Category Archives: Opinions

Red Dawn Really Brings Out the Idiots

Well, the Red Dawn remake has finally been released ((I’m pretty sure there’s a law on the books in the US somewhere that every piece of IP from before 2005 has to be rebooted or remade, so it was inevitable)), and it’s fucking terrible. Seriously, at just 11% on Rotten Tomatos, it apparently ranks among the worst films in recent memory. I say “apparently” because I haven’t actually seen it; don’t worry though, I’m still capable of discussing it more intelligently than any of the people we’re about to examine.

First up is “Red Dawn shows nostalgia for Cold War mindset,” which features the classic Global Times trademark (garbled regurgitation and a total lack of self-awareness) mixed with a twinge of bipolar insanity. Let’s watch:

The 1984 cult classic Red Dawn did not stint in its demonization of Soviets, which was prevalent during the Cold War era.

But two decades later, Hollywood is still stuck in the clichéd storytelling of beautifying itself and oversimplifying the world.

Hollywood filmmakers never seem to tire of telling stories of the US saving the world from the brink of collapse, while the opponents are wicked villains, be they Chinese or North Koreas.

In Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, good and evil are also in sharp contrast: A US agent desperately endeavors to save the world, while a Russian lunatic uses every means to instigate a nuclear purging of the Earth.

The Avengers probably reaches the peak in this regard: A long list of US heroes is assembled in the movie to kill evil and save Earth.

Apparently, Hollywood blockbusters have a profound impact on the US audience, given their huge box office takings. The thread bare plots in a world divided between devils and angels reinforce how audiences look at the world.

It’s hard to know where to even start here, but I guess crushing irony is as good a place as any. Hollywood is certainly guilty of pushing out gluts of oversimplified action films with black-and-white good vs. evil plots, but if any other nation’s cinema is more guilty of this, it’s probably China. There are exceptions ((I recently saw City of Life and Death, which is about as nuanced a picture of Japanese soldiers as I’ve seen in Chinese cinema. It’s a masterful film, but it’s horrific and depressing as all hell. Fitting for the subject matter, of course, but it’s hard to recommend you watch it if you already know what happened in Nanjing. It just makes you feel sick.)), of course, but the vast majority of films and television programs China produces about its own history are so black-and-white (figuratively) that its a wonder they even bother to film in color at all. Zing!

OK, that wasn’t as clever as I had been hoping it was. But any Chinese language student who has grudgingly worked their way through almost any TV series about the Sino-Japanese war (for example) would laugh out loud at the idea that China’s entertainment is any more nuanced than Hollywood’s. In this instance, the figurative pot and kettle are both jet black.

It’s also odd that the Global Times picked these three films in particular to indicate how American filmgoers apparently eat up this dumbed-down shlock. But are Americans really eating these films up? “Huge box office takings”? Red Dawn is getting absolutely shit on in the box offices, despite this past weekend being its opening weekend. It’s even losing out to a boring costume drama about Lincoln that has, like, no explosions. It’s also losing to Life of Pi, the Twilight movie, Skyfall, Wreck-it Ralph (which has been out for a month already), and some movie called Rise of the Guardians that I’ve never even heard of. So far, Red Dawn is the 2,576th best-selling movie in America. (Unless you adjust the box office numbers for inflation, in which case it’s way lower).

The Mission Impossible film, admittedly, did much better in the US, but it did nearly as well in China too, grossing more than $100 million. Not too shabby for a foreign-language film! And while Avengers is one of the top-grossing films ever, it’s a superhero film; the whole point is that they’re good vs. evil. Oh, and they made over $100 million in China on that one, too. So if Hollywood stupidity is making US audiences stupid, apparently it’s doing the same thing to China.

Actually, many of the US’s top grossing films, while still simplistic, aren’t really good vs. evil. Avatar, which holds the number one spot, certainly isn’t the kind of good vs. evil nationalism the Global Times is complaining about since the film was probably inspired by American colonists’ violent battles with Native Americans. And Titanic isn’t much of a good vs. evil story either, unless you consider the iceberg evil.

Many film critics believe that the Cold War has made a comeback to Hollywood movies in recent years. In real politics, it is not uncommon for Americans to demonstrate their tendency to see the world from a rigid ideological perspective.

When the Global Times is criticizing other people for “seeing the world from a rigid ideological perspective,” it’s difficult to keep your head from exploding with the irony. But strap your dome down with duct tape because we’re about to go deeper. Not to be outdone by some guy whose name is Chen Chenchen (they’re running out of ways to disguise the fact that the editorial staff is writing the op-eds over there too, eh?), in steps the Global Times editorial team, featuring a Hu Xijin who is fresh off his disappointing number 9 finish on the rankings of 2012’s most horrible people and looking to stake a higher spot on the list for next year. He really knocks it out of the park in “Elton John’s outburst met with indifference”, which is about the Elton John concert and is pretty damn crazy. At the end, though, for some reason the subject shifts to Red Dawn. And miraculously, just a day later, Red Dawn has now become a shining example of Sino-US friendship and indicative of a positive worldwide trend in Sino-global relations!

To please Chinese audiences, Hollywood movie Red Dawn changed some parts which could have harmed China’s image. This incident caused a sensation in the West while the news caused by Elton John was only fleeting, as the former can better represent the general trend of the relationship between China and other countries.

It’s hard to know what I should think about Red Dawn, then — come on, Global Times, is it a sickening example of American nationalism or a shining example of American willingness to cooperate when millions of box-office dollars are at stake? Also, why is the film even getting so much attention in the Chinese press at all given that it’s no longer about China and that it is, as I mentioned before, a terrible, terrible film.

But let’s stop giving the Global Times Opinion pages grief and turn our attention to the other side of the globe. By and large, Americans have been doing their country proud by going out and not seeing Red Dawn in droves. But unfortunately, some people did see Red Dawn, and some of those people are racist idiots.

It’s hard to even know what to say about the people quoted in that story. No, not because it’s a complex feeling that’s difficult to verbalize; it’s just that it’s difficult to type while smashing one’s head repeatedly and savagely against a wall. Is it un-American of me to suggest that these people ought to be loaded into a cannon and fired directly into the sun?

Probably. But if NASA were to begin work on a Sun Cannon, I certainly wouldn’t be opposed, and Twitter racists would make excellent test candidates. Perhaps we could even bounce a few off the moon first to see if a ricochet shot would be — what’s the scientific term again? — awesome. I’m no astrophysicist, but I hypothesize that it would.

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.

On Martin Jacques’s Latest Op-Ed and the Superiority of the Chinese State

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when I came across this piece by Martin Jacques on the BBC’s website. He is, of course, the man behind the sickeningly sycophantic When China Rules the World. But even knowing that, there are some shockingly insane assertions in this article. Let’s jump in, shall we?

After a introduction in which Jacques sets up a straw-man argument (he assumes you think China’s government will be its downfall) to knock down, he writes,

You probably think that the legitimacy and authority of the state, or government, is overwhelmingly a function of democracy, Western-style.

But democracy is only one factor. Nor does democracy in itself guarantee legitimacy.


But does the Chinese state, you may well ask, really enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of its people?

Take the findings of Tony Saich at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In a series of surveys he found that between 80 and 95% of Chinese people were either relatively or extremely satisfied with central government.

The key word here, of course, is “central.” Saich himself writes:

While in 2009, 95.9 per cent were either relatively or extremely satisfied with the central government, this dropped to 61.5 per cent at the local level.

In China, local governments provide almost all public services and the fact that satisfaction levels decline as one gets closer to the people is a worrying sign.

Saich goes on to write that local approval numbers have increased under Hu and Wen, but of course, his latest survey was in 2009, before the recent bouts of inflation, the Wenzhou train crash, the current economic slowdown, the Bo Xilai scandal, the revelation that central leaders like Wen Jiabao and Xi Jinping have used their positions to amass huge personal fortunes ((I highly doubt many Chinese were surprised by this news, but there is a difference between knowing something in the cynical, they’re-all-corrupt attitude of a taxi driver and knowing something in the sense that the New York Times has given you very specific figures.)), etc. Jacques also — what a surprise — cites the 2010 Pew poll but, again, that came before everything I have listed above.

(And, of course, although Hong Kong and Taiwan are a part of China whenever it is rhetorically convenient to say so, somehow the opinions of Hong Kongers and Taiwanese about the Chinese government never get mentioned when discussing how “Chinese people” feel about the government).

All of those issues aside, there is a more fundamental problem with Jacques’ approach here: the reliability of strangers doing opinion polls in a country where a sarcastic tweet can get you sent to a labor camp. I am sure that Jacques, being a China expert, is familiar with the phrase 家丑不可外扬 (‘never air your dirty laundry in public’). I have yet to see a convincing explanation anywhere of how opinion polling conducted in China accounts for the fact that (a) people don’t tend to share their true feelings with random strangers and (b) that is doubly true when people perceive expressing critical sentiment to be dangerous, which we all know it can be.

Why would anyone choose to go out on a limb and tell a stranger they disapprove of the central government? They gain nothing whatsoever from such an action, and the risks, while minimal, are not nonexistent. Moreover, many Chinese are used to censoring themselves when it comes to discussions of politics in public or with strangers. Even if you are dissatisfied, being forthcoming about that has no upside.

Jacques is correct in asserting that democracies are not, by default, more “legitimate” governments than non-democracies. But since that’s refuting a straw-man argument that I’ve never heard anyone actually make, I’m not sure he deserves much credit for being right. Anyway, back to Jacques as he continues his argument:

If the Chinese state enjoys such support, then why does it display such signs of paranoia? The controls on the press and the internet, the periodic arrest of dissidents, and the rest of it.

Good point. Actually, all Chinese governments have displayed these same symptoms. Why?

Because the country is huge and governance is extremely difficult. They are always anxious, always fearing the unforeseen. Anticipating sources of instability has long been regarded as a fundamental attribute of good governance.

This does not strike me as a sufficient explanation for the Chinese government’s paranoia. That all Chinese governments have displayed these same symptoms is probably debatable, but instead of getting into it I’ll grant Jacques the benefit of the doubt there and instead point out that historically, this has been true of more or less every government everywhere. Before the modern era, finding a government that didn’t attempt to censor culture or round up dissidents every now and then is a rather difficult endeavor; this is certainly not a historical phenomenon that is unique to China.

And while China is more populous than any other nation on earth, Jacques’ assertion that it is more difficult to govern is highly questionable (and, in his article, totally unsupported). Certainly, governing a billion people is difficult. I imagine that governing a multiracial, multicultural nation of immigrants that has a history of divisive violence and a legal system that permits most people to carry firearms is also probably difficult.

So what makes China in particular so difficult to govern? Geographically, it’s about the same size as the US, and although it is far more populous, Jacques has just gotten through arguing that virtually everyone in China supports the government. If China’s central government really enjoys 95% approval, then that means it has to worry about around 62 million dissatisfied citizens who may be tough to govern. The US government’s approval rating, by almost any measure, means that it is frequently dealing with a dissatisfied citizenry whose numbers are at least double that.

So what is it that makes China so hard to govern? If Jacques is correct in his argument that Chinese people overwhelmingly support their government, then China’s government has to deal with far fewer dissatisfied citizens than the US does, spread out over an area of approximately the same geographical size. Here, Jacques will likely recall another popular Chinese idiom: 自相矛盾 (‘contradicting oneself’). How can China’s citizenry be overwhelmingly supportive of the government and yet somehow so difficult to govern that the government must resort press and internet censorship, the suppression of dissidents, etc.?

But let’s move on, because this is where we move from faulty logic and questionable unsupported assertions into the realm of full-on crazy:

The Chinese idea of the state could hardly be more different [from the Western one].

They do not view it from a narrowly utilitarian standpoint, in terms of what it can deliver, let alone as the devil incarnate in the manner of the American Tea Party.

They see the state as an intimate, or, to be more precise, as a member of the family – the head of the family, in fact. The Chinese regard the family as the template for the state. What’s more, they perceive the state not as external to themselves but as an extension or representation of themselves.

It’s hard to know where to even start with this. First of all, the idea that all Chinese people see the state the same way is utterly ridiculous. Earlier in his article, Jacques points out that Western perceptions of the state depend in part on one’s own political positions, but apparently there is no such diversity when it comes to the Chinese. No, “they” all apparently feel exactly the same way about the state.

That would be ridiculous enough on its own, but his assertion that Chinese people see the state as “a member of the family” is also pretty nuts. On the one hand, I can see where Jacques probably got this idea; the government itself often uses the family metaphor to characterize the way it governs over the people, and the people have to some extent adopted this metaphor. I’m not sure where Jacques is getting the idea that people perceive the state as an extension of themselves, but some leaders (i.e. “Grandpa Wen”) certainly are referred to occasionally as though they are members of the family.

However, the idea that all Chinese really see the state itself as a member of their family (or see the state as themselves) is absurd. It’s also difficult to disprove empirically because it would require reading the minds of large numbers of Chinese people. But anecdotal evidence abounds, and as someone who spent the part of last couple years traveling around China talking to Chinese families I feel quite confident in saying that there are plenty of Chinese people who don’t see the state as the head of their families, let alone an extension of themselves. Jacques, I’m sure, would argue that those people are the exceptions that prove the rule, but even if we just consider the parents of missing children and ignore other larger demographics of people who have come to see the state largely as an obstacle (like these folks), we’re still talking about hundreds of thousands of exceptions.

In fact, in my entire time in China and outside of China talking with Chinese people, I don’t think I’ve heard a Chinese person sincerely refer to the state as though it were a family member more than once or twice. Sure, it’s just anecdotal evidence, and it doesn’t prove anything, but I do feel inclined to point out that it’s far more than the zero evidence Jacques offered in support of his assertion.

Anyway, from here, Jacques moves into specifics, and bizarrely, chooses what has got to be one of the worst possible examples in an attempt to prove his point:

Even though China is still a poor developing country, its state, I would argue, is the most competent in the world.

Take infrastructure – the importance of which is belatedly now being recognised in the West. Here, China has no peers. Its high speed rail network is the world’s largest and will soon be greater than the rest of the world’s put together.

Really? It is at this point when we begin to suspect that Jacques’ article may actually be satire, because what else could possibly explain this choice of examples? Has Jacques forgotten that China’s high-speed rail network, one of the youngest in the world, has already experienced one of the deadliest high speed rail accidents in history? Is he unaware of the concerns about low-grade fly ash in track construction that indicate most of Chinas high-speed rail network is unsafe? Did he not watch the government’s response to the Wenzhou crash, a performance so blunderously pathetic that it ought to be listed in the dictionary next to the word incompetent?

At best, China’s high-speed rail is an unknown quantity. I do think China’s government was right to invest in this technology, and that China should expand its rail system as rapidly as is safely possible. But since at present there are multiple indications that China has far outstripped what is safely possible, using the high-speed rail network as an example of the Chinese state’s competence simply because it is big seems a little bit insane.

The Jacques moves on to his second example:

And the state’s ubiquity – a large majority of China’s most competitive companies, to this day, are state-owned. Or consider the one-child policy, which still commands great support amongst the population.

Indeed, some of China’s most competitive companies are state-owned, but Jacques is forgetting that that is in large part because it is the state that decides who can compete! It’s also worth noting that in some industries where users have more choice, private companies dominate. Let us compare, for example, the telecom industry and the internet search industry. State-owned companies dominate the telecom market (China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom are all state owned) and consumers don’t really have other choices. Since telecommunications networks need to install sensitive hardware in millions of places across the country, it’s no surprise that state-owned companies dominate here and Chinese consumers don’t have a viable private option. But in internet search, where users are free to visit any URL they choose (so long as it isn’t blocked), private Chinese companies like Baidu and Qihoo absolutely destroy the state-owned offerings.

The dominance of state-owned companies varies by industry, but given that the government ultimately decides whether any company is allowed to operate or not, we shouldn’t be too surprised that lots of state-owned companies end up doing pretty well. To use a sports metaphor, State-owned companies win a lot because the referees are the state. How good a record would the you expect the Yankees have if George Steinbrenner was the umpire for every game?

But let’s move on to Jacques’ assertion that the one child policy “still commands great support” among the population. Here we have another vaguely worded and totally unsupported assertion. It also comes at a particularly interesting time given that the China Development Research Foundation (a government think tank) just released a report urging China to abandon the One Child Policy entirely.

In terms of popular perceptions, the One Child Policy is a complicated issue. In my experience, most Chinese accept that it was a necessary measure to prevent population growth beyond the nation’s capacity to support people, and believe it’s still necessary, although in my own conversations with people I have found that most seem to consider it to be a bit outdated and wouldn’t be too sad to see it go. I’m not aware of any scientific polling on this specific issue, but a recent online poll with more than 30,000 respondents found that more than 70% wanted to abolish the One Child Policy and less than 30% wanted to keep it. Is this what Jacques means by “great support”?

Jacques concludes:

The competence of the state is little talked about or really valued in the West, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Indeed, since the early 80s, the debate about the state in Britain has largely been conducted in terms either of what bits should be privatised or how it can be made to mimic the market.

Now, however, we are in a new ball game. With the Western economies in a profound mess and with China’s startling rise, the competence of the state can no longer be ignored. Our model is in crisis. Theirs has been delivering the goods.

Why is it that every article like this seems to imagine that history just stopped in 2009 or 2010 and the events of the past few years don’t matter when it comes to evaluating the success of China’s state? Moreover, why do the West’s economic woes prove the incompetence of the state when they are mostly the result of incompetence and gambling in the private sector? China’s government certainly deserves credit for the growth of its economy, but condemning Western states for the current crisis seems like a much greater reach.

I’m no economist, so I could be wrong, but again, Jacques doesn’t make any effort to connect the moral failures of Western investment bankers with the failure of the state on a systemic level. Nor does he point out that “the goods” China’s government has been delivering have come with both immediate problems (see: Wenzhou train crash, inflation, Bo Xilai scandal, censorship, paranoid crackdowns, etc.) and long-term issues that haven’t yet fully emerged (see: ageing population, local government debt and reliance on land sales, gender imbalance, shoddily-built infrastructure that will break sooner or later, etc.).

Western governments also face numerous problems, of course, and if we define a state’s competence as based entirely on its total GDP then, yes, China is poised to become the most competent state in the world. But right now, that definition would make the United States the most competent state on earth, a claim that (if it wasn’t election season) I think even the most strident Tea Party nutjobs might shy away from making.

Jacques’ article is full of the vagueness that is characteristic of China’s-system-is-the-best arguments because, as usual, his only real evidence is China’s remarkable economic growth. And while its growth has been impressive (to put it mildly) it has also given rise to significant problems. Some are already in full bloom and some have yet to emerge but pose serious questions about the Chinese system’s long-term viability if it does not reform. China’s system has done an incredible job of improving the economy over the last thirty years. But thirty years is barely more than a generation, and using that period (which was not without its rough patches, by the way) as evidence of systemic superiority is at best premature.

It is also simplistic, because it assumes that the purpose of the state is purely to generate economic growth. Economic growth has been great for China’s population, but when assessing the superiority of a given system (which, just as a side note, is a pretty pointless endeavor to begin with) there are a myriad of other factors I would argue that should be considered. And despite what Jacques might say about what “Chinese people” think, I know plenty of Chinese people who agree with me.

Has the state adequately protected its people from threats to their well-being, including long-term threats to their health like pollution and tainted foods? Has the state adequately protected its people’s human rights? Has the state enacted policies that solve problems in the short term without creating bigger ones in the long term? Has the state’s primary concern in governance been the welfare of its people or the perpetuation of its own power? These are serious questions (and there are many more) that could apply to most Western regimes just as well as they apply to China. But Jacques, in his article, has considered precisely none of them.

If nothing else, I hope that someday we will be able to move past the ubiquitous, ridiculous idea that “Chinese people” are a monolithic bloc that thinks the same way about everything. In China, as anywhere, there is a diverse spectrum of beliefs and opinions when it comes to the legitimacy, the role, and the competency of the state. Certainly, these beliefs and opinions have been shaped by China’s unique history, and as a result they do probably skew differently than Western opinions about the same topics (although measuring this empirically would be extremely difficult).

But Chinese people do not all think the same way about anything, and anyone who tells you otherwise is full of shit.

Unrelated note: If you haven’t yet checked out, my new nonprofit venture, please do so and consider making a donation. They’re tax deductible, the articles (and other content) is free, and the only way we can afford to keep doing it is if people kick in a little bit when they think the content is worthwhile. Whether you can donate or not, we’re working on a new article that should be up sometime this week that I think you will enjoy.

The Recklessness of Nationalist Brinksmanship

So after a wave of rather violent anti-Japan protests I argued were state-supported, the madness has wound down — or rather, been wound down — by the same folks who drummed it up: the government. This is not an uncommon tactic at all, but it is an exceedingly dangerous one.

Let us take, for example, the attack on US Ambassador Gary Locke’s car that occurred near the end of this wave of protests. Chinese security stepped in fairly quickly and there was little damage to the car and no injuries to anyone involved. That’s fortunate, but just consider the ramifications if something had gone differently.

Say Chinese security reacted too slowly, being unprepared for a threat to the US Ambassador’s life at a time when everyone was busy destroying Japanese things. Say some overzealous protester in the crowd brought a molotov cocktail, or that Locke had been dragged out of the car and beaten or killed. It is certainly possible; while the vast majority of protesters would certainly never go this far, there were reported beatings in several areas during the protests and the ethnically Chinese US Ambassador could feasibly become a target of some rage if the US is perceived as opposing China’s claim to the islands. Anyway, let’s say things go badly and Locke is dragged out of the car and beaten, perhaps killed.

The damage to China’s international reputation would be immediate and severe. China’s government will claim that the protests were not government-supported and point out that Chinese security forces were attempting to protect and rescue the Ambassador, but these claims will be downed out as the international media reports on the many inflammatory articles and reports that appeared in state-owned media prior to the protests, and compares China’s approach to controlling anti-Japan protests to its approach to controlling pro-democracy ones ((I don’t have room to go into this here, but if you haven’t been following it, this is one of the interesting sub-stories from this round of anti-Japan protests. Many of the protesters who were arrested by security forces were people who were chanting slogans opposing corruption or advocating political reform, not people who were violently vandalizing Chinese-owned, vaguely “Japanese” businesses.)). It will point out articles like this one by Evan Osnos of the New Yorker, which says that police loudspeakers were blaring messages of sympathy and support even as they urged rationality and calm. The foreign media will come to the basically same conclusion I did: at best, China’s government could have done far more to control these protests; at worst, China’s government was actively encouraging them and supporting them until they got out of hand. Opinions of China will plummet internationally, and the incident will reinforce the stereotype that Chinese people are brainless nationalist drones. (To a certain extent, this has happened anyway).

China will condemn the attack, and find and punish the rioters responsible, but this will not sake the anger of the United States Congress, which will (because it is mostly full of idiots) be screaming for blood. Some will consider it an act of war. Chinese flags will be burned in the streets, and Chinese-Americans will start saying their parents are Taiwanese, at least for a little while. It will get ugly, and even imagining the best case scenario, it will impede any kind of development in the Sino-US relationship for years to come. Meanwhile, Chinese nationalists will be protesting the backlash, creating an echo-chamber of nationalist yelling and mutual flag-burning.

Of course, it’s possible that this will never happen. I’m not sure what the chances are. But the government is rolling the dice every time it encourages outpourings of nationalism like this with a media frenzy like the one we saw leading up to these protests. The media should be free to report whatever it deems newsworthy, and protesters should be free to protest whatever they want. But in China, where neither of those things are the case, the government must understand that it is going to be seen as ultimately responsible for what the press says and what protesters do. If it keeps allowing things to reach the brink of boiling point before pulling back, one of these times, it is going to be too late, and even though it wasn’t the government committing the crimes, the government will ultimately be left holding the ball.

Another Lesson in How to Fail at Soft Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Olympics and the Arrogant Victim

I can't believe they're being so unfair to Chinese athletes, says South Korean fencer Shin Lim before remembering that she's South Korean and that China isn't the only nation to be affected by questionably Olympic judging.
The London Olympics are about to wind to a close. Watching the Olympics and China at the same time is always interesting. As usual, the country’s athletes have dominated this year, and they have been number one in the gold medal count nearly every day (though as I write this, China is actually down a few). And, as usual, Chinese nationalists are convinced that China is the victim of a vast conspiracy.

The events in question

This year, there seem to be four specific things the Chinese are upset about. Chen Yibing’s silver-medal finish in gymnastics, a US swim coach’s vague and unsubtantiated allegations that Ye Shiwen was doping, and the disputed disqualification of a Chinese biking duo and the less-disputed disqualification of a Chinese badminton team for losing intentionally along with teams from South Korea and Indonesia.

Of these, Chen Yibing’s silver appears to be the most questionable; or at least, appears to have been questioned most widely outside China. I’m not a gymnastics expert and I haven’t watched the competition, so I don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other. Perhaps Chen did get robbed. However, it seems unlikely that there’s a conspiracy afoot to rob Chinese athletes of gold medals in gymnastics. China has won four golds in gymnastics, more than any other country, and eight total medals, tied with Russia for first. (And with the subjective nature of gymnastics judging, if I were organizing an Olympic anti-China conspiracy, that’s where I would start).

I also know nothing about biking; that decision also dropped a Chinese team from gold to silver. Was that a bad call? The correct call? Corruption of some sort? I have no idea. But there’s certainly no evidence that it’s part of an anti-China conspiracy, unless you consider the fact that China didn’t win as evidence.

The American coach’s stupid allegations about Ye Shiwen were stupid (I think I mentioned that), but they certainly don’t evince a conspiracy to rob China of medals; the IOC does not rescind gold medals on the basis of what competing coaches say, and even Nature‘s much-criticized article on the issue says very clearly in the first paragraph that Ye has never tested positive for substance abuse, including in her post-race test. There was never any danger she would lose her medal, although the groundless speculation is unfortunate and US coach John Leonard should be disciplined and perhaps fired for making unsportsmanlike and unsupported accusations.

The Chinese badminton team’s expulsion is perhaps the least convincing of the “conspiracy” cases, given that the team turned in a performance so obviously bad that the crowd began to boo — not the sort of thing you see often during the Olympics. My understanding is that the Chinese team claimed they were sick after their disqualification was announced, which is a bit difficult to believe because of how they explained their awful performance before they were disqualified for losing intentionally:

“Actually these opponents really were strong. This is the first time we’ve played them and tomorrow it’s the knockout rounds, so we’ve already qualified and we wanted to have more energy for the knockout rounds,” said Yu.

“Really, it’s not necessary to go out hard again when the knockout rounds are tomorrow.”

A Note on Refereeing

So really, we’re just down to the Chen Yibing loss and the bicycling disqualification as signs of foreign foul play in China’s Olympic performances. Although I don’t claim to know the intricacies of reffing either sport, I will say this: as someone who has worked as a referee before, it is way harder than it looks. It is much easier to do from one’s couch while watching TV than it is to do in real life. Conspiracy seems far less likely to me than that the judges simply made mistakes.

Nor is getting screwed over by the refs solely a Chinese problem, although you would get that impression from some of the Chinese media. Chinese nationalists might ask Japanese boxer Satoshi Shimizu, South Korean fencer Shin Lam, the Spanish men’s water polo team, the South African field hockey team, Iranian boxer Ali Mazaheri, the Japanese men’s team artistic gymnastics team, South Korean judo wrestler Cho Jun-ho, and the Canadian women’s soccer team (among others) how they feel about the refs in their respective competitions. Sometimes, the refs screw up. It’s unfortunate, but the fact that it’s happened to China a couple times isn’t a huge surprise given that China has nearly 400 olympians playing in hundreds of different matches and competitions.

China is being robbed!

Nevertheless, these incidents have led to a lot of yelling on China’s internet and in the media about how the London Olympics are out to cheat China out of medals. According to the Global Times, a survey on ifeng found that 75% of respondents felt Olympic refs and judges were targeting Chinese players. The prevailing theory is, of course, that the West hates seeing China succeed (read some of those comments), with bet-rigging a in close second.

It’s not really clear who is perpetrating this conspiracy. “The West” is sometimes cited, as is America, London, the United Kingdom, and even the IOC. Why it would be so important to any of these people to screw China out of a few gold medals is also deeply unclear — is beating China in the medal count (which the US would have done anyway regardless of all the disputed events listed above) going to fix the American or European economies? Contain Chinese military expansion? Force China to adjust its trade policies?

If you ask supporters of the conspiracy theory this — why would anyone be intentionally sabotaging Chinese athletes? — the answer is generally just that “the West” wants to see China fail. After spending some time discussing this with a few of the nationalists who now follow me on weibo (because of this), I had a thought.

Obviously, China’s victim mentality remains extremely strong among some of its most ardent “patriots.” It seems sort of incredible to me that one can simultaneously be winning the Olympics (if that’s a thing) and complaining that the Olympics is rigged against you. It is, however, an offshoot of the idea that the government drills from time to time in its propaganda when it wants to stoke the fires of nationalism: ‘Remember what the foreigners did to us a hundred years ago? They’re still trying to do that.’

The fact that there’s no evidence of this doesn’t seem to matter at all. As far as I’m aware, aside from feeling like Chinese athletes should have won some events, there is absolutely zero evidence that those losses are connected to any foul play on the part of judges or anyone else, and even less (if that’s possible) evidence that any of this theoretical foul play is related to an anti-China bias. As I mentioned above, China is hardly the only country to be upset about aspects of the judging so far this Olympics.

More and more, though, I am struck by the utter arrogance that lies behind this perpetual-victim mentality. After all, if you assume that someone is out to get you, you’re making yourself the victim but you’re also assuming that they care enough about you to bother. Some Chinese nationalists — including popular media commentators — seem to hold the impression that everything “the West” does is related to trying to contain China in some way.

Of course, some Western governments — including my own homeland’s — certainly do plenty of things that really are aimed at containing China (see, for example, the much publicized “pivot” plan). But not everything that every foreigner does is driven by anti-China bias. In fact, my return to my home country last month has driven home for me a truth that some of my weibo followers would probably find unpleasant to the point of disbelief: most foreigners do not give a fuck about China. It’s not something that people think about during their day. It does occasionally become a hot issue in politics or the media, but generally those issues aren’t really related to China at all; China is being used as a comparison and a foil to reflect problems with America (job outsourcing, weak economic growth, terrible science education, general fat laziness, etc.).

The Olympics do have some symbolic value, of course, although I think Chinese people tend to take them much more seriously as a reflection of their nation’s status than anyone in the United States has since the miracle on ice. Even so, though, how inflated must one’s self-importance be to assume that any questionable call in a sporting event is a hostile geopolitical act?

(I must pause here to say that I do realize — and embrace — the irony of a not-everything-revolves-around-you lecture coming from an American. Yup, America is just as bad if not worse.)

So seriously, enough of the Olympic conspiracy bullshit. In their accusations of foul play, Chinese commentators are being just as wrong-headed and foolish as John Leonard was when he accused Ye Shiwen of doping. Leonard had no evidence to back up his accusations, just a feeling that in the American loss, something unfair had happened. China has no evidence to back up its conspiracy theories either, just a feeling that China didn’t get gold in a few events where it feels it should have. Maybe those events were unfair, but biased? There’s no evidence of that. Unfair officiating

The whole point of the Olympics is for everyone to come together in a spirit of sportsmanship, forget all the politics, and enjoy the thrills of competition at the highest levels of athletics. But despite the fact that China’s athletes have achieved remarkable things this games and racked up yet another incredible gold medal count, China seems determined to pout about the London Olympics. It’s not so much that China still wants to be the victim. It is still, I think of remnant of the old imperial center-of-the-universe mentality: the fact that we are a victim is just further evidence that ultimately, it’s all about us.

Yang Rui and Me

Many people have asked me to write a follow-up to my original post on Yang Rui. For personal reasons ((Long story short, a legal case could have delayed our departure from China and forced my wife to go through the long and expensive process of US visa application all over again.)), I have been compelled to keep a low profile and refrain from speaking publicly about this for a little while, which unfortunately has given some people the impression that Yang Rui’s legal threats have cowed me into silence. I guess in a way that has been true. Anyway, enough silence.

(However, I will reiterate here that Yang Rui’s threats had nothing to do with my departure from China. My wife and I had decided to leave back in 2011, and she filed the first part of her US visa application in January of this year, well before Yang Rui made the weibo comment that launched all this in May.)

Since it has been a while, let’s review his original weibo post, which kicked off this whole thing (translation via WSJ’s China Real Time):

The Public Security Bureau wants to clean out the foreign trash: To arrest foreign thugs and protect innocent girls, they need to concentrate on the disaster zones in [student district] Wudaokou and [drinking district] Sanlitun. Cut off the foreign snake heads. People who can’t find jobs in the U.S. and Europe come to China to grab our money, engage in human trafficking and spread deceitful lies to encourage emigration. Foreign spies seek out Chinese girls to mask their espionage and pretend to be tourists while compiling maps and GPS data for Japan, Korea and the West. We kicked out that foreign bitch ((There has been some debate as to whether bitch or shrew is the appropriate translation here. However, since Yang Rui himself stated that he originally accepted bitch as a fair translation, I’m sticking with it. Plus, it’s not like shrew is any less insulting or sexist, really.)) and closed Al-Jazeera’s Beijing bureau. We should shut up those who demonize China and send them packing.

So there was that, and many people responded.

Shortly after writing my initial post, I was contacted by several other foreign bloggers in China about a campaign to draw attention to Yang Rui’s comments. We settled on calling for him to be fired, not because we thought it would actually happen, but because it would put some heat on him and possibly even his employers, and maybe cause someone up there to think for a second about the repercussions of extreme rhetoric like this. I happened to be the first person to post one of our messages on Sina Weibo, and although I expected that to go nowhere — I had barely 300 followers, and most of them were probably zombies ((typical posts on my weibo at the time attracted an average of zero comments and zero retweets))– Yang Rui himself picked up on my post more or less immediately, and retweeted it to his 800,000+ followers.

My message (see the image) was titled “Fire Yang Rui!” and contained a summary of his own post, an image of him labeled “Xenophobe,” and this: “These vicious lies do not represent the vast majority of foreign citizens in China. It is extremely insulting that an anchor on CCTV Dialogue, a show that is meant to be about intercultural exchange, would propagate such racist, hateful speech.” The language, I’ll admit, is a bit extreme, and if I could do it over, I might tone down the tone slightly. But I wouldn’t change the meaning of any of it.

Yang and I both made a few follow-up posts over the next few hours, but it was his re-tweeting of that initial post that really built up the attention. I started gaining followers, comments, and mentions on weibo like crazy, and most of them were negative. I was called everything from “foreign trash” to “Chinese traitor” (apparently not everyone was clear on my ethnicity), and urged to “fuck off back to” all kinds of places, from America (my actual home) to Saudi Arabia (not sure where that one came from). I don’t recall seeing any threats of violence, but I’m sure there were a few — I read only a tiny fraction of the comments.

There were also numerous calls for me to be investigated by the police, or just directly arrested, the first of which came from Yang himself, who wrote in his original post: “I suggest the Public Security Bureau investigate his [i.e., my] background.”

Yang Rui says the police should look into my background

But things really got out of hand when he posted these two follow-ups:

This person is named Charlie Custer. He has been interviewed by the China Daily, and has used our columns to translate Chinese blog posts to gain fame for himself on his ChinaGeeks site. It has been mentioned by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, shouting about Chinese topics to gain a little fame for himself. Now he’s burning bridges. The reason he’s so upset is related to his longtime criticism of China. He first worked as an English teacher in Harbin, and has no other skills. To be continued.

Custer has seriously damaged my reputation, and I reserve the right to sue him. This incident is all caused by his malicious attempts to hype himself and incite racial hatred. I have seen that his eyes are full of anti-China hatred! I hope he follows Chinese laws. Additionally, he was never up to snuff as a guest of my program, and compared to most of our foreign guests like James Fallows, his quality was very low.

He also gave an interview to the China Daily saying that he was “consulting friends about filing a lawsuit.” The China Daily also contacted me for comment on that story, but I declined.

On Monday, May 21, Yang deleted both of the posts quoted above from his weibo account. (I still have full screenshots, if anyone is interested).

These posts are a pretty clear attempt at character assassination. He mentions my teaching job, but none of my more recent work. (Apparently the irony of criticizing someone for teaching English when one’s own job is entirely based on one’s English language skills was entirely lost on him). He calls me a racist, and most bafflingly, suggests that I wasn’t up to snuff as a guest when I appeared on his show.

Of course, there’s no way to prove this now, but Yang was actually quite complimentary about my performance after my first Dialogue appearance ((on a taped episode of the show about the Wenzhou train crash that, as it turned out, never aired)). I was quickly invited back for a second appearance ((This time for another pre-taped episode on Chinese spokesmen which actually was aired)). Then, in March of 2012, I was invited back on the show again, though this time I declined.

Click to view full size

Yang Rui was the host for all three episodes I was invited to appear on. One wonders; if I was truly such a subpar guest, why was I invited back on the show not once but twice? Surely Dialogue can’t have been so hard up for guests that they’d intentionally bring on someone who sucked, right? And if Yang himself was so opposed to me, even if the show was hard up for guests and they just wanted to fill the chair, wouldn’t they probably have invited me to one of the episodes chaired by Yang’s co-host instead? It seems logical to conclude that Yang Rui’s statement about my performance on his show was pure fiction. That’s probably why he deleted it pretty quickly.

Just as things seemed to be winding down, though, came this op-ed in the Global Times by Tom Fearon. Clearly, Tom feels the reaction to Yang Rui was excessive, but the most stunning segment of his article is here:

Yang’s opponent in his Weibo war of words is the young American writer and filmmaker behind popular blog China Geeks, Charlie Custer. Custer labeled Yang a “xenophobe,” called for him to be fired and urged a boycott of foreign guests on his program, Dialogue. It’s an emotional, knee-jerk response that would further restrict free speech in our media and encourage TV hosts to be dull and unopinionated.

Now, certainly my response to Yang Rui’s post was emotional. No one, least of all me, could deny that with a straight face. But it would restrict free speech? Really? It’s depressing that I have to explain this: freedom of speech is about protecting speech from criminal prosecution. It does not mean that what you say has no consequences.

I did not call for any legal action against Yang, even after he suggested that I should be investigated by police and threatened to sue me. I did call for him to be fired (though I had no expectation that would actually happen), and there’s nothing about that that’s incompatible with freedom of speech. It certainly might serve to discourage TV hosts like Yang from making such extreme statements in the future, but it does not in any way infringe on their legal freedom to do so.

Moreover, would toning down the rhetoric really be such a bad thing? Fearon writes about how my comments could lead to “dull” hosts as if an exciting television program is more important to society than reasoned exchange. ((and as if Dialogue is currently a riveting program I’m attempting to steal thunder from.)) I think America’s current media environment ought to be evidence enough that encouraging extreme shouting instead of reasoned debate isn’t beneficial to society (although admittedly it helps sell ads).

If anything, Fearon should be making the opposite argument — that my phrasing in the initial post was too extreme and combative; that it provoked for an emotional response rather than a logical one. That is probably true, and if I could go back I would probably change the wording in a few parts of that post, if not the actual content of it. Regardless, there was nothing about the post I did make that encouraged dull television or hindered anyone’s freedom of speech.

Yang’s response to me, however, was absolutely an attack on free speech. By suggesting that I should be investigated criminally — his implication being that I must only disagree with him because I’m in China illegally — and by threatening to sue me, he sent a strong message to anyone listening: disagree with me too strongly, and there might be legal consequences for you.

Fearon also suggested implicitly that the uproar over Yang’s comments is somehow equivalent to disapproval of the Beijing government’s crackdown campaign on illegal foreigners. This is absolutely false. In fact, I have no real problem with the Beijing san fei campaign ((although I think requiring people to carry their passports at all times is a bit much)). Certainly, China has the right to expel foreigners who aren’t following its visa laws. But Yang’s comments, regardless of however he or others may be seeking to re-contextualize them, were not about that.

The Beijing campaign is about cracking down on visa violations; Yang was talking about espionage, human trafficking, and the sexual exploitation of “innocent Chinese girls.” He suggests that foreigners who criticize China are spreading lies to encourage emigration (why, exactly?) and says explicitly that those who “demonize China” should be expelled. That isn’t advocacy for a mostly-reasonable police campaign, it’s an assault on critics’ freedom of speech and on the character of China’s expat population as a whole.

It’s also, of course, unsubstantiated nonsense. While there are examples of foreigners doing everything from spying to trafficking, Yang’s post implies that these are common problems. In his first line, he invokes the Beijing san fei campaign, and then uses its legitimacy to suggest to his readers that the police are cracking down on foreigners because there are so many foreign spies using Chinese girls for sex while making GPS maps and spending their free time convincing Chinese people to emigrate ((because if there’s anything the terrible job markets in the US and Europe need right now, it’s a huge influx of Chinese immigrants)). Of course, the Beijing police are doing no such thing, and have never suggested that human trafficking, spying or any of the other issues Yang raises are significant problems in China’s expat community.

Then there’s Yang’s use of the term “bitch” to describe Melissa Chan and his suggestion that China should kick out those who “demonize” it — i.e., critics. I don’t think I need to explain how disgusting and spineless it was for Yang to curse Ms. Chan without actually mentioning her name or making reference to any of her reports. Al-Jazeera’s expulsion was not big news domestically, and Yang’s lack of specificity ensured that his followers mostly stayed in the dark as to what the channel was reporting on, or what made her such a “bitch.”

Certainly, Al-Jazeera ran plenty of negative (but truthful) reports on China. China’s unwillingness to grasp that this is just how the Western media works and not some foreign conspiracy continues to baffle me, as does the country’s insistence that the West ignores its side of the story while consistently denying the Western media access to the people who can tell that story. When they do grant access, it’s worth noting, the results are often positive. See, for example, this story Melissa Chan filed on Communist Party Schools after having been granted access to one and the freedom to talk to officials and teachers. Is this piece the work of a reporter or a network out to “demonize” China or its government? Quite obviously not. In fact, it is Yang Rui who was attempting to demonize Al-Jazeera and anyone else who does critical reporting on China.

Anyway, the controversy has died down now for all but the most extreme lunatics ((i.e. Larry Romanoff, the author of the linked piece, which is copired from a blog post of his on, and I’m not particularly interested in taking it any further than this post. Given that Yang deleted his lawsuit threat tweets and stopped talking shit about me in the media pretty quickly, I suspect he’s not all that interested in taking things any further either. Inadvertently, his retweeting of my message and his subsequent attempts at legal bullying probably did more damage to his reputation and his show among foreigners (his guests and his target audience) than I ever could have anyway. But I felt compelled to make this post if for no other reason than to make sure that Yang’s halfhearted attempt at legal bullying didn’t remain unanswered.

A Tangential Note

I think my favorite part of Yang’s original post might be the allegation that foreigners are actually government agents sent to China to encourage emigration. Why would foreign governments want a big influx of Chinese immigrants? Given the unemployment levels in the US and most European countries right now, I can’t imagine why any country would be wasting intelligence resources on “convincing people to emigrate” no matter how skilled the potential targets were. So what is the imagined endgame here? To steal all of China’s talented workers? Even if that were feasible, what country could handle that kind of immigration influx logistically, not to mention from a PR standpoint. An influx of any kind of foreign worker (highly skilled or not) in this economy would be a PR disaster for whatever administration was in power.

So if there are foreign spies in China working to convince people to emigrate the US, perhaps it’s not an anti-China conspiracy at all. Oh my god. I think I’ve uncovered an even greater conspiracy! Is the Bush family using its CIA connections to try to elect Mitt Romney by destroying Obama’s polling numbers via a spike in unemployment caused by a massive influx of Chinese nationals bent on working in the US after being convinced of America’s superiority by one of the Agency’s many English teachers/assets? Quick everyone, to the conspiracy-pondering chamber!!

Why I’m Leaving China

By the time you’re reading this post, I’m on a plane with my wife, bound for the United States, where we plan to live at least for the immediate future. I generally attempt to avoid getting personal with this blog, but in light of some recent events I thought I’d take a moment to explain my reasons.

First, let’s get one thing straight: this has nothing to do with Yang Rui. Yes, he did threaten to sue me and suggest that the police should “investigate my background” after I called for him to be fired in a Weibo post. (For more on his original post, see this). Although the outpouring of vitriol on weibo that followed certainly wasn’t pleasant, none of that had anything to do with my decision to leave, which had been made long before Yang Rui shoved his foot into his mouth (and halfway down his own throat) on weibo. I do plan to address the whole “Yang Rui incident” in a post in the near future, so stay tuned.

Anyway, why am I leaving? Obviously the biggest reasons are personal; I don’t want to get into any of it here except to say that I think it’s what’s best for my family at this particular moment. It’s not anything scandalous or secret, though, I just don’t feel the need to broadcast much about my personal life. However, there are other things that helped reinforce this decision that I think are worth discussing here because they represent major problems China has yet to fully own up to.

[Update: Oh, fine. Since everybody feels it necessary to speculate about my life, here are the personal details, as well as proof Yang Rui had nothing to do with it.]

I like breathing

The first is the air pollution. It’s almost cliche to complain about the air quality in Beijing; it’s terrible and everyone knows it. People here just deal as best they can. Some wear masks outside, and those wealthy enough buy expensive air filters for their homes. Most people just grin and breathe it. I wore masks from time to time, but for the most part, I just breathed it in, too.

Here’s the thing, though: as a foreign citizen, there’s really nothing forcing me to live in Beijing. It is, in many ways, a wonderful city, and it’s probably the most fascinating, exciting place I have ever lived. However, it was also killing me. That’s not really hyperbole; cancer rates in Beijing have risen 60% over the past decade even while smoking rates have remained steady. Studies this spring confirmed a link between air pollution and premature death, even in places far less polluted than Beijing. A World Bank report reportedly found that in China, poor air quality causes nearly a million premature deaths each year. That might not sound like a lot, but some back-of-the-napkin calculations based on China’s death rate show that more than 8% of all deaths in China are premature and related to air pollution.

I’m sure there are plenty of arguments to be made about those numbers, what defines “premature,” and whether or not scientists can really be sure those deaths are all linked to air pollution. But that doesn’t really matter. If you’re in Beijing and you have functioning eyes, you know that things are not healthy. Here’s a picture I took from my apartment last year. It hasn’t been doctored in any way, nor is this even a particularly unusual sight in Beijing (it was taken as part of a series of photos I took each day from the same spot for a separate project).

Looking at that and thinking about your own lungs is bad enough. But thinking about my wife, and thinking about having kids, it gets worse. If my wife were pregnant, would I want her breathing this? Would I want my small child breathing this?

Obviously there are millions of families in Beijing, and they deal. Certainly, we could deal, too. But the question I couldn’t stop asking myself was why should we? On a personal level, it’s a more difficult choice than you might think, at least for me. I like my lungs, sure — they’ve treated me well thus far — but I like Beijing too, and whatever else one might say about this city, it’s never boring. But adding a wife and hypothetical future kids into the mix, the question gets a lot simpler for me. Given the choice to be elsewhere, this just wasn’t the right place to put down deep roots.

Eating is also fun

The other big reason — and this applies to all of China, really — is food safety. Things have simply gotten to the point that it’s impossible to feel confident that what you’re eating is healthy, or even real, unless you’re on a farm. Check out this site, for example, which lists the food items that have been publicly reported in food safety scandals over just the last 8 years. I’ll wait a while for you to finish scrolling through that massive list, which includes basically any food item you can imagine. Oh, each name doesn’t represent just one scandal either, some of the more common food items have scores of reported problems associated with them.

Of course, that’s just what has been discovered and reported publicly. Buying only imported food is a solution, but it’s a highly expensive one; above my means, and above the means of the vast majority of Chinese. And while organic foods are gaining popularity here, they’re also expensive, and there have been scandals involving fake, not-really-organic “organic” food, so even that isn’t entirely safe.

Again, people can and do deal with this. I’ve been eating the food here on and off for four years, and while my stomach has protested from time to time, it hasn’t exploded. Again, though, when forced to wonder ‘why choose to eat this stuff?’ I don’t have a great answer. Not that the food anywhere is entirely safe, of course — certainly it isn’t in the US — but there are plenty of places safer than here. And again, thinking about kids and a family, why choose to put down roots in a country where milk power, in one form or another, seems to make kids sick in a new way every year?

I realize no one really gives a crap about why I’m leaving, but I mention this because I think it’s as significant a problem as economic and social factors when you look at the trend of Chinese elites leaving, or sending their families out of, China. Corruption is a huge problem, sure, and if the economic slowdown continues that’s only going to increase the flow of people leaving. But I think there are probably also plenty of people like me who are less motivated by politics and economics than they are by the safety of their families and/or their fondness for their own lungs and digestive systems.

Of course, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t affected by China’s political situation. For someone who truly believes China would be better served by a system that afforded its people, at the very least, a free press and the true rule of law, this has been a depressing couple of years. Depressing, soul-crushing and occasionally terrifying. But if I’m honest with myself, even with the political situation, I really think I’d be staying in Beijing if I felt like I could breathe safely.

I don’t think I’m alone there. I know plenty of families in Beijing, and it’s not my intent to criticize anyone else here; I’m just trying to explain my own rationale. But these are issues everyone here struggles with. And for those Chinese and foreign who, like me, are lucky enough to have the means to move elsewhere, some are going to make that choice. As the data on pollution gets clearer, perhaps more are going to make that choice. And while China has made some strides in agreeing to report things like PM2.5 publicly in some cities, I unfortunately don’t see the pollution problem disappearing anytime soon.

This isn’t really even China’s fault. OK, yes it is, but it’s also a fairly natural (if disgusting) stage of development. I don’t know if industrial-era London every looked quite this bad, but I gather it wasn’t the cleanest place ever. The thing is, though, would you choose to live in industrial revolution London?

That choice, I think, is part of China’s problem. As Chinese salaries go up and the education system gets better — and here’s hoping those things do improve despite what’s looking like a fairly ugly bump in the economic road — more and more people are going to have the same choice I have.

What does this mean for the blog?

Absolutely nothing. As longtime readers may recall, I lived in the US for part of 2009-2010, and my blogging output only became more prolific during that time. There are some impending changes — all for the good, I assure you — but it’s not quite time to announce any of that yet. In the meantime, regularly-scheduled curmudgeoning will resume as soon as I’ve slept off the last of the jet lag and dealt with the slowly-unfolding nightmare that is my life as the owner of a motor vehicle.

You may also notice a trend back towards more translations, as I tend to feel more inclined to translate things while I’m in the US just to keep my skills sharp…or make them less dull, anyway. However since I’m reading dozens of news articles in Chinese every day for my day job at this point, I make no guarantees with regards to more translations. (The other problem is that a lot of my favorite blogs have really dried up as their owners move to microblogging and weibo or Twitter, and there are already plenty of great blogs that deal with what’s being said on microblogs. Here’s one excellent one.)

Are you coming back?

Yes, obviously. I have written this fairly pragmatic post instead of an emotional, bittersweet farewell piece because I have every intention of returning with some frequency (visa permitting, of course), and every intention of staying fully engaged and more up-to-date than I have ever been before even while living in the US. This, again, touches on the big plans I mentioned above that I’m not ready to share publicly yet, but suffice it to say that China and I will never be strangers.

One Last Personal Note

I do want to take the time to apologize to many of my friends in Beijing, who may find this news a bit of a shock. I was trying to keep my departure plans very quiet on the off-chance that Yang Rui actually did have friends somewhere in the PSB and might attempt to fuck with me or my wife in some way. My email has been hacked before, so I wanted to be a little careful even with that — perhaps a bit paranoid but there were people out to get me. It’s terribly depressing to me that that’s the sort of thing I even had to think about, but if I’ve learned one thing from the whole Yang Rui experience it is not to underestimate that man’s ability to be a petty bully. I wish I had had the opportunity to thank all of you properly for all of your help, and for generally making my life here awesome.

But of course, I will have the opportunity to do that, the next time I’m back in China (or the next time you’re back in the US for a visit). Next time I’m back in the ‘Jing, the drinks are on me.

UPDATE: Because a bunch of people have asked, just to clarify: this doesn’t have any effect on the documentary film project either, we have already completed all the filming for that.

Looking at the Track Record

Today I came across this interesting summary of a recent debate between Minxin Pei and Eric X. Li about Chinese democracy, moderated by James Fallows (thanks to @thats_mandarin for the heads-up). With the important caveat that I didn’t see the debate firsthand and thus am relying on the summary of Li’s position in this article, let’s take a look at some of his statements.

[Li conceded that] China is indeed not a democratic system. But should it become one? “I’m a venture capitalist,” Li said, “so I look at track records.” In 1949, the country had been suffering from years of war and economic stagnation. The average life expectancy was 41; the literacy rate was 15 percent; GDP was nothing. Now life expectancy is 75; literacy is at 80 percent; and GDP is a multi-trillion-dollar number.

OK, so let’s look at track records. Taiwan is a great comparison here ((Not a perfect one since the country is far smaller, but there are no perfect comparisons here)), since its government was in a very similar situation in 1949, having also just been weakened by decades of war and (in its case) an eventual defeat and forced retreat. My guess is that in 1949, Taiwan’s GDP, literacy rate, and life expectancy were quite similar to China’s. (Though I could be wrong. I couldn’t find much available data on Taiwan in 1949, although it appears the GDP was indeed very low, if perhaps not quite as low as the PRC’s).

So who has the better track record now? Taiwan — undeniably a far more democratic state than China — on every single count. Its per capita GDP is way higher than the PRC’s ($37,000 vs. $8,400). Its life expectancy rate is also higher than China’s (79.35 vs. 73.47), and it even has an advantage in literacy, albeit a very slight one (96.1% ((This number is from 2003, though; it may be higher now)) vs. 95.9%). ((Note that most of these numbers are from the CIA World Factbook, and I chose PPP GDP for this article, but the numbers from other sources are in all instances I saw very similar.))

But to see why this matters, let’s continue with Li’s argument:

Yes, Li said, monumental mistakes have been made (he didn’t specify what these were), but they’ve been dwarfed by China’s achievements. Here Li referred back to his role as a venture capitalist and the priority he puts on track records: If I’m at a board meeting, and the proposition on the table is to take a company that’s engineered an enormously successful turnaround and to fire that company’s top executives, replace the entire management system, and do everything differently, that doesn’t make sense. “The one-party system has taken China from 1949 to today. … I think the answer is clear.”

Li is not wrong that China’s one-party government has made some monumental achievements along with its monumental mistakes, although which dwarfs which depends very much on whether you’re (for example) a successful venture capitalist or a farmer whose land has been confiscated. Regardless, if we’re looking at track records, it sure looks like Taiwan’s government has a better one. And what’s more, Taiwan’s current government is the result of a successful stable transition from a one-party dictatorship to a more-or-less functional multiparty democracy (albeit one with the occasional legislative fist fight). As far as track records go, isn’t Taiwan’s comparative success in every category Li named, along with its successful transition to a multiparty system, evidence that such a transition could work, and might even be beneficial to China?

I think it’s quite telling that Li chose to use a boardroom metaphor, though. I think he’s right about the decision one would make when running a company, but China is a nation, not a corporation. When a corporation makes a catastrophic policy mistake, its stock price plummets and investors become angry and poor. Workers get laid off and have to find new jobs. When a nation makes a catastrophic policy mistake, there are deaths (sometimes millions of them).

Moreover, a nation’s goals should be entirely different from a corporation’s. Companies are out to make money, period. Nations should be out to make money only insofar as that improves the quality of life for their own people. Nations also have to consider an extremely complex variety of other factors; it’s not all just about the GDP bottom line, which is why running a country the way you would run a company is insane. ((I should note that I don’t think China’s leaders really are running China like a company; what I’m saying here is that Li’s comparison is pretty problematic.))

I’m not sure why Fallows or Pei accepted this metaphor as legitimate, but they apparently did at least for the sake of continued discussion, and thus, discussion continued:

It wasn’t that long ago, Li responded, that they said Apple was going to flop, because all personal computing would all be open-system. The history of real democracy is in any event very short: In America, it generously speaking goes back only to the post-Civil War, less generously only to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965, if you take the “one person, one vote” definition seriously.

Li makes a fair point here, and one that he has made before, so I’ll counter with a point that I’ve made before: China’s system is even younger if we operate by the same strict definitions. Since the current system (which is responsible for most of China’s growth) is quite obviously not communist or socialist in practice, if we want to talk about this system’s track record we might generously say it dates back to the late 1970s. If Western democracy is unproven system, Chinese-style authoritarianism is even moreso.

Democracy has contributed to rise of West, Li said. But electoral politics is in disarray on both sides of Atlantic, and Western democracies are broadly incapable of dealing with the monumental challenges they’re charged with. Comparing public-opinion polling in China with that in the United States, Li noted the happiness and trust in their institutions that Chinese people report relative to Americans. Asking China to democratize? “It’s like asking Apple to turn itself into RIM.”

Ignoring the nonsensical smilie at the end ((but I’m happy to discuss why this is stupid in the comments if need be…)), one could easily make the same vague, unsupported argument about China, and in fact we see such arguments all the time. History will prove one (or both) of these arguments right, I imagine, but both systems are currently facing “monumental challenges” and whether or not they’re capable of dealing with them is very much yet to be determined.

As for the opinion polling, is that really an effective measure of the national mood in a country where dissidents and critics are detained and tortured? Or, for that matter, in a country where the prevailing cultural attitude is to keep one’s true beliefs to oneself and trusted family and friends, not to shout them at anyone with a microphone who will listen (as seems to be popular in the US)? I certainly know plenty of Chinese who are very frustrated with the government but would never ever tell that to a pollster cold-calling them over the phone.

Li does concede that corruption is a problem, but cites Transparency International’s global rankings as evidence that corruption is a developing-nation problem and not an authoritarian problem, per se. He may be right, but again it’s worth noting that Taiwan, whose government was starting from more or less the same place, ranks as significantly more clean than China on that scale. ((Although I’ll grant that Taiwan had the benefit of US aid to a greater extent than China had help from the Soviets.))

Lest anyone be confused, Li is most certainly not arguing that authoritarianism is the best system for China now; he’s in this thing for the long haul:

Fallows asked Li whether he saw the current system in China as being optimal in the long run, or whether he saw it more as the best system for now, pending future economic and social development.

“I am saying the former.”

The system will certainly have to adapt, Li said, but the country today would be unrecognizable to the Chinese people 63 years ago, and that entire transformation has taken place under the same one-party system. Not only that: On a global axis, the breadth of change that this one-party state has been able to embrace and oversee has been unparalleled in any of the world’s advance [sic] democracies.

I’m not sure I entirely agree with Li there. China has certainly changed a lot, but its one-party system hasn’t survived a civil war (America’s multiparty system did), and most of the reason China now would be unrecognizable to Chinese from 63 years ago is that things started out so terribly. I’m not sure that the fact that most democracies didn’t begin with millions of people starving to death should really be considered a selling point for the relative strength of authoritarianism.

And, as Minxin Pei pointed out, the political system itself has barely changed at all and would be quite recognizable to Chinese from the early communist period. Policies have changed drastically, but the men with their hands on the wheel still get there the same way. Li counters:

It’s a fallacy to say the system hasn’t changed, Li countered: There have been big changes the National People’s Conference — most conspicuously, it’s [sic] members are now younger, because of term limits and other reforms. There have been major changes to the composition of regional and municipal governments, as well. But these changes are not reported in the West, because, Li speculated, Western reporters aren’t interested in this kind of story; they’re interested in the dichotomy between dictatorship and democracy.

With regards to the NPC changes, I think he’s missed the point; as that body continues to be a relatively meaningless rubber-stamp legislature anyway; changes to it aren’t particularly relevant. With regards to local changes, I love ((sarcasm)) the cheap dig at reporters he throws in, but apparently he’s not interested enough in the story to mention any specifics, either, which rather undermines his positon.

Anyway, Li’s overall point was made quite clear during the question period:

In response to a question from the audience, Li also criticized the very ideas of political liberty and individual rights. Unless you think rights come from God, he insisted, you really have no theory of why any one view of political liberty any discrete set of individual rights should be sacrosanct at all. “If they’re from men, they’re not absolute; they can be negotiated.” It was only too bad there wasn’t time to discuss what “negotiated” means here.

“I want to break the spell of the so-called right to freedom of speech,” he added later. “Speech is act. It has harmed from time immemorial.”

I think it’s pretty clear to anyone who has been poor or powerless (or both) why individual rights are sacrosanct even if one doesn’t believe they come from god. It’s not hard to understand why Eric Li doesn’t give a shit about internet censorship in China, for example: after all he has a column in the Huffington Post. But it shouldn’t be too difficult for him to understand why free speech (or due process, or the rule of law, or the right to elected representation, etc. etc.) are important to a farmer who has lost his land and is trying to contact the central government to resolve the problem.

Rights certainly are a “negotiation,” Li isn’t wrong about that. Even in the land of the free, I don’t have the right to make libelous comments or murder people (among other things). I don’t think anyone would argue that how far any right goes isn’t a negotiation, part of the social contract for any society, and different groups choose differently. But without freedom of speech or the right to elected representation, who has what rights in China is not a negotiated dialogue between the rulers and the ruled, it is a one-sided lecture. Without representation or the right to represent oneself through freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, any real “negotiation” on rights is utterly impossible.

Reflections on Chen Guangcheng’s Escape

First off, apologies to everyone for the lack of updates as of late. In part, it’s because I’ve been trying to keep a lower profile since certain CCTV hosts threatened to sue me, but mostly I’ve just been extremely busy with the film and a number of personal things. That will remain true for a few weeks at least, but please stay tuned, as I’ve got some good stuff in the cannon for later.

Anyway, now that Chen’s been safely in the US for a while and the American right-wing seems to have abandoned its utterly idiotic quest to paint him as a pro-life Christian figure, it seems as good a time as any to reflect on Chen’s escape or, more to the point, the collective reaction to it, and what, exactly, went wrong.

The mistake that I think almost everyone made was assuming that Chen was emotionally and mentally stable enough to be handling the international media or making decisions about his own life and his family’s lives within days of his harrowing escape from nearly two years of torture and isolation. I was taking the latest word on what Chen had said a bit too seriously, without fully considering what he had been through and what effect that probably had on his mental and physical state. Nor was I giving adequate consideration to the fact that he probably wasn’t aware that his every word was being amplified and broadcast as gospel to the world. I wasn’t that harsh in my criticism of the US Embassy at the time, but my concerns about the its handling of the case proved to be unwarranted.

(I want to stress, also, that it’s not my intention to criticize the media for broadcasting Chen’s statements as news. This was, after all, a massive story, and what its central player was saying is undeniably news. If anything, perhaps those closest to Chen should have advised him not to speak with the media for a little while, or not published everything he said live on Twitter. But in their position, I suspect I would have done the exact same thing. Basically, it was a very difficult situation for everyone.)

That said, and with the caveat that I have no inside info whatsoever, it would certainly seem as though US officials may have made the same mistake. One gets the impression they may have been rushing to resolve the situation before the SED talks, which is totally understandable from a policy perspective. But from a psychological perspective, it would almost certainly have been better to give Chen more time. That may not have been possible — I don’t know — but Chen being left alone in the hospital after he left the embassy would seem to be a sign that the US perhaps hadn’t fully considered his mental state and how he might feel abandoned in a situation like that.

Emotions certainly played a role in my own reaction to the story, too. Obviously, Chen’s case is one I had been following for quite a while, and his unexpected escape and subsequent release from the embassy all took me completely by surprise. I think it was an emotional time for a lot of us who have been following the case closely, and in my own case at the very least, it probably led me to draw conclusions — or at least to suggest potential conclusions — too quickly before the situation had been given a chance to play out.

That said, I maintain that my cynicism about the Chinese government’s commitment to holding up its side of the bargain was entirely warranted. Although US diplomats entering the picture certainly changed the situation, the fact remains that there is virtually nothing in Chen’s past to indicate the government would have any interest in treating him fairly, redressing his grievances, or allowing him to leave the country. Trust must be earned, and although (despite some suggestions to the contrary) I do not believe China’s government to be entirely evil, it had done nothing to earn any sort of trust with regards to Chen’s case. Aside from bringing his family to Beijing — albeit as a bargaining chip of sorts to get him out of the embassy — there were no signs of good faith ((I do not consider the Foreign Ministry’s statements to be a sign of anything. Yes, it said Chen would be allowed to leave China, but it also said Melissa Chan broke “relevant laws” and that Al Jazeera’s English bureau in Beijing is operating normally, among numerous other lies…)), and more than a few indications of bad faith. Chen’s phone service was interfered with, journalists were barred from visiting him, and even US diplomats were kept out at times. Chaoyang Hospital — a fairly unpleasant place under the best of circumstances ((my wife had surgery there once; it was an awful experience.)) — turned into a bizarre sort of prison with helmeted security guards and plainclothes police roaming the halls.

Of course, Chen ultimately was allowed to leave (though I doubt he’ll be allowed to return). Under the circumstances, that was the right move for China and the government should be applauded for making it ((Then it should be condemned for failing to make it years earlier, failing to prosecute Chen’s captors, and failing to protect Chen’s family in Shandong from the illegal and ongoing campaign of revenge for his escape.)). The cleanup of Chen’s home village and the disappearance of the guards there is a sign that the government may even be planning to investigate Chen’s imprisonment as it promised to, though Chen Kegui’s lawyers not being allowed to represent him is an extremely troubling sign. However, that doesn’t change the fact that prior to Chen’s flight out of China, there was plenty of precedent for pessimism and the only reason for optimism was that now the US was more directly involved, sort of. That turned out to be enough, but I don’t think it was at all unreasonable of me to be skeptical.