Many people have asked me to write a follow-up to my original post on Yang Rui. For personal reasons ((Long story short, a legal case could have delayed our departure from China and forced my wife to go through the long and expensive process of US visa application all over again.)), I have been compelled to keep a low profile and refrain from speaking publicly about this for a little while, which unfortunately has given some people the impression that Yang Rui’s legal threats have cowed me into silence. I guess in a way that has been true. Anyway, enough silence.
(However, I will reiterate here that Yang Rui’s threats had nothing to do with my departure from China. My wife and I had decided to leave back in 2011, and she filed the first part of her US visa application in January of this year, well before Yang Rui made the weibo comment that launched all this in May.)
Since it has been a while, let’s review his original weibo post, which kicked off this whole thing (translation via WSJ’s China Real Time):
The Public Security Bureau wants to clean out the foreign trash: To arrest foreign thugs and protect innocent girls, they need to concentrate on the disaster zones in [student district] Wudaokou and [drinking district] Sanlitun. Cut off the foreign snake heads. People who can’t find jobs in the U.S. and Europe come to China to grab our money, engage in human trafficking and spread deceitful lies to encourage emigration. Foreign spies seek out Chinese girls to mask their espionage and pretend to be tourists while compiling maps and GPS data for Japan, Korea and the West. We kicked out that foreign bitch ((There has been some debate as to whether bitch or shrew is the appropriate translation here. However, since Yang Rui himself stated that he originally accepted bitch as a fair translation, I’m sticking with it. Plus, it’s not like shrew is any less insulting or sexist, really.)) and closed Al-Jazeera’s Beijing bureau. We should shut up those who demonize China and send them packing.
So there was that, and many people responded.
Shortly after writing my initial post, I was contacted by several other foreign bloggers in China about a campaign to draw attention to Yang Rui’s comments. We settled on calling for him to be fired, not because we thought it would actually happen, but because it would put some heat on him and possibly even his employers, and maybe cause someone up there to think for a second about the repercussions of extreme rhetoric like this. I happened to be the first person to post one of our messages on Sina Weibo, and although I expected that to go nowhere — I had barely 300 followers, and most of them were probably zombies ((typical posts on my weibo at the time attracted an average of zero comments and zero retweets))– Yang Rui himself picked up on my post more or less immediately, and retweeted it to his 800,000+ followers.
My message (see the image) was titled “Fire Yang Rui!” and contained a summary of his own post, an image of him labeled “Xenophobe,” and this: “These vicious lies do not represent the vast majority of foreign citizens in China. It is extremely insulting that an anchor on CCTV Dialogue, a show that is meant to be about intercultural exchange, would propagate such racist, hateful speech.” The language, I’ll admit, is a bit extreme, and if I could do it over, I might tone down the tone slightly. But I wouldn’t change the meaning of any of it.
Yang and I both made a few follow-up posts over the next few hours, but it was his re-tweeting of that initial post that really built up the attention. I started gaining followers, comments, and mentions on weibo like crazy, and most of them were negative. I was called everything from “foreign trash” to “Chinese traitor” (apparently not everyone was clear on my ethnicity), and urged to “fuck off back to” all kinds of places, from America (my actual home) to Saudi Arabia (not sure where that one came from). I don’t recall seeing any threats of violence, but I’m sure there were a few — I read only a tiny fraction of the comments.
There were also numerous calls for me to be investigated by the police, or just directly arrested, the first of which came from Yang himself, who wrote in his original post: “I suggest the Public Security Bureau investigate his [i.e., my] background.”
But things really got out of hand when he posted these two follow-ups:
This person is named Charlie Custer. He has been interviewed by the China Daily, and has used our columns to translate Chinese blog posts to gain fame for himself on his ChinaGeeks site. It has been mentioned by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, shouting about Chinese topics to gain a little fame for himself. Now he’s burning bridges. The reason he’s so upset is related to his longtime criticism of China. He first worked as an English teacher in Harbin, and has no other skills. To be continued.
Custer has seriously damaged my reputation, and I reserve the right to sue him. This incident is all caused by his malicious attempts to hype himself and incite racial hatred. I have seen that his eyes are full of anti-China hatred! I hope he follows Chinese laws. Additionally, he was never up to snuff as a guest of my program, and compared to most of our foreign guests like James Fallows, his quality was very low.
He also gave an interview to the China Daily saying that he was “consulting friends about filing a lawsuit.” The China Daily also contacted me for comment on that story, but I declined.
On Monday, May 21, Yang deleted both of the posts quoted above from his weibo account. (I still have full screenshots, if anyone is interested).
These posts are a pretty clear attempt at character assassination. He mentions my teaching job, but none of my more recent work. (Apparently the irony of criticizing someone for teaching English when one’s own job is entirely based on one’s English language skills was entirely lost on him). He calls me a racist, and most bafflingly, suggests that I wasn’t up to snuff as a guest when I appeared on his show.
Of course, there’s no way to prove this now, but Yang was actually quite complimentary about my performance after my first Dialogue appearance ((on a taped episode of the show about the Wenzhou train crash that, as it turned out, never aired)). I was quickly invited back for a second appearance ((This time for another pre-taped episode on Chinese spokesmen which actually was aired)). Then, in March of 2012, I was invited back on the show again, though this time I declined.
Yang Rui was the host for all three episodes I was invited to appear on. One wonders; if I was truly such a subpar guest, why was I invited back on the show not once but twice? Surely Dialogue can’t have been so hard up for guests that they’d intentionally bring on someone who sucked, right? And if Yang himself was so opposed to me, even if the show was hard up for guests and they just wanted to fill the chair, wouldn’t they probably have invited me to one of the episodes chaired by Yang’s co-host instead? It seems logical to conclude that Yang Rui’s statement about my performance on his show was pure fiction. That’s probably why he deleted it pretty quickly.
Just as things seemed to be winding down, though, came this op-ed in the Global Times by Tom Fearon. Clearly, Tom feels the reaction to Yang Rui was excessive, but the most stunning segment of his article is here:
Yang’s opponent in his Weibo war of words is the young American writer and filmmaker behind popular blog China Geeks, Charlie Custer. Custer labeled Yang a “xenophobe,” called for him to be fired and urged a boycott of foreign guests on his program, Dialogue. It’s an emotional, knee-jerk response that would further restrict free speech in our media and encourage TV hosts to be dull and unopinionated.
Now, certainly my response to Yang Rui’s post was emotional. No one, least of all me, could deny that with a straight face. But it would restrict free speech? Really? It’s depressing that I have to explain this: freedom of speech is about protecting speech from criminal prosecution. It does not mean that what you say has no consequences.
I did not call for any legal action against Yang, even after he suggested that I should be investigated by police and threatened to sue me. I did call for him to be fired (though I had no expectation that would actually happen), and there’s nothing about that that’s incompatible with freedom of speech. It certainly might serve to discourage TV hosts like Yang from making such extreme statements in the future, but it does not in any way infringe on their legal freedom to do so.
Moreover, would toning down the rhetoric really be such a bad thing? Fearon writes about how my comments could lead to “dull” hosts as if an exciting television program is more important to society than reasoned exchange. ((and as if Dialogue is currently a riveting program I’m attempting to steal thunder from.)) I think America’s current media environment ought to be evidence enough that encouraging extreme shouting instead of reasoned debate isn’t beneficial to society (although admittedly it helps sell ads).
If anything, Fearon should be making the opposite argument — that my phrasing in the initial post was too extreme and combative; that it provoked for an emotional response rather than a logical one. That is probably true, and if I could go back I would probably change the wording in a few parts of that post, if not the actual content of it. Regardless, there was nothing about the post I did make that encouraged dull television or hindered anyone’s freedom of speech.
Yang’s response to me, however, was absolutely an attack on free speech. By suggesting that I should be investigated criminally — his implication being that I must only disagree with him because I’m in China illegally — and by threatening to sue me, he sent a strong message to anyone listening: disagree with me too strongly, and there might be legal consequences for you.
Fearon also suggested implicitly that the uproar over Yang’s comments is somehow equivalent to disapproval of the Beijing government’s crackdown campaign on illegal foreigners. This is absolutely false. In fact, I have no real problem with the Beijing san fei campaign ((although I think requiring people to carry their passports at all times is a bit much)). Certainly, China has the right to expel foreigners who aren’t following its visa laws. But Yang’s comments, regardless of however he or others may be seeking to re-contextualize them, were not about that.
The Beijing campaign is about cracking down on visa violations; Yang was talking about espionage, human trafficking, and the sexual exploitation of “innocent Chinese girls.” He suggests that foreigners who criticize China are spreading lies to encourage emigration (why, exactly?) and says explicitly that those who “demonize China” should be expelled. That isn’t advocacy for a mostly-reasonable police campaign, it’s an assault on critics’ freedom of speech and on the character of China’s expat population as a whole.
It’s also, of course, unsubstantiated nonsense. While there are examples of foreigners doing everything from spying to trafficking, Yang’s post implies that these are common problems. In his first line, he invokes the Beijing san fei campaign, and then uses its legitimacy to suggest to his readers that the police are cracking down on foreigners because there are so many foreign spies using Chinese girls for sex while making GPS maps and spending their free time convincing Chinese people to emigrate ((because if there’s anything the terrible job markets in the US and Europe need right now, it’s a huge influx of Chinese immigrants)). Of course, the Beijing police are doing no such thing, and have never suggested that human trafficking, spying or any of the other issues Yang raises are significant problems in China’s expat community.
Then there’s Yang’s use of the term “bitch” to describe Melissa Chan and his suggestion that China should kick out those who “demonize” it — i.e., critics. I don’t think I need to explain how disgusting and spineless it was for Yang to curse Ms. Chan without actually mentioning her name or making reference to any of her reports. Al-Jazeera’s expulsion was not big news domestically, and Yang’s lack of specificity ensured that his followers mostly stayed in the dark as to what the channel was reporting on, or what made her such a “bitch.”
Certainly, Al-Jazeera ran plenty of negative (but truthful) reports on China. China’s unwillingness to grasp that this is just how the Western media works and not some foreign conspiracy continues to baffle me, as does the country’s insistence that the West ignores its side of the story while consistently denying the Western media access to the people who can tell that story. When they do grant access, it’s worth noting, the results are often positive. See, for example, this story Melissa Chan filed on Communist Party Schools after having been granted access to one and the freedom to talk to officials and teachers. Is this piece the work of a reporter or a network out to “demonize” China or its government? Quite obviously not. In fact, it is Yang Rui who was attempting to demonize Al-Jazeera and anyone else who does critical reporting on China.
Anyway, the controversy has died down now for all but the most extreme lunatics ((i.e. Larry Romanoff, the author of the linked piece, which is copired from a blog post of his on bearcanada.com)), and I’m not particularly interested in taking it any further than this post. Given that Yang deleted his lawsuit threat tweets and stopped talking shit about me in the media pretty quickly, I suspect he’s not all that interested in taking things any further either. Inadvertently, his retweeting of my message and his subsequent attempts at legal bullying probably did more damage to his reputation and his show among foreigners (his guests and his target audience) than I ever could have anyway. But I felt compelled to make this post if for no other reason than to make sure that Yang’s halfhearted attempt at legal bullying didn’t remain unanswered.
A Tangential Note
I think my favorite part of Yang’s original post might be the allegation that foreigners are actually government agents sent to China to encourage emigration. Why would foreign governments want a big influx of Chinese immigrants? Given the unemployment levels in the US and most European countries right now, I can’t imagine why any country would be wasting intelligence resources on “convincing people to emigrate” no matter how skilled the potential targets were. So what is the imagined endgame here? To steal all of China’s talented workers? Even if that were feasible, what country could handle that kind of immigration influx logistically, not to mention from a PR standpoint. An influx of any kind of foreign worker (highly skilled or not) in this economy would be a PR disaster for whatever administration was in power.
So if there are foreign spies in China working to convince people to emigrate the US, perhaps it’s not an anti-China conspiracy at all. Oh my god. I think I’ve uncovered an even greater conspiracy! Is the Bush family using its CIA connections to try to elect Mitt Romney by destroying Obama’s polling numbers via a spike in unemployment caused by a massive influx of Chinese nationals bent on working in the US after being convinced of America’s superiority by one of the Agency’s many English teachers/assets? Quick everyone, to the conspiracy-pondering chamber!!