Chinese Sex Ed: A Plea for Sanity

sex-ed-bookBrowsing ChinaHush today, I came across this post about Beijing’s new sex ed textbooks for students from primary school through high school called “The Steps of Growing Up”. Apparently, it’s being condemned as pornography. This article (Chinese) quotes several parents complaining about the book, two pages of which are pictured at right.

The article also contains some concerning statistics that aren’t in ChinaHush’s post. For example:

“The [Beijing Youth Sex Education International] Forum published a report that revealed many [Chinese] elementary school students don’t know how to properly protect themselves [against potential sexual abuse], and could not correctly answer which parts of the body should be private. Of the 435 fourth and fifth grade students surveyed, only 24 of them (5.39%) correctly identified all the private body parts (breasts, sex organs, buttocks). Among those surveyed, 73 (16.37%) were unable to identify any of the private areas.

The researchers believe that since 4th and 5th graders are around the age of ten and about to enter puberty but still can’t even correctly identify the private parts of their body, if they encounter sexual abuse they may not be able to correctly recognize it as abuse and protect themselves.

The survey showed ((The methodology for this is not immediately clear in the news article I’m translating, but I thought it was worth including anyway)) that if they encountered sexual abuse, 81.23% of students had a measurable ability to protect themselves; they could resist or stop the abuser and their knowledge of how to protect themselves was strong. 14.13% of students didn’t know what to do, and treated the sexual abuse as a secret, and when they met with their abuser they would obey out of fear or because they didn’t understand the danger. Additionally 3.89% of students said they felt sexual abuse was “whatever” [无所谓].

Clearly, there’s a need for better sex education. Or so you’d think. But Peking University professor Kong Qingdong doesn’t think so, and he’s on TV talking about it. ChinaHush translated part of his interview, but here’s the whole thing:

Host: So we can see from this that [some] parents have a concern about the textbooks.

Kong Qingdong: We haven’t seen the pictures or the textbooks ourselves, but I believe this father is being responsible, because when something affects their own children, people don’t just talk nonsense. In our educational circles, in the departments where we create teaching materials, there is a slowly spreading wave of foreigner-worship, thinking that whatever foreign countries do, China must also immediately do. They don’t consider [the difference between] China and foreign national situations [国情], nor do they consider whether foreign countries doing that is good or bad, whether it’s effective or not. For example, many experts say that with sex ed, the earlier the better, and that we should not conceal the truth from children, this is what our democracy must do, instill them with this knowledge early on. But they haven’t thought that now our sex ed starts way earlier than before; if everyone really understands sex well, does that reduce sex crimes? I think it doesn’t.

In ancient times, as we understand it now, they didn’t have any sex ed, and adults did not talk about sex with their kids. But this didn’t delay anything, when people grew up they learned about sex by themselves. Look, who gets married but doesn’t know how to have kids? Who gets married but doesn’t have a sex life, I’ve never heard of that happening [Guess he never read this story! -Ed.]. We don’t need education, some things you can learn on your own. For example, eating or going to the bathroom; these aren’t things that anyone taught us to do. They’re a basic life skill. And there are lots of channels of informal education […] Nowadays, we need to target all of our education, and put into practice proper sex education, I can agree with that. But sex education can’t be so avant-garde, we need to think about [what people can do] at different ages. As far as sex goes, it’s better to keep it mysterious. If we take all the mystery out of everything, life becomes boring. As I understand it, the most open sex ed in the world is in Japan, Japanese kids begin to grasp the particulars of sex at a very young age, and what’s the result?

Host: One of their “industries” is very developed.

Kong Qingdong: I’ll tell you, it’s not that their [porn] industry is very developed, the result is that 10-20% of Japanese youths are impotent, without any sexual desires, they’re not even curious about this thing [sex]. Most Japanese men, when they see a woman, they don’t have a sexual feeling, so they have to do something perverted [to get that feeling]. We often call Japan perverted, but Japan isn’t naturally perverted, everyone is the same. How could they be naturally perverted, that’s not what it is, [the problem] is that their sex ed starts too early. So when they see regular sexual activity they’re just not interested, it’s like looking at carrots or cabbage for them. So instead they have to find a handicapped old woman and have sex with her, and only then is it exciting. This disgraces the Japanese people, is it not related to Japan? So I think this father’s concerns are logical, and we don’t need to be so foreigner-worshipping.

Now, leaving aside for a moment the pile of completely unsupported assertions Kong makes here, which start out fairly illogical and end up straight-up racist, lets take a look at this ‘revolutionary’ textbook he’s suggesting is going to turn the Chinese people into a bunch of perverts.

According to this article, the text is split into three levels, one for each level of schooling (i.e., one for elementary school students, one for middle school students, and one for high school students). Here’s a breakdown of the contents by level via chapter titles quoted in the article.

Level 1 – Elementary School

  • “My Body”
  • “Where Did I Come From?” (Link goes to a photo of the pages in this chapter)
  • “Cute Boys and Girls”
  • “Can You Protect Yourself?”

Level 2 – Middle School

  • “Body Changes During Puberty”
  • “Beautiful Young Women”
  • “Strong Young Men”
  • “Learning Skills for Communicating with Dad and Mom”

Level 3 – High School

  • “Accepting Myself”
  • “Interacting With Classmates”
  • “Preventing AIDS”
  • “Being a Healthy Internet User”

Of course, those are just the chapter titles, but from the pages that have leaked online, this textbook looks about as harmless as you would expect. It’s pretty typical; there are illustrations of various body parts, short explanations of how conception works, etc. Not really anything exciting to write home about it. And from the study I translated earlier in the post, it’s clear that Chinese kids desperately need at least a little sex education to ensure that they’re capable of protecting themselves. If you ask kids about sexual abuse and any of them respond “whatever,” you know you have a serious problem.

And yet people like Kong are allowed, nay, invited on television to condemn sex education (and of course, blame foreigners, especially Japanese people, for all manner of “perversions” ((Because everyone knows that old and/or handicapped people who have sex are gross….)) ). It’s truly stupefying. And yet Kong isn’t alone; clearly there are many parents who agree with Kong, more or less.

I don’t have the energy (or, I think, the need) to point out every way in which Kong’s argument is misinformed, flawed, misleading, and racist. Twenty percent of Japanese teens are impotent? Is there even a shred of evidence that’s true? But I do want to address one point here because, in a sort of indirect way, it ties into the rumors we’ve seen flying on Weibo recently.

Increasingly, I feel that people’s behavior with regards to information can be understood at a basic level in the simplest economic terms ((Note that I am not an economist, and economists probably wouldn’t endorse this metaphor.)): supply and demand. Specifically, when there is demand for information, people will always find someone willing to supply it. In the case of the 7.23 train crash, for example, there was a huge demand for information but the government and the media initially supplied precious little. This left a sort of vacuum which was ultimately filled by rumors and hearsay; in the absence of official information many people chose to satisfy their demand with the only information that was being supplied to the public at the time: rumors.

Similarly, children are naturally curious about sex. Yes, even in Japan, I’m quite sure. And without access to any official supply of information, well, they’re going to turn to “unofficial suppliers.” As Kong points out, it is quite rare that people don’t figure out sex on their own sooner or later. The problem is that if you leave children to work it out for themselves, aside from the basic safety and health issues that raises, you can’t be sure what information they’re using and whether or not the perception of sex they ultimately form is healthy.

Note that when I say “healthy” I don’t necessarily mean heterosexual, monogamous, or kink-free. As far as I’m concerned, as long as everyone involved is an informed, consenting adult, there is no such thing as “perverted” (as opposed to regular) sex.

Now, in the absence of sex ed, most children will probably do fine. You have only to look at China today to see that. Sure, they may have had some embarrassing moments of ignorance along the way, but they may make it to the “finish line” with no damage done, as people have indeed done for thousands of years before the advent of laminated pamphlets and the banana-condom demonstration.

So why bother with sex ed at all? Becuase it allows a society some degree of control over where and how children get their information about sex, and whether or not that information is accurate. Left to their own devices, many teens turn to pornography to learn about sex. There’s nothing wrong with pornography as a concept when it’s being viewed by properly-informed adults, but I think most people would agree that plenty of porn provides a rather unrealistic depiction of sex, and that watching porn is not a good way for children to learn about sex.

Similarly, not being open about sex and safety can have devastating consequences in some cases, even if the majority of children can “learn on their own” and emerge unscathed. As evidenced in the study cited above, if children aren’t properly taught about sex, they may not be able to recognize forms of sexual abuse. In fact, in the absence of other, accurate information about sex, they may learn from their own experience that “abuse is normal,” which prevents them from getting the help they need and may lead to even graver problems down the line.

“Learning from experience” is great. But no one wants to learn about STDs from experience. No one wants to learn about the efficacy of condoms in preventing unplanned pregnancy from experience. And certainly, no one wants to learn about how not to prevent sexual abuse from experience.

So please, let’s all calm down a bit. Give kids the information they need to be safe. And while we’re making changes, let’s also try not to let crazy people like Kong Qingdong spout a bunch of racist nonsense on the TV, K?

Examining Eric Li and China’s Vox Populi

WARNING: If you are not a fan of VERY long, badly-organized posts, you should probably leave right now.

The Article

Shanghai-based venture capitalist and Fudan doctoral candidate Eric Li has popped up a couple times in the past few weeks. First, he was here, debunking China “myths” in the New York Times, and then yesterday here in the Christian Science Monitor, debunking…well, anyone who is critical of China. I found this second article especially problematic. Let’s dive right in!

Two trains collided and 40 people died. The transportation accident seems to be riveting the Chinese nation and dominating its newspaper pages, TV screens, and the Internet. It has claimed prominent spaces in leading international media outlets.

All of a sudden, the entire Chinese political system seems to be on trial, its economic development model – with the high-speed rail project its latest symbol – discredited; the Chinese people are in an uproar; and Western commentators are again pronouncing a sea change that this time, with the overwhelming force of microblogs, will finally begin to bring down the Chinese miracle. One would imagine, at the very least, the trains would be totally empty.

Already we can see Mr. Li setting up a straw-man of sorts. The implication he’s making is that if China’s trains aren’t empty, this means that Chinese people aren’t really as dissatisfied as the internet would make it seem. Why? So that he can then say, “Look, Chinese people are riding the trains; therefore, no one is angry at the government.”

Unfortunately, that logic doesn’t make an awful lot of sense. First of all, no one would expect China’s trains to be empty; just the high speed ones. But even there, China’s need for some form of transportation is just too great for anything to stop people from taking the train. I’m sure high speed rail numbers are down following the crash, but the fact is that millions and millions of people still need to travel, and there simply aren’t enough regular trains or airplanes or buses to hold all of them.

In fact, I myself will be taking a high speed train in China in a couple weeks. Does this reflect my confidence in the Chinese government, or even my confidence in the Chinese rail system? No. What it reflects is that I need to get somewhere quickly and I can’t afford a plane ticket.

Yet again, reality is intervening.

The Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail line finished its first month of operation having carried five and a quarter million passengers – a number not in dispute. The percentage of capacity number is very much in dispute because of differing statistical models [my emphasis], but even the most conservative interpretations would have the trains half full. This is not shabby for such a large-scale project in its first month, during which a much publicized fatal accident occurred. In the rest of the regular rail system, where the accident actually happened, even the fiercest critics of the railway project are admitting that the trains are nearly full as usual.

First of all, given that the crash happened late on July 23rd, I don’t think that an examination of high-speed rail passenger statistics for July is going to be much indication of how the Chinese public has responded to the crash. But, as I said earlier, obviously people are riding trains in China, so whatever.

More interesting are the “differing statistical models” he mentions. Specifically, what he means is that the Railway Ministy counts a seat as being full as long as one person books on it at some point on a train trip. So if, for example, I take the train from Beijing to Shanghai, but I get off halfway. If no one replaces me, that seat is counted as having been at 100% capacity for the trip. If someone replaces me, the seat counts as 200% capacity. If a third person were to book that seat for another leg of the journey, it would count as 300%. This is how the Ministry was able to announce that the Beijing-Shanghai rail operated at 107% capacity this month ((Here’s a Chinese source for the haters: )).

I’ll leave it to you whether “differing statistical models” is a fair way of categorizing the controversy there.

In the past decade, rapid growth of the Internet has created a digital public square, and its ferocity has become a unique phenomenon. While the vast majority of China’s 480 million netizens use the Internet for entertainment and commerce, a smaller group uses it to vent dissatisfaction about life, society, and the world. They express their most intense feelings about what they are most dissatisfied with in the loudest voices possible.

In the loudest voices possible? What does that even mean? Large fonts? The Chinese state media makes this same claim all the time — that “dissenters” are “drowning out” pro government voices on sites like Sina Weibo. But the fact is that the only way to “drown someone out” on Weibo is with numbers. There’s way to affect what posts other people see and no way to “amplify” your own posts. Dissenting opinions are “louder” on Weibo because, at the moment, most people on Weibo hold dissenting opinions.

If “the vast majority” of people were using Weibo to talk about entertainment and commerce, for example, how did the train crash remain that site’s most popular discussion topic for nine days? Certainly no one would deny that a great many of the comments about the accident were expressing dissatisfaction with the government. And it’s not like Sina, or anyone else, was censoring pro-government views. So how can we explain the tens of millions of Weibo posts about the crash? Were they all made by a select few people while “the vast majority” of China’s internet users took a nine-day holiday from using Weibo? That seems pretty unlikely, especially given the many user polls that were passed around on Weibo and racked up hundreds of thousands of responses in days (users can only vote once per poll).

Now, certainly, those polls are only indicative of “public opinion” to a point, as participants are self-selecting and Weibo users in general skew towards young, urban and educated; they’re not an accurate representation of China’s overall demographics. At the same time, though, they reach sample sizes that are absolutely massive compared to the relatively few scientific opinion polls that are conducted in China; and given that there’s no trustworthy recent (last six months) poll data that I’m aware of, we can’t totally discount the value of Weibo user polls.

The nature of the Internet is such that these sentiments [negative sentiments] are amplified and assume a semblance of dominance. Its manifestation is by definition partial but not holistic, extreme but not representative. Little wonder that any casual visitor to the Chinese digital public square would find a China filled with the most extreme expressions of populism and nationalism.

Really? That’s the “nature of the internet”? Negative sentiments about the government “are amplified” (by who? how?) and “become dominant”? Because when a few years ago when any Chinese post on politics was flooded with hundreds of comments about how the economy was doing better, China had the Olympics, and foreigners should shut up, was that not the internet?

I’m pretty sure it was, but if the “nature of the internet” amplifies negative sentiments (somehow) and makes them “dominant,” how is that possible?

The only reasonable conclusion is that the internet is a communication tool. Because it grants anonymity, it does tend to skew towards obnoxiousness and rudeness, but there is nothing inherent about the internet that reinforces a particular set of political beliefs.

Those who understand the nature of this medium would know that these expressions, while legitimate, are far from reflecting the general views of average netizens, much less the population at large. When put into an objective analytical framework, it is, at best, but one of the barometers of public opinion, and certainly not the most significant. At worst it is what Foreign Policy magazine has recently termed the “People’s Republic of Rumors.”

Ah yes. Here we enter familiar territory; the old “if you disagree with me it is because you don’t understand” argument. Li wields it somewhat clumsily here and then moves on to reenforcing the idea that “these expressions, while legitimate, are far from reflecting the general views of average netizens.”

What, then, reflects the general views of average netizens, I wonder? Millions of negative comments on Weibo, negative train crash posts dominating all the major BBS forums and Chinese SNS…if these do not “reflect” the views of netizens then what, pray tell, does? Why should we discount these views that were expressed so widely and uniformly? Li doesn’t really offer an answer for that.

Instead, he enters into a long argument about how these views are advocated and promoted by the “pseudo-literati,” who are apparently frustrated that they are no longer governing the way they used to during imperial times, and that they have been replaced by ‘obviously more competent’ ((I am here paraphrasing something Li says on page 2 of his article, in the second paragraph.)) political and commercial technocrats.

Not being able to go into politics, many pseudo-literati have over the years gone to work in China’s highly fragmented media industry. In that, they found themselves even more frustrated. Their desire to influence politics is restrained and sometimes repressed by the political authority of the central government. Such is China’s political system.

In their frustration they have bought into the Western ideological notion that the media must be independent of political authority and has the moral responsibility to check the power of the state. Combining this ideological conversion with their feeling of lost entitlement to power, they have appointed themselves as the rightful opposition to Communist Party rule. And they have found the partiality and extremism of the digital public square their most fertile soil. They have sought to interpret the venting of dissatisfaction on the digital public square as representative of the will of the people.

First of all, arguments about modern people’s motivations that begin with a comparison to imperial times are pretty much all total horseshit. Yes, Chinese people have a strong historical memory, but no one alive in China today makes their life decisions based on what they could have expected if they were living in the Qing Dynasty.

As far as the literati goes, a far more useful historical context for their “opposition” to the Chinese government might be the anti-Rightist campaigns (for example), since that’s something that some of them actually experienced and it would certainly be motivation enough to make anyone mad at the government for a long time.

But honestly, I don’t think that’s what’s happening either. In fact, I don’t think what Li’s saying is even happening. China’s media has not positioned itself in opposition to the government, and in fact, a large portion of it is the government. To return to the train crash story, for example, some of the harshest criticism of all came from CCTV. Now, I’m sure some educated liberals work at CCTV, but could it really be characterized as having “appointed [itself] as the rightful opposition to Communist Party rule”?

Moreover, while I’ll grant that the digital sphere is fertile ground for extremism and partisanship, that goes both ways. So if the “vast majority of netizens” are actually pro-government, as Li argued earlier in the piece, how have these disenfrancised literati managed to shut them up? Shouldn’t the “fertile ground” of the internet be nourishing their extremism and partisanship too?

Certainly, there are people in the media with an anti-government motive. I don’t deny that, although I think Li’s explanation of the cause of those motives is ridiculous. But Chinese netizens are not retarded puppets; the fact that negative opinion has become so prevalent on the net is a reaction to real-world conditions, not some kind of shadow media group that is manipulating the stupid public so it can return itself to the glory days of Imperial China. People — yes, real people — are critical of the government because of housing prices, inflation, and safety issues that affect their lives.

Again, Li does have a bit of a point mixed in there. The voices on the internet are not — necessarily — “the will of the people.” The thing is, they aren’t necessarily not “the will of the people” either. Just because an opinion is expressed on the internet doesn’t mean it’s confined there, and in fact, while it’s not as easily quantifiable, I’ve certainly seen plenty of these “internet” sentiments in evidence offline. Just after the crash, for example, I heard a colleague say into his phone with genuine shock in his voice, “You still trust the Communist Party?” This was not a dissident or some dissatisfied media liberal. Nor is it some idiot who would be easily swayed by peer pressure or media guidance. This was a well-educated, well-to-do guy working a good job at a promising tech company.

Now, he’s not necessarily representative of “the will of the people” either. In fact, “the will of the people” is kind of a dumb phrase for a nation of over a billion; there are just too many people to ever be able to really say they have one “will.” My point is that people outside of the (apparently biased) internet are sharing equally negative sentiments about the government on a daily basis, even in public. If Mr. Li wants to talk about “the will of the people”, he ought to at least offer some alternative measurement of it, but he really doesn’t. His argument that regular Chinese people aren’t dissatisfied because they’re still riding the trains ignores the economic and logistical realities that essentially guarantee people will be riding these trains regardless of how they feel about the Railway Ministry or the government. (Additionally, as I pointed out earlier, his statistics for that point are somewhat questionable anyway).

Also in the paragraphs quoted above is the popular notion that a free press is somehow incompatible with China. This argument is so common now that Li apparently feels no need to even attempt to support it, which is good, because it would be difficult to support. What makes a free press so incompatible with China? It’s certainly incompatible with the Chinese government’s wishes, but that’s not the same thing. In fact, I believe a free and independent press could work well under the current system, more or less.

The narrative of dissatisfaction isn’t real

We have indeed seen this movie many times before. The dissatisfaction expressed around the dislocations caused by the building of the Three Gorges Dam was interpreted as a strong general opposition to the dam project itself. The Shanghai World Expo was attacked as a wasteful project unwelcome by the residents of Shanghai. One of their pieces of evidence was the loud expression of dissatisfaction many netizens expressed online about the construction chaos caused by the building of the large-scale Shanghai subway as a part of the Expo. They widely publicized the empty trains during the initial months of the new subway lines’ operation as proof.

But of course, any rider today will tell you that now one would have to squeeze into these trains every day – an interesting replay of what is being said about the high-speed railways.

Again, Li is confusing the fact that people use things they’re upset about some aspect of as evidence that they were never actually upset. This doesn’t make a lot of sense. In the US, for example, when the TSA introduced full-body scanners, many people were upset, but they kept flying. Why? Because they had to. The fact that they took planes doesn’t mean they weren’t angry at the TSA, it means they needed to get somewhere by plane.

He may be right about some people in the media using the empty trains as evidence of people’s anger, but he turns around and makes the exact same (foolish) assumption, just going in the opposite direction.

What is central to all this is that the pseudo-literati, in their effort to carve out a moral space for themselves in the Chinese political landscape, have taken the expressions in the digital public square and created an Orwellian 1984 of Chinese public opinion. They are writing in their newspapers and spreading through their microblogs a virtual and parallel reality of Chinese society.

This is where it becomes clear we’re definitely on the train to Crazytown. An “Orwellian 1984”? Ignoring for a moment the blinding irony (not to mention the redundancy), this isn’t actually true. Millions of regular people — not reporters or “pseudo literati” — were talking about the train crash (for example) or food scandals (for example) or inflation (for example) and complaining about the government. The media, both Chinese and foreign, may have overemphasized this in some cases — we’ll get to that later — but they did not make it up.

The narrative goes like this: The Chinese people are generally dissatisfied with the rapid economic development of the last 30 years; the benefits of speedy development are not worth the costs of its byproducts, namely the wealth gap and corruption, just as an accident discredits the entire infrastructure undertaking of the high-speed rail project. Every disaster, whether natural or due to human error, is proof that the current political system has lost the trust of the people.

No, that’s not how the narrative goes at all ((I’m talking about the narrative on Weibo here, there are number of narratives in foreign and domestic coverage depending on who you read)), and that’s the problem. Because Li is right. That narrative is a load of crap. But it’s also a figment of his imagination. Here’s what the actual narrative is: The Chinese people are generally satisfied with the rapid economic development of the last 30 years. The benefits of speedy development have generally outweighed the costs of its byproducts, but now that China has lifted millions out of poverty and is one of the world’s largest economies, it’s time to slow down a bit and start fixing some of those byproducts; namely the wealth gap and corruption. An accident doesn’t discredit the entire infrastructure undertaking of the high-speed rail project; quite the contrary, nearly everyone would agree that China should and can have high speed rail lines; what the accident does is indicate to people that the implementation of this infrastructure was too hasty and apparently not thorough enough. People are dissatisfied with that because they feel that in this, a period of relative stability, China should have and could have done better. Disasters, whether natural or due to human error, are not proof that the current political system has lost the trust of the people. But the government does lose trust when they handle the aftermath of a disaster poorly, and they seem to be making something of a habit of that.

And who is to represent the will of the people to overturn all this injustice? Of course it’s them, and the media is somehow ordained to lead this revolution. The opinion piece in the immediate aftermath of the accident by a respected commentator essentially repeats this storyline for Westerners in English.

Uh…what? Most of the pieces I’ve seen, in Chinese and English, say nothing about the “media”. If there’s going to be a revolution, everyone seems to think it will be led by Weibo. Yes, there are some reporters on Weibo, but it is not the media, just as it is not the government even though many government officials have Weibo accounts.

I’m not sure what opinion piece, specifically, Li is referring to, but the vasty majority of media reports I’ve seen on this topic have been about “the Weibo revolution”. The media isn’t really involved at all.

There are only two problems with this plan. One, the Chinese people don’t seem to be in on it. Just about every credible public-opinion survey points to strong satisfaction of the Chinese people with the rapid economic development that has been taking place, and they look to the future with unprecedented optimism. The pseudo-literati are loudly demanding a dramatic slowdown in GDP growth. If the Communist Party acceded to their demand, would the Chinese people tolerate that?

Just about every credible public-opinion survey….and how many is that exactly? There’s the PEW polls and, um…hmm. Of course, there isn’t a PEW poll (or any other credible poll) on this topic that’s recent enough to reflect public opinion following any of the high-profile issues that have cropped up in the past year, so I’m not sure how valuable any of those surveys really are. Beyond that, there are other questions, but I don’t want to get into that here — this post is already way too long. My point is, if the “narrative” Li laid out above really represented the narrative that’s presented in the press, then these surveys would be fair game. But that’s not really the popular narrative, and I’m not sure what a survey from two years ago can tell me about public response to social problems that have only really emerged in the past six months.

As for the “Slow down, China” mantra we’ve heard in the wake of the crash, it’s not a media invention. Hundreds of thousands of regular people — not “pseudo-literati” — were saying similar things on Weibo and offline in the week following the crash. Generally speaking, I don’t think Chinese people care much about the GDP in the abstract, and I think it’s unfair to assume Chinese people wouldn’t be willing to put up with slower growth and the effect that would have on their own lives in exchange for things like safer transportation and food and a more level playing ground for businesses (if corruption could be slowed).

Two, China is moving along a political trajectory that is uniquely suitable to its own cultural context and not following a Western model in which the media is an independent forth estate. China will never have its own Rupert Murdoch.

I don’t think I even need to comment on this; I addressed this same idea when it cropped up earlier in the piece.

The victims of this terrible train accident will be properly mourned and their families fairly compensated with respect and dignity. The cause of the accident must be thoroughly investigated and prevented for the future. The country will move on.

Yes, because nothing says “respect and dignity” quite like, “We’ll give you 100,000. Oh, uh, did we say 100,000? We meant 500,000. Still no? OK, fine, 900,000. And an extra 25,000 if you’ll sign fast and get your grieving ass out of our hair!” ((This is satire, not a direct quote, as far as I know.)) But I agree, China will move on.

This author predicts that, in a few years’ time, China’s high-speed railways will be transporting hundreds of millions of people and bringing enormous economic and social benefits to the Chinese people, just as the Three Gorges Dam is delivering much-needed electricity to tens of millions of ordinary families and Chinese industry, and the Shanghai subway built for the World Expo is providing efficiency and convenience to 20 million Shanghai residents.

I’m certain the railroad will be transporting hundreds of millions of people. And hopefully, as a result of the anger that followed this incident, the Railway Ministry will have been cowed into making it at least marginally safer. But I fail to see what that has to do with public opinion, or how the fact that in the future the trains will run successfully somehow means that what people are saying on Weibo or elsewhere now isn’t valid.

There is an old Chinese saying: The people are like water and the ruler is a ship on that water; water can carry the ship, water can overturn the ship. Chinese vox populi – that is the water. What is the vox populi saying? Those who seek to understand China and predict its future course should not misjudge the people’s voice. For those who rule China, misreading that voice carries greater peril than not reading it at all.

Wait, the people are the water? Or the people’s opinions are the water? And other people are misjudging the water? Misreading the water is more dangerous than ignoring it? I don’t see what this simile has to do with anything but I think there’s a law somewhere that says all China op-eds must end with an “old Chinese saying”, so I’ll let Li off the hook.

A better metaphor might be that the people are the water, and that public sentiment as it appears on Weibo is more like the waves. It may represent the real motion of the water, and it may not. There could be other currents underneath the waves that rulers can’t see from the boat. But that would be a very foolish reason to ignore the waves entirely.

Internet Public Opinion and the Vox Populi in China

So, now that I’ve spent 4,000 words tearing it apart, I’ll admit it: there is a good point underlying Li’s post. Specifically, the media (Chinese and foreign) is prone to over-emphasizing the importance of Weibo and other Chinese internet public opinion channels. Part of this — and I should note up front that I am as or more guilty of this than anyone — is laziness. Reporters can log on to Weibo and have a few punchy quotes picked out before lunchtime. They can search for exactly what they want, and moreover, it’s what their editors want. Social media is hot, the internet is hot, and people are clamoring for these stories, so there’s even some pressure on reporters to work this way.

That said, the reporting environment in China greatly exacerbates these factors by failing to reward, and in fact punishing, writers who attempt to collect public opinion by more traditional means. At best, they’ll find a lot of people not willing to talk to the press, at worst they may be met with harassment and even physical violence from whatever party their investigation threatens to damage. The same is true for their subjects, which makes interviewing anyone in China about political topics a bit dicey under even the best of conditions.

Another problem is that the lack of government transparency pushes people to other sources. This is especially true for members of the foreign press. China regularly complains that these reporters never tell China’s side of the story, but Chinese officials almost always refuse to speak to foreign reporters. I feel certain that most media outlets would prefer a quote from Wen Jiabao to a quote from some random Weibo user, but Chinese officials don’t tend to give interviews to foreign media outlets beyond the occasional press conference.

Anyway, regardless of the reasons, Li is right that Weibo and net public opinion in general gets over-emphasized (although I think the fact that Weibo gets over-emphasized is also over-emphasized). This is not only true when it’s negative opinions about the government that are being expressed, either. Remember all the scare stories in the Western press a few years ago when the Fifty Cents Party was in full blossom and nationalist posts were popping up everywhere? The importance of that was over-emphasized too, although something tells me Li probably didn’t write a piece on it.

That said, just because an opinion comes from the internet does not mean that it is invalid or not representative. In the case of the train crash, the feedback was so massive and so uniformly negative that it seems insane to dismiss it as meaningless just because it was typed on a website rather than shouted in the street. We can’t necessarily take any online trend as indicative of something larger until we’ve done a more thorough investigation, but nor can we dismiss it.

Moreover, in discussions of this we have to acknowledge that such an investigation would be exceedingly difficult in the current political environment. If I, for example, were to go around conducting a public opinion poll to support my claims about how Chinese people feel about government in the wake of the Wenzhou accident, how long do you think it would take for me to end up in a police station?

In some cases, we have to take what we can get. The internet is a flawed source of Chinese public opinion, but so are any other sources we might turn to. Moreover, the internet does offer a sample size that’s pretty impossible to compete with even for professional pollsters, and as China continues to develop, the demographic skews are evening out. We’re still a long ways away from the ‘net being a pure representation of all of Chinese society, but what we’ve got now is still useful to examine so long as we are aware of its flaws.

Hu Xingdou: No More “Harmonious Society”

In ancient Chinese the relation between names (ming) and actuality (shi) was a fiercely debated topic amongst philosophers and statesman. But no matter if essentialist or nominalist ((If you are an essentialist/realist you believe that any entity in the world has an “essence”, defined by its own specific characteristics, which we are able to perceive and capture in words. As a nominalist on the other hand you would believe that the things surrounding us can not be fully perceived but it is the process of attributing words and defining the relations between them that matters. Therefore realists would be looking for the “correct names” that match the true nature of a thing while nominalists are looking for the “appropriate names” that make sense in an overall context, a reason why there are different translations for zhengming depending on what philosophical outlook the author is thought to have had.)) —they all believed that finding the correct or appropriate names (zhengming) to describe the world around us was of utmost importance, not merely in a philosophical sense, but also in a political one. When Confucius was asked what the most important task was in an administering a state, he is said to have replied: “Without question it would be to insure that names are used properly.” Because, as he continues to explain, “if the names are not appropriate, the words will not ring true and if what is said is not reasonable, then nothing can be accomplished.”

It seem this philosophical insight was lost somewhere on the way: Today’s “harmonious society” is characterized by intensifying social conflicts accompanied by a strong sense of alienation, not only between the government and the people, but also between different social strata. In regard to this blatant discrepancy between ming and shi Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, argues in the blog post translated below that the government should quit using this outdated and overexploited catchphrase in favor of the more concrete goals of justice and rule of law.


A proposal to dispose of the catchphrase “harmonious society”

Hu Xingdou

To the Central Government:

I hereby propose to let go of the catchphrase “harmonious society”. In 2004 the central government, reacting to the increasing amount of social conflicts brought about by rapid economic growth, first suggested to build a “harmonious society”. This [new policy approach] mirrored popular sentiments and thus gained extensive public support. But things have changed since. Not only has the Chinese society not become any safer because of this new political doctrine, instead right the opposite happened! Social conflicts have continued to intensify and nowadays the idea of a “harmonious society” [rings hollow, having been] reduced to nothing more than a bad joke. On the internet a war is raging between grass-mud-horses and river crabs: The expression “river crabs”, a stand-in for the term “harmonious society”, has actually become a symbol for the powers of evil in the minds of Chinese netizens. Therefore the government needs to reflect on the situation and move forward with the times. It should address its mistakes and do away with the catchphrase “harmonious society”. Instead they should start talking about a “just society” or a “fair society” in order to make it happen, to restore justice and to regain the support of the people. Better still, they could directly choose to speak in the common language of the civilized world and talk about a “society build on rule of law”, a “civil society” or a “democratic society”.

The underlying reason for the failure of the so-called harmonious society is that “harmony” was made the first and foremost priority, resulting in the belief that “stability overrides everything else”. And while the words may differ, the outcome was the same: Justice and fairness were sacrificed for the sake of temporary stability and the appearance of harmony. As a result our society has become less and less harmonious and it seems ever less likely that stability can be maintained in the long run.

Justice is the most important value of a modern nation. And only if we can create a just and fair society, we can also build a harmonious one and thus guarantee long lasting stability. Only if we establish modern state institutions and a modern political system, granting the people the right to express themselves and the right to vote as well as handing them administrative power and the authority to supervise, only then can we avoid another “dynastic” overturn accompanied by social upheavals and realize long lasting peace and stability. But currently things are developing into the opposite direction: In some places the term “harmonious society” serves as a mere illusion of peace and tranquility to hide a reality characterized by injustice, violent oppression and a disregard for principles. It has become a pretext for safeguarding vested interests, a rhetorical fig leaf for preserving a status quo that has lost its legitimacy.

Overall the doctrine of a “harmonious society” has turned right into wrong and wrong into right and distorted societal values. Justice and rule of law are on the retreat and political reform has ground to a halt. In the name of “harmony” local governments suppress petitioners and citizens who have been wronged. They disregard the law by practices like settling outside of the courts, avoiding official investigations, buying imprisonment and making back-door deals. In the name of “harmony” all demands for political reform are indiscriminately put down. In the name of “harmony” a blind eye is turned to malpractices in the economic sphere like the disregard for property rights that is evident in the unlawful confiscation of land and demolition of homes, illegal home searches and confiscation of personal possessions as well as the plunder of personal assets. The same is true in regard to state monopolies and the way the state is pushing the private sector back, leading also to a continuous worsening of the economic and business environment.

The doctrine of the “harmonious society” has effectively led to an intensification of social conflicts, therefore I hereby propose to either abandon or adjust this political slogan in order to speed up the realization of a just society build on the rule of law.


As the statesman and philosopher Guan Zhong ((It should be noted that the authorship of the Guanzi, the compilation of books ascribed to Guan Zhong, is still debated and it is unclear how much of Guan Zhongs actual ideas and views are represented in these writings.)) purportedly pointed out even a couple of centuries earlier than the world’s favorite old sage: “If perverted names are employed, things will naturally be in a state of collapse.” How profoundly the wrong use of words can influence reality is evident in the harsh societal impact the once idealistic term “harmonious society” had, when, instead of serving as a goal to aspire to, it was turned into an imperative and spawned its ideological counterpart “stability above all”. In the process the words lost their meaning and even started to invoke the opposite.

The government reaction to this apparent disconnect between political doctrine and political reality has pretty much been to shout or sing louder and plaster walls and newspapers with more slogans. But despite the increased propaganda efforts in the run-up to the 90th birthday of the CPC, less and less people trust in what they read or hear through official channels. The willingness to believe about any rumor and distrust anything presented as truth ((Also check out the great post on ESWN, although a bit of scrolling is needed to get to post [003] The Rumor Debate.)) , also visible in the controversy surrounding the recent train accident, is ample proof that “the words don’t ring true anymore”. All this is a sign that the whitewashed information offered in state media and the official ideology with its pompous slogans have lost their function as a glue binding together all of society, instead leading to further conflict and disintegrating.

Can this destructive tendency be reversed? Hu Xingdou makes a valid point when he argues that goals should be redefined and most of all clarified in order to avoid that political doctrines—no matter how well intended—can be twisted beyond recognition. (An observation that could be similarly applied to the Chinese law as here, too, it is linguistic ambiguity that leaves the door wide open for abuse.) Maybe the Chinese government should take advice from old Guan who said: “The enlightened ruler makes his body tranquil and waits. When things come about, he names them.” Because “if correct names are employed, things will naturally be in good order.” ((Interestingly though it also is in the Guanzi that, in an ironic twist of history, “harmony” is used to describe the ideal relations between the people and the government and within a society, thus laying the foundation for what today has become the havoc-wrecking political doctrine of a “harmonious society”…))

While that might be a bit to optimistic, here’s hoping for an end of the “river crab” infestation…

All Your Facts Are Belong to Us

Railway ministry spokesman Wang Yongping. "Whether or not you believe it; either way, I believe it."

In China, news has a habit of disappearing; from state media, traditional media, personal blogs, microblogs, and Internet forums alike. After an important incident, citizens have roughly a day to opine before the government apparatus catches up. It is then that directives are issued to media outlets, outlining what can and cannot be reported; it is then that posts you swore you wrote vanish; it is then that new “sensitive keywords” are entered into a blackout database.

But this sort of state-induced amnesia doesn’t mean the incidents are forgotten or disappear from public consciousness. For the discerning public, these events are preserved in other ways. Usually it’s though whispered anecdotes that blend fact and rumor. Sometimes it’s through a kind of numeric shorthand: May 4 (5.4), June 4 (6.4), and, more recently, May 12 (5.12, referring to the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake). But with the spread of Internet and cell phone connectivity comes another form of public remembrance which we will focus on here: the catchphrase turned Internet meme.

Last week, railway ministry spokesman Wang Yongping became the most quoted person in China after a press conference on the evening of July 24, just one day after the Wenzhou train collision, in which he uttered two phrases that might be repeated for years to come.

“This is a miracle.”

Here’s the setup. After authorities had claimed that there were no more survivors on the derailed train cars, they began to push them around with cranes in preparation to bury them, causing rumors to fly that there were still survivors and that the government was intent on literally burying the evidence.

That assertion, turns out, is at least partly true. 21 hours after the collision, rescue workers found two-year-old Xiang Weiyi (nicknamed Yiyi) alive inside one of the cars. This turn of events led to a widespread conviction that the government had not taken the rescue effort seriously.

At the Ministry of Railways press conference, Wang was in the unenviable position of having to account for why someone would be found alive when the government had declared everyone dead and had begun to tear the train cars apart. But it’s okay, this guy is a professional. Just say you’re sorry, you messed up, stand up and bow, offer condolences, throw in some empty platitudes if you have the time, and you’ll be home in time for dinner. No sweat.


Reporter: Why would a girl be found alive while disassembling the train cars, when rescue attempts were already finished?

Wang: This is a miracle. You ask why—

Reporter: This is not a miracle!

[Many reporters angrily yelling at once.]

Reporter: What I want to ask is this: Why, after you had already announced that there were no survivors, when you had already begun to disassemble to the train? Why would there still be a survior?

Wang: I am answering you. This happened. We truly did find a girl who was alive. This is the way things are.

Two-year-old Xiang Weiyi recovering from her injuries.

Now, I don’t want to be too hard on Wang. After all he is just a government lackey, but ARE YOU SERIOUS? A miracle? Someone call the pope, I think a sainthood is in order! Is it also a miracle that this girl has symptoms of PTSD? Or is that just what happens when you leave a two-year-old to die in a train car?

Unsurprisingly, this quote spread across the Chinese Internet and added fuel to the argument that the Chinese government, to paraphrase Kanye West, doesn’t care about Chinese people. Certainly, the insouciance with which Wang answers the question is disturbing. The lack of depth and self-reflection in his response belies a disregard for the girl’s life, which could easily be generalized to the Party itself.

In the end, I think I understand what Wang is trying to say. For a toddler to survive the train crash in which her parents died is nothing short of Potter-esque; for a defenseless child to survive the full force of the Chinese government’s ineptitude and negligence, is nothing short of miraculous. But if little Yiyi is Harry Potter, then what does that make the government?

“Whether or not you believe it; either way, I believe it.”
At another point in the press conference, a reporter asked why the government had attempted to bury parts of the train. Wang’s response was:

Why was the train car buried? Actually, when I got off the plane today, the comrade who picked me up from the airport said that he already saw this kind of news online. I was on the plane so I didn’t have a good handle on things. I wanted to ask him, “Why would there be such a foolish question? Can an event that the whole world knows about really be buried?” He told me, “It’s not being buried. Truthfully, this news cannot be buried.” We have already tried though countless ways to broadcast this information to society.

But about burying [the train car], [the people who picked me up from the airport] gave this explanation. Because the scene of the rescue was very complicated. Below was a quagmire. It was very hard to perform rescue operations. So they buried the head of the car underneath, covered it with dirt, mainly to facilitate rescue efforts. Right now, this is his explanation. Whether or not you believe it; either way, I believe it.

Wang delivers the last line with a satisfied nod of the head and a swing of his right hand (animated GIF here), as if to emphasize the important thing is that he has deluded himself. Whether or not the Chinese people can delude themselves is their problem. An utter lack of curiosity or a desire to know the truth permeates his response. There is no indignation, no second-guessing, no doubt—just gleeful ignorance.

Never mind the lack of logic: It’s hard to perform rescue operations on unstable ground so fuck it, let’s just bury everyone alive. Then, on the backs of the deceased, we can try and rescue some people. Perhaps this is why some netizens have taken to calling Mr. Wang, “Emperor Logic.”

Add to the fact that the Chinese government, like every government, is very successful at burying events that the whole world knows about. One might even say they excel at it. This press conference gives us a rare glimpse into why the Chinese government works so well: they’ve stacked their ranks with people who have cheerfully drunk the Kool-Aid. I had hoped that officials in the government didn’t believe their own bullshit but Wang here wallows in it. You’ve gotta give him points for gullibility.

The Social Consciousness

Jokes incorporating Wang’s responses quickly surfaced. A comment on the latter video reads, “Wang Yongping is impotent. Whether or not you believe it; either way, I believe it.”

A longer joke imagines a retelling of Journey to the West:

Tangzeng and his followers have to go back to West Heaven and Tangzeng wants to take a shortcut so he asks Wukong’s advice. Wukong says, “I hear planes are much faster than your white horse.” Bajie advises, “Master, I hear the Shenzhou 6 is even faster.” Then, Shazeng pulls out four tickets for a high-speed train and says to Tangzeng: “Master, I hear this thing can send you straight to West Heaven. Whether or not you believe it; either way, I believe it.”

Aside from finding humor in an otherwise depressing situation, memes like this are important because they embed the event in the social consciousness, preserving knowledge about the event for a longer period of time. After all, a government’s greatest ally is the forgetfulness of the general public.

These cultural memes show that although the government is monitoring the Internet more and more carefully—blocking websites, deleting posts and reposts—they cannot stop their infamies from seeping into the culture itself. Perhaps the only way citizens can remind themselves of the tragedies that are whitewashed, rewritten, or otherwise brushed aside, is to make them a part of the underground lexicon.

Shortly after the accident, a user on Tencent’s microblogging service started a “High-speed Rail Style Sentence Making Competition,” which challenged users to make sentences using Wang’s, “Regarding ___, whether or not you believe it; either way, I believe it.” Though I cannot locate the thread (it may have been harmonized), the competition had over 7,000 replies by the evening of the 27th.

Some entries were preserved on other parts of the web:

The Chinese Soccer Association said: “The Chinese soccer team will qualify for the 2014 World Cup. Whether or not you believe it; either way, I believe it.”

There is no traffic in Beijing today. This is a miracle, but that is how it happened. Whether or not you believe it; either way, I believe it.

“River crab,” Baidu’s 10 Mythical Creatures, “harmonize,” are all part of the underground lexicon that undermine the government’s official line. Wang follows in a long line of people who were unfortunate enough to coin a phrase that perfectly embodies the iniquities of their society. Former champions include Ted Stevens with his conception of the Internet as “a series of tubes” and Li Qiming who notoriously announced to the world, “My dad is Li Gang.”

The Li Gang case is especially salient because the catchphrase ensured the enduring popularity of the incident and kept it in the public consciousness until, finally, the government was forced to act. (That case also spawned a writing competition in which netizens were tasked to rewrite classical poems by incorporating the phrase, “My dad is Li Gang.”)

Although Wang’s memes have staying power—they are beautiful in their simplicity, as the best memes are—the issue they deal with is too sensitive and the Chinese government will not act on something that strikes at the heart of their legitimacy just because a few netizens are cracking jokes behind their back. But these seemingly innocuous jokes hurt the credibility of the Ministry of Railways if not the central government and could serve to pressure more officials to step down in the future.

It’s a long shot but whether or not you believe it; either way, I believe it.