Category Archives: Media

Translation: ‘How to Break the Cycle of Black Jails’

Caixin’s recent package of stories (which I came across via the indispensable Sinocism) includes this opinion piece by professor Yu Jianrong. He’s a bit light on actual solutions aside from the usual (totally reform everything), but if nothing else, the piece is an excellent exposition of exactly why the petition system “works” the way it does.

How to Break the Vicious Cycle of ‘Intercepting Petitioners’

“Intercepting petitioners” refers to local officials using various measures to intercept people attempting to petition at the [provincial] or central offices and forcibly taking them back to their hometowns. In China’s current political climate, the intercepting of petitioners has long been an open secret, an “unwritten rule” of petition office stability management work, an uncivilized but tacitly accepted rule for government work, and an important part of the job of those who “greet petitioners.” Whenever the two congresses or National Day or some other “sensitive” time rolls around, many additional ‘petitioner interception’ workers come to Beijing to intercept petitioners from their local area to prevent petitioners from staying in Beijing and increasing the number of complaints about their locale on the record.

Reality shows us that there are three main downsides to these petitioner-intercepting activities: first, there is a high economic cost, and this has already become a heavy burden on some local governments, especially lower-level governments. Sometimes, the money it takes to intercept a petitioner would be enough money to actually solve the petitioner’s problem.

The second is that intercepting petitioners has serious political consequences; it violates the petitioners’ basic rights, directly cuts out the petitioning system, and has a definite draining effect on national legitimacy. What’s even more serious is that some local governments have made the ‘petitioner intercepting’ system even more effective by giving “perks” to provincial and central petition office authorities in return for information about local petitioners that makes it easier to intercept them. So, even if a petitioner has entered the petition office and registered their complaint, it’s possible to change what’s on the register by spending money. This is not only brazenly preventing information from reaching the highest-level authorities and deceiving the central [government], it is also creating a new source of corruption within the system itself.

The third is that because of petitioner-intercepting activities, the rulers’ attempts to eliminate social conflicts via the petitioning system are ineffective, and [petitioner-intercepting] can even become a source of new social conflicts. Petitioners are the ones who most directly bear the consequences of petitioner-intercepting; in their attempts to evade the pursuit of local government interceptors, some are ruined in the process, and when they finally reach Beijing or the provincial capital and then [still] get intercepted, they have no one left to turn to. And more horribly, some petitioners are beaten, detained, or even sent to reeducation through labor (劳教). For this reason, although intercepting petitioners temporarily reduces the number of petitioners in Beijing or at provincial petition offices, protecting the “social stability” of the capital or provincial cities, but it cannot address the roots of the problem, and instead it just creates more conflict.

‘Meeting petitioners’ and ‘intercepting petitioners’ ((“Meeting” and “Intercepting” are both pronounced “jie” so this is sort of a play on words)) are both important reflections of the variation in today’s national petitioning system. Petition officers and officials, local governments, and the central government all participate, using the system as a platform for a kind of game in which they attempt to maximize their own interests. But because of this they have fallen into problems [like the three Yu just listed and those below], this can be called the ‘petitioning paradox.’

First of all, there are the many predicaments the central government level [authorities] have already run into. When the CCP first established its regime, the highest-level policymakers created the petition system, with many political goals including deepening the regime’s legal legitimacy, resolving severe social problems, implementing policy and social mobilization, and also controlling lower-level officials in an unconventional way. However, after its establishment, a serious consequence was that problems began to pile up at the central level. In 1963, the Central Committee and the State Council admitted this problem in “Announcement regarding strengthening petitioning work,” and called on provincial level political and Party organs to strengthen their guidance, saying that local level organizations should do their best to resolve problems locally. From then on, methods for investigating responsibility for petition complaints became more and more complex, and more and more severe. The central government was trying to use pressure on local political and party organizations to stem the flow of petitioners coming to Beijing and increase the effectiveness and realize the goals of the petition system.

However, for the sake of their own political interests, local governments used all kinds of methods to alleviate the pressure coming from the central government, which created a shift away from the actual goals of the petitioning system and which has ultimately resulted in a shift of the pressure back to central authorities. The central government wants problems resolved at the grassroots level, meaning that it hopes the local government will actually solve the petitioner’s complaint, but after levels and levels of pressure, the biggest result is that the local government wants to use whatever methods it can to prevent petitioners from registering in Beijing.

Strict pursuit of the responsibility for petition complaints has forced local governments at all levels to make the number of petitioners into an important indicator of performance, so the blame is passed downwards, so local authorities intercept petitioners and bribe officials to reduce the number of petitions on file, and even detain petitioners and sentence them or their associates to forced labor or even jail time to suppress the number of petitioners. It’s not that the local government doesn’t want to resolve the actual problem; some problems are caused by the local government’s poor conduct or lack of action, and others are caused by central government policies that really can’t be controlled by the local government. Illogical power structures and twisted mechanisms of reward encourage local officials to choose the simple and crude methods of enforcement, often creating greater resentment [in the process] and even giving some irrational petitioners a real reason to complain after they have been beaten up.

Petition officials can completely recognize the conflicts and pressures between local and central authorities described above; they use these pressures and conflicts to protect their own interests, even gaining benefits outside of the system, that becomes a rational choice. Because of this, the more oppressive local governments are towards petitioners, the greater the power of the petitioners is. Many people believe the logic of this industry is whatever the opponent (the local government) fears is what you should do. They not only persist in going to Beijing to petition, they endeavor to use all sorts of unusual methods to petition, for example going to embassies and consulates, visiting the housing of government leaders, and even extreme methods like jumping into rivers or self-immolating, creating more political pressure.

The result is that as local governments use even more severe methods to deal with petitioners, the complaints of petitioners become more extreme, creating a vicious cycle.Because of this, the petitioning system has gone from useless to harmful; from reducing pressure to actively increasing it.

If you want to completely resolve the mess of petitioner-intercepting and break the vicious cycle described above, the short-term solution is to give party and government departments at every level less pressure and to untie the petition system. After that, legal reforms would need to strengthen the emergency powers granted to judicial authorities and use the judicial system to clear up old cases. In the long-term, there will need to be radical political changes that completely reform the petition system.

Specifically, it would be possible to collect the currently scattered resources of the petition system under the auspices of all levels of the People’s Congress and use that to oversee things. This would not only give the petition office a new body of authority, it would also give it the necessary accountability, and at the same time help move People’s Congress delegates towards full-time duties and create a new substantial condition [for being an NPC delegate].

Fundamentally, only with political reform and establishing a government with powers that are weighed and controlled, with an independent and fair judiciary, with mechanisms for the democratic election of representatives, and with organizations and channels for all levels of society to voice their interests can there arise an equal and harmonious modern society.

Wen Yunchao: An Open Letter to the Investors of Sina

Note: Below is a translation of an open letter written by Wen Yunchao (twitter: @wenyunchao), an outspoken blogger and free speech activist on the Chinese Internet. It is addressed to the investors of Sina Corp, and explores the censorship practices and implications of the corporate structure of the company, which runs the most popular microblogging service in China. If you are not familiar with Wen Yunchao, the recent New York Times feature about him, Where an Internet Joke is Not Just a Joke, is strongly recommended. For an extensive discussion of the methods used by Sina to censor its micro-blogging service, be sure to read the blog post by Jason Ng at Kenengba. The post is in Chinese, but William Farris has provided a helpful English summary.

Update: If you would like to sign the letter, you can send your name, country and occupation to wenyunchao@gmail.com.

Wen Yunchao: An Open Letter to the Investors of Sina

Dear Investors of Sina Corp,

We issue this open letter because Chinese Internet company Sina and its microblogging service, Sina Weibo, fully cooperate with the Chinese government to censor and suppress the free speech of online citizens, without regard to any principle. Their behavior is disgusting.

The blog “Kenengba”, which received the Best Chinese Blog award in the 6th Deutsche Welle Best of the Blogs (BOBs) competition in 2010, once published the article “Ten Impressions I’ve gotten from Sina Weibo”. The article summarizes the censorship tactics of Sina Weibo, including keyword screening and post deletion, unidirectional blocking, screening of posts, banning of speech, “The Little Secretary Helps You”, account deletion, blocking of re-registration, and blocking of IP. The article also uses the case of Sina’s plagiarism from the Google-focused website Guao (http://www.guao.hk/) to illustrate how Sina Weibo not only cooperates with the government on censorship, but also deletes users’ information on its free will. ((可能吧:新浪微博给我印象最深刻的10件事, http://www.kenengba.com/post/3019.html))

Beifeng, well-known Chinese blogger and winner of the 2010 annual award of the French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights, writes: “Sina not only cooperates with the authority to impose censorship, it also conforms to their requests to frame certain people.” The article highlights the practice of Sina to change the account name of a user so that others can use the original name to publish contents which can endanger that user with legal liabilities. ((北风:新浪配合“他们”作恶的明确证据, http://www.bullogger.com/blogs/wenyc1230/archives/383569.aspx))

Xiao Han, associate professor at the China University of Politics and Law, “protests against Sina’s account deletion through reincarnation.” In his article “Why I leave Sina Weibo”, he writes, “the outrageous behavior of the administrators (the banning of unused ID intended for reincarnation) is for all to see. They abuse their power to destroy other people. Although they only destroy IDs, their way of thinking is the same as the Communist Party.” Xiao Han’s blog, on which the article was published, has also been removed by Sina. ((萧瀚:我为什么离开新浪微博? http://news.jcwb.net/news_of_microblog/378.html))

Furthermore, a video on YouTube entitled “How Sina Weibo deceives its users” clearly shows how Sina Weibo limits the number of followers of some accounts. Ms Liu Ping is an indepedent candidate for the local people’s congress of Jiangxi province. Because of her candidateship, over 30,000 people follow her on Sina Weibo at some point. But then Sina Weibo uses deception to reduce her followings. When other users click to follow her on Weibo, the system will send a message showing that the operation is successful, when in fact it is not. Now, the number of followers of Liu Ping’s account has dropped to 20,000. ((Youtube:新浪微博是如何故意欺骗用户的? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=543pH7uUd-g))

Chinese internet users cannot count on any legal remedies against the actions of Sina which go beyond the bottom line.

Chinese netizens have previously tried to sue Chinese Internet companies for their censorship practices. But none of the cases have ever received a trial. On 16 August 2007, Chinese human rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan went to the Beijing Haidian court to sue Internet services provider Sohu for hiding blog posts. The court accepted and filed the case on the same day. But on 12 September, the same court refused to accept the case, which was assigned the civil case number 23191. Liu appealed to no avail.

Some suggest to sue Sina in its place of registration or listing. However, according to publicly available information, what we normally refer to as the Sina portal is different from and has no subordinate relationship with the NASDAQ-listed Sina Corp.

The NASDAQ-listed Sina Corp is a holding company registered in the Cayman Islands. It has four subsidiaries, namely the Hong Kong Sina Co. Ltd. (which operates the Hong Kong Sina portal), Lifang (Hong Kong) Investment Co. Ltd., the California-registered Sina Online (which includes two Sina portals in North America and Taiwan), and the British Virgin Islands-registered Sina Limited.

In mainland China, Sina has registered several companies using the variable interest entities (VIEs) structure, including Beijing Sina Information Technology Co. Ltd., Sina Interactive Corp, Sitonglifang Software Corp, and Beijing MicroDream Creation Internet Technology Co. Ltd. Sina Information Technology operates the content part of the Sina portal, and holds the ICP, news publishing permit and other relevant licenses; MicroDream operates Sina Weibo and independently holds the ICP and other licenses.

Sina Interactive is fully in charge of the advertising business on the Sina portal and Weibo, while Sitonglifang provides technical support to Sina Information Technology and MicroDream. Advertising and gaming revenues from the Sina portal and Weibo are shared to Sina Interactive through an agreement. For Sifanglitong, it receives revenues in the form of fees for technical support. In turn, profits from these two companies are transferred to a subsidiary fully owned by the listed Sina Corp through other agreements.

The Sina portal and Weibo cooperate with the Chinese government on censorship, and they are respectively operated by Beijing Sina Information Technology Co. Ltd. and Beijing MicroDream Creation Internet Technology Co. Ltd. These are purely Chinese entities which only have business and contract relationships but no direct affiliation with the listed Sina Corp. Therefore, it is impossible to force them to stop censorship by taking action in the place of registration or listing of Sina Corp.

In 2011, several New York residents tried to sue Baidu Corp in a US district court for “shielding” the information they published online. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said that China’s management of the Internet is in line with international practices. This is an act of sovereignty which foreign courts have no jurisdiction under international law.

We know that China has severe restriction on public speech, and it is not realistic to request Sina to completely abandon censorship. However, in view of the reality that Chinese netizens have no effective channels to limit the behaviors of Sina, we believe that appealing to the investors of Sina Corp to reduce their shareholding could weaken Sina’s efforts in censorship. This can force Sina to follow clear censorship rules and ensure that users can seek judicial relief in China or third places.

According to Sina Corp’s 2011 second quarter financial report, although revenue has increased year on year, the net profit is down 60.3% to US$10 million. “The operating expense of the second quarter of 2011 is US$59.7 million, compared with US$32 million for the same period last year. The increase in operating expense is mainly related to Weibo marketing and human resources.” According to outside estimates, Sina employs nearly 1,000 people to censor Weibo. For some time in future, Sina Corp will continue to increase spending on marketing and staffing related to Weibo. We think that it is feasible to pressure Sina to reduce its censorship efforts by dumping Sina’s stocks.

The Chinese government’s policy on Weibo has a significant effect on the prospects of Sina. Holding the shares of Sina Corp entails tremendous uncertainty. On 20 September 2011, the share price of Sina dropped by 15.17% to US$92.76, the greatest daily drop since December 2008. Sina’s market capitalization has shrinked by US$1 billion to US$6 billion. Market commentators attribute this drop to concerns over regulatory risks. ((第一财经日报:微博监管风险重挫新浪股价 http://www.21cbh.com/HTML/2011-9-22/wMNDA3XzM2NzUwMg.html))

On 17 October 2011, Beijing Daily published an anonymous op-ed titled “Lack of credibility will mean the end of Weibo”, which calls for a real-name registration system for Weibo. ((北京日报:网络微博诚信缺失将无以立足, http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2011-10/17/c_122165528.htm)) The article criticizes the serious shortcomings which come with the rapid growth of Weibo. If left unchecked, these problems will threaten the society. It urges the government to purify the Internet through more comprehensive and targeted measures so that new media will be responsible for ensuring integrity. It suggests that the government should fully implement a real-name registration system for Weibo and an accountability system for online media. Guangdong’s Southern Metropolitan Daily thinks that “a strict real-name system may drive away users.” ((南方都市报:微博要搞实名制? http://gcontent.oeeee.com/6/9a/69a5b5995110b36a/Blog/9a1/4437ac.html))

In a recent interview with CCTV’s program Economic Half-hour, Sina CEO Charles Chao commented that Weibo will be the future driving force of Sina. ((曹国伟:微博将是新浪未来驱动力, http://finance.sina.com/bg/tech/sinacn/20110226/0635235624.html)) China’s regulatory policy towards Weibo will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the prospect of Sina. As social conflicts are becoming more acute, the government’s control on the society will tighten, and the space for free speech will shrink. In this context, Internet censorship will undoubtedly be strengthened, and the possibility of the Chinese government shutting down the microblogging services will always be with us.

Perpetrators and their collaborators should be punished. We hereby urge investors to reduce their shareholding in Sina based on both moral and rational judgments, thereby indirectly applying pressure to Sina and its microblogging service to get them onto censorship practices based on clear and transparent principles.

 

Written by: Beifeng
November 2011

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.

Chinese Sex Ed: A Plea for Sanity

sex-ed-bookBrowsing ChinaHush today, I came across this post about Beijing’s new sex ed textbooks for students from primary school through high school called “The Steps of Growing Up”. Apparently, it’s being condemned as pornography. This article (Chinese) quotes several parents complaining about the book, two pages of which are pictured at right.

The article also contains some concerning statistics that aren’t in ChinaHush’s post. For example:

“The [Beijing Youth Sex Education International] Forum published a report that revealed many [Chinese] elementary school students don’t know how to properly protect themselves [against potential sexual abuse], and could not correctly answer which parts of the body should be private. Of the 435 fourth and fifth grade students surveyed, only 24 of them (5.39%) correctly identified all the private body parts (breasts, sex organs, buttocks). Among those surveyed, 73 (16.37%) were unable to identify any of the private areas.

The researchers believe that since 4th and 5th graders are around the age of ten and about to enter puberty but still can’t even correctly identify the private parts of their body, if they encounter sexual abuse they may not be able to correctly recognize it as abuse and protect themselves.

The survey showed ((The methodology for this is not immediately clear in the news article I’m translating, but I thought it was worth including anyway)) that if they encountered sexual abuse, 81.23% of students had a measurable ability to protect themselves; they could resist or stop the abuser and their knowledge of how to protect themselves was strong. 14.13% of students didn’t know what to do, and treated the sexual abuse as a secret, and when they met with their abuser they would obey out of fear or because they didn’t understand the danger. Additionally 3.89% of students said they felt sexual abuse was “whatever” [无所谓].

Clearly, there’s a need for better sex education. Or so you’d think. But Peking University professor Kong Qingdong doesn’t think so, and he’s on TV talking about it. ChinaHush translated part of his interview, but here’s the whole thing:

Host: So we can see from this that [some] parents have a concern about the textbooks.

Kong Qingdong: We haven’t seen the pictures or the textbooks ourselves, but I believe this father is being responsible, because when something affects their own children, people don’t just talk nonsense. In our educational circles, in the departments where we create teaching materials, there is a slowly spreading wave of foreigner-worship, thinking that whatever foreign countries do, China must also immediately do. They don’t consider [the difference between] China and foreign national situations [国情], nor do they consider whether foreign countries doing that is good or bad, whether it’s effective or not. For example, many experts say that with sex ed, the earlier the better, and that we should not conceal the truth from children, this is what our democracy must do, instill them with this knowledge early on. But they haven’t thought that now our sex ed starts way earlier than before; if everyone really understands sex well, does that reduce sex crimes? I think it doesn’t.

In ancient times, as we understand it now, they didn’t have any sex ed, and adults did not talk about sex with their kids. But this didn’t delay anything, when people grew up they learned about sex by themselves. Look, who gets married but doesn’t know how to have kids? Who gets married but doesn’t have a sex life, I’ve never heard of that happening [Guess he never read this story! -Ed.]. We don’t need education, some things you can learn on your own. For example, eating or going to the bathroom; these aren’t things that anyone taught us to do. They’re a basic life skill. And there are lots of channels of informal education […] Nowadays, we need to target all of our education, and put into practice proper sex education, I can agree with that. But sex education can’t be so avant-garde, we need to think about [what people can do] at different ages. As far as sex goes, it’s better to keep it mysterious. If we take all the mystery out of everything, life becomes boring. As I understand it, the most open sex ed in the world is in Japan, Japanese kids begin to grasp the particulars of sex at a very young age, and what’s the result?

Host: One of their “industries” is very developed.

Kong Qingdong: I’ll tell you, it’s not that their [porn] industry is very developed, the result is that 10-20% of Japanese youths are impotent, without any sexual desires, they’re not even curious about this thing [sex]. Most Japanese men, when they see a woman, they don’t have a sexual feeling, so they have to do something perverted [to get that feeling]. We often call Japan perverted, but Japan isn’t naturally perverted, everyone is the same. How could they be naturally perverted, that’s not what it is, [the problem] is that their sex ed starts too early. So when they see regular sexual activity they’re just not interested, it’s like looking at carrots or cabbage for them. So instead they have to find a handicapped old woman and have sex with her, and only then is it exciting. This disgraces the Japanese people, is it not related to Japan? So I think this father’s concerns are logical, and we don’t need to be so foreigner-worshipping.

Now, leaving aside for a moment the pile of completely unsupported assertions Kong makes here, which start out fairly illogical and end up straight-up racist, lets take a look at this ‘revolutionary’ textbook he’s suggesting is going to turn the Chinese people into a bunch of perverts.

According to this article, the text is split into three levels, one for each level of schooling (i.e., one for elementary school students, one for middle school students, and one for high school students). Here’s a breakdown of the contents by level via chapter titles quoted in the article.

Level 1 – Elementary School

  • “My Body”
  • “Where Did I Come From?” (Link goes to a photo of the pages in this chapter)
  • “Cute Boys and Girls”
  • “Can You Protect Yourself?”

Level 2 – Middle School

  • “Body Changes During Puberty”
  • “Beautiful Young Women”
  • “Strong Young Men”
  • “Learning Skills for Communicating with Dad and Mom”

Level 3 – High School

  • “Accepting Myself”
  • “Interacting With Classmates”
  • “Preventing AIDS”
  • “Being a Healthy Internet User”

Of course, those are just the chapter titles, but from the pages that have leaked online, this textbook looks about as harmless as you would expect. It’s pretty typical; there are illustrations of various body parts, short explanations of how conception works, etc. Not really anything exciting to write home about it. And from the study I translated earlier in the post, it’s clear that Chinese kids desperately need at least a little sex education to ensure that they’re capable of protecting themselves. If you ask kids about sexual abuse and any of them respond “whatever,” you know you have a serious problem.

And yet people like Kong are allowed, nay, invited on television to condemn sex education (and of course, blame foreigners, especially Japanese people, for all manner of “perversions” ((Because everyone knows that old and/or handicapped people who have sex are gross….)) ). It’s truly stupefying. And yet Kong isn’t alone; clearly there are many parents who agree with Kong, more or less.

I don’t have the energy (or, I think, the need) to point out every way in which Kong’s argument is misinformed, flawed, misleading, and racist. Twenty percent of Japanese teens are impotent? Is there even a shred of evidence that’s true? But I do want to address one point here because, in a sort of indirect way, it ties into the rumors we’ve seen flying on Weibo recently.

Increasingly, I feel that people’s behavior with regards to information can be understood at a basic level in the simplest economic terms ((Note that I am not an economist, and economists probably wouldn’t endorse this metaphor.)): supply and demand. Specifically, when there is demand for information, people will always find someone willing to supply it. In the case of the 7.23 train crash, for example, there was a huge demand for information but the government and the media initially supplied precious little. This left a sort of vacuum which was ultimately filled by rumors and hearsay; in the absence of official information many people chose to satisfy their demand with the only information that was being supplied to the public at the time: rumors.

Similarly, children are naturally curious about sex. Yes, even in Japan, I’m quite sure. And without access to any official supply of information, well, they’re going to turn to “unofficial suppliers.” As Kong points out, it is quite rare that people don’t figure out sex on their own sooner or later. The problem is that if you leave children to work it out for themselves, aside from the basic safety and health issues that raises, you can’t be sure what information they’re using and whether or not the perception of sex they ultimately form is healthy.

Note that when I say “healthy” I don’t necessarily mean heterosexual, monogamous, or kink-free. As far as I’m concerned, as long as everyone involved is an informed, consenting adult, there is no such thing as “perverted” (as opposed to regular) sex.

Now, in the absence of sex ed, most children will probably do fine. You have only to look at China today to see that. Sure, they may have had some embarrassing moments of ignorance along the way, but they may make it to the “finish line” with no damage done, as people have indeed done for thousands of years before the advent of laminated pamphlets and the banana-condom demonstration.

So why bother with sex ed at all? Becuase it allows a society some degree of control over where and how children get their information about sex, and whether or not that information is accurate. Left to their own devices, many teens turn to pornography to learn about sex. There’s nothing wrong with pornography as a concept when it’s being viewed by properly-informed adults, but I think most people would agree that plenty of porn provides a rather unrealistic depiction of sex, and that watching porn is not a good way for children to learn about sex.

Similarly, not being open about sex and safety can have devastating consequences in some cases, even if the majority of children can “learn on their own” and emerge unscathed. As evidenced in the study cited above, if children aren’t properly taught about sex, they may not be able to recognize forms of sexual abuse. In fact, in the absence of other, accurate information about sex, they may learn from their own experience that “abuse is normal,” which prevents them from getting the help they need and may lead to even graver problems down the line.

“Learning from experience” is great. But no one wants to learn about STDs from experience. No one wants to learn about the efficacy of condoms in preventing unplanned pregnancy from experience. And certainly, no one wants to learn about how not to prevent sexual abuse from experience.

So please, let’s all calm down a bit. Give kids the information they need to be safe. And while we’re making changes, let’s also try not to let crazy people like Kong Qingdong spout a bunch of racist nonsense on the TV, K?

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.

Today Belongs to Deng Wendi

Deng Wendi’s rapid reaction to defend her husband Rupert Murdoch against an attacker carrying a pie of shaving foam during a Commons hearing into the News of the World phone hacking scandal has catapulted her to the middle of a global media frenzy, which echoes far back to China. “Tiger mother” and “guardian angel” are just some of the toasts assigned to Deng by China’s online community.

Most importantly, it makes Chinese people believe in real love again. Or at least, this is what prominent Chinese blogger Hecaitou said in his blog post written shortly after Deng’s affectionate defence of her husband, translated in full below.

Hecaitou: Today belongs to Deng Wendi

Today no doubt belongs to Deng Wendi. In the [phone hacking scandal] hearing held during the early hours of Beijing, a man unexpectedly appeared to try to attack Rupert Murdoch with a plate full of shaving cream. After about two seconds in shock, Deng Wendi, former Xuzhou volleyball player and wife of Murdoch, pounced from her seat to deliver a punch to the man, and then fell to the ground together with her opponent.

Unusually, the Chinese Central Television (CCTV) broadcast live the hearing happening at the other end of Eurasia, and demonstrated rare concern about the fate of News Corporation. Chinese audience could not immediately view the above scene, as the TV did not show it at the moment. As they eagerly anticipated, video clips from Sky and CNN started to appear on Youtube, and they were rapidly shared on Twitter and Google Plus. Deng Wendi got all the limelight. Even news of Google and Apple reaching a deal allowing Google Plus to be available for free download in Apple Stores could not match Deng’s news. People replayed her actions again and again, concentrating on how the woman in bright pink jacket jumped from the crowd to deliver her hit.

At first, people were shocked and unable to comment. Someone whispered: oh, Deng is the real bodyguard for Murdoch. Another replied: I hope one day I will have a wife like Deng. Marital relationship is the first focus emerging from the discussion, and public feelings about family, husband and wife were aroused, opening a floodgate of tenderness on the Internet. Many people think that Deng’s love towards Murdoch is real. Her knee-jerk reaction speaks volume. But previous attitude of Chinese people towards Deng is not like that.

In the Chinese dictionary, Deng Wendi means ambitions, opportunism and achieving the goal using whatever means. People don’t like that. Her existence gives a lot of pressure to people nearby. Even thinking about such kind of person is near you will give you a feeling of being threatened. Legends and gossips about Deng Wendi fill all kinds of magazines and newspapers. Too many people know better about the life path of Deng Wendi than Deng herself. People discuss with enthusiasm how Deng began from lowly origins to become an overseas student, and then finally become the wife of a tycoon. People can never forget the story of Deng getting pregnant using Murdoch’s frozen sperms, and they also worry about the fate of the children of Murdoch’s ex-wife. The common understanding is that Murdoch is only the strongest springboard Deng Wendi could ever dream of to achieve her life goals. She loves no one but herself, like a female tarantula.

Now everything has changed. That ambitious and forever climbing woman showed the courage and anger a wife should have. Public opinion begins to soften. Especially when clips of her standing by her husband in his 80s, counter striking the protester, are being endlessly replayed. People start to talk about the duties between husband and wife, and whether true love really exists in the world. They praise Deng generously: “A Chinese woman saves capitalism”. Or mix that with a bit of nationalism: “Deng let the world knows Chinese Kung Fu”. And finally, that overused idiomatic style: “Get a wife like Deng Wendi”. A news event has turned into an entertainment event. People have forgotten about Murdoch. The keyword is: Deng Wendi defends her husband. Because of Deng Wendi, a hearing going on in far-away England has turned into a piece of local entertainment news.

But not everyone is emotional. Rational voice could still be heard amid all these gossips. Hong Kong media worker Luo Qiping commented: “This is the difference between a second wife and the natural children. The latter are natural; the former requires hard work. If she demonstrates the same courage in the bid to save News Corporation, then things may change.” Netizen Calon is even more rational. He has this to say: “A wife’s kung fu is like the personal gun of the leader. If you need to use it, it just reflects the hopelessness of the situation.” Deng’s decisive blow did nothing to save the gradual demise of Murdoch and his News Corporation. The judgment day is approaching, and everything must be paid back. However, because we are human beings, we cannot control our emotions with rationality all the time. After Deng’s strike, the share price of News Corporation reached the highest level of the day, closing at US$15.8, a rise of 5.61%. It seems that even the most rational of investors have shown their emotional side.

Conspiracy theorists say that Deng Wendi hired that man. “To ensure her inheritance, what things will she not do?” Perhaps different versions of the story will soon be written – what the tabloids under Murdoch are doing all day long. However, people will only choose what they want to hear. In the prevailing version, Deng Wendi is affectionate about Murdoch, and all husbands should sign up Taekwondo classes for their wives.

Intentionally or unintentionally, Deng Wendi has defended feelings that people cherish. No matter what happens to Murdoch and the News Corporation, today belongs to Deng Wendi.

In Brief: On “Gutsy” Protest

This may be pretty much definitely is the nit-pickiest ChinaGeeks post ever, but something about this article just irks me.

It has nothing to do with the artist, or the protest itself. I think this is really quite clever; it manages to make a very clear point writ large without any kind of property damage. Moreover, readers of this blog know that I support Ai Weiwei’s release and consider his imprisonment a sham even though I don’t agree with everything he’s said and done with in the past.

My issue with the piece, really, is right here:

“It’s incredibly gutsy for Pavon to have gone right to the source to protest so directly.”

Come again? In what way is this “gutsy”? Doesn’t gutsy imply some kind of risk or bravery. I applaud that Pavon stood up for Ai Weiwei, but come on, what is he really risking here. At worst, his crime is projecting unwanted light onto the side of the Chinese embassy, and I doubt he faced any repercussions beyond a New York cop telling him to knock it off and move along.

Again, I know this has nothing to do with Pavon himself, who I doubt would call this piece of protest art gutsy. But I’ve seen rhetoric like this in a couple other places too, and I think it’s time to stop fooling ourselves. Honestly, if you’re just some random Westerner, protesting Ai Weiwei outside China isn’t brave. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t, but let’s be serious: what possible repercussions could you face? I’ve made a list:

  • Nothing
  • Blacklisted from being granted Chinese visa

Of those two things, the second is pretty unlikely, as it requires the Chinese government to care enough about your protest to spend time digging up your info and relaying it to the relevant departments of government that would need it. Most Ai Weiwei protesters abroad will probably find themselves sufferers of the first consequence on the list, though.

Which is fine. You don’t need to come to China and get arrested to make a point, and in fact, doing that would be kind of dumb. But let’s recognize that, especially when compared to the many Chinese people who have seriously risked their freedom by showing support for Ai Weiwei, these foreign protesters and supporters may be right, but they’re not really all that gutsy.