Wondering Where Quotations Come From

It’s amazing how fast China blogs grow old. ChinaGeeks is over half a year old now, and still the Western media hasn’t sat us down to have “the talk” about where quotations come from. Maybe it’s time they did.

See, the New York Times recently reported on the mandatory patriotic touch China Mobile has added to cell phone calls pre-Oct 1st. According to “Chinese Pride, at the Touch of a Cellphone Button,” China Mobile has changed everyone’s ringback tones — the tone that plays while someone’s phone is ringing when you call them — to ”国家“,a famous patriotic song sung by the famous actor Jackie Chan and the female singer Liu Yuanyuan.

The change is effective for all China Mobile users, but anyone who doesn’t like it can change it back to something else at no cost, and it seems as though it will be automatically deactivated at some point in the future, anyway.

We first suspected something was a bit off with the article when we read that the NY Times credited the song to “the actor Jackie Chan and a female vocalist.” A female vocalist? We found her name through a Google search in two seconds, and as far as patriotic songs go, she’s got a few under her belt. A quick perusal of her personal site reveals songs like “The Five-Starred Red Flag”, “China Has Chosen You”, “China is My Home”, etc. Was it a conscious decision — the NY Times figures their readers don’t care about a singer they’ve probably never heard of — or laziness? Who knows.

Anyway, at the end of this article came this little tidbit:

But Hu Xingdou, a reform-minded economics professor at Beijing Institute of Technology, said China Mobile went overboard in tinkering with its customers’ phones.

“The current efforts to instill ideology makes me feel that the authorities consider ordinary Chinese people to be unpatriotic or even mentally challenged,” he said. “So they enforce this patriotic education on people.”

Huh? What exactly do the “authorities” have to do with this? For that matter, what does this have to do with “patriotic education”? As far as we can tell, it’s just an example of a company from China doing something small to celebrate a national holiday. Nearly all American companies do similar things for the Fourth of July. Given that China Mobile has given users the option of disabling the tone if they so choose, and that there’s nothing in the article that indicates this decision was mandated by the government.

EDIT: We forgot China Mobile was state-owned, which does explain the connection to authorities, although we still think that terminology is a bit misleading. State-owned and state-run are two different things, and whether or not any real “authorities had anything to do with the ringback tone change is still up for grabs.

One wonders whether this is a question of the Chinese source overreacting (Hu Xingdou is a self-proclaimed “student of China’s problems”), of the New York Times putting a quotation out of context, or if there’s something more to this whole thing they somehow left out. Hu’s point isn’t necessarily even something we disagree with, but there isn’t a lot of connection between the problems of patriotic education and a mobile phone company changing people’s ringback tones to a patriotic song for a few days. The way the article reads now is misleading, at least barring the Times revealing some evidence that the government is actually connected to this move in some way.

Rather than speculating on motives, we’ve emailed the reporter herself. We don’t expect a reply, but if we get one we’ll post it here. In the interim, discuss your thoughts about the article in the comments.

0 thoughts on “Wondering Where Quotations Come From”

  1. The article does, indeed, seem to be fishing around for a story where there isn’t necessarily much of a story. That said, China Mobile is hardly just another company minding its own business. Nor is even just another SOE. It’s an SOE in a sector—communications—that the Chinese government pays a lot of attention to, both in order to guide public opinion and keep an eye out for trouble and in order to keep China on the cutting edge of technology and make some money (these latter two objectives I find entirely reasonable and a fine reason for “meddling”).

    I suppose a private company could send out mass text messages to folks in Shanghai telling them to not attend an anti-Japanese protest in 2005 or could stop coverage to a region like Tibet or Xinjiang that’s experiencing upheaval or, for that matter, could automatically set everyone’s cell phones to some patriotic song—and private internet companies seem to do that kind of thing all on their own all the time as a preemptive measure—but it certainly smooths things out to be tightly held by Beijing.

    China hasn’t opened up the mobile market to a lot of competitors and it seems reasonable to believe that part of the reason is that China wants to keep a tab on what people are communicating as easily as possible. Of course, the U.S. didn’t break up phone monopolies for a long time either….

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  2. “What exactly do the “authorities” have to do with this?” I think quite a lot. China Mobile is one of the most important companies in the country and there´s no doubt that the government keeps an important control on it. Maybe it wasn´t directly decided by the government, but we have to admit that they are doing as much as possible to spread the National Day to every corner of the country. This is just another example.

    “For that matter, what does this have to do with “patriotic education”? ” Well, changing the tone of millions of phones without asking the users sounds at least as a way of reinforcing patriotism among population. The fact that the US does the same doesn´t change much.

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  3. Err, China Mobile is an SOE, in a strategic industry, with very little competition- as noted above. Moreover, it is an SOE that has benefited from overt government intervention by the MII in 2003 (annual fee for number service intervention), 2004 (twice- firstly the government intervention in the mobile carrier price war and secondly with the reshuffle of executives) and 2007 (rural purchasing program). That’s just the stuff we have on the record as well.

    When you combine that with Old Tales Retold’s excellent points about the use of denial of service to control riots, the blocking of coverage in Tibet and Xinjiang… it makes me somewhat worried you write things like “it seems as though it will be automatically deactivated at some point in the future, anyway”. These things are a bit too important to be brushed away like that, surely?

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  4. Forgot China Mobile was an SOE! Whoops. Still think it’s a valid point though.

    Of course the government is trying to get people to be patriotic and excited about National Day. It’s a patriotic holiday, frankly that’s what the government should be doing, isn’t it? Will it be called “patriotic education” or brainwashing when the US government and tons of private companies are doing it in July next year? What is so sinister about a company — or the government itself — temporarily changing the ringback tone on people’s cell phones to celebrate a national holiday?

    @ Ryan: Those other things are a bit too important to brush away, yes. But what we’re talking about is an optional ringback tone of an already-popular song in celebration of a completely legitimate national holiday. Comparing that to using DOS to control riots doesn’t seem ridiculous to you?

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  5. AT & T doesn’t change U.S. ringback tones to Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” on July 4. If it did, some people would no doubt like it, but a lot of people would get pissed. So, AT & T doesn’t do that sort of thing.

    There’s nothing “sinister” in this little detail, you’re right. The point is that the Chinese state, through its many levers, including state-owned and tightly controlled phone companies, can make a national observance of x or y a huge, all-encompassing deal in a way that other governments can’t–and regardless of the preferences of its citizens.

    Of course, the CCP doesn’t want to do this every year—it’s just too much effort. And while Hu Xingdong may be overreacting (if he’s being quoted accurately), I imagine ordinary Chinese people would get pissed off if their ringback tone got stuck on Jackie Chan. They WOULD start to feel like they were being treated like kids—just as I would listening to Toby Keith day in and day out.

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  6. I’d like to add—and I don’t want to swing this thread into a wilderness of comparative stuff, but here goes—that the U.S. government was able to get major phone companies to agree to hand over lots of ordinary people’s call records for security reasons, sparking the whole FISA battle. So, maybe my point above is crap.

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  7. Somewhat related: Anyone remember the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London?
    Vodafone, a mobile network operator which normally has the best coverage and reception in the area was “giving priority to emergency services”. Nothing wrong with that you might think, unless you were trying to get through to a loved one that day on Vodafone.

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  8. I think you’re underestimating the authorities. I’m not one of those evilcommiesmustdie guys, but its a bit unnerving when a company like China Mobile which DOES have strong ties to the government is doing these kinds of things, though it isn’t ridiculous because they do allow you to change it back. I don’t feel too comfortable though with their level of control.

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  9. The interesting Vodafone example from mtm, my example of the Bush administration’s wiretapping, and the patriotic ringbacks at China Mobile are all quite different. Maybe comparisons don’t make that much sense, after all (I know I’m contradicting and re-contradicting myself).

    China Mobile’s action, taken by itself, is clearly the most benign—just patriotic fluff, though part of a massive propaganda offensive that is deadly serious. Vodafone’s response to the 7/7 attacks was understandable, but a hassle. The Bush wiretapping was way over the line and, clearly, criminal.

    Only if you put these different policies in the context of their respective countries’ control over communications do they make sense.

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