In Brief: “If You’re Happy and You Know it, Clap Your Hands”

This video has been floating around the Chinese internet for about a month now, and has accrued over 880,000 plays ((probably more, as it’s likely been reposted on other video services; the 880,000 count is just for this one Youku upload.)). It’s called “If You’re Happy and You Know it, Clap Your Hands,” and it’s another entry in the vein of satirical independent Chinese animation.

I don’t have time to translate it line for line, but the video and a basic summary are below.

In the video, a teacher quizzes students with a series of questions. First, he asks if they know what the national emblem is used for (he points to an example of it on the 1 RMB note). They respond they do: you should run to buildings with the emblem on them whenever there’s an earthquake, since they’re the safest.

Then the teacher asks a math question: if an old lady falls down at 7:10pm, a man 200m away eating a hamburger sees it, the guy moves at 5m/sec, and the hospital is 300m from the accident site, how long will it take him to take her to the hospital. The students all do the math, but it turns out they’re wrong, the correct answer is never, because “anyone smart enough to buy a hamburger would never go help an old woman who has fallen down.”

Then, playing off the “artistic youth/dumb youth” meme, we learn that a dumb youth would kill the old lady (accidentally), and the artistic youth would just take a picture of her misfortune to post on Weibo.

Next, the teacher asks students to count the people in a photo of a luxury car. There are three sexy models in front of the car, and all the students answer three, but they’re wrong again — they’ve failed to notice that there’s a person’s arm sticking out from under the car’s rear wheel.

The following question concerns the makeup of cooking oil, and you’re probably already guessing the punchlines at this point. It’s gutter oil.

At this point, they’re interrupted by a bee, which the teacher kills, saying “this is what happens when you harm the motherland’s flowers!”

Then they get onto a bus, which crashes and breaks into pieces. All the students are killed save one, who is gravely injured. The video ends with the teacher’s ghostly voice trying to explain why students need to learn to face dangers in society (“so that later you can face more dangerous challenges”) and then the injured, armless student trying to clap along to “If You’re Happy and You Know it, Clap Your Hands.”

The whole video is worth a watch if you speak Chinese and are familiar with net memes, as there are a bunch of other ones in there I didn’t include in this summary (and probably some references that went over my head, too).

On the “Superior” Political Model

For several days, I have pondered writing about this New York Times op-ed by Eric Li. In fact, I accepted and then spiked a guest post on it, then wrote and spiked a post of my own. It’s not that Li’s piece doesn’t deserve the criticism — his suggestion that the Tiananmen protests were a “vast rebellion” is ridiculous, as is his assertion that rights in China are decided in “negotiation” between the Party and its subjects — but the specifics, erroneous as they are, are really beside the point. So, in fact, is whether I’m talking about Mr. Li or one of the many Americans who might make a similar argument but come to the opposite conclusion.

Writers on both sides of the debate engage in the same sort of comparative analysis on a regular basis, cherry-picking facts to support the assertion that their system — American democracy, Chinese authoritarianism, whatever — is superior. Like Li, they measure a system’s superiority or inferiority based primarily on how it compares to the performance of a different system in a different place governing different people. This makes no sense.

What I’ve just argued is echoed in a familiar Chinese government refrain: China is unique and not suited to Western-style democracy ((“Western-style democracy,” of course, is a made-up term that fails to account for the very significant differences between the political systems in place in developed Western countries.)). There is a hint of truth to this. China, like all countries, is unique. Certainly, it is different enough from the United States that directly comparing the two as though we might just pick up one system of government and transplant it in the other country is utterly absurd.

Attempting to determine the “superior” political model comparatively is pointless because there is no way to compare anything. American democracy has been overrun by special interest money, yes. Can we quantitatively compare this with the endemic corruption within the Chinese government? Can we somehow pick a winner, and even if we could, would that really be meaningful?

Actually, I suspect these sorts of arguments are especially prevalent now because people in both countries feel in need of some reassurance. Certainly, America’s economic woes are no secret; China’s problems with corruption, unrest, and human rights are equally concerning to anyone who is paying attention. Everyone would like a pat on the back and the assurance that while, sure, there are some things going badly at home, at least we can be safe in the knowledge that we’re superior to those guys.

Of course, this accomplishes nothing. A nation’s political system should be judged based on whether it accomplishes the goals of any political system. Opinions may vary here, but I would submit that at their most basic level, governments exist to ensure that individuals can pursue their lives without fear. A good political system, then, protects us from foreign invaders and domestic criminals, but it also protects us from itself; from tyranny and terror.

By necessity, this involves compromises of freedom. A truly free society would likely be an abjectly terrifying one. But the compromises must be limited; a truly safe society would be just as horrifying ((See: Brave New World, The Giver, lots of other dystopian fiction)). Our systems, then, must compromise, and these compromises vary by situation, location, culture, and most especially people. Perhaps there are alternatives to voting, but the people of any country should be able to play an active role in deciding what rights their society is willing to forfeit in the name of increased safety or stability. They should also have the recourse to reassess these judgements as the world changes and society changes along with it.

Looking at China on its own merits, then, the question is not whether China’s current system is superior to America’s. That question is meaningless. Rather, we must ask how well China’s system serves its people according to our criteria of what a political system should do. Could China’s system be modified to improve its performance? Could it be replaced entirely, or melded with some other system?

What the perfect political system for China might look like is beyond the scope of this article (not to mention the capabilities of its author). But there is little evidence to suggest that China has constructed the best possible system for itself. Even by economic performance, while the system has performed incredibly well, deep concerns remain. Per capita GDP is growing but remains dismally low. More than a hundred million Chinese live in poverty ((To the government’s credit, an upward adjustment is the reason this figure has jumped despite continued economic growth; however, at $238/year the poverty line is still shockingly low by the standards of developed countries)). Moreover, as the economy grows, so too does the income gap, and the growth in wealth does not seem to have affected the human rights situation, which by all accounts ((Well, except the account of the Chinese government, but they seem to define the term purely based on economics, so that as long as China’s economy grows, the human rights situation is improving automatically.))appears to be deteriorating.

There are responses to those concerns, yes. I find them personally unconvincing, but my point here is simply that in a discussion of political systems, these are the things we should be discussing. Pointing out America’s flaws may make some people feel better about China’s government, but it doesn’t answer any of these questions ((Obviously, there are hundreds of questions that could be listed here; these are just a few random ones)):

  • Why can’t China have a free press?
  • Why can’t China have an independent justice system and the rule of law?
  • Why can’t Chinese citizens have greater freedom of speech?
  • Why can’t Chinese citizens have some say in their own governance?
  • Why does China’s cultural output need to be censored and sterilized?

As I mentioned earlier, any political system requires compromising some individual and collective freedoms in return for safety. The question, then, is what compromises are necessary, and this is a question that needs to be reassessed with increasing frequency as developing technology changes the way societies function.

Take, for example, the first question: why can’t China have a free press? The traditional argument against a free press is that it would destabilize China by reporting too much negative news ((The implication, though it’s rarely expressed explicitly by those defending this view, is that they’d be reporting too much negative news about the current regime, in other words, that access to the truth might incite the people to pursue “regime change.”)). But the rise of microblogging seems to have proved this point moot.

Microblogging really rose to prominence in China a couple of years ago, after Twitter was blocked and domestic leaders in the field emerged. These services were censored — of course — but they allowed anonymous registration and virtually instant data transmission. Automatic censorship systems are imperfect — keyword blocks fail catch typos, let alone metaphors — and manual censorship systems are slow. This means that for the moment, censorship on microblogs is more of a nuisance than anything; anyone truly dedicated to getting a message out could pull it off, provided they had a sufficient network to broadcast to.

And have they ever broadcast! In fact, in the absence of a real free press, microblogs became a de facto free press, an uncensored ((There are a few negative stories that were effectively suppressed on Chinese microblogs, but the “reporting” and commentary on them is still far freer than most of what’s allowed in the Chinese media))source of news with all the negative reporting of a real free press and none of the fact checking. Although this era is coming to an end — microblogs will require real-name registration for all users by this March — China has enjoyed a freer flow of information over the past two years than ever before in its history. Moreover, this information was full of rumors, misinformation, and paranoia (unlike the fact-checked, sourced stories in a professional newspaper). It was also decidedly down on the government ((So much so, in fact, that several Chinese state media outlets ran pieces about how pro-government supporters had become an oppressed minority on microblogs and other discussion sites)), as any user of Sina Weibo could tell you. (If you’re ever in doubt of this, you need only to check Global Times editor Hu Xijin’s weibo page and scan through the thousands of insulting, negative comments that follow nearly every single one of his posts).

Yet despite this free flow of negative (and sometimes totally made up) information about the government, Chinese society failed to collapse. Microblogs have certainly ruined the careers of a few officials ((I’m sure Wang Yongping is having a blast in Poland, though)), but the government remains intact. No one has rebelled. The sky has failed to fall.

A free press would, from the government’s perspective, presumably be better than microblogs; at least with a free press, you get the chance to comment and set the story straight before the paper gets printed, and you know that some editor has double-checked to make sure the story isn’t made up ((Yes, of course, this isn’t always the case, but compared to microblog rumors, fake stories in the mainstream free media are quite rare.)). Why, then, couldn’t China’s political system include an independent and free press, or at the very least, a press that is less tightly controlled? And if it could, why doesn’t it, and how can that be rectified systemically?

We might sort through all of the questions listed above in this fashion, or pick other questions and sort through them as well. My intent here is not so much to do this as to suggest that this is the way we ought to evaluate our political systems. The comparative polemic makes nationalists feel warm inside, and it’s probably great for pageviews too, but we ought to aspire to something more meaningful and more useful.

This is, I suspect, true of all nations, but I think it is especially true of the United States and China, both of which face serious problems that are not likely to be solved by smugly superior editorials, bombastic grandstanding, or any of the other rhetorical approaches to the infantile whose-is-bigger argument that serves to do nothing but distract us from what is actually important.

Guest Post: Yiyi Lu and the Flowers of Hypocrisy

The following is a guest post by Mark Connor.

Frequent readers of this website will already know of the bullhorn Chinese nationalism barked by many in the Chinese media. Recent tweeter Hu Xijin of the Global Times is one; so is Eric Li. But though these roaring ideologues are not much different to North Korean leaders in full battle cry, their writings are not exactly the most relaxing way by which to sample Chinese patriotic opinion on political matters.

So if you would like to enjoy your flask of tea while browsing a more restrained and nuanced practitioner of Chinese nationalism, consider the articles of Yiyi Lu, a sometime contributor to WSJ’s China Real Time Report. On occasion she will voice concerns about this or that policy in China, or the tone of Chinese diplomatic language, but in general she hews closely to what we might think of as the CCCP’s ‘core’ values: Tibet, Taiwan, strong government, and so on. One such ‘value’ is that Japan is a remorseless enemy who committed outrageous atrocities in WW2 but about which neither the Japanese populace nor the world at large has as much knowledge as many Chinese think we should.

recent article of hers – concerning western media’s unfairly (to her mind) harsh appraisal of Flowers of War, the gory Chinese war epic focusing on the Rape of Nanking – is a case in point. About the harsh appraisal, she isn’t wrong. The WSJ’s own China Real Time Report memorably claimed the Japanese in that movie were all shown as “monochrome monsters” (see Lu’s article). But to Lu’s thinking, this brought to light a double standard in the western media, and this was that (in her words),

[n]umerous Holocaust movies have been made that portray Nazis as evil incarnate, but one does not see western media describing them as anti-German propaganda that “lacks subtlety.”

Lu of course does have half a point. Japan did commit war crimes for which it has not apologized or made reparations with nearly the art or humility that Germany has. The right cultural pressure could – hopefully – lead to better acknowledgement of these, and might even bring about compensation payments.

Whitewashing history in Japan’s school textbooks

But before we look at her analogy and consider its suitability, let us look first at another of Lu’s examples of western media bias in her article, this time regarding Japan’s school textbooks. As you probably already know, several of these textbooks omit or soft-pedal many of Japan’s atrocities in WW2, the Nanjing Massacre being the most famous. Lu however has noticed that whenever western media write about China’s criticisms of these books, somewhere in the article there is frequently a mention of China’s own omissions and soft-pedalings of wrongdoings committed against its own people. She thinks this is like saying,

when discussing Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews…: “Yes, the Jewish people suffered a great deal during World War II, but Israel has also occupied Palestinian territories and killed innocent Palestinian civilians.”

But this analogy of hers plainly does not work. The reason is that there are two victims – Jews and Palestinians – while in the textbook debate there is only one. The Japanese insulted their Chinese victims by erasing the record; the Chinese government did the exact same thing, and the victims were once again the Chinese.

Lu therefore needs a better analogy – here are two. First, imagine if Saddam Hussein had criticized Turkey’s treatment of the Kurds? As Hussein himself had famously gassed them, the media would have been right to mention this detail in any article on Hussein’s denouncing of Turkey’s actions. Or again, what about when the USSR put in its textbooks harsh words on the earlier Tsarist regime’s mistreatment of the masses, when in fact many punishments in the Soviet Union were much more strict and cruel than those of the predecessor’s? Pointing out clear hypocrisy of this kind is a surely a basic function of the media.

So coming back to China, the real issue does not seem to be who lies about what bad things were done to the Chinese in their textbooks. No, the picture that presents itself is of China needing Japan as an enemy and being prepared to lie to do so. There is little else we can conclude.

Why do countries have or need enemies? Of course the enemies do bad things – this is not in question. But so often are these evil acts of the enemy chanted as mantras of hate by the victims that they come to seem more as deflections of this anger away from one’s own problems, and then on to an outsider, in this case Japan. (Keep in mind that all countries do this, but some are much worse than others.) And from this we could then ask, might not films demonizing a foreign country be performing much the same function?

Flowers of War and the Nazis

At one point in her article, Lu also claims that Flowers of War’s private financing is relevant as this shows it is not the voice of the government, even though just about any other kind of movie on the Nanjing Massacre could not have been made in China’s heavily censored movie industry. This is almost like saying that the man in the straightjacket just so happens to be most comfortable crossing his arms over his body like that.

Her main point, however, as quoted above, is that western critics have given Hollywood’s portrayal of Nazis an easy ride while having shown zero tolerance to how Flowers of Warrepresents the Japanese. It is a little strange that she does not name any of these Nazi-vilifying films, so I have come up with a list myself. Tens, maybe hundreds, have been left out, but most people will probably agree the below are several of the more well-known. (There are others here, too).

Casablanca: Nazis don’t commit atrocities and behave much like a strict, enemy, occupying army. It was also made during WW2, not sixty years later.

Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Nazis are clear monsters. But note that they get their faces melted off by God at the end, making the effect more kitsch than cruel. Accuracy and realism are not hanging out with the plot in this blockbuster. Also, the bad guys are generally Nazis, not Germans. They have a logo to indicate them which the Germans, though sometimes evil, do not.

Schindler’s List: Nazis are bad but some Germans are good.

Saving Private Ryan: Nazis are no more than enemy soldiers. Inhuman acts are committed by both sides.

The PianistOne of the heroes is a Nazi.

Of the five, Indiana Jones’ Nazis are the only true “monochrome monsters” – the Japanese in Flowers of War are comparable to these Nazis alone. And notice that of the other four movies –Oscar winners all – three have nuanced portrayals of Germans, and, sometimes, Nazis too.

But somehow it is not the lack of recent movies with monster Nazis that seems most to trouble Lu’s point. What no doubt really bothered western critics about Flowers was its pretence to high art. It was submitted as China’s hopeful Oscar nomination, after all. Critics duly applied higher standards.

Japan probably needs to have more pressure applied to it so that it faces up to and admits its part in WW2 atrocities. Unfortunately China is too flawed and unsubtle a cultural voice to effectively do this. No wonder the latest effort drew so much skepticism and even scorn in the west.


High-Level Defection or Convenient Vacation?

UPDATE 7: For an alternative theory, check out this post on Inside-out China.

UPDATE 6: The Chinese government has now announced that Wang Lijun did enter the US consulate and that they are “investigating.” Of course, we knew all that, but this announcement was — like the last one — posted to Weibo, where it immediately spread like wildfire. It seems quite obvious now that the authorities are letting this story spread on purpose.

The reason for this that we have been talking about is that it weakens Bo Xilai, something that some within the Party very much want to see happen. Alternatively, though, allowing this news to spread could be an attempt to “soften the blow” when Wang is almost inevitably branded corrupt and a traitor. Because he played a leading role in the anti-corruption campaigns in Chongqing, Wang is quite popular with average Chinese people, and much more widely known than the average vice-mayor. Perhaps the rumors and these announcements of things we already know are being intentionally spread to incept ((OK, that’s hyperbolic, but when else am I going to get to use this word?)) the idea that Wang, who we previously thought was good, is now bad.

Of course, there were already plenty of questions about the way the Chongqing anti-crime campaigns were conducted. If nothing else, these updates just continue to underscore that we still really have no idea what’s actually happening.

UPDATE 5: At the moment, Wang is back on the Sina Weibo trending topics list twice. “王力军” (an intentional mistyping of his name is #2 on the trending topics list, and the phrase “vacation-style medical treatment” is #7. Searches for “Wang Lijun” (typed correctly) remain uncensored. It’s quite clear that Sina is not trying to suppress this story at all, which begs the question: is someone at Sina trying to damage Bo Xilai?

UPDATE 4: The US State Department has confirmed that Wang Lijun was at the US consulate and that he left of his own volition, although they won’t talk about whether or not he asked for asylum. Very interesting. Here’s the relevant bit of the transcript from the State Department press briefing:

QUESTION: — specifically these reports coming out of China that a deputy mayor of Chongqing had sought refuge at the consulate in Chengdu and that there had been an unexpected increase in security personnel around the consulate for a while. What can you tell us about any of this?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think you’re referring to reports about the vice mayor of Chongqing – right – City. So his name is Wang Lijun. Wang Lijun did request a meeting at the U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu earlier this week in his capacity as vice mayor. The meeting was scheduled, our folks met with him, he did visit the consulate and he later left the consulate of his own volition. So – and obviously, we don’t talk about issues having to do with refugee status, asylum, et cetera.

QUESTION: Okay. But – so can you tell us exactly when that meeting took place?

MS. NULAND: I believe – we’re here on Wednesday – I believe it was Monday, but if that is not right, we will get back to you.

QUESTION: Do you have any information about what – have you had any subsequent contact with him? Because there’s some questions about his whereabouts.

MS. NULAND: Yeah. To my knowledge, we have not.

QUESTION: And aside from any possible thing that you couldn’t talk about on asylum can you tell us what he did talk about there? What was the purpose of this meeting?

MS. NULAND: Frankly, I don’t have anything at the moment on the substance of the meeting.

QUESTION: Can you say why you said he used – why you used the term, “he left the consulate of his – on his own volition”?

MS. NULAND: Well again, there has been some reporting to indicate that that might not have been the case, but it was the case.

QUESTION: Okay. The reporting being that he had been forced to leave or that had been dragged out, or —

MS. NULAND: There’s been unusual reporting about all of this. So just to reaffirm for you, that he walked out, it was his choice.

UPDATE 3: Ai Weiwei has tweeted that according to a reliable American lawyer, Wang Lijun once asked the US consulate for asylum. However, he doesn’t name the source, and the word “once” makes it unclear when this happened. Hong Kong’s Oriental Daily News is reporting the rumors are true and that Wang asked for and was denied asylum, after which he was arrested, but who knows how accurate that is.

Meanwhile, McClatchy’s Tom Lasseter (@TomLasseter) is in Chengdu checking things out and finding things seem more or less normal.

UPDATE 2: Added a bit to the rumor section about Wang allegedly divulging information to the US.

UPDATE 1: See also this excellent piece by Tania Branigan in the Guardian with additional information.

Weibo and Twitter are buzzing today about an incident that apparently took place at the US consulate in Chengdu last night (thanks to @niubi for first bringing it to my attention). As far as I am aware, at the moment there are only a few real facts connected to this situation, and they are these:

  • Last night, the US Embassy consulate in Chengdu was surrounded by a large number of cars from the People’s Armed Police and other security organizations.
  • The US Embassy is not commenting on the situation, at least for the time being. Update: Still no comment, but this article confirms that the US had not requested the police presence outside the consulate.
  • The Chongqing Press Office announced this morning that Chongqing vice-mayor Wang Lijun is on “vacation-style medical leave” for “nerves”. (Reportedly, Wang’s mobile phone is switched off).
  • Sina has been censoring searches for “Wang Lijun” on and off throughout the day. ((at the moment I write this, it appears to be uncensored again, but I have seen it blocked and unblocked again twice this morning.))

So those are the facts as we know them. Here’s the narrative that’s been circulating which, for the moment, should be taken as very much still a rumor: Wang Lijun approached the US consulate in Chengdu last night to request political asylum. At present, he is either still inside the consulate, or has been refused and handed over to Chinese national security police. Update: According to some versions of the story, he was in the consulate for quite some time, and may have divulged significant amounts of privileged information to US diplomats.

What the hell is going on? I’m not at all sure. Making things especially weird is the fact that these topics quickly shot to the top of Sina Weibo’s trending topics list, but then disappeared. Searches for “Wang Lijun” were blocked, then unblocked, then blocked again, and now appear to be unblocked again. For reference, below is a screenshot I took of the search page during the first round of blocking (that I noticed, it may have been blocked and unblocked before this).

What’s really interesting about this — aside from the fact that I’ve never seen a search term blocked and unblocked so quickly before — is that whatever the truth behind the consulate kerfuffle and Wang Lijun’s involvement, this incident has two major potential political ramifications.

On the international side, the implications of a high-level official defecting or attempting to defect just before soon-to-be-president Xi Jinping makes his visit to the US could be huge. If the US were to grant Wang asylum, that would be….well, awkward probably doesn’t even begin to cover it.

On the domestic side, with China’s leadership transition fast approaching and Wang being high in Bo Xilai’s Chongqing administration, a defection or even just a rumored defection on Wang’s part could seriously damage Bo’s position. Certainly, there are forces within the Party who are very opposed to Bo’s rise, and it’s hard to think of what better ammunition they could have against him than something like this. On Twitter, @niubi theorized that Sina could be allowing some of the posts about Wang Lijun to go through on purpose to damage Bo Xilai’s reputation, and that certainly seems possible.

Assessing the likelihood that any of this (beyond the facts) is real is very difficult. On the one hand, the US generally doesn’t grant asylum from in-country embassies, precisely because those embassies are easy to surround with police. A year or so ago, I was asked by a Chinese friend to research this process, and found that generally speaking, it’s much easier to be granted political asylum if you’re outside the country you want asylum from. It strikes me that if Wang Lijun really did flee to the Chengdu consulate to request asylum, he must have been in a rather desperate situation. Otherwise, presumably, he could have waited for an opportunity to travel abroad and had a much greater chance of success.

Then again, a high-level official like Wang might be just the sort of person the US is willing to take that risk for. But it’s an awfully big risk, and the diplomatic fallout if the US granted Wang asylum would be massive. Still, if word of the incident gets out — and it certainly seems that’s happening — rejecting Wang’s application would be a PR loss internationally.

Anyway, it’s not at all clear what the heck is going on here, but whatever it is, it’s definitely interesting. We’ll keep an eye on it, but interested parties should pay special attention to Weibo, where there’s a lot of chatter about Wang and his “vacation-style medical leave” that is getting through the on-again off-again censorship.