Western Media Bias: The Little Things

There has been some discussion about Thoman Friedman’s most recent op-ed, “Our One-Party Democracy“. In it, he compares China to the US favorably, arguing that China’s autocratic system is more efficient and responsive:

There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today.

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power. China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar. Beijing wants to make sure that it owns that industry and is ordering the policies to do that, including boosting gasoline prices, from the top down.

In point of fact, Friedman’s column isn’t even really about China, it just uses China as an example. And in terms of the things he’s talking about, it’s pretty hard to argue that China isn’t in a better position than the US. But, God forbid, he said something good about China, so someone was sure to take the bait.

In “Thomas Friedman Demands Communist Revolution” (clearly, they’re going for subtlety here), Gawker takes aim at the straw-man argument that China’s political system is unequivocally better than the US:

And why are things better in China? Because the current “reasonably enlightened group of people” in charge of China, at the moment, can just impose “politically difficult but critically important policies” like raising gas prices to encourage clean power investment and so on.

So, yes, the party may be increasingly corrupt and full of the Princeling children of former Communist party officials, the party may stoke violence against ethnic minorities [this link was included in the original post on Gawker], it may censor the media and lock up journalists and cheerfully ignore human rights, but at least they can get cap-and-trade passed.

Yes, the Party does do an awful lot of those things (Friedman admitted in his column that there are downsides to autocracy). But “stoke violence against ethnic minorities”? The text in their post links to this article from the Toronto Star, which questions the claim that a Uighur conspiracy was behind the recent stabbings (pokings?) in Xinjiang.

Astute readers may recall that we, too, were skeptical. We were skeptical specifically because there was a lack of empirical evidence linking Uighur groups to the stabbings, many of which were themselves unsubstantiated reports.

For the same reason, we’re a bit skeptical of the idea that the government is intentionally “stoking violence against ethnic minorities”. There just isn’t any evidence.

What Happened in Xinjiang?

Granted, truth in this case seems to be a moving target. But as far as we can tell, the panic started from a police text message sent to residents of Urumqi that read: “”Recently, several residents were attacked by hypodermic syringes. Local police security departments have also uncovered a case in which assailants used syringes to attack passers-by. Please don’t panic over the incident, and inform police officers if you find any suspects.” Note that there’s no reference to the ethnicity of the suspects.

Of course, despite the urge not to panic, people did. Suddenly overwhelmed with reports of stabbings in a region that had barely a month earlier erupted in separatist riots, officials reacted predictably, blaming the stabbings on Uighur separatists. But were they really stoking the flames of ethnic violence? They also imposed yet another ban on unlicensed protesting in an attempt to prevent vigilante revenge mobs like the ones that sprung up around Urumqi after the July riots.

Of course, in the past few days, it has become clear that the initial reports of attacks were largely overblown. Many of the “victims” showed no evidence of having been attacked, and many of the actual “wounds” ended up being attributed to harmless things like bug bites. Only three people have actually been prosecuted thusfar. What’s perhaps more significant is that this evidence, debunking the previous reports of some widespread Uighur conspiracy, has come entirely from Chinese state media sources.

The three prosecuted people were, indeed Uighurs, and Western reports say that the government has indeed indicated that the crinimals motives are separatist, but is that really stoking ethnic violence? It seems pretty clear both from the anti-rioting measures and from the general tone of the Chinese media reports that ethnic violence is the last thing the CCP wants. In the most recent Xinhua report, there is no mention of “separatism”, or even “Uighur” aside from an early reference to Xinjiang being a “Uighur autonomous region”. Is it really accurate to suggest that the government is stoking violence against ethnic minorities? Even the Toronto Star article Gawker originally linked didn’t suggest that.

Why the Little Things Matter

We suspect that some people might wonder why it really matters? After all, the Chinese government does do plenty of the other things Gawker listed. Others might wonder why we care so much about one sentence from a Gawker post anyway.

This post matters for two reasons. One, the knee-jerk “how could you say something good about the CCP?” reaction misleads Western readers. It contributes to the widespread perception that China is run by unequivocally evil overlords who kill puppies for fun and pit ethnicities against each other for…well, Gawker never actually said what the motivation for that might be. If Westerners are to have any hope of understanding China, for better or for worse, they’re going to need to have a more nuanced understanding of the CCP than “evil.” Otherwise, communication is impossible.

That leads into the second reason this post matters, which is that it gives more fodder to the army of Chinese netizens hunting for evidence that there is some kind of Western vendetta against China. That, in turn, invalidates any valid criticisms Westerners might make. Why the hell should China listen to us on human rights if we’re making up things about the government trying to incite ethnic violence (or making up things about “crackdowns” in Tibet, or making up things about “crackdowns” in Xinjiang)?

Westerners who want to say anything about China ever have to fight pretty hard against allegations that we “don’t understand”. But real communication — and can we all agree that China and the West communicating effectively is a good thing? — is going to necessitate actual understanding. And it’s hard to see how we can understand China, or why China would care about understanding us, if we keep implying things happened in China that didn’t.

Discussion Section: Sixty Years of China

Maybe you’ve heard. China’s got a big birthday party coming up, and they’re definitely going to be celebrating, with everything from soldiers to tanks to…I’m sure there will be other things, too.

So what are your thoughts on the anniversary celebrations? How will these sixty years be viewed in the future? Net gain? Net loss? Neither? Or, perhaps, a more interesting question: put your Nostradamus cap on and tell us where you think China will be sixty years from now. Please try to support your answers with some sort of logic. Show your work, use only number 2 pencils. You have thirty minutes.

This post on China Media Project might offer you a place to start. And this post on CNReviews has nothing to do with the anniversary but does tie into the race issue we sometimes discuss and thus is worth mentioning, too.

Book Review: Apologies Forthcoming

The following is a review of Xujun Eberlein’s newest book, Apologies Forthcoming: Stories Not About Mao. This review refers to the Asian edition of the text, published in Hong Kong by Blacksmith books. In the interest of full disclosure, ChinaGeeks received a complimentary review copy of the book from the publisher. Also, fair warning, this review contains some foul language. We know that seems weird for a book review, but we stand by it anyway.

I’ve been reading Xujun Eberlein’s work for nearly a year now, though originally I had no idea she wrote fiction. For those who don’t already know, Eberlein manages the excellent blog Inside-Out China. But when I saw the cover of Apologies Forthcoming, it baffled me a bit. “Stories Not About Mao” is an interesting subtitle. Was it meant to be taken at face value? Or is it a Sun Also Rises sort of title, meant to call attention to Mao in its own oblique way? I plunged into the book, eager to find out, but I also contacted Mrs. Eberlein, who had this to say about the subtitle:

[A] subtitle was required by my HK publisher – my guess is it’s their tradition to have subtitles for all their books, so it is unique to the HK edition. The US edition does not have a subtitle. I used “Stories not about Mao” as the subtitle because, though the stories in this book are mostly set in the Mao era (or immediately after) , it was not my intention to point fingers at a particular scapegoat (there are already plenty of books doing that), rather my interest as a writer is mainly in the exploration and display of human nature. Mao alone would not have achieved the great calamity of the CR; the whole nation participated with enthusiasm, and one really had to be there to see how sincere and fanatic people were. Yet decades later all we heard and read were accusations against a small number of leading figures, with little reflection of what “we” did. In a sense, my stories are about “us,” the participants, not “him.”

The stories in Apologies Forthcoming, while perhaps not political, are certainly historical. In her best moments, Eberlein takes massive historical moments and infuses them with personality, emotion, and life. Some are set in during the Cultural Revolution, some during the eighties, and one — the final story, “Second Encounter” — during the present day; all but one — “Second Encounter” — are set in China. The characters in them are not politicians. They are people, and one gets the impression from time to time that there are bits of Eberlein’s own personal experience woven throughout.

The collection’s weakest moments are when Eberlein resorts to somewhat dry explanation of the history. As the book is in English, she certainly would have good reason to expect that some of her readers are relatively ignorant, but the explanations really only serve to take the reader out of the real story for a moment. Sometimes, sadly, a moment is all it takes. In encountering these moments of explication — which are few — I was reminded of something David Simon, writer of the acclaimed TV program The Wire, once said in an interview:

My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell.

[…]

I decided to write for the people living the event, the people in that very world. I would reserve some of the exposition, assuming the reader/viewer knew more than he did, or could, with a sensible amount of effort, hang around long enough to figure it out.

After the first few stories, however, Eberlein’s explication of history happily fades into the background and her heart-wrenching characters are allowed to take the forefront. Beginning with “Feathers”, the fourth of eight stories, every story in the book is absolutely excellent.

In “Feathers”, for example, Eberlein uses a child’s perspective — a narrative technique she wields multiple times throughout the collection and with great success — to communicate the pain of loss and, simultaneously the power of fiction — or delusion.

“Watch the Thrill” is an absolutely chilling piece, narrated once again by a child who is entertained by the horrors of Cultural Revolution excess — as well as the natural cruelties of life — because these things liberate him, momentarily, from the soul-crushing boredom of day-to-day life. Childlike innocence takes on a rather frightening face here, and Eberlein’s ending to the story is fantastically abrupt — and powerful. It is one of those moments that can only exist on the written page: in the HK edition, perhaps intentionally, the story ends at the very bottom of a page, so that the reader turns to the next one expecting more to the story and finding none. It is a cold realization, but these moments are why we read books.

“Disciple of the Masses” is enthralling, and heartbreaking. “The Randomness of Love” is fascinating. But if the star of this show isn’t “Feathers” or “Watch the Thrill”, it’s “Second Encounter”. The final tale in the book, it ties the other stories together in a roundabout sort of way, leaving you feeling like perhaps you’ve just read a novel disguised as collection of short fiction. Given that, I don’t want to give away much about the plot, but suffice it to say it is powerful, and it ends the book perfectly.

Eberlein does have another writing quirk that bears mentioning here. When writing dialogue, she translates some colloquial Chinese expressions fairly literally. This adds color and character to her language, and I enjoyed it, but it may bother some readers to see, for example, that she has clearly rendered the Chinese curse 他妈的 as “His mother’s” rather than the more typical (if indirect) translation, “Fuck.”

Apologies Forthcoming is not perfect, but parts of it are. Florid praise draped over the back cover as it is, I think I shall put it more simply: it is a book you should read. Eberlein has done what we so often forget to do, she has put people into history and let them tell their own stories. These are not stories about Mao. They are stories about Shanzi, Sail, Wang Qiang, Wei Dong, and many more. The names may mean nothing to you now, but given a chance, some of them will surely find a place in your heart.

Both the American and Asian editions of Apologies Forthcoming are available at Amazon, among many other places.

ChinaGeeks Blocked in China?

Perhaps it was just a matter of time. We’re receiving unconfirmed reports that the site is inaccessible in China without a proxy. Can anyone confirm or, as they say, disconfirm this? We hope it’s not true, but fear that it is.

UPDATE: Well, it sounds as though we’ve been GFW’ed. At least we’re in good company. Anyway, get your proxies loaded, folks, because we’re not going anywhere. Here’s hoping we get unblocked someday (maybe after all the anniversaries this year they’ll relax things a bit).

What the Hell is Happening in Xinjiang?

With students starting to file in and a new school year just around the corner, things have been a bit busy here at ChinaGeeks HQ, so you’ve probably already heard that there are more rumblings in Xinjiang. The short version: some people (Han) were being stabbed (by Uighurs) with syringes, which led to protests and even some deaths.

But according to an AGI report (via Shanghaiist), things are getting even crazier than we originally thought:

There are a reported 470 people hit in Xinjiang by syringes presumably filled with AIDS contaminated blood, reported television broadcaster ‘Bingtuan’, which has its headquarters in the same autonomous region which depends on central authority, after new clashes which occurred in Urumqi, capital of former Eastern Turkestan, between the local Uiguri community and ethnic Han immigrants, who hold the majority in China. ”Since last August 20 the government in Xinjiang has received reports from local epidemiological centres that say 476 people have been assailed using syringes”, the television network reported. Before the news, without making a precise estimation, the report was denied.

Violent clashes between the communities already erupted in July with a toll of at least 200 dead and 1,700 wounded. The Uiguri, Muslims who speak a language similar to Turkish, have always called for greater autonomy from Beijing and an end to economic discrimination by the Han.

Personally, I find this report a bit perplexing, and not just because AGI is trying to set the record for longest run-on lede in a two-paragraph news item, or because the rest of their report is full of typos. No, what I wonder is: why are the syringes presumably filled with AIDS? First of all, what the blood would actually contain is not AIDS but HIV, but secondly, where is all this infected blood coming from? Are people being injected with infected blood, or simply stabbed with contaminated needles? Why on earth would Uighur separatists adopt this tactic, virtually guaranteed to turn any and all supporters against their cause? Is there any real evidence the perpetrators (perpetrator?) is even Uighur at all? Protests, even when they turn into riots, can be spun, especially in a world media climate that hungers for evidence of communist evil. But stabbing people with HIV infected needles? Not likely to win anyone any popularity contests.

I suppose the motive could be pure spite, but that seems awfully thin, especially in the absence of any significant evidence about any of this stuff. Your guess is as good as mine, folks: what the hell is going on in Xinjiang?

Is Chinglish Worth Saving?

The People’s Daily, of all places, has an interesting article about Chinglish. OK, the article isn’t really that interesting but the premise is; essentially they’re reporting that contingent of Chinese and foreigners oppose the correction of Chinglish signs on the grounds that Chinglish is more interesting that regular English and is a sort of cultural relic. As evidence of the movement, they cite the existence of a Facebook group with over 8,000 members.

The idea is that this affection for Chinglish isn’t ironic or mocking, but we’re not entirely convinced. For example, from the Facebook group’s front page:

This group is for all of those people who love to giggle at poor grammar, wrong context, and embarrassing spelling of the English language.

On the other hand, there are plenty of comments that make a legitimate argument for the “language”. One girl posted:

I just want to say,inspite of being a true Chinglish fan, I speak and write a bit of Chinese,so I think that if we would tanslate our signs/posts (here in the West) in Chinese everywhere it would be equally hilarious if not even worse considering the complexity of Chinese language/culture

Another boy wrote:

We live in a world of economic crisis, terrorism, famine and disease – dark times for many. If we all took time to smile at ourselves and each other then the chances of people meeting these challenges together rather than at odds with one another would be vastly bettered. Chinglish is an effective form of communication which means that in spite of an often serious and important message one can’t help but smile. It is a lovely, well intentioned and warm-hearted expression. The world should not be robbed of Chinglish.

Interesting, to say the least. The article in People’s Daily also makes some bold claims:

Chinglish has contributed five to twenty percent of newly-added English words since 1994, exceeding any other source.

This one doesn’t seem to be true. It’s difficult to find a complete list of all the words added to dictionaries since 1994, but checking year by year we found that probably more like 1-5% came from Chinese. Most came from the internet. The article also alleges that “the phrase “good good study, day day up” […] has become a famous Chinglish sentence,” which is true in China but not anywhere else (except, perhaps, Chinese language classrooms).

So what do you think? Does Chinglish breed affection or misunderstanding and derision? Is it worth saving, or should the Chinese government get rid of it? Can the government get rid of it?

Appalling Racism

In case there’s anyone here who doesn’t already read ChinaSMACK, check out this post (although be warned, this is a good mood ruiner). The short version of the story is that a half-Chinese, half-African-American girl who was the product of an extramarital affair went on TV, and Chinese netizens went crazy. Some comments, of course, are supportive, but many of them are deeply, disturbingly racist.

We’ve discussed the question of racism before here, most memorably last spring, when we accidentally touched off a bit of controversy and earned the ire of famous Chinese blogger He Caitou. He told me repeatedly that there is “no racism in China.” If you’ve lived in China, it’s probably a phrase you’ve heard before.

There’s no point in even discussing the question further; to my mind, anyone with a functioning brain can see that there is racism in China (just as there is everywhere else). What concerns me is the steadfast denial that such thoughts and feelings exist, even when presented with pretty damning evidence.

For the record, I’m aware that the USA has serious racial issues and that we once had slaves. My intention here is not to foster a shouting match about who is more racist (any comments that even look like they’re headed down that road are going to get deleted). Nor do I wish to suggest that China needs to approach this issue the same way the US has. I do believe China needs to admit that there is an issue, though (something the US has emphatically done). In fact, I think China has a unique opportunity here to head off more serious problems by addressing this issue now; on the flipside, continued denial this issue exists are going to cause bigger and bigger problems assuming that the number of foreigners traveling and moving in to China continue to increase.

Is this denial going to lead to massive social instability? Probably not (for the moment let’s set aside tensions between the various “Chinese” ethnicities). Is it going to affect a lot of Chinese people? Again, probably not. So is it worth trying to deal with this issue? Obviously, I think so, but I suppose there is a case to be made on the other side, albeit a pretty harshly realist case.

I look forward to reading all of your thoughts in the comments, but before you comment, I also want to note that I do recall the issues brought up previously regarding differing perceptions of the word “racism” in China and the West. An insensitive joke isn’t associated with racism in China, hate crimes are. Lou Jing’s case is racism any way you skin it, though. There may be no physical violence, but she is still suffering psychological abuse as a direct result of her race. If that isn’t racism, then…well, nothing. It is racism, period.