The River

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A great river flows, its waves wide and calm
Wind blows through rice flowers, bearing fragrance to both shores
My family lives right there by the water
I am used to hearing the punters’ call
And seeing the white sails on the boats

This is the beautiful Motherland
This is the place where I grew up
On this expansive stretch of land
Everywhere there is wonderful scenery to behold 

How flower-like are the young ladies
How big and determined are the hearts of the young men
In order to usher in a new era
They’ve woken the sleeping mountains
And changed the face of the river

This is the heroic Motherland
This is the place where I grew up
On this stretch of ancient land
There is youthful vigor everywhere

Great mountains, great rivers, a great land
Every road is broad and wide
If friends come, there is fine wine
But if the wolves come
Those who greet them have hunting guns

This is the mighty Motherland
This is the place where I grew up
On this stretch of warm and friendly land
There is peaceful sunshine everywhere

(Translation from Wikipedia)

In a University of Hong Kong (HKU) auditorium full of attentive listeners, a question was asked about “the first song in your life that inspires you”.  “Frank Sinatra’s My Way,” answered one man sitting in the front row. “What about you?” “It should be a song that senior students taught me in college, My Motherland,” said the man next to him.

The one asking the question was Lung Ying-tai, one of the best-known Taiwanese intellectuals of today and a former Culture Minister. The occasion was a “Hall of Wisdom” lecture she was giving about the power of songs in transcending time and history. The second respondent was Dr. Albert Chau, Vice President of Hong Kong Baptist University, a scholar who attended HKU in the 1970s. The song he mentioned was from the soundtrack of a 1956 Chinese movie that portrayed the China’s heroic efforts at the Battle of Triangle Hill in the Korean War.

The answer acted like an electric current that electrified the air in the room. The chemistry in the atmosphere suddenly became interesting. There was giggling in the audience. Lung, seemingly unaware of the song, asked how it sounded like. After a brief, awkward moment of silence, a few in the audience began to sing, in a hesitant, humming voice. “A great river flows, its waves wide and calm…” More people joined in and in no time it became a resounding chorus. “This is the beautiful Motherland. This is the place where I grew up.” On the stage, Lung watched the scene with curiosity. She laughed profusely, and then encouraged everyone to clap for those who were singing. The episode ended in a largely friendly atmosphere.

Two months later, when video clips of this exchange emerged on the Internet, those involved, particularly Lung Ying-tai, found themselves in a much less congenial environment.

“A mysterious embarrassment”(谜之尴尬), as nationalist outlets such as Guancha described the incident. Other outlets were even more blatant: “a slap on the face.”(打脸) They presented Lung’s response as a sign of humiliation rather than just humorous play-along, implying that Chau’s choice of the song served as a direct refute of Lung’s preaching.

In recent years, some people on the mainland have grown increasingly critical of Lung’s signature message of a liberal humanism, the elevation of fundamental human values ABOVE political disputes. Her declaration of “a disinterest in the rise of a great nation but a deep concern for the dignity of its small civilians” once won her applause across the Taiwan Strait, but has since met with ever stronger pushback. The occasion provides those who detest Lung an opportunity to get it even.

1949: River and Strait

Year 1949 was a defining watershed of Chinese history and of the fate of millions of Chinese families. As the People’s Liberation Army crossed the majestic Yangtze River with thousands of hired junks and pressed against Kuomintang’s last strongholds south of the river bank, Nanjing (the capital) and Shanghai, millions started their humiliating retreat across the Taiwan Strait. The Republic of China, which endured years of gruesome war against the Japanese fascists, was driven to exile not only by the militarily more capable Communists, but more importantly, by the infinite appeal of a People’s Republic serving the starved and embittered mass fed up with Kuomintang’s corrupt rule.

The river of history has diverged, irreversibly, since then. And it became a theme that writers such as Lung, herself the offspring of a Kuomintang official displaced to Taiwan, explore. In her Hong Kong lecture, she mentioned the ancient tunes of Silangtanmu (“The fourth son visiting his mother”) and the tender love songs written by Chen Gexin, a songwriter who earned his reputation in Shanghai in the 1930s. For the generation of Lung’s parents, the songs represented a past and a home that were forever gone. They exposed the wounds of those severed from homeland, and through their soothing tunes, healed the homesick souls.

Lung also touched on other types of songs. Those are songs with an overt political message. Jokingly, she referred to the kind of Kuomintang propaganda songs that she as kid was taught to sing: “Fight the communists! Eradicate Zhu (De) and Mao (Zedong)! Kill the collaborationists!”

There was no ambiguity as to what kind of songs Lung held to be superior. Those that appeal to the fundamental human emotions: the connection between mother and song, the love of men and women, are especially powerful when they imply a kind of subtle protest against the dehumanizing force of politics. It is in this line of thinking that she brought up the tragic fate of Chen Gexin, the songwriter whose songs warmed the tortured hearts of so many drifters in Taiwan, who himself remained in the mainland and was later sent to a labor camp like many of his peers in art and literary circles. It is seen as a case of politics devouring those who were simply being human, which for an intellectual like Long, represents what’s fundamentally wrong about political struggles.(Though there is evidence of Chen collaborating with the Japanese during the war.)

Her most famous book in the Chinese-speaking world, Great River and Sea: 1949, expands on essentially the same theme. By recreating the separations and suffering caused by the turmoil of the last year of the Chinese civil war, she tries to transcend party politics that have defined the dynamics between both sides of the Taiwan Strait by appealing to the shared values of family, filial piety and love. “Is there really a winner of the civil war? Everyone is a loser in that war. And I’m proud of being a loser’s daughter,” she writes in the preface of the book.

This intellectual tendency may explain why, at that very moment, Lung was caught a bit off guard. “My motherland” surely doesn’t fit into her category of humanizing songs above politics. But she might have also underestimated the song’s transcending power, a different kind. In her written response to the controversy, published by Southern Weekly, she admitted that her first reaction when hearing Chau’s answer was that “this was a Red Song (红歌)”, which implies cheap communist propaganda. Even though she maintained that she immediately understood what Chau meant by bringing up the song, a reminiscence of a special period in contemporary Hong Kong history, when young students looked at socialist China as an inspiring alternative to corrupt colonial rule, she somewhat downplayed the significance of the spontaneous chorus in the auditorium, suggesting that it would be a mistake to try and derive too much from that moment: “The river was just a river.”

The mother nation complex

For Lung’s more serious critics on the mainland, who are willing to give her the credit of handling the situation with grace, her major problem is the almost blind universalism that wipes out any meaning in the country’s historical struggles of the early 20th century. As scholar Liu Yang puts it in his piercing criticism, Lung’s attempt to depoliticize those songs she mentioned in her lecture erases the clear moral values originally imbued in them. “(For something as universal as “death”, there is a difference between the death of a murderer and that of a martyr… Without the sacrifice of the men and women that defend the nation, the tranquility of the river would not have be cherished this much.”

A similar critique can be found about her book on the civil war. It argues that her emphasis of the suffering and the “human cost” of the civil war blurs the historical responsibility of the Kuomintang government and belittles the sacrifice of those who fought in the Chinese revolution, as if it was a value-free natural disaster.

Liu attributes Lung’s intellectual leaning to her “confused” identity: the lack of a fully-grounded national affiliation pushed Taiwanese intellectuals such as Lung to embrace a “supra-national” set of universal values, which allows them to declare themselves “world citizens” and build their cultural confidence around the assumed “end of history”: they are on the right side of a lineal progression towards a liberal end-state. But the “return of history” in recent years and the reemergence of religious, racial and class strife globally make her ahistorical treatment of themes such as human suffering “embarrassingly inadequate.”

World citizen or not, it is pretty clear that at the very moment, there was a discernible disconnection between Lung Ying-tai and Albert Chau. The song got lost in the narrative that Lung painstakingly constructed at the lecture and became a disruptive outlier. And Lung’s dismissal of its significance not only met with criticism from the mainland, but also invited a pushback from within Hong Kong.

Even though Prof. Chau himself never came out to explain his choice of the song, those who are familiar with the Hong Kong of his student years provided their interpretation of what happened. They believe that by invoking the song, Chau was paying tribute to the “Fiery Red years” of the 1970s, where young students of Hong Kong, disappointed by the corrupt colonial rule of the British, turned to the Motherland for inspiration. The northward affection was a combination of a successful “united front” campaign waged by the communist government on the mainland and a genuine longing for a national identity that brought pride and dignity. Commentators brought up almost forgotten historical events such as the 1971 Hong Kong student protest against the United States for attempting to “return” the Diaoyu Island to Japan along with Okinawa and the subsequent tour of a Hong Kong student delegation in the mainland, carefully organized by the Chinese government to impress them with the achievements of the socialist state (in the middle of the Cultural Revolution). The tour successfully ignited the imagination of Hong Kong’s youth, still under the influence of leftist student movements everywhere in the world, about the possibilities of a socialist alternative to capitalist colonialism. In its aftermath, the Hong Kong student movement decisively oriented itself to the motherland, and one of its major achievements was the establishment of Chinese as official language in the British colony.

As a University of Hong Kong student of the class of 1979, Chow was possibly involved in the last wave of student activism of that era. Later on, a booming local economy and the mainland’s abandonment of a revolutionary position by itself would mute much of the movement’s core appeal.

Almost 40 years later, the buried memory of that decade surfaced again on the Chinese Internet with a new found relevance. When Luwei Rose Luqiu, a well-known former TV journalist from Hong Kong, cited those events in a Weibo post, she clearly took aim at a more recent sentiment on the mainland: “Some of those students were disheartened after what happened in 1989. The rest of them were considered ‘unpatriotic’ for their participation in the Umbrella Movement. But they continued to love the country by their own principles.” There is bitterness in such response: when netizens and media on the mainland hailed Chau’s act of national solidarity, they were probably unaware of where his national imagination came from and whether it’s identical with what’s broadly understood as patriotism by the mainlanders, just as the democratic ideals manifested in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement were widely perceived as separatist impulses on the mainland. Other commentators built on Luqiu’s historical recollection and recounted the continued tradition of Hong Kong’s college students to orient themselves toward the motherland in the 1990s. At that time, students organized reading groups that brought in high school students to discuss the future of Hong Kong and of the motherland, “reading for the progress of history and the rise of China.”

This is a kind of complex that Lung Ying-tai probably didn’t fully grasp. The moment she branded “My Motherland” a “red song”, she underestimated the emotional appeal of those simple lyrics. As people pointed out, “red songs” typically referred to those created during the Communist Party’s Yan’an years (when it was a rebel government conducting socialist experiments in a mountainous enclave) and later during the Cultural Revolution. In both periods, songs were often overtly propagandist, unabashedly praising the Party or Mao himself. But “My Motherland” is different. Written in year 1956 as an interlude in a Korean War themed movie, its expansive lyrics transcend the war and the politics of its time. Rather, it speaks to the very fundamental aspiration of the Chinese people, who at that time, had barely emerged from the decades of turmoil and humiliation that preceded the founding of the People’s Republic. The folk song style (which the song writer borrowed from popular tunes of the early 1950s), the idyllic image of the scenery along the “big river” (which was based on the Yangtze River) and the overall mood of confidence and pride expressed in the song reflect the Zeitgeist of a newly built country finally able to defend itself. Despite the disastrous years that followed, the spirit of the song never stopped inspiring those who believe in national rejuvenation.

On Weibo, people also reflected on the ironic fate of the song in China, further complicating the categorization of this communist era oeuvre as pure propaganda. As one commentator recalled, the song, along with others that were not blatantly “revolutionary” in their messages, were banned during the Culture Revolution. Its creators, including the director of the Korean War movie, were persecuted as “Rightist elements”.

 

All those nuances were either lost or muted in that October encounter in Hong Kong. Lung Ying-tai could not immediately “get” Albert Chau’s spontaneous expression of his affection for the “motherland”. Nor was the complexity of a Hong Kong professor’s national aspirations fully understood by a mainland audience who hailed it as a rejection of Lung’s universalist message. Rather unfortunately, Luqiu’s account was met with another round of bickering about the legitimacy of the Umbrella Movement, a sign of deep-rooted division between today’s Hong Kong and the Mainland. The situation made some lament the “lack of shared assumptions for dialogue”.

If history is indeed a river, it seems that the people of Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China have each drifted on different rivers for too long. Even with the best intention and an openness for conversation, they find themselves unable to step into the same river anymore.

Anatomy of an (alleged) online scam

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Your little daughter got diagnosed of leukemia. The medical bill is substantial. You are anxious. You pray to God. You start to write your feelings down in your private blog on WeChat. Friends read your posts and are touched. At the bottom of your posts WeChat has activated a “appreciation” button allowing users to give the author money as a token of support. Some of them begin to press the button enthusiastically. Before long your posts attract an expanding readership, until one day one of your posts gets viral.

The rest is legend.

Luo Er, the father who blogged about his kid under intensive care, Luo Yixiao, received more than 2.7 million RMB in donation (about 400,000 USD) in less than 72 hours. The tens of millions of total strangers visiting his blog almost caused a virtual stampede at the “appreciation” button. WeChat sets a daily ceiling of 50,000 RMB for the amount of “appreciation” a single blog post can receive, which, in the case of Luo Er, was hit in a matter of minutes. Desperate good-wishers then moved on to his other posts and showered him with money until ceilings were hit one after another. The outburst of empathy refutes any preconception about the Chinese society being apathetic.

The button is called “appreciation”, instead of “donation,” for a reason. The intention is to incentivize good original content generated by users, not to channel large chunks of cash to a cause or someone who needs help. That’s philanthropy’s role. The blurring of that line in this particular case underscores social media’s disruption of established practices and norms in both blogging and charity.  

The case is also a vivid illustration of the volatility of the Chinese cyberspace and some of its driving forces. Within that same 72 hours, an emotional whirlwind would sweep across the Internet.  Luo Er’s public image would undergo a 180 degree downward turn, a free fall from the high moral pedestal of a loving father to the cold hard floor of an internet villain that everybody spits on.

The piece at the epicenter, which Luo posted on Nov 25, is titled “Luo Yixiao, you stop there!” It describes the unsettling days that Luo spent after his little girl was moved into ICU, going in and out of the hospital, soothing his wife, and handling medical bills that were rapidly building up. At the end of it, Luo, a small-time magazine editor, plays a literary trick by bringing in his daughter in the second person. In a supposedly loving tone, Luo writes, “If you do not stop there, I will chase you down in heaven and scold you there for being naughty.” The trick works, apparently, which explains the initial success of the post among his WeChat friends.

What transformed that post from a semi-private expression of emotions to an instantaneous nationwide hit was a little marketing support it got. Luo’s friend Liu Xiafeng, a former staff of his and the boss of a social media marketing firm, wanted to offer some help. But, according to Luo’s own account, he had too much pride to accept money from Liu directly. So Liu proposed a way that would take care of his dignity: Liu’s corporate WeChat account would republish the blog post and ask people to retweet it in their own WeChat circles. For each one retweet, the company would donate one RMB to Luo Yixiao. A 500 thousand ceiling would be applied. Luo happily obliged.

On Nov 27, the piece began to spread like wildfire on people’s WeChat walls. Later, Liu revealed that 96 million people might have viewed it. The you-retweet-I-donate set-up certainly lowered the threshold for participation. The phenomenon prompted commentators to caution peopleabout their urge to “act like a good person” in front of their WeChat friends, a psychological tendency that had propelled so many such schemes before. 

There is no clearly verified account as to whether the whole thing is as noble and innocent as both Luo and Liu admit. After all, Liu’s company offers online marketing as a service and would benefit from the exposure that the retweets bring. An investigation by sohu.com would link the company to the marketing of commercial insurance plans for children, further casting questions about Liu’s motivation. There are also signs that indicate possibility of intentional manipulation: in the republished post, Liu added a full section at the beginning highlighting Luo’s precarious financial situation. His father was seriously ill back in his home town. His magazine was undergoing restructure, reducing his salary to a bare minimum. The medical bill of his daughter accumulated at a rate of 10 to 30 thousands a day, much of that uncovered by insurance. 

More experienced observers of social media would immediately spot discrepancies in the posts. Why was there no mention of the family’s exact funding gap? Usual calls for help, in order to gain trust, would often demonstrate that. Why didn’t they disclose any details about the girl’s condition, besides the general term leukemia? What’s even more perplexing was Luo’s claim that he didn’t want to “burden the government” with her daughter’s medical expenses. Instead, facing what looked like a critical situation, he chose to play along with a “game” of retweeting. 

Most people were neither experienced nor close readers of a WeChat post. The vagueness in the posts might have actually helped with their spread. Readers identified with an imagined vulnerable middle-aged father, barely hanging there with his severely diminished stream of income. His plight felt real for many who also face the insecure sandwich-like situation, squeezed from above (ailing parents) and beneath (sick kids). But as some would point out, the public might also had been captured by an outdated image of leukemia as a deadly decease perpetuated by pop culture. “Modern medicine has advanced to a point that major types of leukemia now have a 5-year survival rate of 60-85%.” What’s also likely is that people underestimate public health insurance in a city like Shenzhen, where the family live. Soon there would be revelations that much of little Yixiao’s medical bill, probably as much as 80%, could be covered by the government.

Trackers of the Chinese cyberspace began to locate the case in the not-too-long history of Internet scams in China. The earliest one on record happened in 1995, when the World Wide Web was just before the dawn of its exponential growth in the country. At China’s largest online forum at that time, where most of its frequents were researchers and graduate students, someone raised money for a non-existent “abandoned kid”. Instead of being offended, those well-intentioned internet users laughed it off as China’s earliest online prank. Things got much more malicious later with deeper penetration of internet into social life. In the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 that killed more than 80,000 people, fraudulent SMSs flooded people’s mobile phones soliciting donation for fake quake victims.  

The advance of social media further transforms such scams. New story-telling potentials unleashed by a slew of technology advancements enable those with a narrative talent to increase the power of their tales by orders of magnitude. And once viral, those stories develop a life of their own and become very hard to stop. 

Marketers quickly learn to cash in on the new trend. Driven by the need to please advertisers or venture capitalists, they prey on people’s goodwill by devising marketing campaigns and sophisticated click-baits under the disguise of social causes. 

One of the most inexplicable recent cases of such click traps is a 2015 message on WeChat that called for the indiscriminate execution of child traffickers upon arrest. Chinese parents are terrified by stories of child snatchers, and their intense love for their kids easily turns into a blind hatred of whoever poses a threat to their beloved. The petition-like post collected so much steam online that the Supreme Court of China felt the need to respond by saying that execution doesn’t solve the problem. Later it turned out that a dating website was behind the whole thing to boost its click numbers. 

On the spectrum of authenticity, Luo’s probably sits right in the middle of out-right fraud and impeccable honesty. The kid’s illness is real, but Luo was not upfront with his financial situation for reasons only he knew. Did he intentionally mislead his readers so that he might reap extra sympathy (and money) from them? Or, as a distressed father, was he simply careless to have not included precise financial details? Those nuances are important to understand the nature of the case but before they could be explored, a massive backlash would drown out everything. 

The opaqueness of Luo’s finances, while helping him to gain initial public support, quickly became a liability. As donation skyrocketed, information about Luo’s material wealth started to circulate on the Internet. People dug out old posts in his blog showing that he might own up to three apartments in the prosperous cities of Shenzhen and Dongguan, both bordering Hong Kong.

The revelation of his real estate ownership proved devastating. Ironically, the person who benefited from online perceptions and imaginations would then immediately step into a mental minefield. In a country that is hyper-sensitive about housing prices and treats real estate ownership as the ultimate symbol of social status, the idea that someone with three apartments still tried to raise money from strangers irritates people. Almost overnight, the Internet that initially embraced the family with sympathy and love turned against it with harshness and hostility. News headlines fixated on the three apartments and journalists grilled the duo with questions about Luo’s material wellbeing.

Major online personalities quickly banked on such a turn of event to fan the flame of public anger. Their line of questioning followed the obsession with real estate: why didn’t he sell off one of his apartments to save his daughter? When Luo publicly defended himself by explaining the constraints he faced and the difficulties in liquidating his assets in short notice, he was accused of an even more hideous sin: that deep down, he did not consider the girl worthy of major financial sacrifices. The extrapolation played into an entrenched resentment of a backward Chinese mentality that favors boys over girls. Opinion leaders were enraged about Luo’s perceived slight of his daughter, despite all the loving words he’d filled his blog with.

The public’s violent mood swing over this affair troubled those who care about the future of online philanthropy. They fear that people would lose faith in subsequent calls for help from individuals, harming those who are genuinely in need. In 2011, a woman named Guo Meimei, who self-claimed as a Red Cross Society affiliate and boasted about her luxurious life style on Weibo, ruined the Red Cross Society’s reputation which, until today, never fully recovered. With such considerations in mind, Deng Fei, star journalist and the founder of multiple online philanthropic initiatives including the wildly successful “Free Lunch” project for poor rural kids, set out to “set the record straight” in an attempt to restore trust in the overall online environment for charity. He intended to bring the facts and nuances back into the discussion, feeling that the public was driven too much by conjecture and imagination. He and a few friends investigated the case, interviewed Luo Er and came to the conclusion that he was simply a disturbed guy misguided by the potential of WeChat fundraising. All weaknesses, no malice.

Despite his stellar reputation, Deng’s findings were not convincing for others who were also looking at the facts closely. Wang Zhi’an, an investigative journalist for CCTV, did the math and found that Luo had probably earned enough “appreciation” money for Yixiao’s medication even before Liu’s company launched its fundraising campaign, and that he should have learned about Yixiao’s insurance coverage situation in September. Smoking gun of a pre-contemplated scheme.

Those fact-based discussions could have greatly calibrated Luo’s presentation of his situation, giving readers considering donation a much more completely picture of his motivation and financial situation. Yet they came 72 hours too late. The absence of such fact-checking in the early stage of the saga is, to some, the symptom of a gate-keeping-free era of social media.

Public rage finally accumulated to a point that both the government and Tencent, mother company running WeChat, felt the need to intervene. Originally, Luo and Liu proposed to set up a foundation for children who have leukemia with the excess money they had raised. But the public did not trust them with money anymore. So Tencent came up with a technical fix that allowed WeChat to return all the 2.7 million to every single users who pressed the “appreciation” button.

The fix was not without its critics. Even to this point, there are people who, half-sarcastically, insist that Luo Er was simply rewarded for his touching writing. According to this view, the public was essentially paying for an “emotional massage”, not making donations. Forcing the total return of such money of “appreciation” violated the sanctity of a private expression of support.

Mavericks aside, the episode raises the fundamental question of ethics in an age of social media: how should people treat such calls in the future? Are wealthy people ever justified to raise money publicly for emergency? The answer is yes, writes commentator Yao Yao, as long as they are transparent about their situation. The case highlights the need for vetting mechanisms and professional organizers of philanthropic resources. The worthiness of someone for charitable support should be based on actual needs, not one’s ability to tell heart-wrenching stories.

People’s Republic of Spiritual Rednecks

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“Trump wins!” At 1pm, November 9, Beijing time, hours before mainstream US media could confidently call the 2016 US presidential election for Trump, eager Chinese spectators handed Trump the presidency using what seems like a photoshopped screenshot of Wolf Blitzer on CNN. The picture might be fake, but the sentiment is all too real: the insuppressible excitement for a Trump upset, or, more accurately, for the defeat of Hillary Clinton.

By now, many who watch China have come to the realization that Donald Trump has a “base” in a country one Pacific Ocean away from where ballots are actually cast. Articles have been written about the phenomenon, with a mixture of amusement and alarm. Understanding Trump’s appeal in China will have limited bearing on how the president-elect conducts his business, but will shed light on the cultural and political propensities of a vocal segment of the Chinese society today.  The Trump fanfare in China embodies an interesting contradiction: outward-looking, intellectually curious Chinese individuals embracing an American strongman who builds his political brand on xenophobia and ignorance.

Why would well-educated, internet savvy Chinese, whom economists consider one of the biggest beneficiaries of the past quarter century of globalization, identify with the vengeful, explosive hero of those who have been left behind by that same historical process?

The Chinese Internet has taken a particular interest in Trump’s unexpected ascension as soon as it became clear that he would be the Republican nominee. At that time, popular Chinese posts about Trump depict him as a symptom of the ailments of American society. He is the manifestation of people’s hidden frustration with political correctness, of the cleavage between intellectual elites and those struggling with their livelihoods, and of “our mediocre and shallow time where entertainment trumps everything.” While there is this you-reap-what-you-sow sentiment in such articles, there is also no doubt that Trump is an ignorant, inexperienced and intolerant hot-head who is clearly unfit for the job.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly when a much more favorable view about Trump starts to bloom in the Chinese cyberspace. Through that lens, he is viewed as a truth-talker, a pragmatist, a fixer, and most importantly, a strong counter-voice against what is believed decadent Western liberal values.

Before we can properly explore the “Chinese support for Trump”, it is important to separate it from Chinese Americans’ rooting for the Republican candidate, which is based on more substantive issues for people who actually live in the US. A considerable amount of what’s written on Chinese-language sites about the election is actually by Chinese Americans, especially first generation Chinese immigrants. Their opposition to Hillary, and Democrats in general, often centers around issues such as the Affirmative Action which is believed to hurt hard-working Chinese American kids. This topic deserves a separate treatment, for which the Sinica Podcast’s Kaiser Kuo did a great job.

There are, of course, substantive reasons for a mainland Chinese to prefer a Trump presidency. A typical response can be found in comments made by military observers and geopolitical types on the Chinese Internet, who see a US under Trump’s leadership set to make “strategic contractions” overseas given his openly isolationist positions and a focus on domestic economic issues. “The US will almost certainly move away from its strategy of Pivot to Asia. It will give up on the South China Sea, or even its influence in Taiwan. Trump is a pragmatic businessman. Confronting China in the South China Sea is a business with a low cost-benefit ratio that he won’t do.” This is probably wishful thinking bordering on fantasy, given Trump’s multiple policy backtracks days after his election. But it does account for why some in China are gleeful about a Trump win.

On the substantive side, there are also veteran Chinese political and economic commentators who express doubts about the potential benefits of the “Trump doctrine”, albeit much more muted than the geopolitical optimists. They argue that China, as one of the largest beneficiaries of globalization, will suffer if the US sways momentously back towards protectionism.

But as we shall see, self-interest seems not to be the primary component of the Chinese affection for Trump. Their fondness of this man is as much value-based as those American voters believed to have voted “against their own interest”. After the election, Routangseng, one of the consistently pro-Trump figure on Weibo, wrote about Trump, as “the true heir of Edmund Burke and John Locke”, relentlessly defending the last bastion of freedom. The comparison is absurd, if not outright hilarious. But the rest of his argument, that high-tax welfare states are fostering a sense of entitlement and are nothing more than “open robbery”, sounds all too familiar to ears weathered by American political rhetoric. And he is not alone in his hostility toward what he labels the evil social programs of “white liberals”(白左). In fact, “white liberals” has become a keyword that tags in much of the Chinese online discussion about the election.

The unveiled, intense disdain for American (and European) liberals demonstrated by a substantial segment of the Chinese social media is the key to understanding Trump’s popularity here, and something that ties the “intellectual” side of Trump’s Chinese support with his apparent lack of any intellectual appeal.

On zhihu.com, the Chinese equivalence of Quora, where enthusiasm about Trump is particularly strong, multiple top posts under the “Donald J. Trump” tag center around the theme of liberal hypocrisy and weakness. For a site that pride itself with informed discussions and a respect for expertise, the overall hostility towards Western liberal ideas deserves a moment of reflection. One of the posts that garners more than 18,000 likes is a broad stroke thesis about the decline of Western civilization under the pressure of Muslim immigration. “There are towns in Britain that are completely under the control of Muslim extremists, who are openly using white girls as sex slaves under the eyes of gutless British policemen. Trump was right when he said there were no-go zones for French policemen in their own country. Western countries are in such a degree of self-deception that politicians like Obama and Merkel can be praised for their appeasement with Islamists while political correctness deters people from talking about the existential threat to Western civilization.”

It is one thing to be critical of the liberal ideas of multiculturalism and freedom of religion, it is quite another when a Chinese shows that level of concern for the demise of the West. Granted, ethnic strife is on the rise between Han Chinese and their Muslim compatriots. This could be part of the reason why some are anxious about a perceived Muslim advancement in other parts of the world. Another factor that might have played into this is the admire-despise complex that many in China harbor about the West. Deep down they still see the West as something to aspire to, and they feel frustrated when “weak” liberal leaders squander their full hand of good cards. “Angry about them not putting up a fight” (怒其不争), as one Chinese saying goes.

What’s more likely to have happened, though, is that somehow right-wing materials from the English-speaking world find their way into China through the Internet. After all, who is more troubled by the fall of (white) Western civilization than the American and European alt-right? This has happened before when, during last year’s European refugee crisis, a viral post on a Chinese website about how Japan “wisely” excludes Muslims from its society turned out to be translated from an openly anti-Muslim Zionist. In this year’s election cycle, conservative websites such as RedState, are used by Chinese media as authoritative sources of news. All kinds of conspiracy theories about Clinton, from pedophile allegations to murder charges, spread widely on people’s WeChat walls, reinforcing the image of her as a conniving, evil politician who embodies the hypocrisy of liberal politics.

In a way, the Chinese Internet is just an extension of what goes on in America this election season. The spectacular failure of mainstream US media to sway public opinion and to foresee a Trump win is a sign of the social media’s unprecedented efficacy in channeling information and aligning the electorates, bypassing established gatekeeping and blindsiding political operations based on rules of the past era. The new landscape enables players such as Wikileaks to reach millions of voters unfiltered, and makes spinning through “surrogates” less effective. Chinese netizens have long harbored a suspicion about the “Western media”, seen as being biased against China. The disorderly situation in the US provides an even larger incentive to look beyond what the NYT or Washington Post is saying. On Zhihu, users pile on Podesta’s leaked emails and develop their own theory of top Democratic officials involving in unspeakably diabolic child abuse. Their ability to consume such materials “uncensored” by mainstream Western media leads some Chinese netizens to consider themselves more informed about the candidates than the Americans.

When those smart Chinese internet users climb over the imagined informational barriers erected by Western media, they are thrilled to find a Trump that speaks to their beliefs. A great many commentators point to the so-called pragmatism in Trump as what resonates with Chinese watchers. Some of them even half-jokingly compare him to Deng Xiaoping, the great Communist leader who opened China to the outside world after Mao’s death. Deng famously declared that “a cat is a good cat if it catches rats, no matter whether its black or white.” The metaphor was advanced to settle heated ideological debates that threatened to thwart his reform to liberalize the market. To many Chinese, “political correctness” is equivalent to socialist dogmas that should be swept aside when addressing the West’s “real” problems. If illegal immigrants or refugees cause social upheavals, say it. That’s the logic for those who believe that Germany’s welcome of refugees, or America’s embrace of immigrants are due to political constraints that prevent them from doing otherwise, much as China’s own communist dogma prohibited the embrace of private enterprises 40 years ago. Breaking the shackles created by naive, holier-than-thou liberals is an act of dogma-shattering pragmatism, seen from the historical experience of modern China.

One Zhihu user offers a more personal explanation why many Chinese seem able to relate to the kind of anxiety that Trump claims to represent. The Chinese white collar class, as the author puts it, is not very far removed from their working-class roots. “Most Chinese born after the 1980s are from a working-class background, who can still sympathize with the uneducated ignorance demonstrated by the less refined and appreciate its political power when mobilized. It is what their parents, uncles and primary school classmates look like.”  Their modest roots make them less repelled by Trump than their “elitist” liberal counterparts in the US. Of course, the stereotype of liberal elites in a Chinese mind, invariably based on some version of an east coast intellectual or a Silicon Valley executive, is more imagination than reality, willfully ignoring the millions of Americans who vote Democrat and who are no less modest in their background than the author’s “Chinese parents”.

There is, nevertheless, a much blunter assessment of why well-educated Chinese love Trump. Zhao Lingmin, a columnist for the Chinese website of the Financial Times, also links it with their upbringing. However, in contrast to the rosy idea that their generational experience with hardship makes it easier for them to relate to their poorer countrymen, Zhao believes that 30 years of unbridled economic growth “without much moral or legal constraints” has enshrined social Darwinism as the guiding doctrine for much of the Chinese society. The widespread worship of winners and contempt of losers prevent the society from developing any “political correctness” that shields disadvantaged communities such as women and the disabled from abuses by those with wealth and power. “Over time, those who master the rules of this winner-takes-all environment have developed a hardened heart and a high self-regard.” They are convinced that those left behind must have something deplorable and are alarmed by any welfare program aiming to lift them up. Trump’s message is a loud confirmation of this value system.

Disgusted by what he has witnessed in Chinese debates about the election, “Pretend to live in NYC”(假装在纽约), a personality on Weibo well known for his effort to introduce progressive message abroad to the Chinese cyberspace, brands Chinese Trump supporters as “spiritual rednecks“, ethnic Chinese who identify with a Texan bigot. They look down upon other people of color, but insist, ironically, that whites should not discriminate against Chinese, a political correctness they’d rather preserve.

Trump’s true Chinese supporter might sit somewhere between the two ends marked by the views above. He is probably not the “son of a working man” whose innate compassion connects him with the suffering of his poor compatriots. He is also not entirely the cold-blooded, prototype social Darwinist who cares only about self-achievement at the expense of others. After the election, a widely-read Weibo post (again originated from Zhihu) summarizes what Trump’s win has “taught China”, generating tens of thousands of retweets.

“1. We should retain our college entrance exam system that ensures a pathway for poor kids to move up the social ladder. The American election shows how a lack of upward mobility tears apart the society;

2. China should protect its manufacturing sector and prevent it from being outsourced. America’s deindustrialization only benefits capitalists, not workers;

3. China should forcefully resist immigrants and reject political correctness. Illegal immigrants usually compete with lower working class people for jobs, not professional middle class. When the daily safety of working class residents is threatened, they should be able to protect themselves without fear of being politically incorrect. 

4. China should be adamantly against excessive care for the LGBT community. Their values and choice should be tolerated, not advocated, especially not at the expense of suppressed mainstream values.

Who would have imagined that a US election can inspire China to come up with what seems like its own conservative manifesto, a strange combination of care for social equality and dismiss of cultural inclusiveness. Through the dizzying image of a triumphant Trump, the Chinese society discovers its funny and distorted reflection, as if inside a funhouse.

Frenzonomics

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(Picture by: 安小庆)

Over the years, people have come up with various barometers for the Chinese economy, which, due to the opaqueness of official statistics, proves to be a tough nut to crack. The price of pork, the output of coal, the number of windows that light up at urban neighborhoods at night have all been used to take the pulse of the massively complex country. One of the more famous examples of such makeshift indictors is the now legendary “Keqiang Index”, named after Premier Li Keqiang, who, while serving as the governor of Liaoning province during the early 2000s, used railway cargo volume, electricity consumption and the amount of bank loans as surrogates of the official GDP figures which he, as a Communist Party provincial chief, deemed unreliable.

Jokes are to official statements what the Keqiang Index is to GDP numbers. Nowadays, The best online jokes are about the overheated housing market that since late 2015 have preoccupied the nation. “Today’s HR gauges a candidate’s hireablility by asking if he or she owns real estate. A person without an apartment is often pessimistic and cynical about the society. Those having to pay mortgage tend to be loyal, not itching for job change.” Another version has a more real-life feel to it: “Engineers who own more than one apartments in Beijing are unmanageable in the office, always ready to fire their boss, sell an apartment and go travel the world with the money; engineers who own one apartment are completely demotivated, as they are basically set. The raise they earn through harder work would be rendered pointless by the rising house price. Those without an apartment are anxious to go into the finance sector or do an MBA and won’t spend a single minute on perfecting their engineering skills. The housing market is shaking the Republic’s foundation!”

Ever since the 2009 post-financial-crisis government stimulus of 4 trillion RMB, which kick-started a massive housing market boom, anxiety about skyrocketing housing prices has filled the pages of the country’s newspapers and cadres’ speeches. Premier Wen Jiabao’s numerous promises to keep housing price “reasonable” during his last few years in office still resounds. But the jokes today capture something new in that anxiety. The rallying market is reshaping people’s psyche as much as their pockets.

One of the most cited expressions of concern in the Chinese media today is Longview Economics CEO Chris Watling’s comparison of the current housing price hike to the Dutch “Tulip Fever” that happened almost 400 years ago. The London-based consultancy lists Shenzhen, the Chinese city that borders Hong Kong, as the world’s second most expensive housing market, next only to San Jose in California. According to the firm, Shenzhen’s housing price has risen a whopping 76 percent in a single year, surpassing longtime real estate strongholds, its sister city Hong Kong, and even inner London.

It is debatable if China’s housing boom today is as economically shaky as the Tulip Fever or even the housing boom in the United States before the financial crisis, fueled by subprime mortgage. As recent as in Jun this year, bullish advocates for the Chinese property market, such as star developer Ren Zhiqiang, a Weibo celebrity, were still arguing that the rise in housing prices is driven by the unabated pace of urbanization and population inflow into cities. The large amount of down payments, backed by actual saving of the Chinese consumers, not credit, makes the boom qualitatively different from the subprime mortgage driven US housing market before the crisis.

But concerns with the sustainability of the current boom is only part of what people have been fretting about. Yes, the prospect of a spectacular crash in the fashion of the stock market last year is scary. However, to many people, the alternative, a market that continues to rally in the foreseeable future, looks as troubling if not more fearsome. The engineer joke is an embodiment of such concern: an ever booming housing market is going to eat into the very foundation of a robust, creativity-based economy that China is so eager to become.

A much more articulated version of this fear appeared on the Financial Times Chinese website on Aug 29. The author enumerates a few dire consequences of an ever enlarging housing bubble, including financial risks and depleted capitals for the “material economy” such as manufacturing. More piercingly, he observes that with the housing price spike, the “landlord mentality” that historically haunts China has been rekindled among the Chinese nouveau riche. “Many rich investors have accumulated a large amount of real estate in their hands to collect rent or simply the additional value generated from more rise in price. One the other side, more urban proletarians, those workers who can never afford housing, are created in the process.” For a regime that, more than 60 years ago, gained support by wiping out the landowning class through collectivization, the current situation seems ironic.

To illustrate their increasing uneasiness about where real estate is leading the country, commentators need to borrow an entire vocabulary from a place where the dominance of property developers have agonized a society, Hong Kong. An article that warns about the mainland cities slipping toward “Hong Kong-ization” characterizes the autonomous metropolis as having three distinctive features: sky high property price and living costs, huge income inequality, and increasing conflicts between the natives and newcomers. The author attributes the problems to the Hong Kong government’s laissez-faire approach to real estate profiteering, whose unbridled growth squeezes the space for small and medium businesses (through expensive rent) and exacerbates social inequality (property owners vs. those who can never afford).

Nothing highlights the mainland’s resemblance to the Hong Kong case better than the 6-square-meter apartment in Shenzhen that causes a stir in the public conscious. On Sept 24, news had it that a developer was selling a set of ultra-mini flats in Shenzhen with a jaw-dropping per-square-meter price of 150,000 RMB (roughly 22,000 USD). As a reference, monthly average salary in Shenzhen is about 5000 RMB (746 USD). The mean salary is lower. Reporters visiting the place as potential buyers were shocked to find a packed scene: people were rushing there to get hold of the deal. A woman reportedly wept after her apartment slipped away to another buyer just because of a minute of hesitation.

Commentators were quick to refer to those mini-apartments as “pigeon cages“, a term once used to describe the horrible hellholes immigrant laborers and poor residents inhabit in Hong Kong. (To be fair to the developer, those Shenzhen apartments are actually much more spacious than their registered 6 square meters.) They become the symbol of the property frenzy, 880,000 RMB for literally a jail cell in the middle of a city.

There are people who see it differently. Again, Hong Kong provides the inspiration. They call such small apartments “Get-on-the-bus-property“, meaning that the relatively low total cost (because of the tiny space) allows cash strapped consumers to embark on the “bus” of property ownership. The housing boom makes it perfectly clear to many that property has become the watershed of one’s fortune. Ownership means a quick accumulation of personal asset, a defense against inflation and access to cheap credit. Without it, you are doomed with the dwindling value of cash in the bank or under your bed. To buy or not to buy, it’s not a question. That’s why when Hong Kong developer Cheung Kong Property released a 16 square meter mini-condo for RMB 1.32 million back in 2014, the Hong Kong media dubbed it “mercy to the poor“. Mainland observers bring up this anecdote with sarcasm and resignation.

The exacerbation of already severe income inequality through this recent episode of housing price spike, which spread to second and third tier cities, is the most disturbing aspect of this property market rally. As one commentator puts it, “without denying their hard-working, the property owning upper middle class should attribute most of the build-up of their fortune to property price increase. Today’s housing boom is not primarily hurting the anxious middle class, but the desperate lower classes that won’t share a penny of this market. Observers who do not acknowledge this sad fact, or even watch with amused indifference, should go into the hall of shame.”

Not just the cold-blooded spectators are to be shamed. The above-mentioned Financial Times commentary also points the finger directly at central ministries and local governments, which, as the author claims, willingly hijack a top leadership policy of clearing housing inventory and turn it into a call for re-stimulus. The result is rapidly increasing leverage of households and the simple shift of debt from the balance sheets of property developers to those of individuals. Local governments benefit tremendously from land sales and taxation on transactions while families bearing the financial risks. They are becoming “super landlords”.

As the country’s top propaganda organ, the People’s Daily weighed in on Sep 26 with an opinion piece, reflecting the graveness of the current situation. Titled “Losing the hard-working spirit, we will still be homeless with all the properties”, the article devotes much of its content to an uneasiness about the ascent of a opportunist, speculation mentality, in the same vein as the engineer joke, but with a notable twist at the end: it calls on individuals to cling to their faith in self-improvement and to not get lost in the housing pageant. The commentary was met with disbelief and ridicule. In no time, another joke starts to spread on the Internet. It applies a light touch to the original title of the People’s Daily article: “Losing all the properties, we will still be homeless with all the hard-working.”

The suicidal and voiceless

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The past few days I browsed the Internet trying to find someone who could speak from the standpoint of Yang Gailan, the 28-year-old farmer and mother of four, who committed suicide after slaughtering all her four kids by axing and force-feeding them pesticide. Her husband killed himself a few days after losing his entire family in a single day. The tragedy stunned, confused and angered a lot of people, who only slowly came to the gruesomeness of the case following the revelation of disturbing details of the struggling family living in the remote mountains of Gansu province, located in the arid far west of China, one of the poorest corners of the country.

The closest I could get is a blogpost by Luo Yufeng, a popular online figure who came from an abject background and made her name by intentionally posing herself as a buffoon that attracted wide disdain and ridicule. Lately, she emigrated to the United States and reinvented her public image as a hard-working self-made woman who successfully transformed her existence, materialistically and intellectually. In the blogpost she said she could relate to Yang’s situation, not just to her material poverty, but also to the “despair” that haunted people like her. She recalled her own experience as a countryside teacher, where her teenage female students dropped out of school to get married and raise kids. “They told me that going to college merely postponed the same misery of trying to locate a low-paying job and barely got by. At the age of 15, the girls already saw no hope in changing their circumstances. Sadly, many of them were actually right in their assessment.”

This is one of the rarer pieces in the aftermath of the tragedy that tries to make sense of it from a poor person’s point of view. As in most events that capture phenomenal online attention, the space is dominated by educated, urban (and largely male) voices. In a way, they help amplify the story to enable a wider discussion. But the limitations of a middle-class world view also risk trapping the debates in pathetic premises resembling the gated neighborhoods of Chinese cities.

The article that almost single-handedly turns the poor family’s death into a national subject of debate is called “The ants in a prosperous time“. In a broad stroke manner, the author attributes the tragedy to extreme poverty and the society’s diminishing opportunity for upward mobility. “They are the downtrodden ants in a time of prosperity, unimportant, uncared for, neglected.” It calls on the society to better treat its disadvantaged, marginal members and advocates for significantly increasing welfare for such social groups.

The sentiment is familiar, which probably explains why it went viral on people’s WeChat walls almost two weeks after the incident actually happened on Aug 26. Prior to that, media reports about the killing, particularly the one by The Paper, were restraint in its attribution of specific causes. Information was simply too scarce to reach any conclusion about why Yang Gailan wielded the ax at her own children. Her grandmother was the last person to talk to the dying woman. By that time all four children were unconscious. The last words from Yang, if her grandmother’s recollection was correct, were bitter and enigmatic. She muttered about being “hard pressed” and insisted of taking her kids “with her”. The last minutes of her life did not give her the luxury of elaborating further.

But this does not stop commentators from imposing their own mental frames onto the case. The “ant” piece is an example of a class-anxious social group looking through a pre-defined lens at tragedy whose meaning is far from clear. By framing the case as a failure of a social structure to provide upward mobility, the piece caters to people who are constantly fretting about maintaining and raising their social status. They share a disdain of elites that keep a tight grip on precious resources and sympathize with the society’s most disadvantageous members. But it is hard to tell if a woman in remote Gansu mountains, for whom poverty has been inherited and internalized as a mode of life for generations of her family, would be primarily driven by a sense of social justice.

Another typical urban response to the case is even more reductionist. People fixate on the details revealed by media of the material possessions of Yang’s family: three oxen, three goats, twelve chickens, plus the tiny stream of income from Yang’s husband, a laborer at a pig farm in a nearby town. To the online spectators who busy themselves with calculation, these seem to be far from the kind of extreme deprivation that would account for the desperate act of homicide and suicide.

By negating the “poverty” narrative, critics try to override an overall sympathetic reaction to the tragedy with a stricter moral judgment. “She is first and foremost a murderer,” as one influential online figure would emphasize. Others call her a pervert and a psychopath. The response is not new. As this blog has explored before, online commentary about violence committed by marginal communities is becoming increasingly unforgiving and harsh. The view insists that no personal misfortune, social ailment or political suppression could be used to justify aggression against others. While an indiscriminate denouncement of violence seems morally infallible, in the public sphere the uncompromising stance also tends to shut out serious discussions about root causes, which are often blamed for “rationalizing” violence.

Female suicide rate in the Chinese countryside is historically high, with rates hitting alarming levels in the 1990s, at points 26% higher than men in the countryside. Those rates have since then plummeted (as much as 90% by some studies) thanks to massive migration into the cities which results in relatively freer, more upbeat lives for women. However, for those who remain in the countryside, the day-to-day stress of life, not only poverty but also a host of pressures in relation to supporting the household which disproportionally fall on the shoulders of women, still can be unbearably heavy. As a traditional saying goes, there are only three solutions to women’s problems: “one – to cry; two – to scream; and three – to hang herself”.

When experienced observers look closer at the details dug out by in-depth reporting, what they discover is exactly the kind of suffocating household stress that has cornered Yang Gailan to a brink. In a penetrating analysis of the micro-politics of Yang’s misery, the author sifts through publicly available information and singles out Yang’s grandmother as a more plausible cause of Yang’s fatal decision on Aug 26.

As the de-facto matriarch of the Yang family, the old lady divorced two husbands in the earlier years of her life for their incompetence. After her daughter, Gailan’s aunt, later killed herself by ingesting pesticide, the tough woman was left with her slow-minded, quiet son, and his two daughters. Gailan’s elder sister was married early to outside the village. And the burden of serving her grandmother and her father fell squarely on her tender shoulder. Villagers recollected Gailan often being scolded by her grandma, who leaved the impression of being demanding and inconsiderate. In order to keep her in the family, the grandmother “adopted” a husband for her, instead of marrying her out. From that moment on, the 20-year-old’s fate as a servant to the family has been locked in, attending to two elders and raising four kids, all on her own, until on that day, she collapsed

These are mere deductions and interpretations, to be clear. The difference is only that some are slightly more restraint and cautious than others when it comes to offering a conclusive, meaningful reading of a case at once appalling and heartbreaking. In this regard, rural China lacks its own interpreter. As one pessimistic observer puts it, in a public sphere dominated by an urban discourse, “the countryside cannot articulate itself.” No farmer’s representatives, no peasant intellectuals, no rural women’s advocates emerge to help make sense of Yang’s destruction of her entire family. The countryside remains silent while urban spectators heatedly debate morality and social welfare.

But does the countryside automatically understands itself? Asks one voice. It claims that certain extreme behaviors simply evade comprehension, no matter where it happens. What the society can do, rather than prematurely declaring that it “gets” these incidents, is to bide its time and make note of all the observable facts until it can fully grasp what has been going on. The unstoppable impulse of the Chinese Internet to (over) interpret any occurrence of significance is “hindering us from reaching a genuine understanding of our world.”

Sex, lies and Wang Baoqiang

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For a particular subset of Chinese showbiz stars, the defining feature of the celebrity experience is the dizzying rocket ride up the steep ladder of social stratification. To be sure, most Chinese people went through quite impressive upward movement in terms of wealth and relative social standing in the past three decades of rapid economic growth. But stardom has applied a mind-blowing extra acceleration to that rise, propelling a poor peasant’s son to the stratosphere of a multi-millionaire in a matter of years.

Wang Baoqiang is one of those lucky few. Raised in a poor family from a small city in Hebei province, he spent six years of his early youth in the Shaolin Temple, the mecca of Chinese kung-fu, as a resident pupil, practicing martial arts hundreds of miles away from home while other kids of his age were at primary schools. Sending kids to the temple was for cash-strapped families a makeshift solution to formal education. After that he migrated east, to the prosperous coastal part of the country, to look for opportunities. In the city of Beijing he tried to find luck in the booming show business, from the very bottom of the industry, as an extra. He landed a life changing role in the 2004 blockbuster by celebrated director Feng Xiaogang, playing, not surprisingly, a dumb, naive, trusting son of a peasant. That role’s name was shagen (or “dumb root”).

Ever since then his public image has been pretty consistent with his life story. The roles he played tend to be earthy, sincere, unsophisticated. And people affectionately associate him with that kind of personality, calling him “dumb root” or “baobao”, which is the same pronunciation as baby.

So when this beloved son of China exposed his wound in front of the whole nation, the cyberspace burst into tear. On Aug 14, Wang posted on his Weibo a statement declaring that he was to divorce his wife of seven years, Ma Rong, who, according to Wang, was having “extramarital sexual relationship” with Wang’s agent, Song Zhe. In the brief but poignant statement, Wang elaborates on how he has worked hard to fulfill his responsibilities to the family. He pleads the public to leave some privacy for his two little kids.

Amid overwhelming public sympathy for Wang, which involves massive, abusive trolling of the adulterous couple, a distinctive voice appears on the Internet. In some way it represents a “modern” response to the affair. Its core message is about the sanctity of the private sphere. Marriage, according to this view, is a voluntary bond between two individuals. No third party, let alone the collective gaze of the mass, should be allowed to project its moral judgment onto this bilateral relationship. Wang’s statement amounts to a “shame parade” of his wife. By subjecting her to the verbal abuse of hundreds of thousands of strange netizens, Wang was acting “like an uneducated villager inviting his neighbors to openly reprimand his infidel wife.”

Critics even claim that the extramarital affair should be the “privacy” of Ma Rong. Wang has no right to broadcast it to the world, even if he is her husband. The high-volume online criticism of Ma and her lover is “the pageant of the legally ignorant,” and represents a backward set of values that treats women as the property of men.

Among those who accuse Wang of harboring “agrarian-age values”, one view distinguishes itself as particularly eye-catching. The author maintains that Wang’s behavior betrays his uncultured upbringing, which makes him undeserving for his well-educated beautiful wife. He even cites sociologists to suggest that marriage is supposed to be between individuals on more equal footing, materially and intellectually.

Some of those “intellectual” response to Wang’s divorce statement and the ensuing public outcry is illustrative of why, as a group, liberal-leaning intellectuals are disliked by a large part of the Chinese Internet. In recent years, “public intellectuals”, which refers to liberal commentators who opine on a wide range of social issues not limited to their own expertise or profession, are considerably stigmatized and despised by many netizens. Not all of this contempt can be explained away by government-led smear campaigns, though they certainly play a key role. The Wang Baoqiang affair shows how at least partially it is also self-inflicted.

As veteran commentator Cao Lin puts it, the elitist aloofness embodied in such response seems to be but a cheap and deliberate posture to agitate the public and gain web traffic. The “privacy” argument is particularly far-fetched and pretentious: Wang only mentioned, in a matter-of-fact manner, his wife’s affair in his statement, as the cause of their break-up. He did not release any information about that affair beyond the simple statement, no hidden camera pictures, no sex tapes. Cao argues that the use of the over-extended concept of privacy to blame Wang Baoqiang is a blatant disregard of his misfortune as a husband and the moral obligations of married adults.

The backlash is fierce against the detached, learned online intellectuals who lecture people about private sphere and a marriage deprived of moral values. “Urban elites wields the language of modernity to defend the betrayal of trust and basic ethics. The logic behind that language is confusing, arrogant and shameless,” says one media operative on Weibo.

Interestingly, those who are able to articulate a counter argument against the liberal, intellectual stance is no less intellectual. For them, the overwhelming public sentiment is a society’s defense of basic decency in family and professional life. “Being faithful to a partner, being honest to an employer, is a morally honorable way of life, compared to which the moral cynicism of the intellectuals is despicable.” Some even venture that the society’s ability to apply public pressure to immoral behaviors is a desirable quality. It glues basic social units such as family together. According to this view, in many other societies this precious moral force is being suppressed by the “liberal intelligentsia”, a mistake that China should not repeat.

But this sudden uphold for “moral conservatism” in the Chinese society is not without its skeptics. To those ears, it sounds too much like handing the society’s moral baton to the nosy, judging and meddling “auntie Wangs” who have no sense of boundary and privacy. Feminists go one step further. They see the highly public debate of the dissolution of one marriage as reinforcement of the “tyranny of monogamy” that bounds women to a social institution with a force that does not apply equally to men.

Inadvertently, by displaying his flawed marriage to millions of viewers, “dumb root” poses a not so dumb ethical conundrum that proves challenging for a society constantly renegotiating the borderline between private autonomy and the collective purpose as a community.

Patriotic July

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Celebrity actress/director Zhao Wei, the South China Sea, Kentucky Fried Chicken. In what kind of a mental universe can those three be organized into a recognizable constellation with meaning and significance? The answer seems to be the Chinese patriotic mind. In the past month, the cyberspace witnessed how patriotic sentiments built up with a grassroots campaign against Zhao Wei, climaxed with the vehement attack on the South China Sea ruling handed out by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, and subsided with offline protests against KFC in a bunch of Chinese cities.

The key to understanding this rather bizarre pathway of mobilization-escalation-demobilization is a close look at the interconnection between the patriotic discourse and its class struggle “sister”. While the latter adds fuel to the flame of the former, its destructive potency that threatens to tear society apart induces an uneasy response from the conservative establishment originally set to benefit the most from a nationalist uproar.

At first, the campaign against Zhao Wei looked like old news. Once again, netizens attacked celebrities who carried political values deemed problematic and demanded redress from whoever hired them. Zhao Wei’s new film (which she directs) features Taiwanese actor Dai Liren, who has been active in the social movement scene of Taiwan. Though Dai himself firmly declined, political vigilantes in the mainland branded him a Taiwan independence advocate and pressured the film to either have him “declare himself a Chinese” or drop him as a lead actor. The film originally resisted, but caved in at last.

If the campaign had stayed at that level, it probably would not move beyond the premise of a self-sufficient community of Neo-Maoists, establishment leftists and youth patriots. The increasingly belligerent alliance reaffirms its relevance each time through virtually lynching celebrities on politically charged issues such as Taiwan independence or Hongkong’s democratic movement. Most of their aggressions do not surface in mainstream media but occasionally they catch a big fish. Over the course of the past 6 months, at least two stars have fallen spectacularly to such attacks, Taiwanese actress Chou Tzu-Yu (whom this blog has featured), and Hong Kong singer Ho Wan See, whose appearance at a concert sponsored by French cosmetic brand Lancome was cancelled after mainland “patriots” went after her involvement in the Occupy Central movement. Successful mobilization injects refreshed energy into the cause, which seems to rely on such vitriolic cycles to keep itself activated.

Dai Liren might have been just another poor game that the hungry beast prey on, repeating the somewhat banal cycle of denounce-denial-escalation-apology. But this time development took an unexpected turn that fundamentally altered the nature of the whole affair.

On July 6, a Communist Youth League Weibo post reviewing the Zhao Wei/Dai Liren episode was temporarily deleted for unknown reasons. The abnormality stirred up more than just suspicion. A major paranoia attack clenched a segment of the campaign, which, all of a sudden, became super concerned with freedom of expression on the Internet. They believed Zhao Wei was somehow involved in getting that post deleted, through her well known connections in the top echelon of the Chinese business circle, particularly with e-commerce tycoon, Alibaba Group president Jack Ma. The accusation is far-fetched at best. But it grabbed the imagination of the sensitively-minded. If an actress could ask her boss friends to censor the Communist Youth League, what else could they not do? “Capital manipulates public opinion” became a hashtag on Weibo, and a cyber warfare would sweep through the Internet, making one feel as if millions of Chinese had converted to Michael Moore overnight.

 

On Jul 12, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague released its much anticipated ruling on the dispute between China and Philippines over the former’s claims in the South China Sea. It was a landslide win for Philippines, legally speaking. But Beijing refused to accept it, calling the decision void and null. As if on a cue, state media went on an all-out push to delegitimize the arbitration and the entire process.

The tone of the coordinated condemnation was vituperative and absolutist, leaving no space for negotiation. For a contemporary Chinese ear, the underlying message was familiar and clear: it’s a politically high-voltage line that one must not cross, no questions, no argument. It was in the same line as the response to the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and to the 2001 collision of US and Chinese military aircrafts near the Hainan island that killed a Chinese pilot. In both earlier cases, the government flooded the public space with its strong-worded position through the propaganda machinery and tried to unify public perception around that. This time, social media turned out to be the new territory that the state needed to occupy. People’s Daily put up on Weibo a poster declaring that “not a single (island) should be taken away“. Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin called the ruling “terrible as hell.” On WeChat, people posted the same set of slogans – the three “Nots”(not recognize, not participate, and not accept) – to flag their alignment with the state.

The high-pitched broadcasting of indignant denunciation, proud declaration and defiant sneer from the Chinese state media almost defined the tone of July. Everywhere on the Internet, people were condemning the United States, ridiculing Philippines and cursing Japan. At certain point, the collective glare turned toward the whole institution of the Law of the Sea itself. High level officials slighted the Arbitral Tribunal as a cheap, non-official body that would accept any case as long as someone paid for it. They questioned the composition of the panel, criticizing the five panelists for acting as puppets of Japan and not understanding Asia at all. They also picked on the location of the PCA, sarcastic about the fact that even if it sat at The Hague, it had nothing to do with the International Court of Justice (even though there was no sign that the PCA itself pretended to be the ICJ). At one point, the United Nations official Weibo account joined the chorus, implying that the Tribunal was just a “tenant” of the Peace Palace building, where both the PCA and the ICJ were stationed, and had nothing to do with the UN. A naughty “bye-bye” emoji was added at the end of that post.

The ideological hawks, who were busy attacking Zhao Wei at the time of the ruling, were briefly drawn into this national symphony of condemnation. But their attention quickly swayed back. After all, shouting at the United States or Philippines does not bring any visible “victories” or even response. But to keep a movement energized you always need vindication.

When observers look back at the whole Zhao Wei affair, they see what Philip Alden Kuhn described in his Soulstealers: the Chinese sorcery scare of 1768. In this bloody event that was the Qing Dynasty’s rough equivalence of the Salem witch-hunt, the country was caught in a panic attack of some weird rumors that sorcerers were stealing people’s souls by cutting off their pigtails, the long braid that Chinese people wore at that time. After Emperor Qianlong became concerned with the situation, heads started to get rolling, literally. Lower level officials needed convicts to fulfill their duty. And people turned against each other. As Kuhn puts it, the Emperor’s legitimizing of the scare was like “loaded guns left on the street”. People picked them up and started shooting at their own enemies.

The patriotism that saturated the air after the South China Sea ruling was that loaded gun. And the idea of an ideological “struggle” on the Internet, something President Xi suggested in a 2013 speech and the conservative Beijing Daily articulated in a follow-up editorial, provides politico-theoretical backing. In the much discussed editorial, the Internet is declared the “main battleground” of ideological struggle today. It is a “war without smoke” and its consequence is “either you live or they die”. The target: Western values dressed as “universal”.

The “struggle” approach redefines online debates, and for that matter, the expression of patriotism, which turns increasingly inward, in search of enemies to be crushed within the country. There should be no dialogue or conversation, only defeat, humiliation and subjugation. Life and death.

The escalation of the anti-Zhao-Wei campaign into a struggle against “capitalist control of media” means an enlarged hunting ground. Patriotic netizens cast their searchlight toward Zhao Wei’s web of connections, and big name institutions including Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group and Jet Lee’s One Foundation were dragged into the controversy. Both Ma and Lee, a legendary kung-fu-star-turned-philanthropist, were believed to be close friends of Zhao. Within days, both groups were alarmed to the extent that they issued official statements denouncing unspecified “online rumors” about their political associations. Alibaba had to explain that its donation to the Clinton Global Initiative, which netizens revealed amid the email leak of the Democratic National Committee, was purely philanthropic and not in any way political contributions to the Clintons or the United States. The One Foundation had to fend off more serious accusations that it served as a capitalist “Trojan horse” with the ulterior motive of overthrowing the regime through the gradual corrosion of the credibility of official institutions. Besides its founder Jet Lee, many of the foundation’s board members are business tycoons (i.e. capitalists) including Jack Ma and China Vanke President Wang Shi. Observers see the carefully worded response from Alibaba and One Foundation as an ominous sign of a fringe phenomenon collecting menacing power.

 

On July 17 a bunch of men and women showed up at the front door of a KFC restaurant in Laoting, Hebei province, with a banner that says “You eat KFC, our ancestors lose face”. The picketers tried to dissuade customers from dining at the restaurant, which had to close for that afternoon. This was one of the dozen small-scale KFC protests that happened in the aftermath of the South China Sea ruling, mostly in second and third-tier cities. For those familiar with Chinese patriotic “tradition”, American and Japanese restaurant chains are the usual vehicles for such expressions. Peter Hessler documented in his book Oracle Bones how students in Nanjing pelted and vandalized KFC and McDonald’s after the NATO bombing, which was probably the modern origin of this tradition.

What’s interesting this time is how swiftly state media came to disavow the protests, calling them irrational and stupid. The Weibo account of People’s Daily, which, only days earlier, was full of strong-worded denunciations of the ruling, turned around and lectured its audience why, in an era of interconnected international commerce, boycotts did not work. The 2012 tragedy where a poor Xi’an Toyota owner got his head smashed open by an anti-Japan protester seems to have permanently tarnished the image of such “acts of patriotism” from which state media are now eager to distance themselves. “Turning on each other only makes your enemy laugh,” as they would propagate. Hu Xijin, the Global Times editor, posted a photo of KFC chickens on his table as a gesture of him not buying into the KFC bullshit. He added one more twist: critics should never attribute such naïveté to proper patriotism.

As critics would argue, the official attempt to sever “patriotism” from unpopular offline activities and to confine the concept in a realm of noble civility is disingenuous at best, given the government’s promotion of an overall belligerent message through state media. But the distancing did create a tricky problem for the grassroots patriots who were still busying chasing Zhao Wei and her friends. And that tension reached to a flash point when two social media outlets openly clashed.

The day when protesters blocked the entrance to the KFC in Laoting, one of the People’s Daily’s offspring social media accounts, the influential Xiakedao, posted a scathing piece about the stupidity of the whole Zhao Wei affair and implied criticism of its source, Thought Torch, a weibo account that served as a center of ideological warfare on the Internet. It declared the campaign nothing but groundless conspiracy theory that took advantage of the nationalist nerve. “It’s the same nerve that directed ‘hot-blooded’ young men to vandalize Japanese cars owned by their fellow Chinese.”

Being scolded by a politically orthodox source did not silence the grassroots but piqued them. Their response was to incorporate the behavior of Xiakedao into their narrative: yet another dominant outlet being corrupted and compromised by capital. They sneered at Xiakedao as a sell-out that published for the money, a usurper of the People’s Daily’s red credential as the Party’s mouthpiece.

The open fight briefly caught the attention of Weibo’s top management, who implied suspicion of the Thought Torch’s claimed affiliation with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. But a shrewd commentator pointed out, half sarcastically, that such suspicion was probably ill-informed: the head of today’s CASS was among the first modern day intellectuals who advocate the resurrection of class struggle in social science studies.  It’s the kind of perplexing irony that will linger even after the patriotic fire of July gradually died down following coordinated official efforts to cool things down. In the interval, the ideological volcano of China awaits its next eruption.