“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.]

Debate over the Tibet Debate

A debate over China’s historical sovereignty over Tibet traditionally asks the question, “Was Tibet historically part of China?” It’s hard to deny that the answer to that question is in many ways a yes.

Officially, Chinese influence over Tibet started from the 13th century onward. In reality, Tibet was under Chinese sway during the Yuan and Qing Dynasties, but was in essence independent during the Ming Dynasty. The Tibet-China dynamic was not quite that of a multinational state. Tibet was ruled more as a feudal possession rather than a real part of the Chinese empire.

Clearly it seems that a sort of vassal state relationship grew during various parts of history. This is similar to China’s relationship with Vietnam and Korea over various periods of time: China exerted a certain political force over Tibet, but it never really became a core part of the empire and retained a cultural identity distinct from China’s. In fact, shortly after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, all Chinese were expelled from Lhasa by the local Tibetan government. That’s hardly the type of treatment you’d give people you consider as your countrymen.

The point of all this is not so much to stake out a position on either side of the issue but to point out the focus of the debate. The main topic of debate is whether Tibet was historically part of China. For example, a recent article from Xinhua details the restoration of a pavilion that was used to greet envoys from the Chinese imperial court, the existence of which supposedly proves Chinese sovereignty in Tibet. But this focus is wrong.

The question that all intellectually honest people should be asking is does a subservient historical relationship justify modern-day policy. The Yuan and Qing empires that held sway over Tibet, in addition to themselves being non-Chinese, were just that – empires. Just as Britain gave up India, the Dutch gave up Indonesia and France was forced to leave Vietnam, one would think that China would have given up Tibet when world opinion decided that empires are not acceptable political structures. This is doubly so because the Chinese used to be pretty hip to anti-imperialist sentiments.

This author doesn’t support Tibetan independence any more than he supports Cherokee independence. But the focus of the debate is and always has been in the wrong place. If honest individuals want to come to a real conclusion, they must look at the relevant questions and not red herrings thrown to the public.