lawyer known for advocating the rule of law in China, has argued that “If you go too far, you will only hurt the chances of legal reform, as well as the interests of your client.” Gao clearly understood the likely consequences of his actions for him and his family: he once ominously noted that he is “not sure how much time [he has] left” to carry out his activism.

Regardless of whether Gao’s career exhibited courageous daring or dangerously unsound judgment (which are certainly not mutually exclusive qualities), Gao Zhisheng’s experience is a lesson for any patriotic Chinese with an idealistic streak: you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Progressive reform has consequences for individuals. Period.

Anyone that studies, reads, and writes about China can’t help but have an emotional reaction to Gao’s story in general and his family’s tragedy in particular. Foreign China observers, in general, are rooting for China: the rule of law and human rights are what we want to see. People that aren’t interested in those things tend to not stick around very long.

The jingoistic climate of 2008 is settling down: Carrefour protests are over and the Olympics weren’t thwarted by a certain wolf in sheep’s clothing after all. 2009 has had a few rough patches so far but it’s not unsalvageable. With any luck, people like Gao Zhisheng can teach other Chinese what it means to love China.

UPDATE: On another, related note, articles like this bug me. The heading mentions that Gao’s wife “defected” to America, which has very specific implications. Nothing in the body seems to suggest that it was anything resembling a change in political allegience, which leads me to believe that someone thought that word looked a bit more sexy so decided to throw it in without thinking about what it meant.

“The Weak Position of the Chinese Media Can’t Be Changed With Cash”

[Ed note: This is an original translation by ChinaGeeks, h/t to ESWN for the link to the original. As with all our translations, it is rough, and though we strive for accuracy, it may contain errors.]
(Original text by Zhang Wen, translated by C. Custer)

On March 10, News Publication Section Chief Liu Binjie said in an interview with the media, “when compared with the international media, the weakness of Chinese media is mostly systemic. In the past, under then planned economic system, the media was a department of the press, set up by press administration officials, and did not enter the [free] market. At this point, when compared with the international media, we are still somewhat weak because under our system the media cannot freely participate in free-market competition. Additionally, when it comes to the right to report or broadcast things first, there are still very few Chinese ‘heavyweights’ capable of influencing international opinion, so on an international scale the Chinese media still holds a weak position.”

One must admit, what Liu Binjie said is very much the truth. Because they’ve been restricted by the system for a long time, Chinese media is not even worthy of note in comparison to international media; Chinese media is not even ranked, [relations between the Chinese media and the international media] are still like relations between the third world and the first world.

At the same time, Section Chief Liu also said, “China plans to invest capital [he’s referring to this plan to spend 45 billion RMB to create and extend an internationally respected media network -Ed.] to increase the strength of our foreign reports and thus increase the international influence of the Chinese media.

It must be said, Section Chief Liu’s words really might be “a pie in the sky” or “vain hopes”. This is because in the next step of reforming the media system, “a portion of the political publications and news organizations still follow the current system, but some other types, those that aren’t related to current politics, are moving step-by-step towards the market with the intention of entering free market competition.”

Wu Baijing, Associate Director of Research of Public Broadcasting at Renmin University, once said “The media, through diplomacy, [can] break through the Western public opinion surrounding [us],” and said something exciting, “Strengthening the power of our media, we must first make sure the focus of discussion is on firsthand reporting, and not secondhand; we especially must not have negative situations where the media is first instructed to shut up. The court of public opinion is like a large container, the more abundant the news you make public and “pour in”, the more cramped it is for other opinions and counterattacks.”

In the normal course of domestic reporting, the domestic media has a natural superiority in terms of “firsthand” coverage, but when a lot of important/significant things occur suddenly we can’t even report “secondhand”, and can only choose silence when faced with prohibitions [on reporting]. We watch with open eyes as foreign media struggles to be the first to report, and we cannot even correct the inaccuracies in their reports.

In the course of reporting international events, our media is even more powerless to compete with the international media; because the lack adequate personnel, financial, and material assets, our international bureaus can often only resort to secondhand reporting, broadcasting ‘firsthand’ news reported by the international media. Moreover, because of ideology, these secondhand reports often violate the principal of objectivity.

As everyone knows, reporting major domestic and international stories is the duty of the news media. It could be said thusly: That the Chinese media is extremely weak and hopeless on the international stage and frequently is looked down upon by their unaware-of-the-truth international colleagues is precisely because of its collective “lack of position” and “failure to accomplish”!

If the next step of domestic current events reporting is as Section Chief Liu says, continuing in the current system, then their backwardness and weakness hasn’t the slightest chance of changing or improving. Even if the government provides more funding, it’s just a wasted effort.

The new generation of Chinese media, in ideas about news and writing techniques, are already very close to [the standards of] Western workers. Nearby, many of my friends in the news business have the power to tower above others, and are completely capable of competing on the same stage as the outstanding personages of the Western news media in terms of objectivity, truth, deep reporting, and [could] win international respect.

However, with the media system as it currently is, the eyes of these heros are full of tears, they can but draw their swords, look around, and be at a loss [as to what to do].

Also of interest today:
-Regarding the recent boating scuffle between China and the US, who was really intimidating who? (h/t to The Peking Duck, also check out coverage on Danwei)
China worries too few foreigners learning Chinese (Reuters)
-A whole bunch of interesting things in the Granite Studio’s Friday round-up.
-ChinaGeeks is now one of the Best Blogs in Asia! According to someone! All glory to the hypnotoad.

Grass Mud Horses

As you can read in today’s New York Times, fascination with a “mythical” creature is the latest internet meme to go mainstream in China. That creature? The Grass Mud Horse.

Ostensibly, the Grass Mud Horse is an alpaca-like creature that lives in the Ma Le Desert and fights River Crabs. In actuality, though, the horse’s name is a pun for a vulgar Chinese curse, and symbol of the difficulty Chinese netizens can create for the PRCs internet censors.

Yes, we’re aware that we’re late to this party. However, we bring you something that some other websites won’t: a willingness to publish vulgar curse words (in English, anyway) so as to fully explain the puns.

Perhaps among the most popular “Grass Mud Horse” internet attractions is the tongue-in-cheek children’s’ song created for it, “Song of the Grass Mud Horse”. China Digital Times has translated it already, but we’ve translated it more vulgarly! For you, the reader!

[Disclaimer: This entry contains some very vulgar words in English, and if you were to do the translation you could learn some pretty vulgar Chinese words too. If that’s the sort of thing you’re offended by, or that could get you in trouble at work, don’t read further]

In the vast and desolate beauty of the Ma Le Desert (1),
There is a group of Grass Mud Horses (2),
They are lively and intelligent,
They are mischievous and agile,
They live freely and easily in the Grass Mud Horse Desert (3)
Their indomitable courageousness conquers the difficult environment,
Oh, lying down (4) Grass Mud Horse,
Oh, running wild (5) Grass Mud Horse,
To keep their grasslands (6) from being eaten off, they defeated the River Crabs (7),
After this, River Crabs disappeared from the Grass Mud Horse Desert

The Puns:
(1) Sounds like “your mother’s cunt”
(2) Sounds like “Fuck your mother”
(3) Sounds like “Fuck your mother’s cunt”
(4) Sounds like “Fuck!”
(5) Sounds like “Fucking crazy”, sort of.
(6) Sounds like “Fuck!”
(7) Sounds like “harmony”, which is a reference to internet censorship. Since the government professes to do what it does for the sake of a “harmonious society”, Chinese netizens have been using “harmonized” as a verb to describe what happened to blocked websites for a while. The River Crab/Harmony pun goes back much further than the Grass Mud Horse pun.

It’s a vulgar song, to be sure, but barely noteworthy on the internet, that vast storehouse of vulgarity, were it not for the fact that it’s also a tongue-in-cheek jab at internet censorship (through the River Crab/Harmony pun explained above). What’s brilliant is that the message is so clear, yet technically, there aren’t even any obscenities in the song. Anyone hearing it would instantly recognize it for exactly what it is, yet it violates no laws because the message is conveyed entirely through puns. From the NY Times article:

To Chinese intellectuals, the songs’ message is clearly subversive, a lesson that citizens can flout authority even as they appear to follow the rules. “Its underlying tone is: I know you do not allow me to say certain things. See, I am completely cooperative, right?” the Beijing Film Academy professor and social critic Cui Weiping wrote in her own blog. “I am singing a cute children’s song — I am a grass-mud horse! Even though it is heard by the entire world, you can’t say I’ve broken the law.”

And indeed, this is just the latest indication that CCP censors face an almost insurmountable task in trying to “harmonize” the internet. It’s one thing to filter out sensitive search terms, but quite another to attempt to filter out clever puns and hidden meanings that, while clear to any human, are a bit beyond the capabilities of any computer filtering program. Of course, Chinese authorities could start filtering out “Grass Mud Horse” and “River Crab”, but they seem doomed to remain several steps behind the ingenuity of Chinese netizens.

Additionally, the Chinese language has so many homophones and near-homophones that censoring them all would be impossible. Were “Grass Mud Horse” censored, for example, netizens could pick from around 25 homophones for “grass”, over 60 homophones for “mud”, and around 30 for “horse”. Given that they would probably just need to change one character at a time, there are literally thousands of terms the censors would have to block — and that’s just to block homophones for one way to say “Fuck your mother”. Censoring “River Crab” would be even more problematic since River Crabs are, of course, real animals and there are plenty to legitimate reasons to discuss them online.

Chinayouren reported a while back on a blogger suggesting netizens start referring to Charter 08 as “Wang” to prevent censorship (the name Wang is the Chinese equivalent of Smith, and would be impossible to censor). It didn’t catch on, but it certainly could have, and that general approach to discussing “forbidden” topics seems to be catching on fast.

Increasingly, it appears the PRC may be forced to ease up on its ideological controls for fear of appearing irrelevant. Faced with the choice of claiming to control internet political content when such control is clearly impossible or painting themselves as the good guys by “granting” increased freedom of speech, they would certainly be better off taking the latter road. Whether they will, and how much they care about Grass Mud Horses, and the phenomenon they represent, remains to be seen.

Also of interest, in depressing economy news the job market has gotten so bad for college graduates that they are literally selling their free time as errand boys (or, in this case, girls).

Anti-Character Snobs and the Internet

Anyone that’s studied Chinese for period of time has come across the learner that one might dub “the anti-character snob.” While striving for oral perfection, the anti-character snob eschews the (admittedly infuriating) world of hanzi and deals solely in pinyin. There are even tales (unconfirmed, as this writer doubts these exist on the mainland) that some institutions offer programs that don’t teach characters, or add them in as a sort of after-thought, like it might someday be useful to be able to know what you’re going to eat at a restaurant before it comes to the table.

Today we’re going to shatter the myth that you don’t need to learn the characters; that it’s good enough to speak. This myth is perpetuated even by the Chinese themselves (“你会说就可以了”, have you heard this sentence from the mouth of a Chinese person before?)

According to the Internet World Stats project, 28.7% of all internet users are English speakers and that this number has increased by over 200% since the start of the 21st century. Those high numbers are to be expected: the internet originated in an English-speaking country and many English-speaking countries have better access to technology than others.

What’s more interesting is that 20.4% of internet users are speakers of Chinese and that in the last 8 years, this number has gone up by nearly 900%! At this rate, Chinese-speaking users of the internet will outnumber English-speaking ones in the near future.

There’s news for the anti-character snob crowd: the Internet is here to stay as the medium of world communication. As more and more Chinese-speakers use the internet, more and more information will be stored in Chinese characters on it, and some portion of it will be useful. The speed limit on the information superhighway might seem a bit too fast for you if you can’t manage to pump out a few characters into the Chinese-language dominated search engines of the future.

Alright, so there is some exaggeration. English probably isn’t on the way out despite a decrease in the number of native speakers. Also, we should also look at the language of the internet’s content, rather than simply what language the users speak. But at least one would hope a few stubborn anti-character snobs can be converted and made to see the future (as written in Chinese characters).

[Author’s note: I possess no ill-will towards anti-character snobs. If you’re offended, just break out your 幽默感 and laugh a bit.]

All Quiet on the Western Front?

Today is March 10, the muchdiscussed anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan Uprising. ChinaGeeks has reported repeatedly on the security buildup leading up the anniversary, as have many other sources, but so far, there’s no sign of any major protest activity. If there were, it would be quite a surprise given the security presence there, which we’ve seen described as anywhere between “increased patrols” (China Daily) and “martial law” (New York Times).

Still, the day isn’t over, and smaller disruptions have already been reported, including this one in the New York Times:

Early Monday, a police car and a fire engine parked in a timber farm in a Tibetan area of Qinghai Province were attacked with homemade explosives early Monday, the official Xinhua news agency reported. The emergency lights and roofs of the vehicles were destroyed, Xinhua reported, but no one was injured.

The attack occurred after forest police officers stopped a local timber truck on Sunday at a checkpoint to inspect cargo and licenses, Xinhua said. That led to an argument between the people in the truck and the police, which then resulted in dozens of local residents protesting at the police station.

The protest broke up at midnight. About two hours later, the explosives detonated, damaging the government vehicles, Xinhua reported. It was unclear if the conflict had political motives.

We will update this post as more information becomes available about what, if anything, happened in Tibet today.

Also of interest today:
-James Fallows has now dedicated several posts to the discussion of Chas Freeman, the newly-selected head of the US National Intelligence Council. Mr. Freeman’s views on China have been widely criticized. We’ll leave you to come up with a verdict on your own, but the pieces Fallows quotes and links to are definitely worth reading.

-The Chinese Navy is harassing — read: mooning — an American ship in international waters. Bizarre, and a bit inexplicable. (Shanghaiist)

Post-Earthquake Sichuan, Through Native Eyes

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about living in China as a foreigner interested in understanding China is just how difficult it can be to get access to anything real. We laowai tend to stick to the cities, and even when we don’t, we are constantly aware that those around us and speaking with us are monitoring their words, conscious of the fact that we are not, in the end, Chinese.

Given that, China geeks internationally should relish the opportunity to check out these short documentary films, the result of NGO Shanshui giving cameras (and some, but clearly not much, training) to rural Sichuan locals and letting them make whatever kind of films they wanted. We owe a double tip of the hat to Bendilaowai on this one; their link to our post on the Dalai Lama led to me finding their site and this post on the films, which they rightfully call fascinating.

Those looking for more background should refer to the Bendilaowai post as they quite obviously know more about it than I do; those looking to dive right into the films can find all of them right here.

Although all the films are interesting, be warned that they are not subtitled (in Chinese or English) and that there’s a lot of Sichuanese, which is pretty much unintelligible to those of us used to standard Mandarin. Still, not all of the films require much in the way of language abilities.

There are two in particular I enjoyed and could recommend even to non-Chinese-speakers. The first is called 《我家的鸟》, or, The Birds of My Home. It’s an extremely simple film. There are no words, there is no music; just shots of birds, scenery, and the ambient noise (which occasionally cuts out). It might seem simple-minded, even irrelevant, but the tranquility and emptiness is a rather brilliant way to offer contrast with the chaos that must have flourished in that place a year ago. How much of that is intentional I have no idea, but I actually found it quite moving, as though the filmmaker was an old bird lover documenting the return of his friends in the first spring after the very earth opened up and drove them away. If nothing else, it’s really quite peaceful when the ambient noise is there, and it doesn’t come off like a bad nature show on CCTV (another one of the films, 《走进王朗》, does).

The other one I really liked was 《志愿者与村里娃》, or Volunteers and Country Children, which chronicles (sort of) the end of the stay of some volunteer teachers in a rural area as they put together some well-deserved entertainment for the children and their families. It’s as corny and cumbayaish as you’d expect from a Chinese farewell “party”, but but you just might find yourself swaying along with them anyway.

Also of interest today:
Seeking Justice, Chinese Land in Secret Jails (NY Times) – We may yet do a whole post on this, but it’s worth a read on its own.

Dalai Lama: Violence Looming, Chinese Citizens Armed

Everyone’s talking about the upcoming 50-year anniversary of the Lhasa uprising and whether something will happen. (OK, by everyone, I mean us). One guy who thinks something will happen? The Dalai Lama (h/t Fool’s Mountain).

In an interview with a German newspaper, the exiled Tibetan leader said of the upcoming anniversary, “I am very worried. Many Chinese citizens have armed themselves, and they are ready to shoot. It is a very tense situation. At any moment there could be an explosion of violence.”

As Fool’s Mountain has already pointed out, the idea that Chinese citizens are stockpiling firearms is a bit hard to swallow, although the Dalai Lama’s fears of violence are clearly still valid given last year’s…events.

Were they riots? Were they a government crackdown on peaceful protests? The Dalai Lama offers an intriguing third option, buried in the German original interview but unearthed by Fool’s Mountain with the help of Google’s webpage translator. Given the unreliability of such translation, I hope a more legitimate translation of the interview will come soon, but even from the robot translation, he appears to be offering a rather unique interpretation of the events of last March:

Let’s look back again to March last year: When the demonstrations were peaceful, the Chinese media did not report about them. Suddenly, on March 14, Chinese houses were set on fire and some Tibetans threw stones. But the Chinese army did not intervene at first, even though they had surrounded the quarter. Do you know why? They had staged these riots and sent the pictures of them around the world.

[Interviewer] Staged?

We have reports from eye witnesses. On March 12 and 13, they have seen Chinese trucks transporting people who were apparently Tibetans, but who were unknown to anybody. They were brought to Lhasa. Some hours later they could be seen setting buildings on fire. The Chinese want crises for which they can blame the Tibetans.

Were the riots staged? Is the Chinese population of Tibet armed with guns, awaiting this sensitive anniversary? We can hope that time will tell, but if the past is any indication, when it comes to Tibet, things only ever get less clear.

[Housekeeping note: In the interest of clarity, we’ve spelled out our commenting policy on this page. Essentially it boils down to “don’t be a dick”, but if you really want to read it, there it is.]