Brave the enemy’s gunfire, rejuvenate!

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Defining the win in a trade war is difficult, even for a “winner” like Donald Trump. In an Apr 2018 tweet, the US President declared the trade war “already lost” with China by his foolish and incompetent predecessors. What he had been doing, first initiating a Section 301 investigation and then asking for tariffs to be imposed on roughly 150 billion USD worth of Chinese goods, appeared more like a penalty long overdue than the a strategically planned assault with clear objectives.

On the other side of the Pacific, victory was equally elusive to the Chinese government. “There is no winner in a trade war” was the official line repeated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs(MoFA), the Ministry of Commerce(MOFCOM) and the official mouthpiece outlets such as People’s Daily. In the early days of the standoff, the message from the Chinese authorities was essentially of “peace through war”: we don’t think the war will benefit anyone, but if fighting is the only way to bring some sense back to the offender, we will retaliate with matching forcefulness.

That rhetoric escalated dramatically on Apr 6 upon Trump’s latest round of threat. In a MOFCOM statement responding to the US President’s announcement of his intention to slap penalizing tariffs on 100 billion USD worth of Chinese imports on top of earlier measures, the words used was “to fight till the end” and “at all costs”, even though, curiously, China has so far refrained from announcing its counter measures against Trump’s 100 billion “bluff”. If the country opts to follow suit in a one-eye-for-one-eye manner, it would mean a near blanket 25% tariff on all US imports (In 2017, total imports from the US amounted to 130 billion USD).In this sense, being rhetorically strong but substantively vague is all but rational.

Where official intentions remain ambivalent underneath the confrontational posture, social media is itching to offer some clarity. The trade war creates a rare spectacle of a massive Internet debate on China’s industrial and trade policies, through which one gets a glimpse of the public opinion foundation for China’s own brand of economic nationalism that is growing into an integral component of the increasingly prominent “national rejuvenation” narrative. If Donald Trump’s trade war has any effects, one of them would be uniting the Chinese internet under the flag of industrial self-armament.

Rejuvenation under threat

While the cyberspace was pretty calm about the relatively targeted tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum announced on Mar 8, the following proposal to slap tariffs on another 50 billions worth of Chinese goods, a sure sign of a possible full-blown trade war, ignited the Chinese social media with excitement. As soon as China’s MOFCOM released its list of potential US products targeted for retaliation, online opinion leaders took note of the stark differences in the industries covered by each country’s measures. The Chinese goods and services included in Trump’s proposed levies ranged from industrial robotics to new generation information technologies, whereas China’s matching list consisted almost entirely of agricultural products: pork, fruit and nuts.

There was an almost gleeful response to the comparison. “It’s a trade war between an agricultural economy with an industrial power,” as one commentator put it. This might be a mischaracterization of both the makeup of the US economy and the nature of the trade war. The 10 categories of Chinese products selected by the Trump Administration were there not because they made up majority of Chinese exports now. They represented sectors that could challenge US industrial advantages in the future.

The message was not lost in Chinese online discussions, which seemed to be seized by a mixed sense of pride and threat. The juxtaposition of the two countries’ tariff lists quickly developed into a theory about what the trade war was really about: it was seen as an attempt to undermine China’s rise as a developed industrial power, with industries capable of competing at the highest level. “The trade war is but one interlude in China’s rise as a great power,” one commentator wrote in a long Weibo post.

Fluxing China’s engineering muscles has increasingly become part of broader patriotic propaganda in China. In 2013, a CCTV documentary series, “The Pillars of a Great Power“, amplified the “engineering equals national strength” narrative in the public’s mind. In Mao’s era, when China faced severe economic blockade from the rest of the world, developing its industrial might was often associated with achieving self-sufficiency. Today, honing China’s manufacturing capabilities has attained new significance: asserting China’s global competitiveness. The documentary, co-produced with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology(MIIT), the government body overseeing the implementation of “Made in China 2025” strategy, was a tour de force of Chinese equipment manufacturing companies already occupying advantageous positions in their respective value chains: heavy duty bulldozers, high efficiency power generators, industrial robots. In one episode, a Chinese corporate executive recollected how, years ago, he and his colleagues got belittled by German engineers at a trade fair. By 2013 his company, a producer of cranes, was competing head to head with that German company globally. Similar accounts of an underdog fighting its way up abound in the series.

More recently, another CCTV made documentary “Amazing China“(the title is more literally translated as “Awesome, My Country!”) hit cinemas right before trade war talks began to heat up. The movie featured Chinese feats in building roads, bridges, high-speed trains, ports and networks. It was a visual manifestation of “industrial nationalism” at full play.

The propaganda shaped the national psyche when confronted with Trump’s provocation. The fact that the 10 sectors targeted by the US government were taken directly out of China’s catalogue of industries supported under the “Made in China 2025” strategy only intensified those sentiments. Zhanhao, one of the most-read grassroots nationalist accounts on social media, penned an incendiary Weibo post declaring that the trade war was the US’s desperate effort to “keep China in the bondage of low-end industries to be eternally exploited by the US hegemony, technologically and financially.”

Less melodramatic voices, which would not go so far as to brand Trump’s move as a calculated “Cold War” strategy to suffocate China, nevertheless saw it as a real trap in the way of a great national ascent. Multiple commentators pointed to Japan as a cautionary tale of the kind of unforced mistakes a country could make under the pressure of a trade war. “China is approaching the same sensitive spot where Japan was 30 years ago, in terms of population trends and economic conditions”, one observer noted. Improper response could cost China dearly, even ushering in its own version of the “lost decade”. He listed the four “wrong responses” China should absolutely avoid: restart real estate bubbling to hedge the potential loss of trade surplus; halt de-leveraging efforts due to external pressure; encourage households to take on more debt to boost consumption; reduce government support on new strategic industries to appease the US.

National strength vs. free trade

The conversation marks a notable departure from how trade issues have been discussed on the Chinese Internet. For years, online opinion leaders tend to hold the view that China should open its door wider, which would benefit consumers with cheaper and better imported goods and services, and, more importantly, exert much needed external pressure on the inert state-owned sector.

A 2015 article on FT Chinese summarized those sentiments. Two generations of Chinese leaders, from Deng Xiaoping to Zhu Rongji, had relied on a determined charge toward opening to integrate the country with the global market and inject much-needed energy and a sense of urgency into the reform process. Deng unleashed the nation’s productivity by removing shackles of the planned economy. Zhu spurred the system further by negotiating China’s way into the World Trade Organization (WTO). “Reformers have since then used China’s agreed deadline to meet its WTO commitments to accelerate domestic reforms of the state-owned sector and the expansion of the private sector.”

Those sentiments erupted at a few key moments in recent years, including when the negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) neared fruition in 2015, and when China’s 15-year grace period under WTO expired in 2016. Those moments invariably triggered public scrutiny of China’s fulfillment of its pledge to open up its markets, which would make desirable imported item, from cars to Hollywood films, more accessible to domestic consumers. One recurring theme in those discussions was a complaint that China never actually met its promises to the WTO, effectively taking advantage of its trading partners by winning access to their markets while restricting entrance to its own. “When China entered WTO in 2001, probably no Chinese took the 15-year deadline seriously… Nobody believed China would pay any price for violating the contract, ” a 2016 Weibo post by Huang Zhangjin, a veteran journalist and editor noted.

The pro-opening stance reemerged in the current debate in the form of support for Trump’s actions against China. A few dovish commentators said things like “Donald Trump is a godsend gift to China” and that “Chinese consumers would benefit the most from the trade war,” given the expected lowering of tariffs for imported goods and freer flow of capital and services. Some pleaded “surrender” and “compromise”, arguing that China’s unreasonable industrial policies should have been scrapped a long time ago.

But with “national rejuvenation” talks in the ascent this time around, such “capitulation-ist” voices got challenged, their core premises explicitly picked apart. “That China did not fulfill its WTO promises was a myth fabricated by the TPP camp (a trade bloc of nations excluding China),” one Weibo post stated after a Vice Minister of MOFCOM claimed that China had allowed access to 120 WTO designated business sectors, way more than the 100 it had agreed to open in 2001. In a lengthy WeChat post, Prof. Cui Fan of the University of Foreign Commerce and Trade traced the “myth” to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a US think tank that produced a “misleading” list of China’s WTO entrance commitments. To the astonishment and dismay of the author, the “fabricated” list was translated and widely circulated in the Chinese cyberspace as evidence of China’s dishonest behavior. He quoted former WTO Director General Lamy as confirming, in multiple occasions, that China had fully met its commitments upon its entry into the trade club, and it was the United States whose number of violations way surpassed that of China. The issue of whether those commitments, made almost 17 years ago when the Chinese economy was way weaker than it is now, are inadequate by today’s standard, should be treated separately and “through re-negotiation.”

A telling sign of the turning tide in Chinese public opinion is social media reactions to Elon Musk’s open complaint to Donald Trump about China’s “unfair” treatment of foreign car companies.   In early March, the founder of Tesla sent out a few tweets, addressed to Trump, protesting China’s high import car tariff (25%) and coercive joint venture rules. To be clear, these restrictions, as highlighted by the above WeChat post, do not violate WTO rules, which allow developing countries to put up protection measures for their nascent industries. And Musk, despite his otherwise popularity on Chinese social media as a cultural hero, got a fair amount of ridicule for his comments. People questioned why he bellyached about the situation when other foreign car companies formed profitable joint ventures in China. Instead of supporting Musk’s plea to lower the bar for entering the Chinese market, which would potentially lower the price of imported vehicles for Chinese consumers, many opinion leaders spontaneously ran to the defense of Chinese policies nurturing its own EV industry.

ZTE complication and the “developmental state”

On Apr 10, President Xi Jinping delivered a closely watched keynote speech at the Boao Forum, re-affirming China’s commitment to global cooperation and to market openness. “Opening brings progress, while a closed door means backwardness,” the Chinese leader told his audience before announcing a series of market opening measures, including lowering import car tariffs. The second day, a MOFCOM spokesperson had to fend off interpretations of the speech as a concession to Trump’s threat, claiming that it represented a long-standing Chinese position on trade issues.

Even though it’s hard to believe that the speech was not some form of response to the trade war, there was detailed analysis showing that the high-handedness was indeed in line with earlier decisions made by the leadership, way before Trump got elected. Later developments, however, would soon put that commitment to test. 6 days after Xi’s appearance at Boao, a decision by the US Department of Commerce would send shockwaves across China and force the Chinese society into an intense round of soul-searching about its industrial ambitions.

On Apr 16, US secretary of commerce Wilbur Ross Jr. activated a “denial order” against ZTE, a Chinese telecom conglomerate, which would essentially bar any US company from exporting components and services to the Chinese company for 7 years. ZTE was accused of lying repeatedly to the US government while the denial order was in suspension after it paid a billion dollar fine and reached a deal with US authorities in Mar 2017 for violating US embargo to Iran and North Korea (it exported products containing US technology to the two countries).

The severity of the punishment already became clear on Apr 15, when a slew of US microchip suppliers, including Qualcomm, Intel and IBM, informed ZTE that they would terminate contracts, sending the latter’s production lines to a grinding halt. “The US denial of export could knock us into a coma,” ZTE’s President Yin Yimin told reporters at an Apr 20 press conference. An industry insider told Caixin magazine that ZTE’s microchip inventory wouldn’t last for another month.

The company’s predicament exposed just how vulnerable China’s telecom industry was to upstream supply shocks like this. Notwithstanding their reputation as pioneers of the country’s manufacturing upgrade and global competitiveness, players like ZTE and Huawei, which are able to compete head-to-head with traditional industry giants such as Cisco and Ericsson, nevertheless have to source core components of its products almost entirely from outside China. A widely shared chart showed the pathetic rate of domestic availability for a host of semiconductor chips.

Even though legally speaking the ZTE episode was a separate matter from the on-going trade war (investigation of its behavior started in Obama years), it inevitably got intertwined with trade war debates in Chinese social media. Ironically, the news made some nationalists almost ecstatic. Zhou Xiaoping, a notoriously provocative figure, openly celebrated the US ban as an “enormously positive development” that would force China to cast aside illusions about global interdependence and concentrate on creating its own microchips, “the spring has come for home-made chips!” Others even cited Mao-era philosophy to justify a return to complete industrial self-reliance. For economic nationalists, the incident only affirmed their belief that it was an all-out attack on China’s grand industrial ascendance. “This is a US plot to stave off China’s momentum of attaining dominance in 5G telecom technologies. The Americans are scared and desperate,” Global Times’s editor in chief Hu Xijin asserted as he mobilized support for ZTE on Weibo.

China’s state media, People’s Daily in particular, quickly distanced themselves from this brand of economic isolationism. It openly criticized Zhou’s view for being “extreme”, as it presented domestic R&D and international cooperation as “mutually exclusive”. On the other hand, the propaganda outlet also raised the flag of economic security by declaring that China would develop its own chip industry “at all cost”, after the painful realization that China is still very much at the mercy of a supply chain controlled by technologically more advanced countries.

“Extreme views” aside, ZTE’s troubles seemed to have pushed official stance and public opinion to converge on one key point: that China needs to build its own competitive processor industry. One Weibo user claimed that building the processor industry had become the new “political correctness” on the Chinese Internet. Public support for state nurturing of the industry was at all-time high. The difference was only on the question of how. In a long blog post, Liang Ning, a researcher who was deeply involved in China’s botched effort to develop its own CPU and operation system around 2001, advocated for massive government investment to be run in the fashion of venture capitals. The lesson she generated from the unsuccessful bid to open a new path not blocked by the Windows/Intel hegemony 17 years ago was insufficient funding into the field and the need for a domestically cultivated hardware/software ecosystem, which could only be achieved through an enhanced “natural selection” process on a massive scale.

Others did not agree. Government-run “venture capitals” are doomed to fail, as bureaucrats would certainly abuse their “permission to fail”, one commentator predicted. Only a genuinely incentivized healthy capital market can rise to the occasion of picking the right winners. Wu Jinglian, one of the most well-respected liberal economists, openly warned about the “danger of a state-led campaign to develop the semiconductor industry at all cost.” The old man was worried that corruptive administrative power would use the excuse to plug itself deeper into the economy. The alarmed voice found some resonance on social media, which was full of accounts of wasteful government R&D spending and the 2003 Hanxin scandal, where a former Motorola executive cheated the entire Chinese science and technology establishment by claiming to have developed China’s first 180nm chip, which turned out to be purchased Motorola products.

Nevertheless, advocates insisted that the Chinese state had a very big role to play, if not directly handing out cash to the industry. They pointed to China’s East Asian neighbors, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan as examples of “enlightened” industrial policies that led to the taking off of their respective semiconductor industries, with Samsung and TSMC now dominating the field. One commentator even came up with a full roadmap for how China’s weak microchip industry could catch up with its South Korean and Taiwanese competitors through strategic financial support from the government. The key, according to such views, was for government to help its high-potential corporates withstand the industry’s cruel business cycles: subsidize them to lower cost when they need to fight uphill price wars to snatch market shares from dominant players, reap benefits during high-demand booming years and patiently wait for an era-changing moment to complete a leapfrog. These once-in-a-generation moments came when email substituted fax and smartphones replaced PC. The next one, many believe, would be when custom AI chips become more widely used than generic processors.

No matter what route China takes with its chip industry, many commentators seem to share one presumption: it has to happen within the context of a global value chain, a functional capital market and strategic government intervention. In a 2016 article by Fudan University scholar Tang Shiping, he summarized the key factors contributing to a successful “developmental state”, a concept first advanced by Chalmers Johnson in the 1980s in his groundbreaking book about the “Japan Miracle”. Tang emphasized that an effective developmental state should play by the rules of a market economy, set industrial policies that take into account international division of labor, and most importantly, serve as a “helping hand” for a vigorous private sector, not a control-all planning machine.

This is the kind of thinking that Maoist isolationists don’t get, and neo-classic liberal economists, suspicious of all forms of state intervention, too readily dismiss. But increasingly, this is the message that the likes of People’s Daily send, and around which a social media consensus is growing: China needs strong state-guided industries that embrace the market and globalization.

Epilogue

On May 3, a high-level US delegation landed in Beijing. Chinese media described the visit as the “touching down of hawks”, as the team consisted of the most ardent China-bashers of the Trump administration: Robert Lighthizer, the US trade representative, White House trade and manufacturing adviser Peter Navarro, and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross Jr. In a leaked “draft framework” brought to the table by the American side, the hawks demanded China to reduce its trade surplus with the United States by “at least 200 billion dollars by the end of 2020,” and “immediately cease providing market-distorting subsidies and other types of government support” to industries under the Made in China 2025 industrial plan.

The proposal was met with laughter and dismissal by Chinese netizens. “Those Americans came here just to poke fun at us,” as one financial observer quipped, “do not harbor any illusion about the intention of those American rightists.” Another Weibo user noted the short stay of the delegation, only for an afternoon, “this is not a negotiation. It’s declaration of a war using the trade dispute as harbinger.”

Trump’s negotiators might have misunderstood China’s state-directed economy. In a recent event, Lou Jiwei, a former Finance Minister said of the arbitrary surplus reduction target as “planned economy style” when China itself had all but given up on rigid GDP targets. They might have also underestimated the public support for the government’s industrial upgrade strategy, in part mobilized by US provocation. “If Made in China 2025 is negotiable, this Chinese administration might as well dress-up in Qing Dynasty costumes,” joked a Weibo commentator.

In response to the US proposal, the Chinese side, led by vice premier Liu He, suggested a list of counter-measures, which included cancelation of Trump’s proposed penalizing tariffs, adjustment of the ZTE denial order and a commitment to not initiate any future Section 301 investigation against China. The two sides held “constructive” discussions,  and agreed to disagree. No deal was reached, no victory declared by either side. The hawks left Beijing, leaving behind a nation more alerted and vigilant than ever about staying its course toward regained glory.

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In search of Tang Lanlan

Tang Lanlan

Almost ten years ago, in a remote part of northeast China bordering Russia in Heilongjiang province, something like an earthquake shook a small village of only 280 residents. On Oct 28, 2008, police raided the village and arrested 16 villagers. The charges were stunning and deeply disturbing. The arrested, most of them related to each other, were accused of sexually abusing, raping and gang raping a little girl called Tang Lanlan (pseudonym) for 8 years beginning when she was only 6. These people included her own father, grandfather, uncles and mother (for openly pimping her to other males in the village). Someone who read the court’s verdict on the case later told a reporter that the whole thing “read like porno fiction”.

By January 2018, a few of the convicts had served their jail sentences. The girl’s grandfather had died after being placed in custody. Now some of them, including her mother, are seeking redress for a crime they say they did not commit.

On Jan 30, the Shanghai-based online news outlet, the Paper, published a story titled “Finding Tang Lanlan“. The report followed Tang’s mother, Wan Xiuling, as she embarked on a journey to try to locate her daughter and “seek justice” for herself and her fellow family members. It highlighted the incongruities in the case, including two conflicting abortion records from the same hospital issued on the same day and the mutually contradictory testimonies of Tang and her “step-mother”, the owner of a private student dormitory and the girl’s de-facto custodian while she was at a junior high school far from home. The latter had helped her report the case to the local police but offered various versions of when she actually learned of Tang’s story. The Paper‘s report at the end focused on the supposed “mystery” of Tang’s disappearance. Official records showed that she had moved out of her parents’ household, to a different city.

But should Ms. Wan be able to find her daughter Tang Lanlan?

Many people reading the Paper‘s report were at once appalled and confused. By leaning heavily on Wan’s side of the story, the journalist did not address readers’ understandable puzzlement about why so many villagers were locked up by the police if, as Wan claimed, the whole thing was either a fabrication or a horrible misunderstanding. On what basis would the local police, the prosecution and the court trust the words of a poor 14-year-old girl if without any evidence? The report posed the question, but failed to point to alternative explanations for the shocking allegations.

Most observers of the Chinese media would admit that the report was flawed. It readily adopted the point of view of a convicted criminal without balancing it with other perspectives from the victim or the prosecution. Some critics pointed out that editors at the Paper might have been too excited about the sensationalism of the story to uphold basic journalistic standards. They bought too much into Wan’s narrative without considering the general “humanitarian environment of social media” today: netizens tend to sympathize with victims, especially in cases of sexual assaults.

More sympathetic voices probably would argue that in the current media environment of China, insisting on having the other side of the story, especially if the other side was the authorities, would be asking too much of a news organization. The investigation could easily get stonewalled, or worse, censored before it hit newsstands (or phone screens) if “the other side” felt questioned and threatened by potential media exposure. As if to prove the validity of this argument, a Southern Weekly report on the same case played out in this way (report was deleted). Unlike his peers at the Paper, the Southern Weekly reporter did a thorough job of interviewing Tang’s step-parents and sources inside local law enforcement. The article depicted a more rounded picture of the case, including new details such as torturing allegations against the police and what looked like Tang’s attempt to extort money from her aunt. But the piece was killed before the newspaper went to print, probably for shining an unfavorable spotlight on the local prosecution. The journalist had to post it on his own WeChat channel (which was censored again). Ironically, the flawed Paper piece, probably because of its “personal story” structure, got a green light.

Experienced observers were able to spot the mismatch between the form of the Paper‘s reporting and its substance. “The gravity and magnitude of the case warrants an in-depth investigative piece. Yet the paper opted for a format more befitting a hotline scoop about a regular family dispute.” And The poor reporting could be blamed on the drain of investigative talents that many Chinese media outlets experienced in recent years, due to a mixture of tough censorship and market forces, or it could be a conscious sacrifice of quality to be on the safe side.

If the debate had been restricted to the realm of journalistic professionalism, the case wouldn’t have sucked up so much oxygen on the Chinese Internet for an extended period of time before the Chinese New Year. As soon as the paper’s report was out, an accusation much more serious than “editorial quality control” was laid upon the publication and the journalist who wrote the report. In the story, Wang Le, the reporter, included a piece of hukou information (China’s residential registration) about Tang, with a few items partially crossed out to hide her exact identity. But certain critics were alarmed by the possibility that the girl might be tracked down with that partial information and be exposed to the risk of revenge by those newly released from jail. A storm quickly formed online that would devour Wang Le, the Paper, and the entire media circle.

The “privacy violation” argument had so much traction on line that many social media heavyweights quickly joined the chorus to condemn the Paper. Soon the accusation was blown to weird proportions. There were calls to manhunt the journalist (exposing HER personal information in the process), to punish the publication by making complaints to the authorities, or outright to lock up Wang Le.

The ferocity of the attack was distilled in the much-used slur “prosti-journalist“(as in “prostitute-journalist”, jizhe), playing with the similar pronunciations of the two professions in Chinese. All of a sudden, a large part of China’s online community was asking for the banning of the very media outlets whose existence was supposed to protect their interests.

As a genre, legal reporting is often considered one of the areas where the Chinese idea of “public opinion supervision”(yulun jiandu) is best manifested. It is also an area where the most experienced and capable journalistic talents are employed to document, scrutinize and question judicial proceedings and their consequences, creating a rare channel of interaction between the state and general society on matters of justice. Some of the historic reforms of China’s legal system in recent years, such as the abolishment of “shelter and repatriation”(a form of extrajudicial detainment), were also celebrated as landmarks in journalism. That dynamic was still playing out less than 3 years ago, when the retrial of the Nie Shubin case was received with dramatically different public sentiments. In that gruesome 1994 rape and murder case, the young Nie Shubin was quickly arrested, convicted and executed. 20 years later, the young man’s death sentence was questioned and revisited by the Supreme Court, after relentless pleading by Nie’s family and a journalistic marathon (lasting for more than a decade) by the country’s media. The forensic and procedural flaws of the original police investigation were the subject of great social media outrage. And yet in the Tang Lanlan case, netizens were surprisingly livid about journalists “daring” to ask questions about a “concluded case”.

Some saw this stiffening of attitude against critical media reports of sexual abuse cases as a kind of “over-compensation” for the chronic absence of justice for victims of similar aggressions. Netizens just wanted to believe that the convicted had been duly punished for their crime and felt offended when that belief was challenged. The intense emotional attachment can be attributed to a string of recent incidents that shaped public perception of the experience of rural victims of sexual abuse. Roughly a year ago, the jaw-dropping revelation about the Ma Panyan sisters in Chongqing rattled Chinese social media. When very young, the three girls were sold by their step father to villagers as “child-wives”, and were raped, abused and gave birth before reaching adulthood. The local authorities not only certified the “marriages”, but also dodged calls to hold the step-father and “husbands” accountable for human trafficking and rape after one of the sisters made their tragedy public on Weibo. Earlier, the Hebei government’s unwise move to publicly honor a rural school teacher for her “dedication” drew fierce net-wide criticism and ridicule. The school teacher had been abducted, raped and forced to marry a local villager. She chose to accept her fate and stayed. But the fact that her nightmarish life story was made into a beautifying movie (A Women Married to the Mountain) and later endorsed by the local government was a source of great disgust and became a permanent point of reference on the Internet.

Other cultural factors may have also played into the online perception about the case. China’s Northeast, the country’s rust belt, has seen its reputation plummet in recent years as its state-owned economy suffered. With the region’s economic decline, the public sphere is increasingly filled with tales of a morality collapse, of the people there losing their grip on the ethical codes that hold communities together. In early 2016, a Caijing journalist’s sensational account of the disturbing moral conditions of his hometown in the countryside of Northeast (e.g. married women seeking casual sex online) got him stripped of his journalistic credentials for fabricating facts and denigrating the region. This time, many netizens found the bizarre case entirely plausible in the Northeastern context and even used foreign movies such as Nicole Kidman’s Dogville to spark their imagination.

Women’s right advocates online, whose efforts helped make the Ma Panyan case more visible, were split over how to respond. Some readily joined with others to condemn and curse the media. Others were more nuanced in their criticism, maintaining that a “due process and a professional, just judicial system are preconditions of women’s rights protection”, cautioning that the critique should not undermine the Chinese media’s (dwindling) ability to run critical reports that hold the judiciary accountable. But both positions were challenged by the view that these feminists were merely reinforcing the social stigma attached to rape victims. Instead of contesting the idea that suffering sexual assault was a kind of shame on the part of the victim, they inherited the cultural bias and insisted that the victim be permanently buried as fugitives from society.

In a world where media organizations are under attack from all corners, “Fake News” allegations from the US President being a prominent example, it is not entirely surprising that Chinese publications like the Paper enjoy their share of disparagement. What’s remarkable is that in China, supposedly benevolent forces in society have now joined the censors in squeezing the already curtailed space for media operations. In the name of privacy for a rape victim, netizens unload their fury on the media, leaving long time observers to marvel at the new reality that Chinese journalism has to inhabit.

The new reality means that in addition to being censored and destroyed, reports can also be deconstructed faster than a legitimate line of journalistic pursuit can be established. The Paper‘s piece was not so much blocked and deleted as it was thoroughly disabled and deactivated by seemingly sophisticated critiques. The feminist argument undermined not just the Paper‘s legitimacy in going along the “wrongful judgment” route, but the entire line of questioning by the media as a whole. So when other newspapers, such as Beijing News, followed up and tried to bring more facts to the table (it managed to get multiple law enforcement officers to comment on the case on record), they were also immediately hamstrung by a very hostile online environment that saw such inquiries as a form of violence against the victim. Critiques from journalistic perspectives did not make things any better. Beyond criticisms of quality control, commentators knowledgeable about media practices drilled into how the report came about in the first place and the “hidden motives” in the media’s agenda-setting attempt, claiming it was a collusion between the convicts’ defense lawyer and the newspapers to upend well-deserved verdicts.

Defenders of the media were left scrambling to adapt and find their footing. Some of them, including very prominent ones such as Rose Luqiu, felt the need to concede to the journalist’s wrongdoing before they could offer a defense of the media’s broader role of challenging problematic legal cases. The environment was tough enough for the Chinese media. They should be allowed the space to err on the side of the greater good. But the readiness to throw fellow journalists under the bus raised eyebrows. Defenders were seen to kowtow to the tyranny of online trolling and to offer cliched, one-thing-fits-all support of the press without addressing the specific dilemmas it faced in this particular case.

The Paper withdrew the report from its website amid mounting criticism. Beijing News defiantly continued to publish new materials on the case, but its Weibo account was muted by the platform for a few days. And representatives of the Supreme Procuratorate reportedly met with two of the newly released and their lawyer. The High Court of Heilongjiang province, on the other hand, denied reports that it had initiated processes for a retrial. No one, at least for now, managed to get hold of Tang Lanlan. If the girl has been watching all this from somewhere, she might feel vindicated that so many total strangers have spoken up on her behalf. Or, she might be appalled by the magnitude of the online storm that left behind a massive field of weird debris upon which the rest of her life needs to be built.

The class allegiance of China’s de facto voters

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“19 people dead and no one is lighting up virtual candles, no one is discussing system (reform) and human nature, no one is talking about policy and its implementation… No pressure is put on the government. It shows the cold-bloodedness of the middle-class de facto voters.”  So wrote a Weibo commentator on Nov 20, 2017.

Two days earlier, a terrible fire ravaged an apartment building on the periphery of Beijing, killing 19 residents, including 8 children. The neighborhood was located in a “village within the city”, a Chinese euphemism for slum. The victims were mostly poor migrant workers and their families. The news did not initially draw much attention, which led the above commentator to lament about the bourgeois limitation of online rage: urban middle class people only cared when their peers were affected.

There is truth to that statement, especially when recent events are taken into account. Over the summer in 2017, Chinese social media was mourning the death of four members of a Hangzhou family (3 kids and their mother) in a fire, the result of intentional arson by their housekeeper. As the husband and father of that household, Lin Shengbin, waged a poignant and noble online campaign against his real estate managers, whom he accused of negligence (the victims’ bodies were found almost 2 hours after firefighters arrived at the scene), hundreds of thousands came to his support. People lit virtual candles for the family and heatedly debated improvement of fire safety rules.

What’s notable is that the Hangzhou family did not live in a battered working class neighborhood prone to fire and other hazards. Theirs was one of the city’s most expensive gated residential neighborhoods. The response created by Lin’s call for justice was as much about sympathy for a family tragedy as about shattered confidence in the safety of the living conditions of millions of property owners in big Chinese cities who had paid dearly for their apartments and houses.

The case occupied media headlines for as long as a month, forcing the Hangzhou government to respond in a high profile way, which reinforced an increasingly powerful narrative that despite being non-democratic, Chinese authorities are somehow held accountable by the opinions of the propertied urban middle class, which is, pathetically, blinded by the narrow interests of their own social stratum.

That limitation is felt in issue after issue, from social welfare to the environment. The Daxing fire occurred at the same time that Chinese social media was barely recovering from the shock from a child abuse scandal at (again) a high-end Beijing kindergarten (monthly tuition stood at RMB 5500, or USD 900). Parents, enraged by rumors of their kids being needled and molested, demanded answers from the kindergarten and the education authorities. The outcry appeared to have completely consumed the Internet, blinding it to the fire tragedy just miles away that killed impoverished children. Later, Beijing’s effort to clean up its polluted air this winter, a move widely seen as a response to mounting pressure from the vocal middle class, reportedly caused poor villagers from neighboring Hebei to suffer from a shortage of fuel for heating: they were forced to stop burning coal without being given a stable supply of alternative natural gas.

For years, China’s expanding urban middle class has been entrusted with the hope that it may push the society toward greater openness and better governance. And it has, to an extent. Besides the improving air quality of big cities, the pressure is also believed to have made food production healthier and the government more transparent. It is often assumed that, with a larger number of citizens conscious of their interests and rights, who won’t be readily silenced or marginalized, those in power will need to reconfigure their way of dealing with the society (or their “de facto voters”).

But increasingly that progressive image is eroded by the realization that sometimes the same consciousness of interests and rights generates less expansive and inclusive values. It is well documented that Not-In-My-Back-Yard protests against polluting industrial projects, albeit potent, often just push the projects to places with less organized resistance and a more vulnerable environment. And previously this blog has taken note of the ugly yet strong nativist sentiments in Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai, which treat public goods such as roads and schools as exclusive privilege.

Up to November 20th, 2017, the fire that devoured 19 lives appeared to only affirm that wintry indictment of the Chinese middle class. But later developments would challenge that narrative and demonstrate how internet debates actively recalibrate the moral compass of the Chinese online community.

Days after the devastating fire, the Beijing municipal authorities came up with a drastic measure to solve the fire safety problem once and for all: to evacuate all the under-standard residential compounds on the outskirts of Beijing. As if trying to compensate for the inaction which might have contributed to the fire, it acted forcefully this time. Tenants were given very short notice, some in the matter of a day, to move out of their apartments. Many had to scramble for new housing, not easy to be arranged in such short time, and were rendered homeless overnight. On the Chinese Internet, videos of a massive exodus out of residential squalor began to emerge. Media reports zoomed in on those who were forced to move in freezing cold weather, producing touching stories of migrant parents and kids thrown out of their homes, some of them having to leave behind their “Beijing dream” and head back to their backwater hometowns.

As if suddenly awakened from its original silence over the incident, the Chinese Internet greeted the harsh measures with universal condemnation. In addition to those media outlets which dispatched journalists to cover the much-censored story, some of whom witnessed midnight evictions firsthand, more than one hundred intellectuals signed an open letter to the Party leadership accusing the campaign of egregiously violating human rights and dignity. The letter was swiftly removed from the web. Nevertheless, its spirit upwelled across cyberspace, and spread from online to the offline world. Before long, people started to organize support groups through WeChat that provided temporary accommodation to those who had no place to stay. Small businesses, including restaurants and family hotels, put out advertisements offering free lodging to new hires. “The massive urban cleansing campaigns that happened around the world in the 20th century was in the end no longer accepted by 21st century Chinese public opinion,” declared one Weibo commentator.

The controversy created an opening for elaborate discussions of the social fabrics that connect the urban middle class with its often-neglected migrant brothers and sisters. It produced touching first-hand accounts of the emotional bonding on a personal level and also in-depth looks at the fundamental economic and ethical basis for a more inclusive, not exclusive, urbanization process. One of the widely read media stories around the time was titled “O2O is slowing down“, which highlighted how the eviction campaign was shaking the foundation of the new Chinese urban lifestyle based on low cost online services (O2O stands for online-to-offline services), from meal delivery to e-shopping. As migrant package delivers and Didi drivers busied themselves with house hunting, urban dwellers found their orders unanswered. The lubricant of a convenient, affordable machine of service run on hundreds of thousands human beings running around the city came to a sudden halt.

As criticizing the campaign directly on a human rights basis became a sensitive undertaking and faced severe censorship, commentators turned to the economic dimension of the issue to earn more space for discussion. Beyond the shock to the Internet economy, a broader issue arose which touched on the rationale for the whole “beautification” of Beijing. “The obsession with urban cleanness that places excessive emphasis on the visuals is affecting the inclusiveness of urbanization,” criticized Li Tie, an economist with the NDRC-affiliated CCUD, in a very polite think-tank manner. Before, netizens had dug up a speech by Beijing’s Party Secretary Cai Qi two months earlier claiming that his government would “restore the majestic spatial order of the capital”, and “reinstate the unparalleled masterful plan of the ancient city.” The ambitious plan involved lowering the density of the population, construction, tourism and business in city central to “quiet Beijing down.” The speech was widely seen as laying the ground for the massive eviction, which critics claimed was against the universal law of urbanization.

Expert voices on Weibo challenged the campaign as economically unsound. Shutting down seemingly chaotic urban slums would block the low-cost buffer zones that millions use as their first entry point into a city life, therefore impeding the “sustainable process of urbanization”, as Tongji University professor Zhu Dajian puts it. In a widely shared article, influential Peking University economist Zhou Qiren argued that Beijing’s clean-up campaign was turning away “poverty alleviation opportunities that show up on its doorstep.” In the past few years, the country’s leadership has made “targeted poverty alleviation” a signature initiative. In Zhou’s view, the scale and dense population of a megacity makes unskilled jobs that are otherwise unprofitable, such as bottle scavenging, economically viable, therefore providing millions of poor migrants a way to support themselves. Instead of running expensive poverty reduction programs in remote parts of China, why not let these people lift themselves out of poverty while they are already in the capital city?

The discussion serves as an antidote not just to the narrow nativism that still occasionally surfaces (certain Beijing natives celebrated the eviction as long overdue), it also confronts a more deep-rooted social Darwinism that some believe has infected much of the thinking of the country’s elites. The outburst of disapproval of the term “low-end population”(diduan renkou) is one indication of such pushback. According to an online “archeological” piece tracing its origin (which was deleted), the discriminative term appears to be a massive slip of the tongue by China’s local governments. There is no evidence that the central government used the term in any official way, but it did appear in documents issued by lower level bureaucracies (district departments of Beijing, for instance). More likely, it is a shortened version of the “population employed by low-end industries”, a term with a much less Nazi eugenics-like connotation. But as any slip of the tongue may imply, the abridgment, some suspect, reveals the “sub-conscious” of those who use it. In an article on the Hongkong-based Initium Media, scholar Cheng Yinghong was blunt about “the ominous signs of social Darwinist politics” in China. He believed that such politics would need to constantly seek “losers” to sacrifice, while making the survivors feel righteously entitled and deserving.

Cheng’s warning found its validation in a Weibo post by “sunplantist”, an influential blogger, the day after the fire. Titled “You are at the bottom of the society, that’s your problem“, the author, with an extremely broad stroke, cast the human society as nothing more than a jungle with only two species, the “haves” and “have-nots”.  “The haves will only share their resources when technology advancement makes revolts by the have-nots a real threat. Democracy is a rational move by the haves to placate the have-nots.” But there will always be have-nots and no well-intentioned social justice policies can save them. Until they can rob the haves of their power, the only thing those poor people can do is to self-help and “change the micro-environment around themselves.”

While the popularity of such “no-bullshit” straight talk reflects the psychological foundation of a Darwinist world view, the strong backlash shows the vitality of the counter-force on social media that still bears the torch of progressive enlightenment in the Chinese society. Major microbloggers, in response to the above post, laid out articulated arguments about why the Law of the Jungle was not and should not be the organizing principle of human society. Taking care of the “have-nots” is not just ethically the right thing to do, but also rationally a better choice for the society as a whole.

Nothing captures the middle class psyche in the winter of 2017 better than a piece of satire: “The fence of the middle class has collapsed.” In an almost allegorical post, the author presents imagery that consists of a hellish blood pool, middle class garden and castle of high power. The child abuse scandal marks the fall of the garden’s fence, giving the complacent bourgeois a taste of the hell just outside. But in a dark twist of the allegory, those traumatized middle class people chose to pay slightly more to erect a stronger fence, while never courageous enough to challenge the Olympian puppet masters living in the high castle. Only history will tell if this characterization of the Chinese middle class is prophetically accurate or shortsightedly cynical. For now, those in power seem still reasonably willing to entertain the prevailing sentiments of their “de facto voters”. On November 27th, the Beijing Party Secretary instructed his subordinates to “leave sufficient time for the mass to relocate.”

Soft Power, Hard Sell

Wolf Warrior

This summer, the Chinese cinema was not short of home-made explosives. Military-themed Chinese movies marked the PLA’s 90th birthday, and thanks to the Domestic Film Protection Month, no Hollywood blockbusters or other foreign movies diverted the attention of Chinese moviegoers.

One such film, The Founding of an Army, was supposed to be the feature of the month. It is based on Party legend about the Aug 1, 1927 military uprising in Nanchang, Jiangxi province that gave birth to the Communist Party’s force which later became the People’s Liberation Army. The movie joined The Founding of a Republic (2009) and The Founding of a Party (2011) as the final piece in the Founding Trilogy dedicated to the Communist Party’s struggle to establish New China in the first half of the 20th century. Apart from its ideological purity, the movie boasts an all-star cast that includes some of the most popular names with the country’s millennials, a sign of the filmmakers’ intention to win the eyes and ears, if not already the hearts and minds, of a younger generation. In today’s China, the second largest film market in the world, the Party’s blessing alone is not sufficient guarantee of box office dominance. The majority of viewers need to be lured, rather than forced, to see a movie. In this regard, ideological purity could be a liability

The film’s embarrassing marketing blunders underscore this challenge. At one point, online promotional materials included posters that branded the Communist military heroes as Chinese Avengers, and claimed that the movie was as good as the best gangster films in Hong Kong (the director, Liu Weiqiang, happens to be famous for gangster movies). This drew wide ridicule from netizens. The film’s casting of young idols to play Communist leaders such as Ju Qiubai and Ye Ting, an apparent attempt to tap into the enormous fandom they command, also met with harsh criticism from descendants of the Founding heroes. One of them, film director Ye Daying, the grandson of Ye Ting, attacked the actor who played his grandfather as “a sissy who can’t even stand straight”.

While The Founding of an Army had to tread a precariously narrow line between the need to appeal to star-chasing millennials and to honor political orthodoxy, another movie, stripped from any obligation to historical accuracy, found a potent formula to launch itself into the stratosphere of Chinese blockbusters. Its jaw-dropping box office performance encouraged those who have long sought to shore up China’s cultural “soft power”, and alarmed critics who were sickened by its belligerent message.

Wolf Warrior II, the second installment of a commando-saves-all action movie series created and directed by Chinese Kung Fu star Wu Jing, grossed more than RMB 5 billion in box office revenue four weeks into its debut in late July (it stood at 7.3 billion by early September), becoming the highest earning Chinese movie of all time. Set in a fictional African country torn apart by a bloody civil war and a deadly contagious disease, the movie hero is retired Chinese special force soldier Leng Feng, who single-handedly crushes cold-blooded rebel forces and their even more ruthless mercenaries (who are Caucasians), and leads a band of stranded Chinese workers facing slaughter to safety.

The plot is not new. Moviegoers are well exposed to the kinds of stories that feature super soldiers neutralizing entire armies to accomplish noble goals. Many have compared the film to Hollywood action films such as First Blood and even Captain America. Some attribute its box office success to a level of professional execution that approaches Hollywood blockbusters, still a relatively rare quality in Chinese productions despite ballooning budgets in recent years. The 160 second underwater longshot at the beginning of the movie was applauded by online commentators as a cinematographic feat. Some industry insiders even celebrated it as a sign of the maturation of “mainstream value movies” as a genre. Traditionally, such movies reek of Party propaganda and yield poor box office results. This time, rather than seeing such tricks as a lack of artistic ambition, which is often with the view of propaganda or genre films, commentators were  upbeat about a Chinese movie being able to pull off the showy shots that characterize mature Hollywood productions. “Mainstream value movies make up a major genre in most mature film markets. Any genre has its raison d’etre. You don’t dismiss an entire genre, which invariably contains outstanding and mediocre productions,” says one defender of the movie on Weibo.” As reference, he lists American Sniper, Air Force One and Saving Private Ryan, among others, as standard bearers of so-called mainstream value movies. “American national flags are ubiquitous in such blockbusters.”

In a way the sentiment reflects the harsh reality of the Chinese movie theatre, which is filled with exploitative B movies pretending to be high-budget blockbusters (伪大片). Even the above critics rate Wolf Warrior as a 7 out of 10, a nonetheless decent score given the low average standard. the score is considered particularly hard won for a film that tries to promote a patriotic message, which, as the Founding of an Army shows, isn’t an easy sell for the majority of cinema goers who seek an escapist experience free of clumsy political indoctrination.

One aspect of the Wolf Warrior franchise’s commercial success that’s easily overlooked is its connection with a thriving online military subculture. The movie’s chief screenwriter Fenwuyaorao is one of the most popular authors on qidian.com, a portal for online pop fiction that has generated a sophisticated web of genres and sub-genres. Wolf Warrior has its roots in Bullet Holes (2006), an online novel that tells the story of a young man growing from an army rookie into a super commando. As a genre, such works are often valued for the authenticity in their description of weaponry and battlefield tactics, a major attraction for a predominantly male readership. The author’s ID on qidian.com invokes a sense of awe among his followers, for his grasp of military knowledge. For some of these fans, the author’s name alone is sufficient reason for purchasing a ticket. A manager at Yuewen Group, which owns Qidian.com, proudly declared on Weibo that their authors were among the savviest in terms of “reading” the commercial entertainment market, which is likely true given their close interactions with their reader community compared to more conventional authors of fictional works. As soon as Wolf Warrior II was released, military fans on social media circulated video clips detailing weapons featured in the film, which included Chinese-made submachine guns, tanks, destroyers and the Liaoning Aircraft Carrier. There were also lively discussions about the difference between Chinese and US special forces in terms of their underlying organizing principles, inspired by scenes in the movie.

Clearly the movie’s impact goes way beyond the subcultural community and resonates with a much larger audience. It’s that broader resonance that raises expectations, questions, and eyebrows. “Wu Jing did what the Great Wall failed to do,” declared the Beijing Daily, an ideologically rigid mouthpiece run by the Beijing Municipal Party Committee. (The Great Wall, a 2016 man vs. monster Chinese big budget movie that cast Hollywood stars such as Matt Damon, was an embarrassing box office fiasco both domestically and abroad.) Wolf Warrior II is praised for its “sophisticated commercial storytelling and heroism-centered core values.” The protagonist, an underdog character (he was dismissed from the special force for breaking the law) in search of his beloved girlfriend, is considered “sufficiently sympathetic” for viewers. The up and downs of his adventure follow a tightly woven, Hollywood style heroism narrative that appeals widely. Meanwhile, his embodiment of China’s commitment to peace and to protecting the safety of its citizens globally, advances the values of a rising superpower. All in all, the movie contributes to the “going global of Chinese culture,” said the Beijing Daily commentary. Discussions about the movie convey the idea that “Hollywood production”, once mastered, can be an effective vehicle for the spread of Chinese values, which harkens back to the notion of “Western learning as an application, Chinese learning as a foundation” (中学为体,西学为用) at the beginning of China’s modernization efforts 150 years ago.

The question is whether core Chinese values are really universally appealing, as suggested by the overtly optimistic Beijing Daily. The movie’s actual overseas earnings may tell a different story (it grossed just under 3 million USD in the US market, for example). In the movie, there are multiple scenes that deliberately highlight the exceptional status of the Chinese nationality, which can be off-putting from a non-Chinese point of view. One of the more memorable scenes is when a bus full of Chinese citizens, organized by the Chinese embassy in the fictional African country, cruises through the war-torn capital city late at night towards the port where Chinese naval battleships are waiting. In the darkness, people inside the bus, with tired, solemn faces, watch silently out of the window, where the streets are still burning, and broken dead bodies of African people lie everywhere. The intended contrast between the spaces in and outside the bus cannot be less subtle. Lucky you are Chinese, the message says loud and clear. As if this alone won’t drive the point home, in another scene, the heroine of the film, a Chinese-American doctor, gets frustrated with the US government, which, together with the United Nations, has pulled out of the African country leaving its people behind. Turns out only China stays to take care of its citizens. That theme gets blown up to almost bizarre proportions in a scene where the Chinese manager of a Chinese-owned factory insists on a Chinese-only policy before evacuation, to the outrage of African workers. That’s when Leng Feng, the hero of the movie, declares that everybody should go together, effectively pulling the plot back from the brink of moral disaster.

The message is repeatedly reinforced by the movie’s director and lead actor Wu Jing, who, in numerous appearances and interviews, emphasizes that there is nothing wrong with being patriotic. “The patriotic firewood in the chests of the Chinese audience has been fully dried. All I need to do is to light it up with a match,” he famously told a journalist. He also recounted his humiliating experience in the 1980s when he applied for a visa to visit a foreign country, an inspiration for him to show the cover of a Chinese passport at the end of the movie that says every Chinese should rest assured that your country will come to your protection whenever you are in danger overseas.

The strong message is hard to swallow even for those who otherwise like the movie. “The quality of the production has basically reached 21st century level, but the patriotic part seems to stay in the 1980s. No wonder some viewers feel awkward,” comments the CEO of Sina Weibo. The “Chinese exceptionalism” depicted in the movie, the idea that Chinese citizens somehow enjoy better protection overseas due to their nationality, also runs counter to the real experience of many who actually went through wars and conflicts in Africa. “The Embassy would ask if you held an official passport (for government employees and state-owned companies mainly) or a private one. If it’s the latter, which applies to 99% of Chinese overseas, then it would tell you that you are on your own,” writes a Weibo user who have spent four years in Africa.

Some critics go much further in their critique of what they see as the Wolf Warrior’s value system. “A burning piece of war declaration against the world”, as one unforgiving Weibo post labels it. It argues that the main message of the movie is bare and simple: I’m finally strong enough so I may beat you up if you piss me off. The author calls it a gangster mentality, a brand of justice that belongs to street corners (“Whoever pledge allegiance under my flag is protected by me”). He contrasts it with a more “universal” value embedded in the works of “mainstream art works”, including Saving Private Ryan and Assembly by Chinese director Feng Xiaogang, which uphold human dignity against the violence of war. Viewers are reminded of the suffering of armed conflicts and the preciousness of peace. Such movies should invoke compassion for fellow human beings, not “hot-blooded impulses to fight”.

Views like this are common among social media critics of the film, who consider its mindset too narrowly Chinese (us vs. anyone not us). To be fair to Wolf Warrior II, the movie does demonstrate an unusually “globalist” commitment to international affairs, although it is handled deliberately and a bit clumsily. There are multiple places in the movie where characters emphasize the importance of UN authorization before any Chinese military intervention, setting the stage for a one-man rescue mission detached from the Chinese authority. Apparently such little details easily get drowned in a sea of blood and violence.

Speaking of violence, the loudest and most scathing criticism of Wolf Warrior II centers on its display of brutality. The critique comes from a viral video produced by Cai Yinshanshan, a veteran movie critic online and lecturer at China’s Central Academy of Drama. Claiming that she otherwise would love to see Chinese patriotic films prosper as a category, Cai objects to Wu Jing’s “senseless” use of naked violence, which she regards as a reflection of the director’s “sadistic” inclinations. She is particularly uncomfortable with a multi-minute scene where Wu punches his already defeated mercenary rival to death in front of a group of captive women and children, seeing it as unnecessarily bloody. She also picks issue with the characterization of villains in the film, who seem to possess no purpose but to slaughter for sport. “Even villains need a value system to be plausible in the movie,” argues Cai, otherwise they become a mere excuse to show off killing as “spectacles” from which the audience generates no meaningful reflection.

If the Hollywood standard still applies, the violence on display in Wolf Warrior II, intensive as it is, is not exceptionally gruesome (Sin City watchers should know what I mean). But Cai’s larger point may be valid. To some extent, the whole movie can be seen as a convenient set-up to show off the might of a rising superpower: the African nation that embodies all the stereotypes of a chaotic, infernal continent; the rebels and mercenary soldiers who are evil to their core (and harbor racist hostility toward the Chinese people), plus the entire disappearance of the Americans and Europeans from the scene, all seemingly put together so that Leng Feng can ruthlessly land his vengeful fists on a white mercenary and the Chinese navy can resolutely launch its cruise missiles onto the rebels.

Unfortunately, by implying that a national hero like Wu Jing might be a blood-thirsty “psychopath”, Cai has crossed the line for some people. She soon tasted the wrath of Wolf Warrior II fans who harassed her through phone calls and pressured the Academy to dismiss her as a teacher. As in so many previous incidents, the first to experience the country’s patriotic muscle is not some gun-wielding rebel in remote Africa, but rather the rebels within China who dare to label patriots as gangsters.

Ping Pong Fury

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The match was scheduled for 19:40 on Jun 23. Thousands of viewers were eagerly anticipating Chinese Ping Pong superstar Ma Long to face off against his Japanese challenger Yuya Oshima at the China Open, held in the southwestern city of Chengdu. However, time reached 19:30 and there was no sign of Ma anywhere near the Ping Pong table, leaving the Japanese, the referees and spectators wondering about his whereabouts. The answer, it turned out, lay on Weibo. At 19:00, Ma, together with 2 other Chinese players and 2 coaches, sent out an identical post saying “at this moment our hearts are not in the game. We only miss you, Liu Guoliang.”

It soon became clear that this was not a scheduling error, but an open revolt unprecedented in the history of Chinese Ping Pong. Liu Guoliang, to whom the Weibo posts were dedicated to, was the Head Coach of China’s national Ping Pong team until three days earlier, when he was abruptly reassigned to the National Ping Pong Association as Vice Chair, a role widely believed to have no real power (there were 18 Vice Chairs ranking higher than him). A legendary Olympic champion himself, he was considered the most successful coach of the national team in a generation. Under his leadership, the Chinese Ping Pong team pocketed all four gold medals at the Rio Olympics 2016. A new Ping Pong dynasty was just in the making.

People were furious about his removal. At the stadium, realizing that they were probably witnessing history, spectators began to chant the name Liu Guoliang. When the video appeared on Weibo, it added fuel to the flame of anger ignited by the not-so-subtle protest from the athletes.

The online storm created by the astonishing act of rebellion set off an intensive round of debate that represented competing narratives about what’s going on inside China’s state sport establishment. Befitting Ping Pong’s status as the country’s “national ball game”, the debate carried a microcosmic quality in the sense that within the seemingly narrow topic area of one sport was contained Chinese society’s many anxieties about governance, and its imagination about how reform should be brought about to a gargantuan, complex system. Heroes and villains clash in this little universe inside a Ping Pong ball, and people generate conflicting morals and lessons from the stories.

 

From the public’s perspective, the heavy-handed demotion of a national sports hero and the poignancy in the athletes’ protest against that decision, perceived to be “suicidal” for their careers, reinforced a deep-rooted narrative about petulant, incompetent bureaucrats screwing up what’s treasured and cherished by the people based on misguided ideas and dogmas. In this case, that arrogant government official is Mr. Gou Zhongwen, China’s sport minister, who is widely believed to be behind this personnel change.

Gou fits with the stereotype of the know-nothing-but-control-everything Chinese bureaucrat. First of all, he doesn’t have much of a track record in sports. Barely seven months in his current position, he used to be a vice mayor of Beijing and, before that, a technocrat managing China’s electronics industries. From the outset, he suffers from a credential deficit when placed side by side with Liu Guoliang. In Chinese, the expression “waihang guanli neihang” (The lay person manages the expert) captures a common critique of a top-down command-based system that does not value expertise. The idea of an electrical engineer “bossing around” a bunch of Ping Pong world champions is repulsive for many on line, even though in modern politics or business, lack of issue area expertise usually does not automatically bar someone from leadership positions, especially for so-called political appointees.

Other materials emerged to support that damaging storyline. They showed him as having a history of insensitive “meddling” with otherwise well-functioning sectors, from Beijing’s metro system to the city’s middle school enrollment scheme. As vice mayor, he reportedly demanded Beijing metro to strictly limit the number of passengers in passenger cars, ignoring the miserable daily reality of rush hour Beijing commutes. Tales like this left no space for exploring the actual rationale behind such seemingly ridiculous policies.

During this round of Gou-bashing, even more damaging materials were brought up to show him as not just incompetent but also corrupt. A businessman claimed on Weibo that Gou’s brother exploited Gou’s government connections to embezzle money from him. Those comments were quickly removed from the social media platform.

Beneath these allegations and insinuations that portray Gou as an autocratic czar squandering China’s most loved sport lies a deeper suspicion. The familiar “power struggle” story once again proves its attractiveness. According to this version, Gou’s move is more calculated than it appears. His real target is Cai Zhenhua, the vice minister and someone with a much more solid power base in the sport establishment. A world champion himself, Cai used to be coach and mentor of Liu Guoliang in the 1990s, and is credited to have laid the foundation for the dynasty that Liu would later inherit. His monumental success propelled his rapid rise in the hierarchy of Chinese sport, from head of the Ping Pong and Badminton Center to Vice Minister, overseeing, most notably, the development of soccer, a sport embraced with high expectations from the country’s top leader. Many observers once believed that Cai was on the way to be the no.1 person in Chinese sports. Gou’s appointment at the end of 2016 dashed those hopes.

The appointment also fuels speculations about possible schism between the two men: does Cai resent Gou for getting in the way of his much anticipated promotion? Does Gou see Cai as a threat to his authority in the sports administration? These questions are the building blocks for extended stories of how this Liu episode is part of Gou’s maneuver to undermine Cai. A winning Liu Guoliang, and his Ping Pong team, would supply Cai with a steady line of political capital, which would enable him to challenge the new minister’s agenda. In the highly watched field of soccer, the rivalry is already bubbling up in the eyes of some observers. The National Soccer Association’s decision to hire the Italian star coach Marcello Lippi at a time when the national team was desperately hanging on to the last remaining chance of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia was widely hailed as a wise move. However, the General Administration of Sports seemed to be unhappy with how much China paid for Lippi (a contract worth 20 million euros per year), issuing a notification criticizing the Association which Cai leads.

Two weeks before Liu’s reassignment, his colleague Kong Linghui, another confidant of Cai and coach of the national women’s Ping Pong team, was recalled from an ongoing tournament in Germany and suspended from his job following revelations that he owed millions to a casino in Singapore. The disciplinary action might be justifiable. But when seen together with Liu’s dismissal, spectators connected the dots and completed a story of the new king trying to oust his disgruntled challenger.

The episode reveals the Chinese public’s complicated emotional attachment to Ping Pong. On the one hand is the public’s intense disdain for the so-called central planning sports system (“juguotizhi”), a gold-medal churning machinery that focuses the entire country’s public sports resources on a selected group of elite athletes; on the other is their profound affection for Olympic champions like Liu Guoliang, and the immense emotional investment in the idea of winning. The complex confounded even some of the savviest navigators of Chinese social media. On Jun 29, when the Communist Youth League tried to invoke patriotism on Weibo ahead of the 20th anniversary of the reversion of Hong Kong to China, it found itself being booed by thousands of otherwise patriotic followers airing their frustration with the sport administration, leading to an embarrassing retraction of the post.

The 2012 London Olympics was an eruption point for the “anti-juguotizhi” sentiments on China’s nascent social media, triggered by a few disturbing and embarrassing incidents that summer, which deeply shook society’s faith in a system that pushed China to the top sections of Olympic medal ranking in recent Games. Liu Xiang’s unexpected dropping out from the 110-meter hurdles game due to an injury touched off a bitter round of bickering on Weibo about whether the state sports apparatus over-drilled him ahead of the London Games for the sake of a gold medal. Two Chinese women’s badminton players’ scandalous disqualification from the Games because of “passive play” added to the belief that a gold medal obsessed system had led China onto a path that totally disregarded the essence and spirit of sport. In that summer, the debate culminated with two editorials representing the zeitgeist, one by the liberal Caixin Media, whose Editor-in-Chief Hu Shuli declared that “taxpayers would ultimately grow tired of the ‘gold medal only mentality'”, and the other by the party’s chief mouthpiece People’s Daily, which asserted that elite athletes needed state support to excel in the games. It argued that good performance in the Olympics would inject “positive energy” to the whole country. The central planning system is not antagonistic to investments in “sport for the mass” (qunzhong tiyu) and should co-exist with other forms of support schemes.

The People’s Daily editorial underscores the major fault line in public discussions about China’s athletic ambitions, which continues to define the contour of such debates today. The state controlled system is pitched against a more liberalized structure where market, rather than government, “picks the winner” (as in which sports game ultimately prospers and becomes competitive); and a choice has to be made if public resources for sports are to benefit the general public or just a bunch of elite athletes. What’s interesting with the Ping Pong episode is how a public once so scornful of the system now defend its most symbolic heroes with such passion, while the man who actually commands the system now has to be defended as a reformer challenging the status quo.

 

In a widely circulated post that titled “Why would Wang Anshi touch the Army of Yue Fei?”, the author uses ancient Chinese legends to illuminate the situation today. Wang Anshi, the famed Song Dynasty reformer who lived 1000 years ago, is known for his wide-ranging, resolute reforms that rolled over vast vested interests, causing vehement backlash from his contemporaries. Yue Fei, a tragic war hero who roamed China a century later than Wang, was called back from the battlefield while still winning, and forced to commit suicide due to malicious accusations of corrupt officials in the Emperor’s court. The two historical figures would never have met each other. But the author cleverly taps into the cultural symbolism of both and highlights the treacherous public opinion environment that Gou elicits.

According to the author, Gou is exactly the kind of reformer that is trying to dismantle the central planning, gold-medal-oriented system. His previous moves, such as making basketball superstar Yao Ming the president of China’s Basketball Association, a non-government body, represent his intention to encourage more societal participation in the development of sports games. It should be sports professionals (like Yao Ming) who direct the future of games through market-oriented sports associations. The stereotype of “lay person directing the experts” does not really apply to Minister Gou, as he has been laboring to put experts in leadership positions. So why should Ping Pong be an exception? Despite the spectacular successes of the national team in recent years, Ping Pong has every symptom of an ailing system. Its gold medals are products of centrally controlled training bankrolled by taxpayer money. The country’s nascent professional Ping Pong league never takes off as elite athletes invariably prioritize national team presence, making commercial games empty-seated. Moving Liu Guoliang to the National Ping Pong Association is consistent to what’s happening to other sports.

Other sympathetic commentators locate Gou’s reforms in the longer history of Communist China sport development and project him as the heir of his predecessor Wu Shaozu. Wu, who took the helm of Chinese sports in the era of Reform and Opening, made the first attempt to return sports from elites to the “mass” through the reconfiguration of the athletic apparatus. Fighting off the most radical proposal at that time to abolish the sports bureaucracy and embed its functions into the Ministry of Education, Wu Shaozu nevertheless made efforts to redistribute resources within the ministry that strengthened the “sports for the mass” arm vis a vis the elite sports sections. On his watch, China’s mass participation in sport prospered for a while, up to the point when the pseudo-scientific Qigong, endorsed by Wu as effective exercises, alarmed the top leadership as a political threat. Wu was removed from his position by end of the 1990s. And his two successors were too absorbed by China’s later bids for the Olympics to continue the emphasis on grassroots sports. The pendulum swung back toward getting as many gold medals as possible. Then came Minister Gou Zhongwen, who, according to his supporters, re-embarked on a journey that Wu left more than two decades ago.

Through such narratives, Gou is recast as a determined yet flawed reformer, legitimate in his cause, but somehow mismanaging the process by single-mindedly “recalling a winning general from the battlefield,” underestimating the public backlash it could cause. Under this new frame, Liu Guoliang and his loyal players do not appear that heroic anymore. They become the vested interests that the reform is designed to bust. One Weibo post refers to the Head Coach’s power to distribute commercial interests among his team members, including brand sponsorship and advertisement commissions, which creates a system of favoritism. Removing Liu would destroy this web of patronage, hence the revolt from his beloved team members. Official statement from the General Administration of Sport confirms this narrative. While condemning the striking athletes as irresponsible and “denigrating the nation”, it also insisted that “sport reform is unstoppable” and that consensus of the importance and urgency of reform was much needed . All players were forced to apologize for their action and retract their controversial Weibo posts.

Like many debates in China today, the reform narrative attracts its own critics, the leftist nationalists. In a WeChat post by a leftist account, the author attacks Gou’s reform as “extreme neo-liberalism” that will ultimately ruin Chinese sports. Market oriented capital only seeks short term returns, he argues. If government retreats from the job of nurturing and supporting athletes from a young age, box-office-obsessed sports club bosses won’t step in to fill the gap. Rather, they will choose to import big name foreign players to boost revenues, like what’s happening in China’s liberalized soccer industry. The attempt to bring soccer-style market reform to Ping Pong is a “malicious move by the neo-liberalists to undermine the glory of Chinese sports”, warns the post. It inherits the “worst part” of American professional sport, while willfully ignoring the robustness of government-backed sports support systems in the US.

The deceitfully tiny plastic ball of Ping Pong carries a symbolic weight in China that seems to defy the gravity of politics as usual. To spin it, new Minister Gou might indeed need the political clout and wisdom of Wang Anshi.

Knock Out: a thuggish MMA fighter demystifies Chinese Kung Fu

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Tai Chi is the art of circles. From the body’s smooth spins come strength, energy and an entire cosmology of balance and harmony. But for Lei Lei, a self-professed Tai Chi master, the circles have only generated defeat and humiliation. On Apr 27, at a boxing gym in Chengdu, he entered into a duel with Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) enthusiast Xu Xiaodong. In front of dozens of whistling and cheering spectators, the two men circled cautiously around each other in their distinctive poses for a few intense seconds: Lei lifted up his arms like the mantis in Kung fu Panda, and Xu held up his fists like a boxer. Then the circle shrank. The two men collided. Xu made a decisive advance at the master, forcing Lei to step back in a panicky manner until collapsing on the ground. Xu sat on Lei and punched him mercilessly on the head until the referee intervened. Later, photos showing Lei’s bloodstained head became the symbol of this notorious fight, and the video was among the most watched on the Chinese internet in the past month.

Weeks earlier, Lei Lei had been a relatively obscure figure on Weibo whose posts were mainly videos of himself practicing Tai Chi in Chinese cultural settings such as Daoist temples. What stood out from those posts, however, was his particular interest in Tai Chi’s combat potential. Running against the common impression of the ancient martial art as merely an exercise for elders or a form of meditation, he presented Tai Chi as of practical value in physical confrontation by demonstrating act-by-act moves with a sparring partner. Sometimes the demonstration went a bit too far. Once he went on TV to show quebufei, a legendary Tai Chi move wherein a bird was unable to fly away from his hand as he had supposedly “neutralized” its forces. Most people would consider this physics-defying move a literary invention that should only exist in novels. But what ultimately got him the attention of the MMA community was his assertion that he could counter and neutralize the “rear naked choke”, a deadly move of Brazilian jujitsu, with only one hand. The chokehold was often regarded as a kind of check-mate in MMA competitions. His bragging kicked off an extended round of bickering online. MMA practitioners and fans ridiculed him. Lei shot back with dismissive and sneering posts. It went on for several months until on Apr 18, Xu Xiaodong made a proposal to take it off-line, by actually fighting it out. Lei did not back down. The duel was set.

Martial arts (wushu), or more popularly gongfu, “kung fu”, have always been an important part of Chinese identity. Their practice is also closely intertwined with the rise of nationalist sentiments. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, a period when China underwent something close to an existential crisis caused by defeat after defeat in its encounter with Western powers, martial arts became a national obsession that offered the hurt nation a source of dignity and escape. Legends of kung fu masters such as the famed Huo Yuanjia beating Western musclemen or Japanese fighters were an important part of a popular narrative that refuted the racist notion that Chinese were physically inferior. In its extreme version, the kung fu fantasy developed into a kind of hallucination that misguided the Boxer Movement in the late 19th century into confronting firearm-bearing Western troops with bare fists. In its milder forms, it gave rise to a wonderful line of pop culture which included the novels of Louis Cha and films of Bruce Lee.

Lei Lei clearly lives in the tradition that romanticizes Chinese martial arts, though it is hard to say whether he is closer to the hallucination end or to the entertainment one. In contrast, Xu Xiaodong not only rejects that tradition, but actively seeks to smash it. A spitting, cursing man with the body of a fitness instructor who goes overweight and the demeanor of a Beijing thug, Xu self-branded as “the earliest promoter of MMA in China”. According to CCTV journalist Wang Zhi’an, who has done in-depth profiles of both Lei and Xu, Xu Xiaodong used to be a professional sanshou player, a Chinese form of full-contact freestyle kickboxing that also involves throws, sweeps and takedowns. He was unsuccessful in this early career and looked at MMA, at that time still non-existent in China, for other opportunities. He got some initial training in boxing clubs in Guangzhou and fought in a bunch of unprofessional underground matches during this period, which is where his “first MMA promoter” claim comes from.

He later set up his own boxing club in Beijing, which held weekly amateur fighting events. “There are blood stains left in the ring every Friday.  Our Ayi has to clean them up the next morning. We are accustomed to it,” Xu told Wang Zhi’an. He also started a talk show on a livestream platform, which often featured him ranting about the uselessness of traditional Chinese martial arts. It is unclear whether Xu was genuinely offended by what he saw as fraudulent claims of kung fu’s combat capabilities, or was more driven by the need to expand his business through public stunts. In any case, Xu enjoyed instant fame, or notoriety, depending on where you stand. And with the newfound popularity, his feud with traditional Chinese Wushu escalated.

Lei Lei’s humiliating, widely-publicized defeat exposed the soft underbelly of Chinese kung fu. The questioning that ensued was fierce and unforgiving. Is the power of Chinese martial arts a carefully guarded myth unable to withstand the test of modern combat? Is kung fu closer to gymnastics or dancing than it is to boxing? Wang Zhi’an, the CCTV journalist, wrote a scathing post on WeChat after interviewing both sides in the fight. He believed that kung fu’s absence in international arenas such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship, where jujitsu and wrestling thrive, was an indicator of its limited combative power. And he attributed that to China’s lack of a “warrior class” in its long history. Others were more specific in their diagnosis. The lack of real combat training in the routines of Chinese martial arts, their intrinsic conservatism rejecting change, and the communist state’s intentional disarmament of the practice were factors that blunted wushu’s sharp edge.

The most eloquent critique was offered by someone who had long passed away. An interview with Mr. Zhao Daoxin in the 1980s was widely circulated in the aftermath of the Xu-Lei fight. Born in 1908, Zhao was well trained in xngyiquan and baguazhang, two established schools of Chinese martial arts. The interview happened a few years before his death, and his comments were pessimistic and harsh. “Chinese martial arts have no future,” He told his interviewer. This was not meant to be a cheap shot like the ranting of Xu Xiaodong. His conclusion was based on lifelong observing and practicing. In its long history, Chinese martial arts, according to Zhao, had gotten lost in a few meaningless fixations. One such fixation was the need to develop unique, “niche” moves that defined a school or a clan, moves that only had ritualistic value but very little practical use during combat. Practitioners were also obsessed with not falling in a fight, a psychology that gave rise to all sorts of postures that tried to stabilize the body at all cost, sacrificing agility and a range of combative possibilities of high kicks and ground level maneuvers. Zhao also criticized the long tradition in kung fu that shied away from actual combat in its day-to-day exercises. Its routine-based approach to practice, where practitioners repeated sets of predesigned moves, was considered “backward” compared to the systematic training regimes of modern combat techniques. Moreover, quite counter-intuitively, practitioners were often asked to practice in solitude. And combat was often considered a privilege that only “well-prepared” practitioners could aspire to, as the final step after their purgatory.

The right reflexes did not get sufficiently trained for real fights, Zhao asserted. But instead of confronting these real insufficiencies, Chinese martial arts chose to hide behind dubious theories that ostensibly derived from traditional culture. “Generations of baguazhang trainers spoke of mimicking the Eight Trigrams out of the Yi Jing, but nobody could establish any practical linkage between that beautiful philosophy and actual fighting.”  The resurfaced interview of Zhao provided ammunition to those who always had trouble with traditional Chinese culture. For them, the self-hypnotizing mystification of Chinese kung fu was a shared symptom of cultural relics, from Chinese medicine to Confucian ethics, preventing them from advancing into the modern age.

The one-minute fight between Xu and Lei had the effect of a public verdict  on Chinese martial arts. It fit the psychological need for a definitive settlement of a century-old dispute, despite the poor organization of the event and the fact that Lei Lei is hardly a proper representative of Tai Chi. Wang Zhi’an’s profile of Lei depicts him as an amateur who barely makes ends meet by teaching Tai Chi at the margin of a community gym. But that does not stop netizens from irritating the open wound inflicted on kung fu. Old videos of ridiculous, fraudulent performances by so-called “masters” have become laughingstocks on Weibo.

The public reception emboldened Xu and alarmed China’s wushu establishment. While the former prepared to take on the entire martial arts community, which he declared a hoax, the latter readied its response. At first, it looked like Xu might have the upper hand. Winning the match gave him  credibility, and the national press was more than willing to give the outspoken athlete the microphone to continue undermining the reputation of traditional martial arts. Within days Xu was calling out well-known, lucrative Chinese commercial fighting competitions as “frauds”.

The threatened community scrambled to respond. Individual “masters” emerged to challenge Xu for a second match. Some even put their career on the line, vowing to quit martial arts entirely if they lost. At first, Xu happily accepted those challenges, raising anticipation that more high-profile matches would happen. But on May 3, the Chinese Wushu Association, the community’s supreme supervisory body, called off any future privately arranged fights, claiming that they violated “the ethics of martial arts”.

Xu’s crusade against what he saw as bogus wushu ran into a wall. His instant success had threatened something much larger than a few fake masters. A Beijing News report revealed just how big an industry Tai Chi had become. In Wenxian County, Henan province, the place where the Chen School of Tai Chi originated, the local government had incorporated Tai Chi into its 13th Five Year Plan. During the past twenty years, Tai Chi had transformed the place into a bustling town of Tai Chi schools, hotels, resorts and Tai Chi-themed museums. People came from all over the country and abroad to learn Tai Chi. The place created millionaire trainers who “drove Audis and smoked Chunghwa cigarettes”. The controversy put Wenxian under a spotlight and jeopardized the carefully cultivated image of the town. The Association’s statement also implied what was actually at stake: “Martial arts play a unique role in extending Chinese traditions, enhancing national confidence, promoting the export of Chinese culture and increasing the soft power of China.” In other words kung fu is the country’s name card and a cultural asset too precious to be discredited.

In a later livestream video clip, Xu broke into tears in front of the camera:his alma mata, the famed Shichahai School of Martial Arts, cradle of many a kung fu star, had disavowed him. He no longer could claim that he had graduated.

The nationalist undertone of the backlash against Xu became more obvious when a host of longtime conservative accounts on Chinese social media began to publish dirt on him, not his boxing skills but his political views. Xu turned out to be a “reverse racist”, they discovered, meaning that he hated his own country and race. Not only did he believe that the Diaoyu Islands belonged to Japan, he also mocked patriotic Chinese protestors against South Korea’s deployment of the anti-missile system THAAD. Most of his Weibo posts before the controversy were the lonesome rantings of a loose cannon, with barely a repost or two. But that did not stop the conservatives from comprehensively cataloging his social media utterances, which at times contained anti-Party curses and blasphemous comments about the PLA. Within a day, Xu had deleted a large number of his Weibo posts.

This wasn’t the end of Xu’s troubles. A day after the Association’s statement on the 3rd, Xu had to cancel a pre-announced press conference, where he was expected to unveil even bigger challenges to the Wushu community. Two days later, his Weibo account was deleted completely, supposedly by the authorities. For many, his fate was not at all surprising. “Xu touched the rice bowl of hundreds of thousands of people. Sooner or later someone would shut him up.” Said one Weibo commentator. Wang Zhi’an thought that Xu made a few rookie mistakes that made himself vulnerable to counter-attacks online. One of thesewastrying to drag Chinese Olympics boxing champion Zou Shiming into a fight, a perplexing move as Zou did not practice Wushu and enjoyed a stellar reputation worldwide. His impulsive way of handling social media cost him the precious momentum he had built.

Xu was greeted with bitter irony on May 4th, when seven men confronted him at his boxing gym, claiming to be from Wenxian, the town of Tai Chi. They provoked him for a fist fight, which had clearly been banned by the Association the day before. He refused, saying it was illegal. They chased and pestered him, until he called the police. After the police officer turned away the men, he turned down Xu’s plea for continued protection. “Aren’t you an MMA fighter?” the policeman snapped, “You can fight better than I can!”

Xiongan: the making of a great non-megacity

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In a surprise move that caught most of the country off guard, the Party’s Central Committee, jointly with the State Council, issued a Resolution in the late afternoon of April 1, when people were wrapping up a week’s work ahead of the Tomb Sweeping Festival. The decision, announced through Xinhua, the official news agency, unveils the planned Xiongan New Area, which encompasses three existing counties in Beijing’s adjacent Hebei province. Development of the New Area will be phased: in the short term, a 100 square kilometer start-up area will be built, which will expand to 200 square kilometers in the mid-term and 2000 square kilometers (roughly the size of Tokyo) in the long run.

Though impressive, size was not the decisive factor in the awe that permeated the Chinese Internet. When introducing the resolution, Xinhua made it clear that this was not just another new special zone among an array of similar projects. “Xiongan is a New Area that follows the path of Shenzhen and Shanghai’s Pudong New District. It is an initiative for the next millennium, a major event of national significance.” By elevating Xiongan to the level of Shenzhen and Pudong, Xinhua fanned anticipation to historic proportions. In 1980, the opening of Shenzhen, at that time just a small village bordering Hong Kong, was the decisive moment of China’s Reform and Opening after the country broke away from the grip of Maoist ideology. In 1990, the decision to develop Pudong as China’s new window facing the world symbolized one of Deng Xiaoping’s last major efforts to give momentum to the reform that suffered major setbacks in the late 1980s. Joining the ranks of Shenzhen and Pudong meant that Xiongan would bypass its “older brother” in North China, the Binhai New Area in Tianjin, set up in 2005, as the heir apparent of the Reform. Xinhua’s application of a “millennial” dimension only increased the astonished curiosity surrounding the announcement.

Ever since the kick-off of Reform and Opening under Deng, Chinese society has come to cherish the “invisible hand” of the free market. The memory of shortages still lingers in the minds of those born before the 1980s, when the supply of basic goods such as food had to be rationed. The economic reform has unleashed the creativity and can-do spirit of the Chinese people. It has also reshaped their perception of the state’s role in the economy. Government interventions have since then become a kind of necessary evil to be tolerated, not embraced. Until very recently, catch-phrases such as “Guojin Mintui” (the advance of the state and the retreat of the civilian) represent the nation’s uneasiness with the state’s corrosive touch on the economy. Progress towards an open economy friendly to the participation of a vigorous private sector is seen as the ultimate barometer of the reform’s success.

The reaction to the Xiongan New Area reveals a shifting national psyche. The pageant-like online discussion shows that for a considerable segment of Chinese society, the visible hand is no longer frowned upon. Rather, it is seen as a magic wand that can turn a backwater town into a booming center of innovation and productivity.

 

At least no more tomb sweeping for now. For those with a heightened sense for money-making opportunities, the Resolution let out the assuring fragrance of Renminbi. In no time, the Chinese media were filled with stories about jammed streets and fully booked hotels in Xiongan. Almost overnight, once obscure towns that nobody had ever heard of were transformed into bustling centers of real estate transactions. Urban legends abounded of nouveaux riches from Beijing and Shanxi buying up entire residential compounds with piles of cash.

The scene marked the first public test of confidence in the newborn area. And it was excessively bullish. The cash-wielding house buyers saw the announcement as a clear signal of imminent pouring-in of investment, people and possibly preferential policies from the government, all pointing to a rising real estate market. Bet long on Xiongan, their guts told them. Quite literally, this mood was reflected in the stock market. Stock prices of cement and steel companies from Hebei province soared following the news, to the extent that a few of them had to publicly downplay expectations.

The reaction seemed not what the designers of Xiongan had wanted. Measures were swiftly put in place to quench the fever of apartment hoarding and deter speculators flocking to the place. A freeze on any real-estate trade in the region was announced, which quickly escalated into the arrest and lock up of rogue traders, and resulted in bizarre scenes on the streets of Xiongan, with police officers chasing after real estate agents.

Xiongan’s planners are faced with a tricky task of managing not just expectation but also imagination. And there is visible frustration over the public’s small-minded, reductionist reading of the New Area as a repeat of the real-estate-driven routine of city construction. Wild speculation is “debasing” to the leadership’s vision for the New Area, a People’s Daily article declares. The grand plan, it argues, is an ambitious strategy to explore a new way to overcome “megacity disease”, to achieve a more balanced regional development and to nurture innovative engines of growth. In other words, the speculators are guided by a misplaced enthusiasm, which, according to the article, is a kind of short-sighted “petty wisdom”. They fail to appreciate the designers’ real intention.

The article introduces a few novel terms to the lexicon of urban development. Besides “megacity disease”, it also highlights the primary role of Xiongan as the receiving base for “non-capital functions” to be moved out of Beijing. In case this is not clear, it specifies that such functions include anything that’s inconsistent with Beijing’s self-image as China’s capital, i.e. the political, cultural, international exchange and technological innovation center of the country. Corporate headquarters and financial institutions therefore do not belong to the capital and should be relocated.

The framing provides a powerful conceptual framework to understand Xiongan: it stands against everything that’s wrong with Beijing, the largest megacity in North China today. In addition to its notorious pollution, congested traffic and overheated real estate market (megacity disease), commentators also blame Beijing for its unconstructive role in the region: instead of acting like a sun that radiates warmth to its neighboring towns and cities, it acts like a black hole that sucks resources from them. The relatively healthy symbiotic relationship among Yangtze River delta cities, wherein Shanghai and Shenzhen shine like stars, do not exist around Beijing.

The implied dissatisfaction with the capital’s current situation found resonance in the popular reaction to the announcement. Many people, upon hearing the news, paid homage in their social networks to Liang Sicheng, the defiant architecture scholar who, in the 1950s, insisted that the old imperial Beijing be kept intact, while a new city should be built in its vicinity to accommodate the new capital’s expanding industries, commerce and governmental entities. His vision of Beijing was diametrically opposite to that of Mao, who famously told colleagues that he would like to see chimneys all over the city from the towers of Tiannanmen. His Soviet advisors, at that time, were busy planning a public square in the city center in the fashion of the Red Square. No wonder Liang’s advice was not heeded. Worse, he was fiercely persecuted in later political movements for those very views.

If setting up Xiongan is to some extent a correction to Mao’s extreme vision of the capital as the symbol of China’s industrial might, it is by no means a return to Jane Jacobs’ organically grown city. The effort is as deliberate as the meticulously ranked dancers at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. And attitudes toward the arbitrariness divide the country into bears and bulls.

 

The pessimistic sentiment is best represented by a Weibo post that inspired thousands of reposts: “Is the government able to make some place prosperous simply by wishing it? What you guys have in mind is not Gov, it’s God.” The author uses the examples of China’s Northeastern rust belt provinces to illustrate the point that the heavy involvement of the state does not necessarily bring desired economic results. Those provinces have enjoyed decades of central government largesse in the form of state-owned industries and the associated public resources. Yet the region’s deepening economic woes since the 1990s, especially in comparison to the vibrant economies of coastal provinces dominated by private businesses, accentuates the limitations of state planning.

A more serious critique is offered by Chen Gong, a senior researcher at the Anbound think tank. He bluntly calls Xiongan New Area “overrated”, and predicts that it won’t imitate the success of Shenzhen. “Both Shenzhen and Pudong saw great influx of investment and talent because China was in the process of integrating into the global economy. There was huge momentum at the time of their opening. All the government needed to do was to lift the restrictions and set free those market forces. ” Xiongan will be different. “Forever gone is the era when government draws a circle, enacts a few policies, and capital automatically flows in to prop up thriving industries.”

The economic new normal means a lack of untapped reservoirs of capital and resources that will replenish a pool as soon as the gate of the dam is open. The arbitrary allocation of “non-capital functions” to the New Area is therefore seen as a zero-sum game. “Enterprises moving out of Beijing will bring down the city’s economic output, reduce its tax revenue, cut consumption and sap part of its service sector,” Chen predicts, “it can become a major depletion of Beijing’s economy and its impact is likely underestimated.”

Drawing on the experience of the Silicon Valley, another commentator is more explicit with his disdain for state-driven efforts in building so-called technopolises. The success of the Silicon Valley, the argument goes, is in stark contrast to the relative obscurity of Massachusetts’s Route 128 today, whose lackluster performance is attributed to its reliance on government contracts, big conglomerates and a top-down approach to innovation.uch deep-rooted skepticism probably won’t disperse until a more definitive assessment of Xiongan’s economic performance can be made.

But this time the pessimists are confronted with an articulated optimism that rivals, if not trumps, the doubt. An FT Chinese piece by long time urban development observer Li Yan is representative of such confidence: “North China hasn’t had such strong and clear anticipation of growth for a long time. The psychological need for such anticipation overrides any rational calculation of real interests.” In other words, simply manufacturing that anticipation is already a brilliant move by the government. Li directs people to look beyond the relocation of “non-capital functions” and pay attention to the other stated objective of Xiongan to become “a showcase of innovative development”. This means the New Area will likely concentrate high-end, rising industries (as opposed to low-end manufacturing), powered by the inflow of new migrants. It will kick-off a “chemical reaction” that reactivates other economic elements in the North China eco-system. Unlike Shenzhen in the 1980s, this time Xiongan will enjoy the backing of a central government with “unprecedented finance prowess and administrative resources.” And it will become the “ultimate test” of a developmental model that puts government mobilization and direction of resources at the center.

The optimism online also comes from agreement with the general strategic direction of redistributing resources between Beijing and Hebei, and confidence in China’s bureaucratic apparatus in delivering such schemes with top level blessing. As Weibo user Li Ziyang, someone known for his bullish views about China, puts it, “China has an army of officials and bureaucrats who know the country well, are proactive in their job and can execute competently. It is one of the secrets of China’s economic miracle.” Both Li Yan and Li Ziyang suggest that the New Area can be China’s chance to articulate and crystallize its homegrown approach to economic success, wherein the state, with its efficient bureaucratic apparatus, are central to its recipe.

For those optimists, details of the Xiongan plan are not as important as its strategic boldness. Or, as Li Yan puts it, people are simply enthralled by the grandeur of setting up a new city from scratch (大手笔). The society’s appetite for boldness is also reflected in the relative marginalized voices that question the procedural integrity of the decision. The fact that a decision of millennial proportion did not go through any public consultation or approval by the National People’s Congress, and was kept under an iron lid up to the moment of its announcement, seems not to have bothered the general public. And people take the drastic crackdown on real estate trade in stride. After all, neither Shenzhen nor Pudong is the product of democratic deliberation.

 

Against the backdrop of public anticipation and confusion, the Party’s official outlets continue to dole out information about how the plan came into being. Through this tiny window, people have a glimpse of how the idea evolved out of the perpetual frustration over the imbalanced and uncoordinated development of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region and how, in as early as Feb 2015, the proposal for a “new city” had already emerged. The concept was further hashed out in a series of follow-up meetings led by President Xi himself, from the March 2016 notion of a “second wing” of Beijing to the May 2016 official designation of the New Area. The vision for the city also became progressively clearer. A Xinhua piece puts Xiongan’s long term population projection at 2.5 million, which is only a fraction of Beijing’s current population of over 20 million, further confirming the point that it’s not going to be “mega”. It also names Japan’s Tsukuba and Israel’s Haifa as role models for the new city. Both are centers of science and technology brainpower for their respective countries, while Tsukuba is also very much a “planned city”. The designers of Xiongan seem determined to act differently from what China’s playbook for economic growth would prescribe. Their determination and the dizzying swiftness of its materialization leaves the country in a state of thrills and disbelief.