Category Archives: Journalism

In Brief: Who’s Really Disappearing Reporters

At this point probably everyone is familiar with the “Bijie Boys” and most of you are probably also aware of how that turned out for the reporter who broke the story. The fact that a reporter would be held for reporting a story no one disputes the veracity of should surprise exactly no one, but there is one aspect of this story I’d like to explore a little bit.

Now, before I start, I want to say that I love Beijing Cream. I find the site both informative and funny and it has been one of my favorite China blogs for a while now. Moreover, I think every writer there is probably at least familiar with the argument I’m about to make, so I’m really just using the Beijing Cream article as an example here. In fact, I suspect Anthony Tao might actually agree with what I’m about to write, but going into all this was rather outside the scope of his article, so he understandably didn’t. Anyway, my point here is that this article shouldn’t be taken as a critique of Tao or Beijing Cream in general.

That said, this section of Tao’s take on the Li Yuanlong’s arrest jumped out at me:

What we shouldn’t assume is that higher levels of government had anything to do with this, considering no one — and I mean no one — would be dumb enough to think punishing a journalist here would be a good idea. If there’s one thing we know about how business is done in these fourth-tier, hinterland-type counties, it’s that the powerful can do whatever the fuck they want, and someone with some power in this case must have decided to act out on his vendetta.

While the latter half of this paragraph is undoubtedly true, I do disagree to a certain extent with the first half. On the face of it, of course, it is quite true: I’d bet an awful lot of money that the decision to detain Li was made and executed by local officials who were not in any contact with higher authorities.

But I wouldn’t say it’s really true that higher authorities had nothing to do with it. The central government’s inability to control, or perhaps lack of interest in controlling, local governments fosters and facilitates an I-am-king-around-here attitude in local officials, and that inevitably leads to stories like this. Central authorities didn’t order the arrest of Li, no, but they have for decades presided over and molded a system that allows local authorities to do things like arrest reporters with minimal consequences, and often no consequences at all.

In fact, the system often offers de-facto rewards to local officials who keep their regions quiet by quieting anyone publicizing negative stories, because the officials that get promoted are often the ones who come from the most “stable,” “harmonious” districts. Officials have long-since learned that the surest route to apparent “harmony” is threatening, arresting, coercing, and censoring the people who would spread negative stories about their districts — reporters, petitioners, protesters, bloggers, etc. This way, higher authorities don’t often have to order the detention of people like Li — they have set the system up in such a way that people like Li can be silenced without anyone in the central government getting their hands dirty.

Moreover, if I — some random dude living halfway across the world — am aware that Li Yuanlong has been detained and “vactioned” at this point, certainly the authorities theoretically responsible for overseeing this sort of thing should be aware of this particular case by now. If they disapproved, undoing it shouldn’t take more than a phone call — the story could have been killed before I even woke up this morning, probably — and yet something tells me that phone call isn’t coming. Even if this case requires a few extra days to work its way through the bureaucracy, I’d be willing to bet it won’t; come Monday, I’d bet Li will still be on vacation. (Though I hope I’m wrong; something tells me this “vacation” isn’t all that pleasant).

(It didn’t take the authorities long to respond to this local problem by sacking the creepy official in question. Somehow, though, I doubt that will happen to the men behind Li’s detention).

I’ve written about the this-is-a-local-issue argument before, because it’s something you hear quite frequently when discussing injustices in China. And while it is, to an extent, true, I think it’s also important to elucidate the higher-level indifference and the systemic structures that makes these kind of local injustices possible year in and year out.

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Foreign Reporters With Chinese Characteristics

By now, you’re probably aware of the kerfuffle over “foreign reporter” Andrea Yu, who lobbed a few government-friendly softballs at Chinese officials during official 18th Party Congress press events. She was later featured in a CCTV segment on how “foreign reporters” are covering the congress. The only thing is, she isn’t really a foreign reporter — she works for a Chinese-owned company with government ties.

(Incidentally, the other media outlets in that CCTV report are also pretty suspect. The Hong Kong newspaper (Wen Wei Po) mentioned and interviewd is a plant, as it was founded in Shanghai and is pretty well known for toeing the Party line. And Sinovision, another media outlet interviewed during the segment, is a US TV station imports almost all of its programming from CCTV.)

All this has been hashed out in the press and in blogs, but the discussion has mostly centered around Yu herself and her ethical and journalistic standards (or lack thereof). That, I think, is missing the forest for the trees. While I don’t condone Yu’s behavior, if she had refused, I am sure that her company would have found someone else to do the same thing she did. Refusing would still have been the right move on her part, but Andrea Yu is not the most interesting part of this story.

Instead, let’s consider that (a) Andrea Yu was taking time allotted for real foreign reporters to ask questions and (b) featured in a segment on how the foreign press was covering the Party Congress. It seems that in the absence of a cooperative foreign press pool, Beijing may be looking to replace them with lookalike “foreign reporters” who can be trusted to ask the right questions. It’s a brilliant two-birds-one-stone move: it insulates Chinese citizens from hearing the more critical questions of the actual foreign press, and it prevents the actual foreign press from asking those questions in the first place by giving time allotted for them to a government shill who is posing as a journalist.

Is this a 18th Party Congress desperation move, or a new tactic we’re going to see more in the coming years? There’s no way to know. But I think it is important to note this in case it does become an important precedent for future “foreign” “reporters” with Chinese characteristics.


Incidentally, for those interested, there is also a new 2Non.org story up today called “Why Rural Chinese Kids Don’t Go to College” that you should check out.

And while I’m talking about 2Non.org, what topics would you like to read articles and/or see documentaries about? We write articles like this continuously, but we’re also in the planning stages for our next documentary, and still considering topics, so if you have thoughts or requests for either, feel free to throw them in the comments here. Thanks!

In the Middle of a Forest, Furiously Attacking Random Trees

You’ve probably already heard about the horrible double-homicide that killed two Chinese USC students last week. It’s a bit of an old story now, but the more I think about it, the more I think it’s worth examining the response to it. For the sake of brevity, here’s a very condensed version of what happened:

  • The AP initially reported that the two students were in a $60,000 BMW when they were shot.
  • The Chinese internet explodes with condemnations and assertions that they deserved to be murdered, that their parents were probably corrupt officials anyway, etc.
  • Some net users point out that the car they were in was used, and while it can cost as much as $60,000 new, this particular model was from 2003 and had been purchased used for about $10,000. The AP updates its story.
  • The AP reporter (Greg Risling) is criticized, some of his private correspondance is published online, etc.

Now, there are a bunch of distracting side issues here. Some people feel Risling shouldn’t have even mentioned the make of the car the victims were in in the first place. Then there’s the highly questionable ethics of some of Rislings critics, including a Columbia Journalism School student named Angela Bao who published private correspondance with Risling despite Risling’s express statement in his first email that she did not have permission to do so.

But in the larger picture, that should all be irrelevant. What Risling’s critics are actually upset about — and rightfully so — is that the family of these victims is being criticized and cursed unfairly. Some blame Risling’s article for implicitly suggesting victims were richer than they probably are, and thus inspiring this public backlash against their families. But that is entirely missing the point. Would it be acceptable to curse the families of the murder victims if they really had been wealthy? Obviously not. The AP certainly committed a regrettable error in initially publishing the $60,000 number ((although it later ran a follow-up, also by Risling, that corrects the error)), but the problem here is not with the AP, it’s with the Chinese people who believe rich people deserve to be murdered.

That people with money should be murdered is, of course, a completely indefensible position, but it’s not too difficult to understand. In fact, I don’t think anyone who has lived in China any time over the past few years is surprised at all by the fact that many people have this response. Money and corruption have become inexorably linked in the minds of many here, and luxury cars have become an especially potent symbol of oppression because they seem to keep running over poor people.

China’s wealthy are moving abroad in droves, and I have a feeling it’s not all about food safety and better education systems. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for China’s wealthy, many of whom really are involved in corruption, but when the court of public opinion is suggesting that owning a $60,000 car is enough to justify the murder of your children, well, why stay in that environment when you don’t have to?

But the problem isn’t the money or the nice cars, or even the fact that the nice cars seem to keep running over children. The problem is justice. The problem is that when a tragedy like the one I just linked occurs, the public has no faith whatsoever that justice will be served. And why should they when it often isn’t? If a case becomes high-profile enough (like the infamous “Li Gang” incident) the courts may be pressured into setting down some actual jail time, but everyone knows that if you have enough money or the right connections, almost anyone’s life is for sale. Or, to put it another way: if Bo Xilai’s wife felt sure she would get away with murdering a wealthy citizen of the United Kingdom (allegedly) ((Frankly, she probably could have gotten away with it if her husband wasn’t such a thorn in the side of Zhongnanhai)), what chance does the poor victim of a hit-and-run traffic accident have for justice?

The thirst for justice is evident as misdirected anger in the initial public response to the USC shootings, and it’s also evident in the reaction to this recent case in which a Chinese student in the US raped a landlord, and following his arrest, his parents attempted to bribe the victim to get her to reverse her testimony. The parents were, of course, arrested, and if you read through the comments, you will see that the online response to this news is almost unbridled joy and schadenfreude. There is a huge appetite for “corrupt people get their just desserts” stories because there are so few of them here.

In the wake of the USC case, if you’re criticizing the AP or the victim’s families, you’re missing the forest for the trees. The real problem in America is that there was a homicide, and it needs to be solved so the killer can be taken off the streets for good. The real problem in China is that the widening income gap goes down extra hard when it’s taken with the knowledge that the wealthy have more rights than you do. In fact, with enough money, they probably have the right to kill you.

That’s a problem that has to be solved if China is to avoid outbursts of class warfare, and I’m not talking about Fox News’s red herrings, I’m talking about actual violence. In the past few years there have already been a few hit-and-run cases that resulted in mass incidents a sort. Recall, for example, the 2010 incident in which a man stuck a pedestrian and then got out of the car and beat him, shouting, “I’ve got money, I’d rather just beat you to death and pay the compensation!” Soon enough, he found himself locked in his car, surrounded by a mob of angry people.

In that particular case, he got lucky — he was rescued by police, and he hadn’t actually beaten his victim to death. But you’ve got to wonder, what might have happened if the victim had died on the scene before police arrived? What if the victim had been a child? If this were to happen tomorrow and the police were a little slower to arrive?

If people aren’t confident that justice will be served by the system, it’s only a matter of time until someone decides to take it into their own hands on the street.

On Wang Wen’s HuffPo Essay

Oh boy. Take a look at this essay by Wang Wen that appears in Eric X. Li’s column in the Global Times Huffington Post.

Before we begin, it’s worth noting that the HuffPo piece fails to mention that Wang Wen is an editor for the Global Times. It does specify that he’s an editor for a major paper, but conspicuously fails to mention that the paper in question is the State-owned Global Times. That seems questionable — doesn’t someone working for the government have a vested interest in its perpetuation, and isn’t that a conflict of interest worth noting? — but let’s move on.

The piece begins with a rundown of the recent coup rumors and a regurgitation of the Party line: China is not the Middle East, there will be no Chinese Arab Spring, the Chinese people want stability, etc. Nothing you haven’t read before a hundred times. But then there’s this:

In my discussions with those in Beijing’s elite circles I find a wide range of opinions. Some are resentful of Bo’s removal and even feel betrayed. Some are euphoric as they see the central government has finally made the right decision. Regardless of the seeming intensity of their views, no one wants to take to the streets. On the contrary, they seem all worried that such a controversial event might drive others onto the streets. In China, without the instigation of the elites, it is impossible for ordinary people to have the channel and willingness for meaningful political protests. As for the Chinese elites, the memory of the Tiananmen Square incident 22 years ago is still fresh in their minds. Radicalism, in the name of any political ideal, has no appeal in reality.

You may want to stop and read this sentence again: “In China, without the instigation of the elites, it is impossible for ordinary people to have the channel and willingness for meaningful political protests.” Absurd classism aside, apparently Wang didn’t get the memo about the protests in Wukan, which were sustained and quite successful despite the lack of patronage from any of Beijing’s elites, or any elites at all. Yet I feel certain they would consider their protests — and the outcome — quite meaningful.

I think Wang is right that intellectuals ((It’s worth noting that the Global Times and other Party-line folks frequently disparage China’s intellectual elite as being out-of-touch with the common people precisely because they DO express interest in fairly radical political change, but Wang seems to have flipped that on its head here because it fits his argument better.)), at least, might be necessary at some point for another Tiananmen-like massive-scale protest to occur. And he’s right that ideals alone aren’t going to get people on the streets. That said, what has that got to do with anything? It wasn’t ideals that sparked the protests in ’89 either, it was the death of Hu Yaobang. By all accounts, the actual protests started rather organically among students ((students attending elite universities, yes, but that doesn’t make them elites)), not as the result of some call to arms from elites. In fact, the strongest early call-to-arms came from the Party itself in the form of the April 26 People’s Daily editorial, which paradoxically attracted more people (including elites) to the cause. The idea that large-scale protests must be organized and channeled by China’s elites is absurd.

Moreover, I’m not sure what the fact that China isn’t about to see large-scale political protests is meant to prove. It’s as much a reflection of the effectiveness of China’s authoritarian controls as it is a reflection of the national mood.

However divisive people’s opinions are, there is one thing they have in common: they all put their hope in the Party to solve problems facing Chinese society. China’s one-party governance structure has matured to a state in which groups with intensely opposing views and interests fight to influence the Party, not to subvert its rule. What they all want is reform that would favor their positions, not revolution that could overturn the entire system. Many aggressively vent their dissatisfaction and satirize the government. There are even many incidents of mass clashes. Yet even the most dissatisfied take their grievances to the authority of the central leadership for redress. It is a reality that can be counterintuitive to the eyes of an outside observer.

What a shock — the people in power don’t want to destroy the system! If Li bothered to talk to any of the non-elite regular people, he might have discovered a different story. In most cases, he certainly wouldn’t have found that the common people are on the verge of overthrowing the government — that’s not what I’m suggesting. But for everyone I’ve talked to who puts all their hope in the Party to solve China’s problems, there’s someone who has completely lost hope in the Party to do anything other than bulldoze houses and drink baijiu. And, of course, most people lie somewhere in between those two extremes. The idea that all Chinese people put all their hope in the Party to solve China’s problems is an absurd fantasy.

Wang is right that the Party is not facing an imminent physical threat of overthrow — there is no mass movement or revolt coming. What it is facing is increasing cynicism, dissatisfaction, and despair. Wang writes, “…yet even the most dissatisfied take their grievances to the authority of the central leadership for redress,” but he wisely leaves it at that. This is probably because he knows discussing the results of that process wouldn’t help his argument much. Yes, almost anyone in China with a serious grievance will attempt to bring it to the central leadership for redress, and when they do, they tend to be met with utter indifference, if not violent repression (see: black jails, etc.).

Based on the parents we’ve spoken to for our film, as well as other former petitioners I’ve spoken with for other projects, the process of petitioning is precisely how faith in the central leadership gets killed. People go into the process thinking theirs is a local injustice the central government is unaware of and doesn’t allow. Generally speaking, they come away with the knowledge that what happened to them is happening in many other places, and that the central government is not at all interested in hearing what they have to say.

Moving on, Wang’s essay seems to alternate between what I’d consider to be a few pretty reasonable points and bizarre lapses into near self-parody.

China in the early 21st century is not dissimilar to the U.S. during its Progressive era of the early 20th century. We see a society frequently plagued by chaos and bad news, which has the effect of making people feel hopeless. Yet reality prevails just like it did in America then. Just like the young and growing America weathered its ills 100 years ago and developed, China will, too, enter a new period of long-term prosperity and stability.

Yes, because if there’s anything the Progressive Era in the US is famous for, it’s being followed by long-term prosperity and stability (You know, except for the Great Depression and those two World Wars).

As a matter of fact, those who are familiar with Chinese history might have noticed that political struggles, even at the highest-level, have become increasingly less a matter of “life and death.” Compared with what befell losers in previous political struggles, such as Lin Biao, whose forced defection resulted in a plane crash that killed him and his family 41 years ago, today’s political infighting is much more moderate. Chinese people, as all peoples, like honest and upright officials. They hope that good political leaders end well, and even the not so good ones do not get destroyed completely. I’d like to wish the same for contemporary China that has created the miracle of leading 1.3 billion people out of poverty in one generation.

Well, I’m sure Bo Xilai is grateful that he hasn’t been taken for any plane rides (yet). But the piece ends with a ridiculous straw-man implication — that anyone who doesn’t agree with Wang wants to see China destroyed completely — and a dramatic overstatement. China’s economic policy deserves plenty of credit for lifting most of the population from poverty, of course, but it has taken a little more than a generation, and there are still more than 100 million Chinese living in poverty. I doubt Wang ran into any of them on his survey of Beijing elites, but they do exist, and it is troubling that people like this seem so willing to pretend that 100,000,000+ people don’t exist whenever their existence would be inconvenient for the argument.

It’s especially galling because it’s not like anyone could fault China for only raising 1.2 billion people from poverty in the last 30+ years. That’s still pretty good! I’m not sure why it’s necessary to exaggerate or to suggest that anyone who disagrees with you wants to see China “destroyed completely.” This sort of thing is par for the course in the Global Times, but it is sad to see it creeping into the outside world, especially when it’s not disclosed that the author works in an upper-level position at a state-owned company and almost certainly has personal ties to the Party he is so adamantly defending.

Guest Post: Shame on Shaun Rein

The following is a guest post by Tom of Seeing Red in China. Of note also is a similar piece on The Peking Duck.

Yesterday Shaun Rein published a piece in Forbes bashing CNN’s lack of journalistic integrity when it helped Christian Bale organize a trip to Linyi. The main point of his article is sound, CNN did clearly cross a line from reporting news to creating news, but in Shaun’s efforts to hawk his new book and attack CNN, he grossly misrepresents what is going on in Linyi, exposing his own shameful lack of journalistic integrity.

Please bear with me as I pick apart the worst paragraphs of the piece:

“My issue here is not with Bale. In general, I believe one should follow the laws of nations that one visits, and that Bale should do so, but I also generally believe in free speech, no matter how misguided.”

It should be noted that it is not against the law to visit the city of Linyi. At no point did uniformed police officers or even the thugs that chased him away claim that what he was doing was against the law. Rein’s implication that it was in someway illegal serves only to obscure the issue.

One of the reasons I wrote my upcoming book, The End of Cheap China, was to dispel myths and distortions in the Western world about China, by covering both the good and bad of its evolution and trying to bring nuance where organizations like CNN bring activism. Far too many news organizations in the West perpetuate outdated or simply wrong views of the Chinese government and its people for the sake of getting eyeballs or, perhaps, to try to help contain the country. It is sad when CNN’s coverage of China becomes more like tabloid fodder than the gold standard it once was.

Here Shaun speculates that CNN might actually be trying to contain China, when it was covering what actually happened when Christian Bale tried to enter the village. Yes, it was 100% wrong for CNN to hire the van at Bale’s request, but CNN didn’t hire the thugs that kept Bale from visiting Chen Guangcheng. Pretending that human rights abuses don’t happen in China is hardly what I would call “nuanced” or balanced. It’s on par with Global Times pretending that the pollution in Beijing is harmless fog, hardly something worthy of Forbes.

I have a chapter in The End of Cheap China on the lessons I’ve learned from China’s sex industry and how it seems contradictory at first glance that brothels exist in the open everywhere, without local police molestation, while the central government cracks down on Internet porn. A closer look shows that China’s sex industry actually is a friction point between the central and local governments, a juncture where interests often diverge.

The central government might try to shut brothels but is stopped by corrupt local officials. President Hu has called local corruption a serious problem and has made rooting it out a major goal of his administration. My book tries to shed light on the interplay and often diverging interests between local and central government officials and why improvements are sometimes much slower than the central government wants.

Through censoring web searches for information on Chen Guangcheng and Linyi, the Central gov’t has clearly displayed that it actually has a similar interest in keeping Chen’s illegal detention a secret within China. While Shaun’s point about the difficulty of controlling prostitution might be true, Chen’s initial detention was the result of him opposing local implementation of a national policy. In this case the central gov’t’s interest in keeping Chen silenced does align with the local gov’t’s interest in saving face.

As a Chinese co-worker told me the other day, when there is one corrupt official, it’s a problem with that official, when there are hundreds of corrupt officials, it’s a problem with the system.

Bale and CNN’s publicity stunt indicts an entire political system without delving deeper into the reality of Chen’s detention and the interplay between the central and local governments.  I have no idea about Chen’s detention, and if he is being wronged or not, but if there are issues with his case, I am not convinced that calling the entire political class “disgusting,” as Bale does, can help.

When I pressed Shaun on his ignorance pertaining to Chen’s detention, he said again that he would not comment on something he had no knowledge of. The documentation of Chen’s abuse has been widely reported for nearly three months. To have “no idea” about it seems like he is feigning ignorance, otherwise he must have only been reading People’s Daily (even Global Times reported on Chen). It’s fine that he isn’t convinced that Bale calling the system disgusting is helpful, but how can he complain that CNN didn’t delve deeper into the reality when he himself has no idea about it?

Far too many in the West indict China’s whole governing class and system when a single local official does something stupid or brutish. Yet they criticized only a lone thuggish police officer in New York for pepper-spraying Occupy Wall Street protesters. They didn’t called [sic] President Obama evil for what that one officer did, or call for an overthrow of all of America. Yet Bale did that in China’s case, and, worse, CNN helped him.

So much is wrong with this paragraph that it hurts. Firstly, what is happening in Linyi absolutely involves the entire political system. Local officials who were initially involved in Chen’s case have been promoted to provincial level offices, and the brief mention in Global Times indicates that the central gov’t is aware of this illegal detention. Yet, the central gov’t has yet to take any action to help Chen.

The imprisonment of Chen does not rely on a “single local official” but involves village leaders, city level leaders, and provincial level leaders along with a squad of hired thugs.

Shaun pretends that this is in some way comparable to thuggish cops pepper spraying protesters. This would be similar if 1) the police in the pepper spray incident involved faced no punishment, ever 2) similar events happened throughout the US several times each day and 3) domestic newspapers were not allowed to report on the incident and information related to it was scrubbed from the internet. However, Shaun did say that he had “no idea about Chen’s detention”, so I guess it isn’t too surprising how wildly inaccurate his comparison is.

The last thing the world needs is increased tension between the world’s two superpowers. CNN should be ashamed for becoming more like a tabloid and inserting itself into the story rather than maintaining journalistic integrity and providing an objective view of its subjects.

I would argue that it is actually not a journalist’s job to be concerned about whether or not the story they are publishing creates tension between China and the US. The role of the journalist however almost certainly demands checking the facts and reporting the whole story when it does appear.

Shaun argued more eloquently at the beginning of the piece, CNN should not have involved itself so closely in the creation of this story, but it would have been a much stronger piece if he had demonstrated any of the integrity he expects from CNN.

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.