Category Archives: Culture

Translation: “Looking Forward to When Anti-Corruption Has Some Culture”

I came across this short piece by Wang Gengxing in Southern Weekend today; I think it’s quite worthy of discussion. (All the links were added by me for the purposes of providing extra context; none of them are in the original piece).

Recently officials have been falling one after another: “Watch brother” Yang Dacai, Guangzhou former PSB chief He Jing, Yibin deputy mayor Chen Guangli…we can see that the government is resolute in opposing corruption and that the anti-corruption system is gradually improving. But even the most perfect system will not easily show results without corresponding cultural support. Taichung (Taiwan) mayor Hu Zhiqiang once dressed up as a beardless “modern-day Zhong Kui” and beheaded four kinds of green “corruption demons” with a group of children to plant the seed of opposing corruption in their hearts. Hong Kong’s ICAC uses many approaches to plant the seed of “clean governance” in the people’s hearts: they used the cartoon “Zhi Duo Duo” to communicate with children, set up an interactive website to communicate with young people, sent “clean government ambassadors” to colleges, held anti-corruption activities…Central Commission for Discipline Inspection secretary He Guoqiang recently emphasized that we must give prominence to the special characteristics of clean government culture, “in improving writing styles from top to bottom, in innovating new measures from top to bottom, ceaselessly raising the level of anti-corruption/pro-clean government education and propaganda work.” Why can’t you and I also put forward plans and make anti-corruption even more cultured?

Is cultural involvement really necessary to fostering cleaner government? Clearly not everyone thinks so. One commenter on the article above wrote:

Without civic consciousness, without consciousness of civil liberties, without an effective system of checks and balances, all we can do is count on idle talk, what’s the point?

Another wrote:

Culture’s influence is imperceptible [but present], however in today’s society, this road is destined to be long and winding [i.e., eliminating corruption via cultural changes is going to be a very slow and inefficient process]. Returning to the main topic; greed comes from human nature; unless we wait for the arrival of true socialism when there is no more inequality, we’re just treating the symptoms but ignoring the root cause.

Another commenter hit on my own personal reaction to the piece:

The system is useless, it’s all Monday-morning quarterbacking ((The original Chinese here is one of my all time favorite expressions, ‘an after-the-fact Zhuge Liang’)). Mostly it relies on net users, mistresses, and Gan’s daughters.

In other words, the system is often reactive and does nothing to stop corrupt officials who don’t draw attention to themselves. Indeed, one of the examples Wang cites in the original piece, “Watch brother” Yang Dacai, was only brought to justice after internet users uncovered his corruption and started raising a ruckus.

Returning to the original point though, despite the fun-sounding stunts in Taiwan and Hong Kong, I don’t think that corruption can really be regulated through education and culture, and especially not through the PRC government’s propaganda machine, which hasn’t proven to be particularly effective with this sort of thing. (For example, the government has been both promoting and legislating gender equality for years in the hopes that it can stamp out the traditional girl-bad-boy-good mentality; the failed results of that campaign so far are pretty evident in the country’s growing gender gap). As one commenter pointed out, greed seems to be a part of human nature, and it’s not likely to be overcome by a cultural campaign even if Zhongnanhai plasters the walls of the Forbidden City with red banners about fighting corruption.

On the other hand, though, the Chinese school system certainly could be doing more to promote transparency and honesty. At present, many students in Chinese schools are learning (among other things) how to get away with cheating; cheating and plagiarism are (in some schools) basically considered part of the game. I can only assume that attitude does contribute to the idea that it’s OK to cheat in other ways in one’s professional life, including — if one opts to go in that direction — one’s life as a public official.

Moreover, I suspect the larger issue facing China’s anti-corruption drive is the perception that Party membership and officialdom is generally motivated by personal interests rather than ideology or any genuine interest in serving others. For example, a cursory search for “Why Should I Join the Party?” turned up this question on Baidu Knows (What is the best reason why I should join the Communist Party?”). The top answer is exactly what you would expect, but here are snippets from some of the other answers users submitted:

…The best reason to join the Party is that after you commit a crime you’ll become famous. As soon as someone says official so-and-so did it. Otherwise, you won’t be able to become famous…

Of course, joining the Party has advantages for you…

Because you’re a Chinese person and you have to live in China…

Because these days many companies give priority to Party members when hiring.

Entering the Party is not just a reflection of improving your political identity, it is also creating a political foundation for your personal struggles. In a sense this means it will improve your personal value; for example when filling out a resume and putting down that you’re a Party member, the results will be very different [than if you weren’t; in other words, Party members will get jobs and meet other goals more easily.]

My personal opinion…when Party members make mistakes, they take away your Party membership first; if you’re not a member you’re just directly criminally prosecuted. Also I hear that if you’re a Party member and you’re arrested they can’t put handcuffs on you, haha.

There’s plenty more where this came from; the point is that clearly a lot of people feel that joining the Party ((which, granted, isn’t quite the same as public service although it’s generally the first step towards that)) these days is just a way to get ahead in your career or give yourself a little bit of padding in case you ever get caught breaking the law.

That’s a cultural problem of sorts, so could a cultural push really help stem the tide of China’s corruption? And if it could, would the Chinese government actually be able to effectively pull off such a campaign? I have my doubts, but I’m curious to hear what others think.

(Please keep in mind before you comment that we have recently changed the commenting rules. I highly suggest reading that link before commenting if you’re not already aware of the changes.)

Another Lesson in How to Fail at Soft Power

I came across this story a couple days ago, and found it mildly amusing, but eventually decided it was worth sharing here because it’s indicative of the larger trend. First of all, here are the basics for those that haven’t already read the article:

Citing “strong resentment from the local Chinese community,” the Chinese government has asked the city of Corvallis to force a Taiwanese-American businessman to remove a mural advocating independence for Taiwan and Tibet from his downtown building.

But city leaders say the mural violates no laws and its political message is protected under the U.S. Constitution.

Taiwanese artist Chao Tsung-song painted the 10-foot-by-100-foot mural last month on the side of the old Corvallis MicroTechnology building at Southwest Fourth Street and Jefferson Avenue. The work was commissioned by property owner David Lin, who is renovating the space for a restaurant and has rechristened the building Tibet House.

In vivid colors, the painting depicts riot police beating Tibetan demonstrators, Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule and images of Taiwan as a bulwark of freedom.

In a letter dated Aug. 8, the Chinese Consulate General in San Francisco formally complained to Corvallis Mayor Julie Manning about the mural’s content and asked for her help in having it removed.

“There is only one China in the world,” the letter reads in part, “and both Tibet and Taiwan are parts of China.”

Now, I can’t be too sure about the quality of the reporting here, because the article refers to Tibet as a “country” and as a “breakaway province” (it most certainly is neither, though some might like it to be). But I’m guessing the basic facts of the case here are true.

Let’s think about this from the perspective of the local Chinese consulate general. A business owner in your area of the US has put up a mural that you find offensive. If this were China, of course, you could have it taken down, and maybe have the guy beaten or tossed in jail for a little while to teach him a lesson. But you don’t have those powers in the US, so your only real options are to ignore it or make a big stink about it. Why in hell would you ever choose the latter?

If you ignore it, the only people who ever hear about it are the people who happen to visit or drive by that building, most of whom probably aren’t even going to understand its meaning. If you make a big stink about it, on the other hand, you turn it into a news story. What’s more, you turn it into a news story that the local government has an active interest in promoting because it makes them look awesome. ‘We stood up to pressure from the Chinese government and defended the first Amendment rights of an American business owner’ — what US government official wouldn’t want that story on the front page of every newspaper? That is exactly why what could have been a tiny non-story is now being discussed on this blog and elsewhere despite the fact that I don’t even know where Corvallis is.

The other question is what the hell did Chinese consular officials think they were going to gain from sending that letter? Surely Chinese diplomats are given at least some basic training in US laws, so they ought to know the local government wasn’t even going to consider taking the mural down. And while I understand this is probably the sort of thing that has to be done from time to time to please the overseers back in China, I can’t imagine anyone in China would have heard of this mural either of the Chinese consulate general hadn’t broadcast it to the world by formally making a complaint about it.

The complaint makes the Chinese government look petty and weak even as it draws attention to two issues the Chinese government doesn’t want anyone talking about. The publicity helps ensure that more Americans are going to come down on what the Chinese government would consider to be the “wrong” side. Sure, consular officials may have scored some points with their buddies at home, but they did so by putting yet another scratch in China’s already-battered international reputation and by setting the country back even further on its increasingly unrealistic-looking quest to wield some kind of measurable cultural power outside its borders.

The Bizarre Backlash Against Yu Jianrong’s Child Beggar Campaign

Kinda recently, we (and every other news source on the face of the earth) posted about Sina microblogging account Prof. Yu Jianrong set up for reposting photos of beggar children. At the time, the campaign was rapidly gaining momentum, the Chinese media was all over it, and Sina was making special efforts to build up followers on Yu Jianrong’s account.

Then, perhaps inevitably, came the backlash. A number of prominent Chinese bloggers (i.e. hecaitou) and writers published pieces condemning, in one way or another, Yu’s campaign. The hype and the Sina promotion stopped. His followers started to come more slowly. Now, there are even rumors that he’s been told not to accept interviews or talk to the media (multiple calls to his office to request an interview with him for our film have thus far been fruitless).

So why have people soured on this campaign, and why are some so against it? It is deeply unclear. Let us examine, for example, a Global Times editorial on the subject.

The recent successful rescue of a kidnapped child has sparked a nationwide netizens-led campaign to crack down on the trafficking of children. However, despite its lofty goal, the campaign has unexpectedly resulted in many homeless families being wrongfully targeted, or family members being separated.

This is an interesting claim, and it seems to be as dubious as the claims that the campaign has rescued six children so far ((There seem to only be specific reports about two children, and Peng Gaofeng’s reunion with his son was not directly related to the campaign)). To date, I have seen one example in the news of a parent who was forced to take a DNA test to prove their child was theirs as a result of the campaign. I have not seen a single report of families being “separated.” Moreover, “wrongfully targeted” is a needlessly loaded phrase.

The article goes on to make some good points; namely that netizens cannot resolve this issue, and that the serious police work should be left to the police. No argument there. But:

The real side effects of the online campaign against child abductions have barely been mentioned in the media, which is overwhelmingly applauding the effectiveness of the blog-based effort. A few well-known scholars have actually privately voiced their concerns of this campaign, but they seem reluctant to openly express their views.

This is remarkably vague. Apparently, the “real side effects” of the campaign really aren’t being reported in the media, because it seems even the Global Times editors aren’t willing to actually say what they are.

Then, the article takes an especially weird turn:

The Internet has played an irreplaceable role in advancing political democracy in China, but its negative aspects should also be noted. The Internet campaign against child abductions has illustrated the “autocracy” of the online opinion, which tends to mute any dissident voices. Quite contrary to the diversified viewpoints in the traditional media, it seems that online media has adopted the old-style censorship by the media of the past. A few activists have now dominated the public opinion seen online. And to some extent, freedom of speech has been suppressed online.

For the healthy development of China’s Internet, a rational and tolerant atmosphere of public opinion is needed. Emotional and moody expressions ought not to become the mainstream on the Internet. The supervision of online public figures is as necessary as in the real world.

Again, there is no actual indication of how the internet campaign has “muted” dissident voices. Given that noted bloggers have come out against the campaign, and that most major mainstream papers have run pieces similar to this piece in the GT, it is utterly ridiculous to suggest that dissident voices are being “censored”.

(As a side note, I find it amusing that the Global Times editors apparently don’t know the difference between “censored” and “drowned out”. Just because a lot of people on the net agree about something doesn’t mean those who oppose it are being “censored”.)

And of course, for those who are feeling this still sounds overly reasonable for a Global Times editorial, there’s this kicker:

Chinese society has paid heavily for lessons over ideological clashes. Similar tragedies must be prevented in the cyber world.

Subtle! “If you people don’t stop taking photos of child beggars you’re going to make the Cultural Revolution happen again!”

Anyway, mocking a GT editorial is admittedly the low-hanging fruit on the saggiest branch of the shortest tree in the forest, so lets get down to business.

The main reason people seem to oppose the campaign is that it has resulted in the “harassment” of beggars and their children. While I agree that people don’t have a right to harass beggars, I disagree that being photographed and very, very rarely being subjected to DNA testing once qualifies as “harassment.”

As far as being photographed, that could certainly get annoying, but it’s not harassment, and it’s something anyone has to be willing to accept if they’re going to spend time in public places in China. Personally, I get photographed without permission by random strangers from time to time when I visit more far-flung places in China where foreigners don’t often go. Yes, it is slightly irksome. But it’s not a huge problem. When you’re in a public place, being photographed is always a possibility, and in China, it’s an absolute inevitability given the millions of surveillance cameras that cover cities from every imaginable angle. In any event, the slight annoyance of being photographed in public ought to be more than offset by the possibility that that photograph could potentially help unite a parent with their stolen child.

More understandable are concerns that beggars are being wrongfully dragged into police stations for interrogations and DNA testing. If beggars with children found themselves being dragged down to the station once a week and held there for hours, I would understand this concern. But that isn’t what’s happening. A small minority of beggars have been tested, and I haven’t heard of a single case of anyone being tested twice. Moreover, DNA tests can be done with simple swabs, so there’s no reason the tests should take up more than 10-15 seconds of a beggar’s time.

Now, in all likelihood, some police are arresting beggars and dragging them into police stations for extensive questioning because that’s how Chinese police tend to operate. But that has nothing to do with the “rescue child beggars” campaign, it’s an enforcement issue. Condemning the campaign because the police’s methods of dealing with it are inefficient and unjust is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. If the enforcement of DNA testing is harassment, that means they’re doing it wrong. It doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done. Of course, let’s continue to keep in mind that DNA testing has been forced on a tiny, tiny, tiny minority of beggar families.

Moreover, the whole argument implies that adult beggars who are the legitimate blood parents of the children they beg with have an inalienable right to beg with their children. That strikes me as kind of nuts.

To be fair, the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child is fairly vague. And given Chinese culture’s long emphasis on the deep and important bond between parents and their sons children, I can understand why people would be uncomfortable with the idea of the State confiscating people’s children. Frankly, the idea of the State doing just about anything makes me uncomfortable.

But there’s this:

Article 27

1. States Parties recognize the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development.

2. The parent(s) or others responsible for the child have the primary responsibility to secure, within their abilities and financial capacities, the conditions of living necessary for the child’s development.

3. States Parties, in accordance with national conditions and within their means, shall take appropriate measures to assist parents and others responsible for the child to implement this right and shall in case of need provide material assistance and support programmes, particularly with regard to nutrition, clothing and housing.

It seems to me that if parents are begging with their children, they cannot possibly be providing “a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development.” And in many cases, of course, the kids’ presence on the streets is also proof that they’re being deprived of their right to a proper education.

I don’t believe that beggars should be harassed. But at the same time, I don’t believe that there is anything about the Weibo campaign that constitutes harassment. I also don’t believe that many of these commentators actually give a damn about the comfort or rights of beggars, a group of people that none of them were talking about a month ago.

So what’s going on? A couple things. First, there’s the natural, contrarian reaction that some people often have when something becomes popular overnight. But the bigger theme, I think, plays out pretty clearly in the Global Times article I quoted from above. The government — and its army of media spin artists — have realized the dangerous precedent this campaign sets. People are completely circumventing all State authority and addressing a social problem directly. I think someone up top realized that while it may be good in this case, that’s not a model for social change that the government can afford to let become popular. They can’t just shut down the campaign, of course — I think even the tonedeaf PR folks at the PRC know that would be a disaster — but they can chip away at it in the media, raising doubts.

And, of course, it’s good for people to be raising questions; no movement like this should be allowed to go unquestioned or unchecked. But the questions some people are asking aren’t productive, logical, or really grounded in any kind of fact.

Speaking of not grounded in fact, another big argument against the campaign is that in reality, there are very few child beggars who were kidnapped because kidnapping a child, crippling them, and forcing them to beg offers high risk and low rewards; it would be easier just to sell the child you kidnapped directly to a family, which net you an immediate lump of cash.

While no one knows the exact percentage of street kids that are kidnapped, suggesting that there aren’t any — or that that isn’t a lucrative business — simply is not true. Consider, for example, this story from the SCMP ((Sorry I don’t have a link, I’m not a subscriber, someone emailed me the text of the story.)):

China National Radio reported early this week that begging had been treated as a profitable business in Gongxiao and nearby villages for decades, and that farmers had begun to seek healthy young children in other areas as potential beggars from 1993.

Elderly villagers told the radio network that children either kidnapped or deceived away from their parents would be abused and disabled before being taken to big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to beg.

The children would be maltreated during a fortnight to a month’s training at ringleaders’ homes.

“Kids will be locked in cages like animals at night, in order to make them obey their ringleaders. They will be beaten cruelly if they resist,” the report said, citing villagers.

“To make these child beggars look more pitiful so they’ll be able to beg for more money, kids will be forced to hang their legs around their necks. Many children couldn’t do that, and ringleaders will pull and twist kids’ legs to their necks, making them disabled.”

Villagers said many ringleaders cut the children’s faces and limbs, or used sulphuric acid to disfigure their faces and make them look more pitiful.

“Child beggars will be fed in the morning and left on streets to beg, while ringleaders will wait and watch secretly nearby. Child beggars will be beaten up and not given any food if they cannot beg enough to satisfy their ringleaders, who can make good money by controlling several child beggars,” villagers said.

Shanghai’s Oriental Morning Post cited the village’s former party boss [as saying] that a ringleader could earn up to 200,000 yuan (HK$236,000) a year by forcing disabled children to beg, and some village cadres were also involved. A farmer in Fuyang, by contrast, earns about 1,500 yuan a year.

Another worthwhile comparison to make would be that a kidnapped child, when directly sold to a new family, brings in around 5,000-15,000 RMB, part of which the kidnapper must give to the middlemen who make such arrangements and find families looking to buy. Younger, healthier boys obviously go for more than older boys or girls of any age, but a trafficker making more than 15,000 selling a child is, according to my understanding, rare. It’s not difficult to see how the appeal of making 200,000 a year would lead some traffickers to consider alternatives.

Moreover, the people on the ground — the ones who deal with street kids every day, the ones who cared about this issue before one month ago — are telling us that the majority of the street kids they see have been kidnapped. In the absence of hard numbers on either side, I’m inclined to trust the seasoned professionals over these columnists and bloggers who don’t interact with street kids on a daily basis.

Months of research for our film has led me to one conclusion: there are children who have been kidnapped and forced into begging. Period. Exactly what percent of child beggars they make up is unclear. They’re not a huge majority, but they are not insignificant, either.

If rescuing kidnapped kids requires inconveniencing a few beggars with DNA tests when parents think they recognize their lost loved ones, that’s a sacrifice society should be willing to make. And if the beggars affected really are parents, I suspect they will understand that there is no length a parent won’t go to to rescue their child.

There’s more to say on this issue, but this post is already way, way too long, so I’ll leave the rest out for now.

Child Beggars and a Revolution of Digital Conscience

Any foreigner who has traveled to China has seen its beggar children, often alone, wandering the streets in search of spare change. It is a sad sight, and the unseen background is sadder: most of these children are kidnapped or otherwise forced away from their families. Often their families have no idea where they are. Handlers will even sometimes break healthy children’s legs or arms on the theory that a mutilated child looks sadder, and attracts more money than, a healthy one.

Even going by government figures, which aren’t necessarily reliable ((understatement)), kidnapping is a serious problem. Official figures from 2010 report that there were 9,165 cases of selling women and 5,900 cases of selling children uncovered. 9,388 kidnapped and sold children were rescued, as were 17,746 women. 3,573 criminal kidnapping gangs were destroyed, and 22,511 criminals were sentenced in connection with cases of human trafficking. The true number of children kidnapped each year is unknown, but in all likelihood it is much, much higher than the number of resolved cases. For example, this Baobeihuijia thread that tracks open cases of missing children indicates that of the over 300 missing children on that page (many of those cases are years old), only 17 of them have yet been located, and of those, only 14 were found alive. Of course, that’s a very small sample size, and in all likelihood a decent percentage of these children weren’t kidnapped and sold but are missing for other reasons. Still, it indicates clearly that the rate of success in these cases is not particularly high.

This has been going on for years, and groups like Baobeihuijia have been fighting it by helping parents who have lost their kids post photographs and spread information about their kids online. In a way, it’s remarkable that it never occurred to anyone to go about it the opposite way until a few weeks ago.

Yu Jianrong, a Beijing man, set up a Sina Weibo account and asked people to do something simple: take photos of child beggars, and send them to him to be republished in his feed. This remarkably simple idea has taken the Chinese internet by storm, and brought light to the topic of human trafficking and child exploitation in China. Variations of the terms “help child beggars” and “human traffickers” have been in the top five trending topics on Sina Weibo every day for the past week, and Yu Jianrong’s microblog has accrued nearly 95,000 followers, with no signs of slowing down ((I suspect that by the time most people read this post, he will have passed 100,000)).

The story has been all over the media, and Yu Jianrong was recently interviewed by Southern Metropolis. Thankfully our own K. Drinhuasen has taken the time to translate the interview in full for us.

Interview with Yu Jianrong

Southern Metropolis: When did the idea of a rescue action / help for child beggars first occur to you?

Yu Jianrong: I didn’t have any kind of plan beforehand, it started incidentally when I was discussing things with friends online and everyone had some ideas [concerning this issue]. One thing just led to another. On January 17th I received a notice from a mother from Fujian province asking for help. Her son Yang Weixin had been abducted in 2009. In early 2010 a netizen had taken a picture of a child on a street in Xiamen., the child had been crippled and was begging. So I put her call for help on my micro blog. There was a huge response and a lot of people left messages with suggestions and possible leads. After things calmed down a bit I talked to several netizens that I know quite well to see if there might be something we could do for those kids.

Southern Metropolis: But how did the initiative first get started?

Yu Jianrong: On January 24th I had dinner with a few netizen friends, and when we talked things over we thought: Why not just open a micro blog on Sina that specifically collects and publishes information about child beggars! On the next day we opened our official blog “Help child beggars, take pictures!”. Me and the other netizens involved all use micro blogs, QQ and phones to communicate and keep each other updated on the progress of this project.

Southern Metropolis: Have you run into any difficulties?

Yu Jianrong: There are two challenges we face. We only have been running this micro blog for ten days and a lot of people who have lost their kids don’t know about this initiative yet and haven’t used micro blogs before, so we have to figure out a way to let them know. Here we need the support of the traditional print media to help spread the news. Usually when parents are looking for their child they publish a picture online, but our approach is right the opposite—it is netizens who post the photos they take, thus enabling a wider participation of the public. The second problem is that we need to start setting up a digital database now. We hadn’t even thought about this, since at first we believed that maybe 10 or 20 netizens would post their pictures online. But by now we have already received more than 1.000.

Southern Metropolis: In regard to posting pictures of child beggars online, might this not be interpreted as an infringement of their rights?

Yu Jianrong: I don’t believe that there is an infringement of rights involved. Begging in itself is a public act. But more importantly, letting a child under 14 years beg is illegal, the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of Civil Affairs are very clear about that in their regulations. Thus taking a picture is merely a way for everyone to step in and offer help.

Southern Metropolis: In your personal opinion, what results has the initiative brought so far?

Yu Jianrong: So far there have been several parents who believe they might have identified their children in those pictures and who have gone to the places where the pictures were taken, although none of them has found their child yet. I think that the greatest achievement is the fact that our society as a whole has realized a very fundamental thing: If you see a child under 14 begging on the street, then you can and should report this! The degree of public participation in this initiative was very high, so I do believe that this general notion has really taken hold in peoples’ minds. Another positive outcome is that the institutions of public security have also actively taken part.

Southern Metropolis: What effects, do you think, can this initiative have?

Yu Jianrong: The aim of this initiative is to put an end to the practice of child beggars. No matter if the children have been abducted or if it is their own family members who are sending them out to beg—they all require our help. And if there wasn’t a general consensus on this, our initiative might have just gone astray. We want to marginalize and ultimately end the practice of forcing minors into begging by setting up mechanisms and institutions and [encouraging] public participation. We hope that by pushing for legal action and establishing concise procedures for investigating [cases] and helping child beggars, we can ultimately deprive the ones who are in this for personal gain of their market.

A Revolution?

Potentially, especially in combination with a new police initiative that is offering reduced sentencing to human traffickers who turn themselves in by March 31st. It’s way too early to tell, but already there are reportedly several cases that have been solved thanks in part to Weibo, and this is only the very beginning. Of course, to leverage this approach effectively, Yu Jianrong will need to create a database fast, or risk being flooded with data. But as his followers continue to grow (he’s gained more than 300 since about ten minutes ago) it seems clear that even if this doesn’t reunite a lot of families with their children, it is going to become a significant hassle for the criminals who kidnap children and force them to beg.

Why? Ironically enough, they were able to remain relatively anonymous even in the middle of the street when no one was paying attention. But now their children are being documented, along with locations and times. To stay safe, this means they have to move the children frequently, and they face increased risks of police pressure because they not only have to deal with local authorities, but also local media and everyone else who sees their children begging via Weibo. Yu Jianrong tends to tweet the photos of children directly at local officials, media outlets, and other lumunaries to bring as much attention to them as possible. Even if this doesn’t result in the children being rescued, it’s definitely bad for business for kidnappers, and that’s a good thing.

Of course, for this to really matter, the movement will have to sustain its forward momentum. That will not be easy. But it is refreshing to see netizens approaching this issue with such passion, and so wholeheartedly embracing this clever and simple approach to helping with street children.

This is also something foreigners can participate in. There are many people who have already volunteered to help translate information and transmit it to Yu Jianrong and his microblogging account, so if you come across a beggar somewhere, please take a photo, note the time, location, and any other relevant data, and send it to someone. Cell phone images are fine, but remember what’s most important is a clear shot of the face so that people can recognize the child! If you can’t write Chinese or don’t have a Weibo account, you can send this to…

Me: custerc at gmail.com, or twitter @ChinaGeeks and weibo @ChinaGeeks.
@niubi: @niubi on twitter
[I will edit in other volunteers when/if they appear here].

In Brief: Groupon Teaches us How to Please No One

Viewers of this year’s Super Bowl were treated to a special exercise during one of the advertising segments when Groupon, the group purchasing website, ran this advertisement:

UPDATE: There is now a version of this ad on Youku with Chinese subtitles as well. It will be interesting to see whether this takes off on the Chinese net or not.

It is, of course, offensive. But what’s so remarkable about it is that they managed to make something that was simultaneously offensive to both sides of the Tibet debate. Now that takes some doing! How did they pull it off?

They start by going straight for the throat of the Party line folks, by saying, “the people of Tibet are in trouble. Their very culture is in jeopardy.” Obviously, this goes against the official line that everything in Tibet is great and anyway you foreigners should mind your own damn business. It’s worth noting that it’s also incredibly vague. What is the point of even mentioning that something is in jeopardy if you’re not going to address what is threatening it or how the problem can be solved?

Ah, but Groupon does offer a solution! Well, a solution for you (assuming you’re American), that is. You see, with Groupon, you can save money on Tibetan food in Chicago, allowing you to feel like you’re supporting another culture and being a “citizen of the world” without actually learning or doing anything. Thanks to Groupon, you can experience wonderful and authentic fish curry that has been “whipped up” for your discount eating pleasure by real-life oppressed minorities! Huzzah!

Of course, your eating cheap food in Chicago does nothing for Tibetan culture, which is in jeopardy from…something unspecified in the advertisement. Nor does it help the apparently-troubled Tibetan people. But it does get you cheap curry, and that’s what counts, n’est-ce pas?

Needless to say, pretty much everyone hates the ad. “Free Tibet” groups are condemning it (as they should), “One China” supporters are condemning it (as they should), and people who have more nuanced opinions on Tibet but aren’t tasteless orientalists are also condemning it (as they should). The ad is racking up condemnations from Youtube to Sina Weibo, where more than a few people have echoed the sentiments of this comment:


“That Groupon ad is really fucking brain-damaged!!!”

There are a series of Groupon ads like this, though I’m not sure if they all ran during the Super Bowl. The video descriptions on Youtube make it sound like by buying the products in the ads, one makes a contribution to the relevant cause, but that’s not at all clear from the advertisements themselves. The whole thing is very vague. If it’s really a charity initiative, it was executed very poorly. If it isn’t, well…that means it’s a joke, which is even more concerning.

Many Chinese netizens are also commenting that this will make it impossible for Groupon to succeed in the Chinese market, although I wouldn’t have held out much hope for that being successful anyway, as there are already several Chinese group buying sites with their roots planted firmly.

For a few netizen translations, check out this post on the Nanfang or just go here to read the comments in real time.

UPDATE: Shanghaiist has a post chock full of info on this, which includes this tidbit from Groupon’s founder:

“The gist of the concept is this: When groups of people act together to do something, it’s usually to help a cause. With Groupon, people act together to help themselves by getting great deals. So what if we did a parody of a celebrity-narrated, PSA-style commercial that you think is about some noble cause (such as “Save the Whales”), but then it’s revealed to actually be a passionate call to action to help yourself (as in “Save the Money”)?”

OK, yeah, I see what you were going for. However, that’s a highly questionable idea to begin with, and it was especially awfully executed. If you want to know more behind the scenes stuff, you can check out the Groupon blog post on it here. At the moment, there’s only one comment, so I’m assuming they’re not going to post any negative comments about the ads on their own blog.

“The Sound of Rising Prices”

It may not be as well-produced as the Chinese song about rising housing prices ((For more on how crazily expensive houses are, see this Danwei post.)), but rising inflation has finally inspired its own song.

The song is a parody of an already well-known tune called “The Sound of Applause” (掌声响起来, listen here). The parody version is called 涨声响起来, roughly translated as “The Sound of Rising Prices.” Here’s one of many videos that’s been made already:
http://www.tudou.com/v/kRdTpCGNBok/v.swf
(direct link to Tudou)

Here are the lyrics used in the video (note: the following translations are especially artless as I am exhausted and over-caffeinated, but you get the idea):

Standing at the counter of the supermarket,
Seeing how all the [prices] are rising,
I only feel like sighing,
There is nothing inexpensive,
So many prices have been changed,
Now regular people can’t afford to buy vegetables.

Thinking back on Chinese cabbage when I was young,
When 20 cents bought a big bagful,
I can’t keep from crying,
So many big buildings being constructed,
So many new cars being sold,
But I still have to tighten my belt.

As the sound of rising prices rises,
I feel more and more helpless,
My wages aren’t rising as fast as the prices,
As the sound of rising prices rises,
I begin to understand,
From now on I may have to eat [only] pickles ((咸菜 could be translated variously as pickles, salted veggies, salty food, etc. I’ve mixed and matched here for variety’s sake, but the point the songs are all making is that 咸菜 is relatively cheap.)).

Living in these times,
Are we lucky or is it tragic?
I feel even more like sighing.
There’s no such thing as “good quality goods at fair prices,”
Food, clothing, shelter, and transportation [costs] have all gone up,
I suffer each and every day,
Waking and hurrying to work,
Busy making money and paying off [housing] loans,
My happy carefree life is long gone,
So many second-generation rich kids are buying nice cars,
So many second-generation poor selling things off of blankets on the street,
The gap between rich and poor is getting worse.

As the sound of rising prices rises,
I feel more and more helpless,
Everyone will be eating salted turnips,
As the sound of rising prices rises,
I begin to understand,
We’d be better off and happier as beggars.

[Cue dramatic key change and female vocal harmony]

As the sound of rising prices rises,
I feel more and more helpless,
Everyone will be eating salted turnips,
As the sound of rising prices rises,
I begin to understand,
We’d be better off and happier as beggars!

However, netizens are so enthused about this song that there are already a bunch of versions (all share the same melody and, generally, the same rhyming sounds). Here’s are the lyrics as written in the image posted above, which we found being passed around on RenRen:

Standing at the supermarket counter,
Seeing [the price] of everything rise,
I feel unlimited helplessness in my heart,
So few inexpensive options,
So many prices have changed,
Common people can’t afford to buy vegetables!

As the sound of rising prices rises,
I feel more and more helpless,
Prices are rising faster than salaries,
As the sound of rising prices rises,
I begin to understand,
There’s no industry that isn’t tainted by corruption.

And here’s still another version of the lyrics we found here:

While eating bread and pickled veggies,
I heard the sound of prices rising,
And I suddenly feel like sighing,
Every day it’s radishes and cabbage,
Looking forward to when housing prices drop,
Waiting for my wife to “say bye-bye,”
The floor covered in instant noodle packaging
Is a record of my helplessness,
And I can’t keep from shedding a tear.
I was once confident and bold,
I was once strong and patient,
But in the end I was defeated by rising prices.

As the sound of rising prices rises,
My tears flow till they’re an ocean,
Some people laugh and some people are full of sorrow,
As the sound of rising prices rises,
My tears flow till they’re an ocean,
I finally understand the great importance of money

There are actually a lot more versions of this song, but we’ll leave it at that as they tend to be fairly similar. The phrase “the sound of rising prices” has even become so widespread that it’s referenced in news broadcasts, such as this story about the rise of “group purchasing” websites:

http://www.tudou.com/v/Tc4J880Vijo/v.swf

The Chinese government, of course, is busy throwing an absolute fit about Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize, and doing everything it can to appear as petulant and immature as a three-year old.

I think, though, that if the government is really concerned about things that “subvert state power,” they should lay off Liu and address the rising discontent with housing and commodity prices and the atrocious gap between rich and poor, which is manifesting itself in all kinds of ugly ways.

The incident I’ve linked to there, in which a police officer crashes his car into an old woman and then gets out to beat her, shouting “What I’ve got is money, so I’m gonna beat you today!” is just one of a number of recent rich-people-play-with-the-lives-of-the-poor stories that has incited outrage and violence.

Personally, I see this as the biggest challenge to state security that China currently faces. Unfortunately, it’s a tough one to blame on the West, so it looks like for now China’s government will be content to shriek their Liu Xiaobo conspiracy theories in increasingly-shrill editorial pieces that no one reads (except, of course, when they’re looking for a laugh).

Of course, why should the government care if “Kart-like” Westerners laugh at their ridiculous propaganda? They should, however, be concerned with the tone of public opinion in China, especially on the internet, where a recent Global Times op-ed noted (without a hint of irony):

[There is] a [sic] extreme lack of tolerance for dissident public opinion on the Internet where there is almost no room for opinions that favor the government.

Note that here, by “dissident,” they mean people who support the government. Yeah. That’s how bad it’s gotten.

Good luck, Zhongnanhai. Your preposterous “Confucius Prize” stunt might succeed in distracting people from the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony (at least for as long as it takes to laugh, snort derisively, and change the channel), but I’m not sure it’s going to distract Chinese people from the fact that despite China’s powerhouse economy, living here seems to be getting harder and harder.

Translation: “New Houses in the Country, Easy to Build But Hard to Live In”

The following is a translation of this piece from Southern Weekend. While obviously not all rural building projects are this poorly-thought out, it’s an interesting story that may be reflective of a larger trend in Chinese building, especially in poorer areas: first get it built quickly and cheaply; worry about tomorrow when and if it comes.

Translation

A couple days ago, I returned home to Guanshanzhuang village in Rizhao, Shandong. I heard that one of my uncles was building a new house. The house was being built on a space put up for sale by the village government, on a hillside halfway up the mountain, a long-ago abandoned farming area. He paid 80,000 RMB for one mu of land, and cooperated with other villagers to build the building.

The uncle said that this house was costing over 80,000 RMB, including the costs of land, materials, and labor. He knew that I was an architecture major, and asked for my thoughts. I took a look at the house, which they’d already built up to the second storey: it was going to be a four-family Western-style villa, with no steel reinforcement, thin walls, and no layers of insulation. There were no trees near it, and the southern face was covered in single-layer glass windows.

I asked my uncle: “For the blueprints, did you band together and hire an architecture firm, or did you just find someone to draw them up yourselves?” He replied: “Farmers building a house still need to pay someone to make drawings? Think about the money that costs! We just asked some construction workers, we’ll build based on their experience!”

I asked, “You’re moving to a new house that’s almost four times bigger than your old one. But the windows are drafty, the walls are thin, there are no trees, there’s no well, you’re on a hillside…how much is it going to cost you to air condition this place in the summer? How much to heat it in the winter? Did you add that up?” His response: “……”

I asked again, “This house has no steel frame, no insulation, and no shade from the sun. Isn’t it going to fall apart over time?” His response: “…….”

Farmers building houses looks like a good thing. But after moving in, how many people are going to be able to stand these unseen and unconsidered costs?

Help Fund Our Next Project

The kidnapping and selling of children is a serious problem in China, and has been for decades. Many children are tricked or otherwise stolen away from their parents, and then sold to other families, into lives begging on the streets or, in the case of some girls, into marriage or prostitution. We want to make a documentary about these children and their families in the hopes that we can bring more attention to this crucially important issue. We’re calling it Finding Home, and we’re really excited about it. But we can’t do it without your help.

Click here to learn more about this project or to make a pledge to donate.

Your donation will help us pay for expenses including additional equipment and train and bus tickets, so that we can ensure we’re 100% prepared to capture these childrens’ stories. We’ve already started research and are working with volunteers from a local Beijing charity so that every child we find who may have been kidnapped will also be reported domestically, and spread through a nationwide network of volunteers dedicated to searching for justice and for the child’s real family.

We’re funding our project through Kickstarter, a cool website that allows donors to receive rewards based on how much they give. Anyone who donates a dollar will get their name in the credits of the film, those who donate $15 or more will get access to production diaries, $50 or more gets behind-the-scenes and uncut footage plus a DVD of the film, $250 or more gets the chance to actually ask the people we’re interviewing questions, etc. (there are way more levels and choices). If you’ve used Amazon or have a credit card, you’ll be able to make a pledge easily. If our project reaches or surpasses its $5,000 goal, we get funded. If not, your money is returned to you, so there’s no risk of throwing your money away on an underfunded project.

Your gift would mean a lot to us, and to the children and families we’re hoping this film will help. If you really can’t afford donate, please help us by sending this link to friends and family who you think might be interested. Together we can make this film, and make a real difference in the lives of some of these children.

Thank you so much for you time. We hope you can make a pledge and become a part of Finding Home today!

Lu Xun’s Great Withdrawal

There has been renewed interest in Lu Xun’s work, and the work of some other literary giants, in the wake of the announcement last week that some classic pieces were being removed from the curriculum taught in Chinese schools to make way for “new blood”. Lu Xun was not the only author hit but he certainly fared the worst in what some are calling “the great withdrawal of Lu Xun’s works.” Over twenty pieces he wrote are being cut, including “The True Story of Ah Q”, “Medicine”, and a large number of his more famous essays.

Needless to say, this has been a controversial decision. In the days following it, opinions have sprung up on both sides. Many are defending the value of Lu Xun, like this piece by Lin Mei:

“There’s no doubt that reading Lu Xun’s works can help middle school students by strengthening their own independent personalities, fostering their creative spirit, and raising their literary and artistic abilities. Even if they don’t comprehend everything right away, they can think back on their basic understanding later [to understand the works more fully]. Understanding classic works always requires a process. For middle school students to read Lu Xun, you don’t just need a carefully selected table of contents, you also need a teacher who can effectively lead the students into Lu Xun’s literary world.

[…]

Lu Xun can be considered a great traditional representative of Chinese culture, just like Confucius, Laozi, Zhuangzi, Qu Yuan, Sima Qian, Li Bai, Du Fu, Su Dongpo, Lu You, Zhu Xi, Li Zhi, Huang Zongxi, Cao Xueqin, Wu Jingzi, Liang Qichao, etc.; his works are a classic representation of 20th century Chinese culture.”

That argument is also adopted by some of the supporters of the “new blood” plan, who say that Lu Xun’s works are so mired in the twentieth century as to be entirely outdated. Diversification, they argue, is healthy:

Cultural diversification in textbooks isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Having students introduced to more authors is a win-win, authors can get back into the classroom and have more people familiar with their works, students get more diverse reading and a more complete picture of the world.”

Others have pointed out that the “deleted works list” is somewhat misleading, given that different places have different course requirements. In the report just linked, for example, the reporter found that in Jiangsu, several of the so-called “deleted works” will remain part of the mandatory curriculum, others have just been moved to different levels, and some are no longer mandatory but may be assigned at the discretion of teachers and schools.

Of course, when it comes to Lu Xun, there’s no escaping politics. A commenter on this article, for example, wrote:

“Lu Xun and things like him are just tools the Party uses to beautify the ugly violence of government authority. From the fact that these brainwashed people are taking [Lu Xun’s work] as a treasure and praising it, we can see that the end of our slave society isn’t coming anytime soon.”

It’s an interesting discussion, because so much of literary interpretation is dependent on the context — political, ideological, cultural — that it’s being practiced in. The idea that Lu Xun’s work could be a “tool” for the Communist Party has always seemed ridiculous to me, a Westerner who was introduced to Lu Xun in a context where critical thinking and individual interpretation of literature was highly valued. For me, it’s difficult to read Lu Xun’s critiques of China as he saw it in the 20s and 30s and not see parallels with China today.

Officially, Lu Xun became a literary hero because he was one of the few critics of China’s “old society” who didn’t live long enough to become disillusioned with New China and the Communists (he died in 1936). His work is held up as an example of how terrible things were before the Party — and indeed, things were not by any stretch of the imagination good back then — but the deep cynicism that runs through Lu Xun’s work ought to make it a hard sell as propaganda. Moreover, he has very few nice things to say about the whitewashing of “official” history during Imperial rule. From my perspective, anyway, it’s very difficult to imagine that Lu Xun would be a big proponent of the current government or the context it has created for his work, were he alive today.

Of course, there are entire generations that grew up and venerated (or despised) him explicitly because of his connection to the Party, and studied his work in a context that was, for the most part, carefully arranged to reinforce the Party narrative. He is, to millions of Chinese, a symbol of the Party’s early days.

In any event, changing out Lu Xun for some new blood might not be such a bad thing, but any efforts at “diversity” will be undermined by the fact that anything selected still must fit within the Party narrative, historically and politically. Perhaps some of Lu Xun’s work is being removed precisely because it’s a bit more political than the government thinks middle school curricula ought to be. Or perhaps it’s an honest attempt at diversification. There is — as always — no real way to know for sure.

What do you think about pulling Lu Xun out of the curriculum?

Social Criticism in China

‘A warlike, various, and a tragical age is best to write of, but worst to write in,’ said Abraham Cowley, a seventeenth-century English poet. In a sense, this can be used to describe the politics in China: for the conscious social critics, there is so much to criticize, so many corrupted leaders, unreasonable policies, false ideologies, anomalies and tragedies. China itself is a rich source of writing material. At the same time, however, social criticism in China is a profession of despair. You always confront unpleasant facts, and write many negative accounts. But be prepared to accept the fact that little would change, that change would take a long time, perhaps never.

In a similar spirit, a Chinese poet in the Qing Dynasty said, ‘The misfortune of the country is the fortune of its poets. When one writes of national calamities, one inevitably writes well.’ Leung Man Tao, a social critic from Hong Kong who writes for many influential mainland Chinese newspapers, had a modern interpretation of this poem in the Preface to his 2009 book Common Sense, a collection of his political commentaries about China:

If there is one thing which makes current affairs commentary immortal, it is that the things you criticize about happen again and again. Commentators carefully analyzed the reasons for mining accidents, and proposed rehabilitation and preventive measures. Often, the result is that mining accidents not only fail to disappear, but happen with increased frequency. If the purpose of commentary is to effect social change, then the unchanged reality is its greatest irony. Any social commentator with conscience would want to see its articles becoming obsolete. It is a sorrow if their articles continue to have relevance, except if the author’s ego is greater than that of an intellectual: The misfortune of the country is the fortune of its poets.

As one of the most critical writers of contemporary Chinese society, Han Han expresses similar feelings this month in his blog, which has not been updated for a while:

I discover that writing about China is a painful experience. No doubt, this country gives us a lot of materials to write about. But you will suddenly discover that after writing for a while, when a piece of news breaks out, you could not help but just write a sentence: ‘Please refer to my article dated XXX.’ Our leadership has changed from that group to this; our slogans and national achievements have changed from those to these; tragedy has befallen on this person instead of that one. Tragedies reoccur, just with different people. This is a painful experience for the writer. Writers hate repeating the same thing over and over again, as it demands a high level of writing skills. I really want to keep on writing, and do not want to be bored and paralyzed.

This week, the popular column of Chan Wan at the Hong Kong Economic Journal was discontinued. Chan is a leading intellectual in Hong Kong. It was reported that his column’s removal was due to his fierce criticisms on Hong Kong’s real estate developers, which, in Chan’s words, ‘control the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, obstructing the democratization of Hong Kong and, indirectly, that of mainland China.’

In an article this week on Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao, Chan expresses a strong sense despair about the practice of social criticism in Hong Kong and China:

When the society is controlled by vested interests, and the masses become indifferent, political commentary just becomes a ‘thinking exercise’, or a kind of cultural activity. It has no real social functions, except for people to satisfy their curiosity and vent their anger. Our real hope lies in the irrational impulses of the masses when a critical threshold is reached. This reconstruction of the society from the ruins is called revolution. Under a suppressive environment, rational analysis and well-intended advice are limited to like-minded people, or risk being accused as ‘obstructing the usual way of things’ or anti-revolutionary if they are widely published. Therefore, I have decided a few years ago to stop commenting on mainland Chinese politics, except if it relates to Hong Kong. From China’s chaotic environment, you can foresee its ‘end-game’, just that it is meaningless to explicitly say it out. Knowing that you cannot control and stop this continuous deterioration towards the end-game, you know it is also time to set the end-game for your social criticism.

It isn’t only revolutionary crises that can effect social changes. Whatever the views of these critics about the future of China, their writings have helped the masses find their way. As always, social criticism requires consciousness, courage and perseverance, as Michael Walzer wrote ((Michael Walzer (2002), The Company of Critics, New York: Basic Books, p.239)):

The important thing is not to sink – and how else does one keep afloat except by criticizing what is going on in the surrounding waters? ‘Always, in every situation,’ wrote Martin Buber, ‘it is possible to do something.’ I would be inclined to say, almost always; criticism is never without reasons and warrants, but there may be terrible moments when it has no point […] So it behooves the critic to be ready and waiting, maintaining his independence, keeping in touch with common complaint, polishing his glass. He is like a commuter watching expectantly for a train (but there is no schedule).

Guest Post: What the Chinese Film Industry can do to Compete Abroad

The following is a guest post by Robert Powers.

Hollywood vs. ‘Huai-llywood’

Thursday, September 2 was the day the Chinese mainland saw the release of Inception, British director Christopher Nolan’s dream-minded and quasi-sci-fi thriller about corporate espionage. Released in the US on July 16 and in Hong Kong on July 29, the 147-minute film with a reported production budget of $160 million has made nearly $620 million worldwide as of August 24. Earlier in the week it was even reported that Leonardo Dicaprio stands to make at least $50 million from starring in the film.

If Inception manages to remain atop the Chinese box office for three weeks, as was the case when was released in the US, it will be going head-to-head with Zhang Yimou’s latest, The Love of the Hawthorn Tree, a city-girl meets country-boy love story that will hit theaters Thursday, September 16.

Distribution of the film in China will be shared equally between China Film Group (CFG), the country’s most influential and de facto state-run filmmaking and film distribution enterprise, and the Huaxia Film (HF) Distribution Company, a private enterprise founded in 2004. A Huaxia spokeswoman told the [Chinese media] that Chinese film distribution markets are “divided geographically into different regions,” but refused to say in which regions HF would distribute the film.

“The Hollywood film industry is pretty strong,” said Jiang Defu, general manager of the CFG’s marketing corporation. “Their style of storytelling is attractive and interesting to most people. Hollywood can crush many other countries’ film industries.”

Jiang spoke at length with the [Chinese media] about what he sees as the coming rise of an internationally prominent Chinese film industry – or what he called “Huai-llywood,” referring to CFG’s purported state-of-the-art studios located in Beijing’s Huairou district. But regarding a movie as a means of telling a story, Jiang was adamant about persevering local traditions. “Chinese directors and playwrights are not concerned with a foreign way of storytelling,” he said. “We keep telling our stories to our audiences.”

“We can learn from [foreigner audiences] and appreciate them, but the cultural essence will remain the same,” Jiang said. “We can’t wipe out Chinese culture and let foreign culture rule our filmmaking. CFG has a responsibility to protect our culture. We are shooting Chinese movies not Hollywood ones.”

Professor Yin Hong, director of Tsinghua University’s film and television research center, told the [Chinese media] “American movies possess 70 to 80 percent of the market share of movies seen around the world.” For Chinese films to attain this level of prominence, Professor Yin said it would be necessary for Chinese films to show “unique cultural aspects” and elaborated by saying it would “mainly depend on social, political and economic situations. I still dare say that – ten years from now – Chinese films will be the mainstream around the world.”

Professor Lu Di, a film and television expert at Beijing University’s school of journalism and communication, also told the [Chinese media] that Chinese films would require a more positive bent to reach a wider audience abroad. “The point is about the responsibility of a culture product,” said Professor Lu. “Movies should always be positive and promoting the bright sides of Chinese to the world.”

“Zhang Yimou’s movies like Curse of the Golden Flower belittle Chinese people and give audiences a false image,” Professor Lu added. “I hope [Zhang’s] movies can be totally abandoned. Many of my friends living abroad hold the same negative opinions towards his movies: too dark.”

Jiang also bemoaned Chinese movies that showed an unflattering portrait of life in the Middle Kingdom. “Films should belong to art but many people make them political, like how they used to give prizes to Chinese movies that had this old style and showed a poor China,” he said. “Many foreigners who don’t know much about China thought that was what China was actually like, but when they came, they were surprised and said, ‘How come your country is like ours? Your city is even better than ours. You are supposed to wear cotton-padded jackets!’”

Professor Lu pointed to films by director Fen Xiaogang (A World Without Thieves and If You are the One) as examples of movies that should be promoted abroad. Speaking on the significance of Christopher Nolan, Professor Lu noted that stories where “good guys always defeat evil powers are a positive example for the film industry.”

Chris Berry, a professor of film and television studies at the Goldsmiths-University of London and a noted Chinese film and TV expert, told the [Chinese media] that raising production quality, relaxing censorship and introducing a ratings system would help wonders to help the Chinese film industry compete globally.

The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), the governmental regulatory body that oversees China’s radio, film and television industries, announced Thursday, August 19 that it would not yet be “appropriate” to introduce a ratings system on the Chinese mainland.

Professor Berry also said that the establishment of a global distribution network for Chinese films would help to improve the industry’s standing. “Critics sometimes claim that people go to Hollywood films because they love them,” he said, “but they also watch Hollywood films because there’s nothing else on at the movie theaters where they live.”

“Maybe it’s going to take something extraordinary that to break Hollywood’s [distribution] stranglehold on a global scale,” he added, “but at least the Chinese government has had the good sense to stop Hollywood companies from being able to take over distribution from inside China itself.”

Jiang was quick to note that China only had one cinema for every 20,000 people whereas the US had one for every 8,000. “In some remote areas there aren’t any cinemas,” he said. “It could be a huge loss economically if we have all these blockbusters and not enough cinemas.”

When asked about the role of the censor in filmmaking, Jiang replied: “All works under cooperation with Chinese companies need to pass the censors. Things that are too bloody and violent need to be eliminated. A pure land should be kept.” He also noted that he considered a film ratings system as its own kind of censorship.

“There are no mysteries regarding censorship or the import process,” Jiang said. “Many journalists ask me these questions. Every country has its own censorship. We have different interpretations about censorship and we don’t dare to interpret it for you because maybe ours could be wrong.”

While a marketing executive for Warner Bros. Asia told the [Chinese media] that Inception had been accepted for general release on the Chinese mainland without any edits for content, a representative at SARFT would not comment on whether or not Inception had been edited for content.

“SARFT is a governmental department, not a company or corporation,” said the representative who would not give a name. “We are just in charge of censorship of films,” adding that “foreign and local films have the same standards” when it comes to editing films for content. SARFT did not respond to a faxed request for an interview regarding the nature of why Inception may or may not have been approved for general release in the Chinese mainland without edits.

Professor Berry noted the problem of getting “government intervention right” when it comes to filmmaking. “Government censorship is one of the main factors driving the demand for pirate DVDs and downloads,” he said, “but without government protection … Hollywood would have taken over.”

Professor Berry also spoke about the difficulty of Chinese film companies finding niches other than martial arts films that would appeal at home and abroad. “The [Chinese film] industry desperately needs to find other genres that global audiences might accept,” he said. “And I don’t think sentimental nationalistic films like Aftershock or Lu Chuan’s Nanjing! Nanjing! are going to work, because audiences outside China are not emotionally invested in those events.”

“I do think that eventually, despite SARFT’s recent insistence that it is not going to adopt a classification system, that the censorship system will change,” Professor Berry added. “How it will change is harder to predict…Twenty years ago who would have thought that China would be the world’s second largest economy today?”

Dai Tian, Ying Kun and Lin Kan Hsuang contributed to this report.