Category Archives: Internet

“If You’re Not Dead By Tonight, I Joined the Party For Nothing!”

Here’s another one for the annals of Party members being assholes in their cars. This story is being passed around on Weibo and other social media like Tianya right now, though it appears to have happened a couple weeks ago. Here’s the text of the post:

“Fuck your mom! You dare to inspect my car? If you’re not dead by tonight, I joined the Party for nothing!” Kangping, Liaoning [Party] disciplinary secretary Dai Guobin was driving his personal car at an intersection when he violated traffic laws and was blocked by traffic police officer Chen Dong for an inspection. Secretary Dai got out of the car and, without a word, punched Chen in the face, and then hit him in the leg…his mouth was full of curses like ‘I’ll kill you! I’ll kill whoever comes close! I just need to make a couple phone calls and a few thousand people will be here, even if the Central [government] leaders come here it won’t help you.’

Based on the photos being circulated with this post, it appears passers-by were not particularly happy about Dai’s attitude.

There’s no way to confirm exactly what happened with this incident, so take all this with a grain of salt. But the weibo post about it has already been forwarded nearly 100,000 times and has nearly 15,000 comments. If it continues to go viral I imagine we’ll learn the full truth of this sooner or later, but “I joined the Party for nothing!” already sounds like the Chinese internet’s next snarky slang term, following past hits like “Whether or not you do, I believe it” and “My dad is Li Gang.” And of course, with regard to the incident itself, I can’t imagine anyone is surprised to learn this happened. This is the kind of behavior most of China expects from its local Party officials.

But this case may be especially damaging to the Party’s reputation because Mr. Dai mentioned it explicitly and implied that the purpose joining the Party is just to obtain special treatment and a platform from which to oppress one’s enemies. This, of course, is something that everyone already knows. But there’s a difference between that cynical knowledge and hearing a government official actually say it out loud. My guess is that by the time this is over, Dai will be wishing he kept his mouth shut.

That is, assuming that this is an accurate report and not just a rumor gone wild. The fact that after several weeks the story is still spreading would indicate it’s probably true, though.

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The Wukan Elections on Social Media

Just in case you’re out of the loop: villagers in Wukan hit the polls today. Although there are elections in villages all over China, this one is especially significant given what led up to it and the extent to which it has got people elsewhere in China thinking about democracy.

For on the ground information, you should look to Tom Lasseter and Louisa Lim, who are actually in Wukan and have been tweeting updates and photos all day. As I’m not in Wukan, I thought I’d take a look at what’s on Weibo instead. (Sure it’s lazy and overdone, but Weibo will probably be dead soon, so I’ve got to strike while the iron is still hot).

With regards to censorship, searches for the “Wukan” are no longer blocked, but it does appear that Sina is at least downplaying the interest in the elections by keeping it off of the trending topics list. As of Saturday evening at around 8:00, Wukan posts were coming in at a rate of several (1-3 on average) per minute, significantly faster than some of the topics that were trending at the same time (average of less than 1 new post per minute). Now, this wasn’t exactly a scientific study or anything, but it does appear that from a posts-per-minute perspective, the Wukan elections should appear on the national trending topics list. That it doesn’t may be a result of the fact that the list is handpicked, not automatic.

But, like I said, searches for “Wukan” are still allowed and posts about the elections don’t seem to be getting deleted. The Chinese media is also covering and discussing the elections, so it’s clearly getting more play than it was back when the town was a rebel village under siege (no surprise there).

As you might expect, the Weibo messages from Wukan residents themselves today are mostly about the election, and from the accounts I’ve looked out there seems to be more-or-less universal satisfaction and pride. They’re sharing stories about old people voting for the first time and kindhearted volunteers helping keep the voting area clean. They’ve also been passing around this comparison photo made by a Beijing netizen that compares the scene today in Beijing (left), Wukan (center), and Hong Kong (right):

(The idea here is that the dog-and-pony-show “two meetings” in Beijing doesn’t compare favorably to the democracy in Wukan or the free criticism of political leaders in Hong Kong.)

Many others outside Wukan are also comparing the elections there to the CPPCC/NPC meetings in Beijing. In one popular post from earlier tonight, a netizen wrote, that the consciousness of the Chinese people is “reduced” by the CPPCC/NPC meetings but is “awakened” by the elections in Wukan.

Among intellectuals, there’s also the expected discussion and qualifying of this “victory” for Wukan’s system, as expressed (among other places) in this comment by a fairly popular independent scholar:

I’ve never been opposed to one-person-one-vote, what I’m opposed to is the worship of one-person-one-vote. It’s just the most shallow layer of democracy. If that’s all you have, and you don’t have any of the deeper layers that separate and restrict the powers [of government institutions] then there’s no way to prevent autocracy.

Most people seem to be happy for and/or jealous of Wukan, and many also see it as a sign of impending reforms or, for some, more sweeping changes:

Wukan is the beginning of Chinese democracy, a single spark can ignite a prairie fire.

We’ll see. As of now, I don’t believe they’re even finished counting the votes. But how things will look in a year is even less clear. Still, it’s hard not to feel good about what’s happening there right now, for me personally and, it appears, for an awful lot of Sina Weibo users, too.

Photoshopped Pants and Why “Face” is a Poison

UPDATE: The nice folks over at 译者 have seen fit to translate this into Chinese. Check it out!

Warning: If you don’t like bitter rants, you may want to stop reading this after the first couple paragraphs. And if you don’t like sarcasm, you probably should never have come to this site in the first place.

Well, if you were wondering whether or not the “new masters” at the Beijing News (新京报) were going to exert control over the paper, wonder no longer. Behold:

You may already have heard about the tourist from Luoyang who came to see Beijing and got sent home and beaten because he was mistaken for a petitioner (keep in mind, it is not illegal to come to Beijing and petition the government anyway).

The image above is of said petitioner, passed out in the street after being beaten by police. The top photo was posted by Southern Metropolis Daily (as you can see by the watermark), one of the relatively independent newspapers in the Southern Media Group. The bottom one was posted to Weibo by — you guessed it! — the Beijing News.

Facepalm. Now, mix that with the revelation that national security police detained harassed and threatened a reporter for “revealing state secrets” because he reported on a former official’s sex dungeon murders. That’s right. The fact that a former firefighter was keeping six KTV hostesses in a sex dungeon — well, until he killed at least one of them, possibly two — that’s a “state secret.”

Of course, what they actually meant by “revealing state secrets” is ‘causing the local police force to lose face’. You may be wondering how trying to conceal sex slavery, kidnapping, and double homicide isn’t somehow a bigger loss of face. By all accounts the criminal here was not some high-level official…anyway, we’re getting sidetracked.

In both instances, the issue is face. Of course, in these cases, the “face-saving” effort was completely botched, but the principle is the same. Truth doesn’t enter into the equation, it’s all about polishing that turd and hoping someone — anyone — is fooled.

Time and time again, Chinese officials use this approach to take a real problem, an embarrassment, or, in some cases, nothing at all and turn it into a disaster (or a bigger disaster). Off the top of my head, here are a few examples:

  • The “Jasmine Revolution Protests” — Protests “organized” by a handful of overseas Chinese no one had ever heard of attracted almost no one save a few curious onlookers and a bunch of bemused journalists. Bemused, at least, until the cops showed up and started pushing people around trying to shut down a protest that wasn’t actually happening. They eventually locked up half ((Yes, I’m being hyperbolic. It’s a rhetorical strategy; shut up.)) of Beijing’s intelligentsia — none of whom had any connection to the calls for protest, of course ((If they have, we’ve seen no evidence of it)) — and beat up a couple Western journalists just to ensure what would have been the year’s biggest non-story would become a smoldering embarrassment that managed to garner international criticism even when half the Arab world was on fire.
  • The Wenzhou Train Crash — The crash was a disaster in and of itself, and one that was getting more embarrassing for China as each new detail emerged. But somehow, officials managed to make a horrible situation even worse by bungling rescue efforts, burying train cars, and then playing down these mistakes in what has got to be the most inept press conference in world history. When people started criticizing them, they tried to cover that up by deleting posts, then tried to un-cover-up the cover-up by letting people speak freely for a while, then went back to covering-up by deleting posts when it seemed things were getting out of hand. In doing so, they took what was a disaster for the nation’s high speed rail and turned it into a disaster for the nation, but most especially, for themselves and their own legitimacy.
  • The Sichuan Earthquake — Another disaster, this one was made worse by the fact that when people attempted to investigate the cause of collapsed buildings — or even just collect the names of the dead — they were harried, bullied, and harassed at every turn. This, of course, served to convince everyone the government was hiding something and by the time they finally released their own list of names, most people had already made up their minds about what had happened. As a result, the original story (gov’t built shoddy buildings, kids died as a result) — which was already pretty bad — got worse: gov’t built shoddy buildings, kids died as a result, gov’t tried to hide this even though it was plainly evident, gov’t probably now rebuilding things with same shoddy practices.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. Whatever the situation, it can — and often will — be made worse by official attempts to save face.

Saving face is a universal desire — after all, who wants to look bad? — but given that “face” is essentially pure vanity with another name, some people are remarkably shameless about it here.

China is, as its “defenders” will point out to you endlessly, a developing country. Despite the shiny facades in Shanghai and Beijing ((not that you can see the shiny facades in Beijing for all the pollution…)), anyone who’s been to the countryside knows that this is still a third world country in many respects. I certainly don’t envy the people charged with running it.

But I have no sympathy or forgiveness for their perpetual desire to hide the truth — from the rest of the world ((a.k.a. that one country called 外国 where everyone eats 西餐 and has really cute babies.)) and from their own people and (probably) even themselves.

The story, of course, is that this is all in the name of national stability. If the people were allowed to see that man with his pants ripped, things could go bad. So they’ll get part of the truth — a watered down, photoshopped Truth Substitute (TM) that tastes almost like the real thing. See? Stability!

But even a little lie is still a lie. And though I’m still young, I’m old enough at least to have learned that the lie that stabilizes things in the short term (“No, I didn’t put that ding in your car!”) can be destabilizing and downright destructive in the long term. Especially when, day after day, you’re adding little lies on top of yesterday’s lies in an attempt to maintain the facade (“No really, I can’t even drive stick!”). Sooner or later, the whole thing is going to crumble.

The train crash, shoddy building practices, etc. — it’s very obvious that Chinese leaders, most of them anyway, are playing the short term game, so it’s no surprise they don’t care what their truth-massaging might lead to down the road. But for their sake, and for ours, I hope someone up there realizes this before they make whatever the next disaster is worse, too. Or, god forbid, the whole tower of lies comes crashing down on top of them.

That might seem like poetic justice. But of course, if the tower does collapse, it’s the people under them who will ultimately get crushed.

Examining Eric Li and China’s Vox Populi

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

The Article

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet again, reality is intervening.

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

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

More interesting are the “differing statistical models” he mentions. Specifically, what he means is that the Railway Ministy counts a seat as being full as long as one person books on it at some point on a train trip. So if, for example, I take the train from Beijing to Shanghai, but I get off halfway. If no one replaces me, that seat is counted as having been at 100% capacity for the trip. If someone replaces me, the seat counts as 200% capacity. If a third person were to book that seat for another leg of the journey, it would count as 300%. This is how the Ministry was able to announce that the Beijing-Shanghai rail operated at 107% capacity this month ((Here’s a Chinese source for the haters: http://news.163.com/11/0801/19/7AD679J600014JB6.html )).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The narrative of dissatisfaction isn’t real

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Internet Public Opinion and the Vox Populi in China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Brief: Independent Website Allows Netizens to Report Corruption

Check it out while you can, because I can’t imagine this is going to last long. “He took bribes” is a new, apparently independent website that allows users in China to report instances of bribery, corruption, and other official malfeasance.

The site is apparently based on a similar Indian site. On it, net users can report instances of corruption and search for reports of corruption by location. According to the site’s own description:

“‘He Took Bribes’ is a non-profit public interest site that opposes corruption and greed and provides users with a convenient platform for reporting cases. We will examine and verify reports that are submitted, weed out malicious and random reports, and then with other cases, in accordance with local procedures, we will submit them to local prosecutors in the most direct fashion possible. After local prosecution organs have confirmed the information, we will publicly publish the details of the story and the result of the report [on the site].”

This comes in the wake of several similar sites constructed by the government. I can recall at least two official government sites of this type, but both of them crashed almost immediately following their launch because they received far more traffic than the government was expecting and their servers simply couldn’t handle it.

I can’t imagine an independent site like this could last long. It’s designed far better than either of the official sites, and it’s gotten over 2 million hits already (it has only been online for a few days). Reportedly, it’s not currently blocked in China, but how long could an independent site like this last? Corruption, I suspect, is too explosive an issue for the the government to allow any kind of reporting mechanism that they can’t control.

Still, only time will tell. I’ll be keeping a close eye on this site, and will update when I can provide more detail. I’ve also reached out to the site’s creator for comment and will update if I can get a response.

In Brief: Ai Weiwei’s Mainstream Appeal

People on both sides of the “aisle” — which is starting to feel more like a chasm than an aisle, by the way — have, for different reasons, long suggested that Ai Weiwei’s mainstream appeal in China is limited. Moreover, some have suggested that Ai’s profile is too low for many people to care that he’s arrested.

But this morning, I noticed something quite shocking. The Chinese phrase “Chinese artist Ai Weiwei” was the 8th most-searched term on Baidu’s hot topics list. See the photo below, courtesy of @goldkorn who had the good sense to grab a screenshot before it was deleted.

Baidu's top searches as of around 10 A.M. this morning

Now, first it’s important to establish what the Baidu hot topics list actually is. It’s essentially a real time list of the hottest search terms with time-sensitive relevance. So, Ai Weiwei being at #8 on this list doesn’t mean he was the 8th most searched for thing on all of Baidu, it means he was the 8th most searched for thing on Baidu after the things that get searched for every day (Youku, NBA, etc. etc.) are discounted.

Still, this list is something I’ve been reading every day for the past several months, and it’s a pretty great indicator of what news stories are the hottest on any given day on the mainland. It is also, of course, censored. For that reason, I was doubly shocked when I saw Ai Weiwei’s name — I didn’t expect that many people to be searching for him, nor did I expect his name to be able to appear on this list.

The latter was, apparently, an oversight. Shortly after I noticed this and reported it on Twitter, the list was updated and Ai Weiwei was nowhere to be found. Clearly his initial presence on the list was just a temporary oversight on the part of Baidu’s censors. But what of the fact that he was getting searched for enough to appear there in the first place?

Regular Baidu searches for his name turn up fairly “harmless” stuff, as you would expect. There’s no reference to his activism or to his arrest and continuing detention ((Which, I recently learned, could be totally legal. Apparently under Chinese law you can be kept under house arrest indefinitely without charges or any need to notify the family of your whereabouts. This is true because most house arrests occur in one’s own house, but many have speculated that since Ai’s detention would be illegal at this point under Chinese law any other way, he may be officially under “house arrest,” but at a “house” that was chosen for him by police. That way, they can legally hold him as long as they want without charging him, and they don’t have to tell anyone where he is. Fun!)), which isn’t surprising given that Baidu’s search results are censored. But since almost all of the items on Baidu’s list come from news stories, I also checked Baidu’s news search and found this story, which is probably what sparked the spike in searches for Ai Weiwei.

As readers of Chinese will quickly see, it’s actually a story about economics, but a ways down the page there is an interview between a reporter and a representative of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, in which the reporter asks this question:

“Many people in Europe are concerned about the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, and I don’t know where he is either, can you tell us whether or not he is alive ((Presumably the interview was conducted before Ai was allowed to meet with his wife briefly earlier this week)), and what kind of charges he will face?”

The Foreign Ministry official’s answer is exactly what you’d expect, and I’m not going to translate it because you can read it in the Global Times in English basically any day of the week.

What’s interesting about this story is that a question about Ai phrased in that way is allowed to appear online uncensored, and morevoer, that such a question, halfway through an article about economics, would attract so much attention that the term “Chinese artist Ai Weiwei” would suddenly be propelled to the top ten of Baidu’s hot topics list.

Of course, there’s no way to be sure that article is what did it. But there are no other recent articles on Baidu about Ai Weiwei, and no other considerable reason that that search term would suddenly show up today.

In any event, it seems to indicate that Ai’s domestic profile (and the domestic profile of his arrest and detention) may be significantly higher than everyone — his detractors and his supporters alike — originally thought.

UPDATE: Fascinatingly, Ai Weiwei has also appeared — twice — on the weekly trending topics list, which isn’t something I look at. His name “Ai Weiwei” made the top ten weekly trending searches on May 14th and May 15th; screen captures of that as well as more analysis are available at ZaiChina (in Spanish, but Google Translate is your friend). Thanks to Daniel Mendez of ZaiChina for pointing this all out in the comments here.

In Brief: Most Chinese Net Users Sad Bin Laden is Dead

The “China’s reaction to Bin Laden” story has been covered from a million angles already. But none of them (that I have seen) have included any statistics which is why this poll is so interesting.

Obligatory disclaimer: Yes, this is an informal internet poll with inherent biases and probably with security lax enough for hackers to compromise the system and influence the outcome, if they wanted to do that, so any analysis of it needs to be taken with a grain of salt. I’ve also rounded all the numbers because they’ll have changed by the time this post goes up anyway.

Translation

What is your opinion of the American military killing Osama Bin Laden?

  • Happy, the terrorist leader has finally been killed. 18%, 87,700 votes.
  • Sad, an anti-American warrior has fallen. 60%, 287,600 votes.
  • Sigh, after ten long years America has finally gotten revenge. 12%, 58,600 votes.
  • No opinion, it doesn’t really matter to me whether he’s dead or not. 10%, 46,100 votes.

What’s your appraisal of Osama Bin Laden?

  • He was the number one terrorist and a threat to world peace. 18%, 89,300 votes.
  • He was an anti-American warrior, but his killing of innocent people is unacceptable. 58%, 276,700 votes.
  • He was a crazy religious fundamentalist whose break with the traditional islamic world has made him a legend. 15% 73,300 votes.
  • Not sure. 8%, 40,000 votes.

Do you think Bin Laden’s death will have a positive effect in combating terrorism?

  • Yes, this is a victory in the war against terror, and it will help restrain future terrorist activities. 17%, 80,000 votes.
  • Yes, the forces of Islamic extremism will decline and the age of terrorism will pass. 2%, 11,000 votes.
  • No, Bin Laden was no longer an important player, and his death will not influence terrorism one way or the other. 25%, 118,000 votes.
  • No, more extremist forces will undertake terrorist actions [because of his death] and terrorism will get worse and worse. 48%, 229,000 votes.
  • Not sure. 8%, 40,000 votes.

Comments

It’s interesting that a majority of those who responded to this poll are upset that Bin Laden is dead, but at the same time, a majority also felt that his tactics were unacceptable despite his apparently-favorable anti-American attitude. This link came to me via Zhang Wen’s blog, where Zhang Wen mentions that this may be one of the reasons it took the Chinese government so long to comment on the news of Bin Laden’s death. Obviously, the government itself has no love for bin Laden or terrorism in general, but apparently they need to tread lightly around a populace that is surprisingly — I feel, anyway — supportive of bin Laden.

Then again, it may just be the latest wind of anti-Americanism. Just last week in my day job trolling the wastelands of Sina’s trending topics, I noticed that there were plenty of Chinese netizens gloating about the deadly tornadoes that killed over 200 in the American south. The general sentiment seemed to be that Americans deserved it for their support of the wars that were killing innocent people in other countries. Interesting, indeed.

UPDATE: Sina Weibo is currently hosting an expert Q&A on Bin Laden’s death. Someone asked the current expert in the hot seat, Ma Xiaolin, his thoughts on the ifeng.com poll and the fact that 60% of respondents were sad about Bin Laden’s death. His answer:

“Netizens only represent a part of overall public opinion. [This issue] has become very emotional, so [the poll] doesn’t necessarily represent people’s conclusions after rational consideration [of the issue].”