Category Archives: Politics

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Wang Wen’s HuffPo Essay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wukan Elections on Social Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High-Level Defection or Convenient Vacation?

UPDATE 7: For an alternative theory, check out this post on Inside-out China.

UPDATE 6: The Chinese government has now announced that Wang Lijun did enter the US consulate and that they are “investigating.” Of course, we knew all that, but this announcement was — like the last one — posted to Weibo, where it immediately spread like wildfire. It seems quite obvious now that the authorities are letting this story spread on purpose.

The reason for this that we have been talking about is that it weakens Bo Xilai, something that some within the Party very much want to see happen. Alternatively, though, allowing this news to spread could be an attempt to “soften the blow” when Wang is almost inevitably branded corrupt and a traitor. Because he played a leading role in the anti-corruption campaigns in Chongqing, Wang is quite popular with average Chinese people, and much more widely known than the average vice-mayor. Perhaps the rumors and these announcements of things we already know are being intentionally spread to incept ((OK, that’s hyperbolic, but when else am I going to get to use this word?)) the idea that Wang, who we previously thought was good, is now bad.

Of course, there were already plenty of questions about the way the Chongqing anti-crime campaigns were conducted. If nothing else, these updates just continue to underscore that we still really have no idea what’s actually happening.

UPDATE 5: At the moment, Wang is back on the Sina Weibo trending topics list twice. “王力军” (an intentional mistyping of his name is #2 on the trending topics list, and the phrase “vacation-style medical treatment” is #7. Searches for “Wang Lijun” (typed correctly) remain uncensored. It’s quite clear that Sina is not trying to suppress this story at all, which begs the question: is someone at Sina trying to damage Bo Xilai?

UPDATE 4: The US State Department has confirmed that Wang Lijun was at the US consulate and that he left of his own volition, although they won’t talk about whether or not he asked for asylum. Very interesting. Here’s the relevant bit of the transcript from the State Department press briefing:

QUESTION: — specifically these reports coming out of China that a deputy mayor of Chongqing had sought refuge at the consulate in Chengdu and that there had been an unexpected increase in security personnel around the consulate for a while. What can you tell us about any of this?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think you’re referring to reports about the vice mayor of Chongqing – right – City. So his name is Wang Lijun. Wang Lijun did request a meeting at the U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu earlier this week in his capacity as vice mayor. The meeting was scheduled, our folks met with him, he did visit the consulate and he later left the consulate of his own volition. So – and obviously, we don’t talk about issues having to do with refugee status, asylum, et cetera.

QUESTION: Okay. But – so can you tell us exactly when that meeting took place?

MS. NULAND: I believe – we’re here on Wednesday – I believe it was Monday, but if that is not right, we will get back to you.

QUESTION: Do you have any information about what – have you had any subsequent contact with him? Because there’s some questions about his whereabouts.

MS. NULAND: Yeah. To my knowledge, we have not.

QUESTION: And aside from any possible thing that you couldn’t talk about on asylum can you tell us what he did talk about there? What was the purpose of this meeting?

MS. NULAND: Frankly, I don’t have anything at the moment on the substance of the meeting.

QUESTION: Can you say why you said he used – why you used the term, “he left the consulate of his – on his own volition”?

MS. NULAND: Well again, there has been some reporting to indicate that that might not have been the case, but it was the case.

QUESTION: Okay. The reporting being that he had been forced to leave or that had been dragged out, or —

MS. NULAND: There’s been unusual reporting about all of this. So just to reaffirm for you, that he walked out, it was his choice.

UPDATE 3: Ai Weiwei has tweeted that according to a reliable American lawyer, Wang Lijun once asked the US consulate for asylum. However, he doesn’t name the source, and the word “once” makes it unclear when this happened. Hong Kong’s Oriental Daily News is reporting the rumors are true and that Wang asked for and was denied asylum, after which he was arrested, but who knows how accurate that is.

Meanwhile, McClatchy’s Tom Lasseter (@TomLasseter) is in Chengdu checking things out and finding things seem more or less normal.

UPDATE 2: Added a bit to the rumor section about Wang allegedly divulging information to the US.

UPDATE 1: See also this excellent piece by Tania Branigan in the Guardian with additional information.

Weibo and Twitter are buzzing today about an incident that apparently took place at the US consulate in Chengdu last night (thanks to @niubi for first bringing it to my attention). As far as I am aware, at the moment there are only a few real facts connected to this situation, and they are these:

  • Last night, the US Embassy consulate in Chengdu was surrounded by a large number of cars from the People’s Armed Police and other security organizations.
  • The US Embassy is not commenting on the situation, at least for the time being. Update: Still no comment, but this article confirms that the US had not requested the police presence outside the consulate.
  • The Chongqing Press Office announced this morning that Chongqing vice-mayor Wang Lijun is on “vacation-style medical leave” for “nerves”. (Reportedly, Wang’s mobile phone is switched off).
  • Sina has been censoring searches for “Wang Lijun” on and off throughout the day. ((at the moment I write this, it appears to be uncensored again, but I have seen it blocked and unblocked again twice this morning.))

So those are the facts as we know them. Here’s the narrative that’s been circulating which, for the moment, should be taken as very much still a rumor: Wang Lijun approached the US consulate in Chengdu last night to request political asylum. At present, he is either still inside the consulate, or has been refused and handed over to Chinese national security police. Update: According to some versions of the story, he was in the consulate for quite some time, and may have divulged significant amounts of privileged information to US diplomats.

What the hell is going on? I’m not at all sure. Making things especially weird is the fact that these topics quickly shot to the top of Sina Weibo’s trending topics list, but then disappeared. Searches for “Wang Lijun” were blocked, then unblocked, then blocked again, and now appear to be unblocked again. For reference, below is a screenshot I took of the search page during the first round of blocking (that I noticed, it may have been blocked and unblocked before this).

What’s really interesting about this — aside from the fact that I’ve never seen a search term blocked and unblocked so quickly before — is that whatever the truth behind the consulate kerfuffle and Wang Lijun’s involvement, this incident has two major potential political ramifications.

On the international side, the implications of a high-level official defecting or attempting to defect just before soon-to-be-president Xi Jinping makes his visit to the US could be huge. If the US were to grant Wang asylum, that would be….well, awkward probably doesn’t even begin to cover it.

On the domestic side, with China’s leadership transition fast approaching and Wang being high in Bo Xilai’s Chongqing administration, a defection or even just a rumored defection on Wang’s part could seriously damage Bo’s position. Certainly, there are forces within the Party who are very opposed to Bo’s rise, and it’s hard to think of what better ammunition they could have against him than something like this. On Twitter, @niubi theorized that Sina could be allowing some of the posts about Wang Lijun to go through on purpose to damage Bo Xilai’s reputation, and that certainly seems possible.

Assessing the likelihood that any of this (beyond the facts) is real is very difficult. On the one hand, the US generally doesn’t grant asylum from in-country embassies, precisely because those embassies are easy to surround with police. A year or so ago, I was asked by a Chinese friend to research this process, and found that generally speaking, it’s much easier to be granted political asylum if you’re outside the country you want asylum from. It strikes me that if Wang Lijun really did flee to the Chengdu consulate to request asylum, he must have been in a rather desperate situation. Otherwise, presumably, he could have waited for an opportunity to travel abroad and had a much greater chance of success.

Then again, a high-level official like Wang might be just the sort of person the US is willing to take that risk for. But it’s an awfully big risk, and the diplomatic fallout if the US granted Wang asylum would be massive. Still, if word of the incident gets out — and it certainly seems that’s happening — rejecting Wang’s application would be a PR loss internationally.

Anyway, it’s not at all clear what the heck is going on here, but whatever it is, it’s definitely interesting. We’ll keep an eye on it, but interested parties should pay special attention to Weibo, where there’s a lot of chatter about Wang and his “vacation-style medical leave” that is getting through the on-again off-again censorship.

In Brief: Things Going Crazy in Linyi

First off, apologies for the lack of posts recently. As you might imagine, I’ve been busy with this and the guest posts and other features associated with that.

But, I’ve also been following the Chen Guangcheng case, which I wrote about somewhat recently here. Since then, there have been three major developments in Chen’s case: one positive, one negative, and one weird.

First, the good news: thanks to increasing pressure from netizens and “adventure tourists” (more on that in a moment), Chen’s daughter is now being allowed to attend school, although she will be trailed by guards at all times. That’s understandable, I suppose. If she were to attend school unsupervised, she might cause all sorts of trouble for the establishment. After all, she’s a full six years old now, and kindergartens have always been the fertile bed in which the seeds of revolution are sewn….OK, I’ll stop. At least the poor girl will get an education of some sort. That’s a victory, albeit a small one.

Second, the bad news: as netizens have ramped up the pressure on Chen’s case, local officials in Linyi seem to have doubled down. Chen’s village is full of thugs who beat anyone trying to enter it, and even the local police are smacking people around (and telling them the thugs who beat them and rob them are just in their imagination). More and more people have been attempting to visit Chen in what netizens are cheekily calling “Adventure tourism to Shandong,” but thusfar they’re not getting much more than bruises for their troubles. See this post for photographic evidence that some of these “adventure tourists” have received harsh beatings.

Finally, the weird: Amidst all this madness, the folks at Relativity Media (an American film company) have decided now’s a great time to film a raucous buddy comedy in Linyi. Seriously, you couldn’t make this up. Here’s Tom Lasseter of McClatchy on his blog:

Hollywood Reporter has an item that caught me by … surprise. Apparently, the U.S. film company Relativity Media is shooting part of a movie in Linyi under a partnership called Sky Land.

This is the Linyi in Shandong Province. The same place where blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng is being held under extra-judicial house arrest in a local village. He was placed under detention after being released from prison — the consequence of his trying to lead a class action lawsuit against local officials’ campaign of forced sterilization and abortions. Chen and his wife were reportedly badly beaten at the behest of local officials earlier this year.

You can read more about the film here.

In a fit of quasi-journalism, we’ve reached out to Relativity Media and a couple of the film’s stars for comment. I expect we’ll hear back roughly never, but in the event we do, I’ll certainly post whatever we get. In the interim, we have the comments thread.

In Brief: Why People Become Officials

I came across this poll on Sina Weibo today and couldn’t help but be amused by the responses to it. This year’s Civil Service Exam is kicking off, and millions of budding officials the nation over are putting pens to paper — or at least talking about doing it on Weibo. Buy why do they want to take the test and become government officials? Let’s find out!

Disclaimer: Blah blah online poll, low sample size, skewed demographics, got it.

You can check out the poll here, but you’ll need a Weibo account to vote, and you’ll need to vote yourself before you can view the results. Of course it’s highly unscientific, but can anyone say they’re really surprised to see this? It goes a long way towards explaining why Chinese officials are often so terrible at serving the people — apparently only 19% of them were interested in doing that in the first place!

Everybody else is apparently just in it for the perks (or because their moms told them they had to).

(Note for the tonedeaf, because I have a feeling the disclaimer isn’t going to be obvious enough for some of you: this is being posted mostly for the purposes of humor and yes, obviously, a Weibo poll with a few thousand results doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of China about the civil service exam or the service that comes after it.)

Reminder: We’re making a movie about kidnapped kids in China and we kind of need your help. Please check out our official site, or the special section we’ve created on ChinaGeeks. Or just check out the trailer below. You can make a donation via that Paypal button over there on the right hand side of the page, you’ll get cool rewards, and 20% of your donation goes to help the Xinxing center, so you can help them and us at the same time!

For more info on kidnapped children in China you can also check out my article in Foreign Policy on the subject.

The Utterly Indefensible

We engage in a lot of debate on this blog, and anyone who reads it knows that I personally have some pretty strong opinions. Even so, most of the issues that we debate do have shades of gray, and there are reasons — sometimes logical ones — for many of the things the Chinese government does.

But not everything. We rarely talk about the things the government does that are utterly indefensible, completely cruel, and entirely black-and-white full-on evil.

So we debate about Liu Xiaobo, his “crimes” — were they crimes? — and his NED connections — do they matter — but we rarely talk about his wife, Liu Xia. For those who aren’t aware, Liu Xia has been under house arrest since the day after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Xiaobo last fall. She has been denied access to friends, family ((for the most part; supposedly she has had a few family visits, although it’s difficult to be sure since she herself is incommunicado)), phones and the internet. She has managed to get online once, though (from The Guardian):

Her only known contact with the outside world came in February, when she managed to get online briefly and told a friend that she was miserable, that no one could help her, and that “my whole family are hostages”.

Of course, many Chinese dissidents experience similar treatment, but here’s the thing: Liu Xia is not a dissident. Her only crime is being Liu Xiaobo’s wife. She’s been under house arrest for nearly a year now, and yet she has never been charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one. She is by all definitions — including that of the Chinese legal system — entirely innocent, and yet her life has been taken away from her because of who she chose to marry.

Another example: Chen Guangcheng, the blind activist and lawyer who remains under house arrest in Linyi. Given that Chen has completed his jail sentence and should legally be a free man, his own detention is indefensible, but Linyi authorities are also holding his entire family under house arrest. This includes his daughter Kesi, who can no longer attend school because she’s not allowed to leave the house. Netizens who have attempted to visit Chen’s family have been harassed, beaten, detained, and threatened. (For frequent updates on these efforts, follow @pearlher, @wlyeung, @bendilaowai etc. on Twitter).

For the sake of simplicity, let’s focus on Chen’s daughter, Chen Kesi. She’s currently being detained by authorities because of the crimes of her father ((which he has already served time for; according to Chinese law he should be a free man)). More concerning is that she can’t attend school, an injustice that threatens to influence the course of her entire life. Of course, we all know how dangerous students can be, but Chen Kesi isn’t exactly a rebellious college student. No, in fact, she’s barely in primary school. That’s right, the Chinese government is detaining a six-year-old girl.

Detention really isn’t the right word here, though. Perhaps being held hostage is more apropos. Liu Xia and Chen Kesi aren’t being held for any crimes they committed, they’re being held to scare other people into silence. They’re being held hostage, and if one day they’re freed, others will most certainly be held in their place. The faces may someday change, but the song remains the same.

Perhaps we don’t debate these things as much because there is simply nothing to debate. By any reasonable standard, the detention of innocent people is unconscionable and evil. The concept of guilt by association has a long history in China, of course, especially guilt via bloodlines, but this is not the dark ages. Nor are these isolated local incidents; rest assured the central government is fully aware of these detentions, like as not at the highest possible levels.

The fact is, the authorities detain people like Liu Xia or six-year-old Chen Kesi for two reasons:

  1. As a threat to other dissidents. Harassing, threatening, and detaining a dissident’s loved ones sends a pretty strong message: ‘If you follow this path, we will fuck with the people you love. We do not care if they’re innocent or not. We do not care if they’re young or old. Fuck with us and we will fuck you you, and we will not be gentle.’ As reprehensible a strategy as that is, it is quite effective — in fact, I have seen it work firsthand. People may be willing to give up their own lives in the pursuit of justice (or whatever), but how many are willing to give up the lives of their wives? Their parents? Their daughters? Very few, and who can blame them?
  2. Because they can. As effective as it may be in deterring dissent, detaining an innocent child is a strategy that would not play well in public. Luckily, it need not be public in a country where the media — even social media — can be controlled. Regardless of their opinions about Chen himself, can you imagine the reactions on Weibo and elsewhere if it were widely reported that the government was detaining his daughter and preventing her from attending school? It would be a PR nightmare — and anyone who was watching the news this summer knows that the Chinese government is pretty terrible at PR in the face of public dissent. But none of that matters. The news can be blacked out in the mainland, and foreign reporters who discuss it can be painted as anti-China forces who are nitpicking small issues while failing to note how fast China has developed. The few Chinese who know about the issue are welcome to have their discussions on Twitter, where no one else can see. There’s really no risk for the government; why not detain Chen Kesi if it can help keep him and other dissidents in line?

The obvious answer to that would obviously be “because you are a human being with a functional conscience,” but I don’t believe there’s a real human conscience anywhere near either of these cases.

I wanted to write about this not so much because it’s newsworthy ((Although as I type this, word is spreading on Twitter that a netizen group has reached Chen’s village and is being attacked by village thugs, or possibly plainclothes police))as because I rarely do; we rarely do. Perhaps it’s because there’s not much to debate, but personally I think it’s because it’s just too depressing to think that there’s a six-year-old girl being denied an education because some old men are scared of a blind lawyer and a few other critics of the system.

Examining Eric Li and China’s Vox Populi

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

The Article

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet again, reality is intervening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The narrative of dissatisfaction isn’t real

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Internet Public Opinion and the Vox Populi in China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death on the High Speed Rail: Emerging Causes

UPDATE: Link to a blog post by Tom Lasseter added to the end of the post, high suggest you check it out.

Apologies for the lack of coverage yesterday; our VPN was out and we couldn’t access the blog.

In any event, new information is emerging today that sheds more light on what caused the horrific train crash in Wenzhou (See our coverage of Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3).

First is this Xinhua report, which says the crash was caused because the automatic notification system that should have told the D301 train there was a stopped train in front of it had been disabled by lightning:

Design flaws in railway signal equipment led to Saturday’s fatal high-speed train collision near Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province, the Shanghai Railway Bureau said on Thursday.

Having been struck by lightning, the signal system at Wenzhou South Railway Station failed to turn the green light to red, which caused the rear-end collision, said An Lusheng, head of the Shanghai Railway Bureau, at an investigation meeting held by the State Council in Wenzhou on Thursday.

The signal equipment was designed by a Beijing-based research and design institute and was put into use on Sept. 28, 2009, An said.

The accident revealed the railway sector’s vulnerabilities in safety infrastructure and management, An said.

More damning, perhaps, is this as-yet-unconfirmed expert testimony that the accident might have been averted if the Railway Ministry had chosen to install lighting safety equipment back in 2003:

He Jinliang, a professor at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University and director of China’s National Lightning Protection Technology Standard Committee, said in an interview Wednesday that the Ministry of Railways decided in 2003, shortly before China began embarking on its drive to build an extensive high-speed rail network, against protecting the network’s power-distribution equipment for the trains with lightning rods and surge protection. The equipment in question: those tall poles that suspend power lines along the tracks, from which trains draw electricity for propulsion. That decision came even as Mr. He’s committee—a semiofficial standard-setting body—in the same year adopted standards that recommended installing those lightning-protection devices for big structures such as high-rise buildings and tall bridges.

Those safeguards “would not provide complete protection” against lightning, but they would reduce the likelihood that lightning would severely affect train operation, Mr. He said. “Strong lightning is dangerous as it could short-circuit the network’s power-distribution equipment and cause power outages that could paralyze signaling and safety systems.”

Mr. He said he doesn’t know why the country’s rail authorities decided to skimp on those safety devices. “But as far as I know, lighting rods or surge protectors are not installed on the high-speed rail network’s power-distribution pylons.” The lack of such safeguards, he said, could have played a role in Saturday’s accident.

Mr. He’s claim couldn’t immediately be verified. The Railways Ministry didn’t respond to requests to comment. Ministry spokesman Wang Yongping hasn’t spoken to reporters since holding a press conference on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the media appears to have been let off the leash, or perhaps just chosen to ignore it. Even state-managed CCTV has raised serious questions about government handling of the incident, as well as reflected on its broader implications. Perhaps most telling is this speech, from Qiu Qiming on “24 Hours” (translation via Shanghaiist):

“If nobody can be safe, do we still want this speed? Can we drink a glass of milk that’s safe? Can we stay in an apartment that will not fall? Can the roads we travel on in our cities not collapse? Can we travel in safe trains? And if and when a major accident does happen, can we not be in a hurry to bury the trains? Can we afford the people a basic sense of security? China, please slow down. If you’re too fast, you may leave the souls of your people behind.”

China’s Premier Wen Jiabao, who often serves as the man-on-the-ground for major disasters, is giving a press conference from Wenzhou today, despite apparently being sick:

“I am ill, having spent 11 days in bed, but I managed to come today only after my doctor reluctantly allowed me to check out of hospital. This is why I didn’t come here sooner.”

UPDATE: Well, I guess he wasn’t that sick. Check out this incredible blog post by Tom Lasseter that essentially proves, using only official Xinhua reports, that Wen was lying through his teeth about being stuck in bed for the past 11 days.