Category Archives: China From the West

Chinese People and English Names

Slate ran an interesting piece yesterday about the increasing frequency with which Chinese people have, and use, English names. The author of the piece (Huan Hsu), a Chinese-American living in Shanghai, writes, “At my workplace, which is 90 percent mainland Chinese, just about everyone I interacted with had an English name, usually selected or received in school […] what really struck me was how commonly people used them when addressing one another, even when the rest of the conversation was in Chinese.”

The reasons for this, according to the Hsu’s conversation with a UCLA anthropologist, run the gamut: English is the lingua franca for business, Chinese who work for international companies want names their bosses can pronounce, English names are more “egalitarian” than many Chinese forms of address, etc. According to the respondents in the anthropologists study,

[Having an English name is] essential to being Chinese and achieving Chinese goals. Whereas in the past patriotism was expressed by self-sacrifice, it is now expressed through economic activity. So by working for, say, 3M, Chinese citizens are helping to build up China, and the English names they take on in the process are as patriotic as Cultural Revolution-era monikers like Ai Guo (Loves China) or Wei Dong (Mao’s Protector).

To be fair, Hsu admits that the trend is, thusfar, confined to cities:

For now, English names remain limited to those living in urban areas or with access to education—ask a migrant worker for his English name and you’ll get a quizzical look. But as China globalizes, more and more Chinese pass through checkpoints where they’ll acquire English names. Since 2001, all primary schools have been required to teach English beginning in the third grade (for big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, lessons start in first grade), and parents regularly choose English names for their children. China now churns out approximately 20 million English speakers each year, and the estimated number of English learners in China is in the hundreds of millions. In fact, there are probably as many Chinese who can read this sentence as Americans.

Even so, Hsu may be overstating things. People in Shanghai are probably tired of hearing it, but the city is not a fair representation of the Chinese urban environment. As of 2007, about 594 million Chinese lived in cities; Shanghai’s population is about 19 million. English names are likely also prevalent in other, more Westernized cities like Beijing and Hong Kong, but the population of those three cities combined accounts for less than eight percent of the total Chinese urban population.

In other cities, Chinese people who have — and frequently use — English names are significantly less common. In my own experience, I’d estimate that only ten to fifteen percent of my students, who are mostly English majors, have English names, and many of them first introduce themselves using Chinese names, even when the introduction is in English.

Furthermore, any foreigner who has been to China is well aware that the “English speakers” China turns out are, at best, inconsistent. Many students have indeed studied English for years, but few of them have attained any level of fluency.

The idea that having an English name is “essential to being Chinese and achieving Chinese goals” seems patently ridiculous from here, though it may well ring true in Shanghai or Beijing. It seems a bit preemptive to suggest that Chinese people “living in urban areas” or with “access to education” are adopting and using English names nationwide. Apparently, they’re doing it in Shanghai, but that doesn’t mean it’s happening everywhere.

Blaming the Government For Everything

McClatchy has an interesting piece up about the increasing popularity of tattoos in China in recent years (h/t to Danwei). It’s a pretty interesting read, and apparently lots of Chinese people are getting tattoos in foreign languages, so hopefully in a few years we can look forward to seeing English tattoos that make as little sense as the English t-shirts everyone is wearing — or as little sense as most of the Chinese tattoos back home.

Wanting to provide some background, the author (Tim Johnson) delves a bit into the history of tattoos in China [emphasis added]:

Tattoos have been around for nearly a millennium in China. Perhaps the most famous one graced the back of Yue Fei, a famous general in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279 A.D.) whose back read: “Serve the country loyally.” Legend has it that his mother ordered the tattoo as inspiration. Under recent decades of Communist Party rule, however tattoos have been largely taboo. Soldiers and police officers must be ink-free. Sports stars rarely have them. And employers discriminate against those with tattoos, thinking they signal a criminal bent.

This is, at best, extremely misleading. Johnson gets points for knowing about Yue Fei, but then strongly implies that the reason tattoos have been taboo in recent years is because of “Communist Party rule”, and that before the CCP, they were popular. That isn’t true at all.

Tattoos have existed in China for millennia, yes, but they were never a very popular form of aesthetic expression. Why? Because they were primarily a form of punishment used to mark convicted criminals. What makes Yue Fei’s tattoo so famous is, among other things, that it was so out of place at the time. The cool kids didn’t have tattoos back in Yue Fei’s day, or at any time between then and now.

If association with criminals wasn’t bad enough (in modern times, many Chinese gangs help perpetuate this negative association via gang tattoos shared by their members), there are other aspects of Chinese culture that make tattoos taboo without any help from Communism. For example, as traditionally one’s body is considered as having come from one’s parents, intentionally marking it with tattoos is considered a sign of disrespect by many, even today.

Johnson’s piece implies that some sort of change in cultural perceptions about tattoos came along with the CCP, but one suspects a statistical comparison would find there are more Chinese people with tattoos now than there were in 1948. The CCP censors plenty, but Tim Johnson missed the boat completely here — this isn’t a censorship thing, it’s a cultural thing. The CCP and its tattoo policies undoubtedly have much less to do with tattoos being taboo than these longstanding cultural beliefs, but nothing sells a story quite like the Communist Party doing something creepy. Never mind that, this time, they didn’t really do anything at all.

What the Hell Does “Crackdown” Mean?

If you’re reading this post right now, chances are this isn’t the first thing you’ve read about China in English. And if this isn’t the first thing you’ve read about China in English, you’ve probably read about a Chinese government “crackdown” before.

But what, exactly, does it mean when the Chinese government cracks down? The term was likely initially popularized through its frequent use to describe the government’s response to the protesters in Tiananmen in 1989. To many people, when they hear about a Chinese government “crackdown“, it conjures images of tanks rolling into the Square, toppling the goddess of democracy while soldiers execute peaceful protesters trying to escape the mayhem.

Yet, the term crackdown gets thrown around a lot. Recently, the Chinese government “cracked down” on pornographic websites. There’s apparently a “severe crackdown” on Uighurs in Xinjiang, and there’s a “crackdown” going on in Tibet too, in fact, multiple “crackdowns“. Christan leaders in China are concerned a “crackdown” might be imminent. There’s a “crackdown” on Falun Gong practitioners, and a “crackdown” in intellectual property rights violations.

The problem is that there’s no clear meaning for the term. As indicated above, it gets thrown around to describe a wide variety of government activities. Sometimes, its intended meaning is spelled out later in the article through specifics, but even when that’s the case, someone reading about a ‘severe crackdown’ in Tibet is probably going to think what that phrase indicates is violence, not the arrest of 40-odd people in a province with a population of over 2.7 million.

Often, though, there’s no further explanation anyway. The Amnesty International report linked above cites a “severe crackdown” on Uighurs but doesn’t elaborate at all on what, exactly, the “crackdown” entails. Does that mean they’re forcing Uighurs to speak Mandarin more, or executing them in the street? It’s not clear, but that seems like a pretty important distinction to make, and it’s not fair to expect that your readers are going to be willing to do the digging and figure out what crackdown means this time.

Let us here at ChinaGeeks be the first to declare a crackdown on “crackdown”. It’s a vague word that carries with it historical implications (for many readers) that distort its intended meaning, and it’s used far too often. A quick search of Google News turns up 2,696 responses for “China crackdown”. That’s nearly half the number of responses that come up when you search for “China politics” (5,762)! For every two stories about politics in China, apparently, there’s a story about a crackdown.

Please, let’s decide once and for all what “crackdown” actually means, or stop using it altogether. Its current “meaning” is too broad, too vague, and only feeds into the popular Western belief that everything the Chinese government does can and should be compared to Tiananmen, 1989.

Flying Shoes

We didn’t want to write about the shoe thing, but here we are, writing about the shoe thing.

Everybody knows that a month and a half ago, someone chucked a shoe at former (!) President Bush during a press conference in Iraq. Much merriment was shared by all, and the Chinese netizens, as one might expect, certainly joined in the fun. But how do they react when the shoe’s on the other foot? (Zing!)

Not very well, it turns out. On Monday, China’s own Premier Wen Jiabao got the shoe treatment while giving a speech at Cambridge in England. According to the New York Times, this shoe-thrower wasn’t as adept as his Iraqi counterpart: “The shoe missed Mr. Wen by at least 30 feet, but security officials promptly escorted the protester from the hall.”

Before he threw the shoe, he reportedly yelled something like “You should be ashamed of yourselves, how can you listen to the lies he’s telling?” After he chucked the shoe, he was apparently booed by the audience, a discerning sort. After all, as the vice chancellor of Cambridge told the BBC, “Cambridge is a place where ideas are put into play, not shoes.”

Much to his credit, Wen Jiabao handled having a shoe thrown at him like a true professional. The same could not be said for the rest of China’s reaction.

People were lot less amused than they were the Bush shoe throwing a month ago. Many web posts and reports about it appear to have been blocked or otherwise “harmonized”, what has remained (graciously translated by ChinaSMACK) is pretty intense, ranging from the predictable indignation to the (sadly also predictable) blind xenophobia: “Foreign devils, go to hell.”

A number of people, including some western bloggers, have questioned whether Wen, widely regarded as ‘one of the good guys’ deserves this sort of treatment. We here at ChinaGeeks tend to agree with something we saw on Jottings from the Granite Studio: “I’m not condoning what happened to Wen Jiabao, but I like the fact I live in a world where state leaders have to duck a shoe every once in awhile.”

In the end, though, whether throwing a shoe at Wen is right or not — and we’re pretty sure that regardless of your politics there are better ways to express your opinions than through the lobbing of footwear — it’s sort of beside the point. As one of the commenters translated by ChinaSMACK pointed out, “It proves that we are indeed a big/powerful country now, as who would bother with a small/weak country?”

Who, indeed? China has become an international player, and as such, they’re going to need to get accustomed to the fact that that means they’re going to have to duck some shoes every now and then. Global powers are going to get criticized. America is takes criticism from all sides more or less constantly; it comes with the territory.

But the government (and many Chinese people) don’t seem to have fully grasped this yet. Anyone who pays attention has seen pretty much every Western power accused of “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” through criticism over the past few years. Ryan of Lost Laowai things China needs to grow up:

Countries, much like people, don’t gain true power by crying “it’s not fair!” every time something doesn’t go their way. And, they most certainly don’t garner the respect of others by not being able to gracefully handle criticism.

So, as my dear parents said to me not too long ago: if you want people to treat you like an adult, act like an adult. Or, to put it another way, grow the hell up.

Luckily, not everyone in China is taking the “fenqing” (angry youth) approach to international diplomacy. If reading ChinaSMACK’s comments (both the Chinese and foreign ones) is depressing to you, you would do well to check out Jotting’s from the Granite Studio’s report on moderate voices in the Sino-US relationship. As they put it, “it’s […] good to remember that not all Chinese voices are fenqing, not all American voices are Neo-Cons, and that dialogue can happen when the ideologues and extremists tone down their blather and let the grown-ups do the talking.”

Can ANYONE Write an Article About China Without Mentioning This?

With its economy seemingly heading the same direction as America’s, China is taking steps to ensure that its jobless university graduates can, you know, get jobs. Reportedly, they will be offering training and giving loans to companies that hire them, as well as offering smaller loans to graduates who want to start their own businesses. It seems like a good plan; there are certainly plenty of American graduates and soon-to-be graduates who wish the US government would institute a similar plan.

But Reuters Wire Service is never content to simply report on the what; being investigative reporters, they want to dig into the meaty, meaty why. And, of course, since they’re writing about China, this is the answer they came up with:

China has more than economic reasons to fear surging graduate unemployment. It is also a potential political time bomb.

This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy protests led by radicalized students. Unsettling discontent could spread again as millions of graduates, whose families have paid steeply for their education, look for work.

Yes, of course, the reason the government is trying to help students is not because they want to help or because their efforts could help speed up the flagging economy, it’s out of fear of “another Tiananmen Square”. Never mind that the first Tiananmen Square protests had absolutely nothing to do with unemployment and that they were started by students, not unemployed graduates. Never mind that the protests emerged spontaneously as an outpouring of support for the recently-passed Hu Yaobang, rather than as an organized protest of anything. Never mind that the Tiananmen Square protests were born directly out of dissatisfaction with the government rather than dissatisfaction with economic conditions arguably fairly unrelated to government policies. (OK, to be fair, part of the dissatisfaction that led to Tiananmen was related to high inflation, but there were a wealth of other social issues that contributed as well; had it just been the inflation, I suspect Tiananmen 1989 would never have happened).

The truth is, the slowing economy does pose a threat of destabilization for China, as it does for all countries, but at the moment, I don’t see anyone other than idiotic Washington Post columnists blaming the crisis on China’s government, so a general anti-government “mass incident” on the scale of Tiananmen seems extremely unlikely.

I do understand the temptation of invoke those protests when writing about China, especially from the West, where they’re one of the few Chinese historical events people have actually heard of. Still, I really wish that if people were going to invoke them, they’d take the time to learn the history first.

UPDATE: It’s worth noting that the US Economic Stimulus Plan apparently includes a ton of education funding, like “grants to needy college students”. Shockingly, the New York Times doesn’t cite the reason for this education spending as fear that unemployed students might rise against the central government.

The “50 Cents Party” and Fearmongering

The “50 Cents Party” (五毛党) an informal nickname given to the “army” of web users who defend the Chinese government in blog posts and BBS forums online (The name comes from what these people are supposedly paid by the government, 50 cents per post). Western discussions of this phenomenon tend to venture into hyperbolic territory; “Orwellian” is a word frequently used to describe the propaganda endeavor. “Mind Control”, “Big Brother 2.0”, and now, potentially, the “Grim Reaper”. Yes, Datamation‘s Mike Elgan thinks the 50 Cent Party can destroy Web 2.0.

Elgan, who has taken the top-end estimate that the 50 Cents Party consists of some 300,000+ people as fact, fears that its members could use their power to destroy user-feedback based websites like Youtube and Digg:

With 300,000 people, you can see how the CCP could easily determine what makes it onto the front page of Digg, and what gets shouted down. They could use Wikipedia, YouTube and Slashdot as their most powerful tools of global propaganda. It would be trivial for China to determine Yahoo’s “Most Popular” news items (“Most E-Mailed,” “Most Viewed” and “Most Recommended”).

Over the long term, the existence of China’s 50 Cent Army [Elgan uses the term “army” even though the Chinese term is literally “Party”] erodes the value of the Web 2.0, which is based entirely on the actions of users. If half those users are working for the CCP, then the results of user actions are compromised. Nobody can trust it.

Forgetting for a moment the ludicrous assumption that the “50 Cent Party” are the only people on the internet with an agenda beyond pure truth and thus the only people capable of making user feedback-based web portals untrustworthy, Elgan is dramatically overstating the numerical power the 50 Cents Party really holds. Conservative estimates indicate there are at least 200 million internet users in China currently, making the “50 Cents Party” a whopping 0.15% of Chinese internet users. Worldwide, some 1.4 billion people use the internet, and the percentage of 50 Cents Party members plummets into true insignificance. Given that the vast majority of these “Party members” are actually volunteers and likely speak little to no English, Web 2.0 being destroyed by a massive influx of Chinese propaganda seems, at best, extremely unlikely. Elgan then continues,

Ultimately, China’s 50 Cent Army threatens free speech. And although new threats to free speech are constantly being invented – the 50 Cent Army being one of the most recent innovations – the defense of free speech is always the same: More free speech.

The 50 Cents Party doesn’t actually threaten much more than the ability to have an interesting discussion about controversial topics online in Chinese without being interrupted by crazy nationalists. China has no shortage of nationalists and no shortage of critics, a potent mixture that is quite sure to brew all kinds of propaganda on its own. Furthermore, are governments not also theoretically entitled to freedom of speech? Granted, the method of hiring people to spread party-line opinions may be a bit heavy handed, but it’s also not particularly dishonest. The existence of these people is no secret, and their arrival on Chinese BBS forums is generally greeted with groans of recognition. They don’t delete other people’s posts (there are other civil servants who do that, and that practice is significantly more difficult to defend on moral grounds), they simply express an opinion. Quite frankly, those opinions are sometimes the sort of thing Westerners could use more exposure to.

Of course, to say that the 50 Centers have a right to do what they do is not to say that anyone has to like it. Recently, some Chinese netizens set up an official website for the 50 Cents Party at It reads, quite simply, “Hello, 50 Cents [members], please give my regards to your mother.” (h/t to ESWN on the link). For the curious, that sentence has the same connotations in Chinese as it does in English.

The 50 Cents Party, like most government propaganda, are an annoyance. Are they a threat to internet users outside China, or a threat to the entire Web 2.0 concept? Almost certainly not. The idea that they could be sure sounds scary, and Elgan’s urging to “be on the lookout for the CCP’s paid posters, and oppose them at every opportunity” gives Western internet users another reason to discount any China-related opinions that don’t match with their own preconceived notions, but the fact is there’s no real evidence of danger here.

Your Guide to Charter 08

Charter ’08 is a manifesto signed by over three hundred prominent Chinese intellectuals that was released in December of 2008. It caused an immediate stir in the Western media, but didn’t seem to get much response from within China, at least initially. For the curious, we have collected links to relevant reading, news, and speculation.

Read Charter 08 (English translation by Perry Link. This translation has been criticized as being inaccurate, although it was officially authorized by the original drafters of Charter 08)
Read another translation of Charter 08 here (English translation by H.R.I.C.)
The document in Chinese (as well as Japanese and English translations–somehow this isn’t blocked yet in China, but the government has been blocking any site that contains this text so Chinese readers, don’t be surprised if this link doesn’t work by the time you see it.)

Initial Responses
Report that chief author Liu Xiaobo has been arrested (LA Times)
Report that 70+ other signatories have been summoned or interrogated by police (Financial Times)
Government bans signatories from contributing to state-run media outlets (UNHCR)
Charter 08 Worries China (Christian Science Monitor)
Internet cleanup shuts down “edgy” blog hosting site (AP)
Hu Jintao takes personal charge in fight against charter (Asia Sentinel)
Some Chinese Responses and H.K. Protest (Global Voices Online)

Early Western Commentary
Review of Charter 08 and aftermath with some commentary (Fool’s Mountain)
How Charter 08 is being received (EastSouthWestNorth)
Cai Yuanpei and Charter 08: Historical comparison and analysis (Jottings from the Granite Studio)
Early commentary on Charter 08 (The Useless Tree)
How can we know if Chinese people want democracy? (The Useless Tree)
A Leftist Critique of Charter 08 (Wang Xizhe via EastSouthWestNorth)

Future Predictions and Further Commentary
Charter 08 may foretell mass uprising, crackdown in 2009 (Daniel Drezner, Foreign Policy)
Charter 08 will not lead to mass unrest in 2009 (Mutant Palm)
Charter 08 Will Get Nowhere Because of George W. Bush (ESWN)

New Developments and Commentary
In China, A Grass-Roots Rebellion (Washington Post)
Charter 08 Lives? (The Peking Duck)
Western and Chinese Overreactions to Charter 08 (Mutant Palm)
A Universal Idea (Interview with a Charter 08 author) (Hungry Ghosts)

More links and stories will be added as they are posted and we find them, however, we’re attempting not to post links and news stories that are very similar to stories already posted for the sake of reducing clutter. Happy reading.