Ping Pong Fury

2017050514405434648

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

2017-06-07 (8)

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

£¨Ê±Õþ£©Ç§Äê´ó¼Æ¡¢¹ú¼Ò´óÊ¡ª¡ªÒÔÏ°½üƽͬ־ΪºËÐĵĵ³ÖÐÑë¾ö²ßºÓ±±ÐÛ°²ÐÂÇø¹æ»®½¨Éè¼Íʵ

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.

Your womb, my history

e81520cbly1fcjbjmamvdj211y0lc455

Like a vehicle losing control, a recent debate about legalizing surrogacy suddenly swerved and crashed into the carefully guarded space of post-1949 Chinese history, creating an opening that competing camps of online commentary vied to control. 

Amid the festive atmosphere of the Chinese New Year in early Feb, People’s Daily carried a largely bland piece in one of its less important sections. As the third installment in a series reviewing the implementation of the two-children policy (China eased its decades old one-child policy in a historic move to address the pressing demographic challenge in 2016), the piece discussed the difficulties facing many aging Chinese couples seeking to have a second child. At the end of the article, the author entertained the possibility of legalizing surrogacy in China, which so far has been strictly banned.

Acknowledging the controversial nature of such a proposal, the author advocated caution in the hypothetical easing. Only non-commercial, voluntary surrogacy should be allowed to avoid  spawning a for-profit industry. 

But the mere fact that People’s Daily mused about such a possibility struck a nerve with many who feared the ethical and legal mess that such a move would cause. Global Times, the market-oriented offspring publication of People’s Daily Group, in a curious case of rebellion, openly objected to the idea by citing situations in India and the US, where surrogacy, legalized or not, led to consequences that harmed the surrogate mothers, who were often in a disadvantage in such deals, and the children they bore.

The feminist argument was prominent in this debate from the very beginning. In an impromptu poll on Weibo initiated by a feminist outlet, a majority of participants expressed concern about the violation of women’s rights if surrogacy were green-lighted in China. People feared that women would be forced into the business against their will. An apocalyptic picture emerged in the discussion of poor girls kidnapped and kept in captivity to serve as surrogacy machines in  a “reproduction sweatshop”, even though doing so would clearly violate China’s criminal code with or without legalized surrogacy.

China’s population policies have been dogged by increasingly strident criticism from feminists these days. Major policy moves such as the abandoning of the one-child policy, hailed elsewhere as an enlightened development, met with cynical response domestically as the state’s  attempt to manipulate women’s wombs to correct its own demographic blunders. The bizarre scenes on the local level, where certain local governments pressured employees to have a second child in order to fulfill policy goals, further embittered advocates who resented the perceived “instrumentalization” of women by the state to achieve social objectives.

This line of thinking apparently colored the online response to the People’s Daily article. What’s unexpected was how far it went to threaten the very legitimacy of the Party. When Weibo user Huangqingjiao, a playwright, posted her comment about legalizing surrogacy, she reached back all the way to the early history of the People’s Republic, trying to make the case that the regime had a history of treating women as reproductive machines. “Whether it’s forcing people to have a second child, or legalizing surrogacy, what’s more horrible than these decisions is the icy logic behind them, the logic that treats women as mere items.”  She brought up the campaign to recruit tens of thousands of young women to go to Xinjiang, in the far west of China, in the years immediately following the establishment of Communist China in 1949. The invincible People’s Liberation Army, directed by the Party’s top leadership to settle down permanently to consolidate control of this frontier region, had to confront an insurmountable problem: the daunting male-to-female ratio. Not surprisingly, most of the troops were men. Many of them had endured years of brutal battles, first with the Japanese and then with the Kuomintang in a devastating civil war. Having passed their prime time for forming families, those officers and soldiers were put off by the prospect of an extended single life in a barren land. Some of them formally applied to be dismissed, so that they could return home and get married. “The issue of wives”, as General Wang Zhen put in in his letter to a colleague, “has reached to a point that it affects morale of the troops and the stability of Xinjiang.”

A massive campaign rolled out across the country to recruit women to Xinjiang. Responding to the call to build New China and the opportunity to contribute as independent, empowered individuals, tens of thousands of female students, housewives and peasants flocked to recruitment stations, committing themselves to a noble cause.

Very few of them were aware that their roles as girlfriends, wives and mothers were probably more valued by the state at that time. Some of them started to feel the “heat” after settling down in work units freshly set up in the western province. “Match-makers” were dispatched to “work on their minds”, trying to convince the girls that marriage was for the greater good of a prosperous Xinjiang. In certain cases, attempts of persuasion bordered on coercion, causing a fair amount of stress among those women (some of them became mentally unstable). The situation alarmed the leadership, which in the end directed those “mind workers” to soften their approach and honor the freedom of marriage, a concept that had just been enshrined in the People’s Republic’s new marital law.

The history of this campaign is well-documented. Government files, news reports and academic papers exist to preserve an important part of the Party’s early efforts to govern a newly seized region. Huangqingjiao got a glimpse of the history in a TV documentary called “Eight thousand Hunan girls go to Tianshan”, zooming in on one leg of that campaign in Hunan province. Her interpretation of their fate as sheer tragedy shaped how many netizens viewed this history in particular and the Party’s treatment of women in general.

The more reserved version of such a view lamented the powerlessness of individuals before the iron wheel of state-building. The extreme version went as far as equating the females with “comfort women”, sexual slaves kept by the Japanese military during World War II.

Ironically, what was presented as being sympathetic was taken as an insult by the descendants of the very women to whom the sympathy was directed. “My grandparents dedicated their youth to the frontier. They fell in love and got married of their own free will. Those ignorant of the Xinjiang construction corps should quit denigrating our predecessors! ” snapped one Weibo user. The local police of Altay, a place in the north tip of Xinjiang, sent out an angry Weibo post accusing Huangqingjiao of spreading lies. “The first generation of Xinjiang’s constructors do not deserve such assault… Without their sacrifice, how could someone like Huangqingjiao enjoy her leisure and peace?”

If the anger was directed at the lack of appreciation for those women’s agency, they might have a point. The “comfort women” comment was particularly insensitive in this regard. Studies looking closely at that period depicted a nuanced picture of those females “negotiating” their existence in an environment at once liberating and suppressing. Many of them came from abject backgrounds that were even harsher to women of their generation. They escaped extreme poverty and the shackles of traditional Chinese society to seek education and work in a new environment. Most of them fulfilled such dreams by becoming nurses, teachers and office workers in the PLA-turned Xinjiang Construction Corps. And they used this newfound independence to push back at the “matchmaking” attempts that were seen as inconsistent with New China’s vision of women’s liberation. Some of them in the end accepted “Party arranged marriages” not because they passively bowed to fate, but rather reconciled their devotion to the country with personal life choices. 

Yet the indignation could also have  originated from a misplaced stigma about women with “impure” sexual experiences, even if coerced. Therefore, a woman’s misery of forced marriage could be taken as disgraceful on the side of the female. And people chose to defend her by insisting that they were “clean”(qingbai).

More is at stake than the women’s reputation. Modern Chinese history, particularly the part after 1949, has become a minefield. Barbed wires are being erected around the orthodox stories of liberation and progress. And trespassers will be punished. The Party’s online propaganda guards were quickly deployed to contain the rising tide of questioning. The Global Times editorial put this episode in the context of “rising historical nihilism” in recent years. Trying to be seen as fair, it declared Huangqingjiao’s Weibo post as an “inadvertent” offense, while warning that more sinister attacks of the sacred narrative are being propounded all over the Internet by those with ulterior “political motives”. “The history of New China is a history with capital H. The grandiose heroism of those involved cannot be judged by the petty bourgeois of today. However, even a great history will unavoidably involve personal misfortunes and miseries. Nevertheless, the mainstream sentiment among those females was one of pride and dignity, not of frustration and regret.”

But who represents “mainstream” and who are those individuals to be brushed aside as outliers? Anticipating questions like this, defenders of that history felt urged to protect “collectivism” against the assault of “individualism”, which they regarded as a luxury for those struggling in Xinjiang at that time. Their words can be vituperative at times, claiming that the “sacrifice of first generation Xinjiang constructors do not need the disgusting ‘sympathy’ from modern whores who only ask what the country can do for them.”

Those who defended the collectivist era maintained that personal sacrifices and devotion of that generation laid the foundation for the economic boom that followed the end of Mao’s reign over China. The buildup of basic industries and the accumulation of “demographic dividends”, the abundance of low cost labor, helped launch the Chinese economy into a sustained three-decade growth trajectory that became the envy of many other countries. And younger generations who enjoy the fruits of development should at least be grateful to their predecessors.

If gratitude is too much to ask for, an empathetic understanding is what many in the middle were suggesting. The ethics of a society, particularly those concerning personal rights, evolve over time, and it is probably unfair for today’s feminists to judge the 1950s using their value systems. The necessity of resettling hundreds of thousands of troops in the far west had the leaders’ hands tied at that time, who were more than aware of communist China’s promise of equality for women. Some argued that women going to Xinjiang in those years might have seen a “net improvement” of their situation by escaping their backward, poverty-stricken rural homes, and that the campaign should be more properly seen as a massive “blind dating event“, where the suppressed women of “old China” met a relatively well-regarded and well-paid group of young males, PLA officers.

More experienced observers noted the fact that this was not the first time that the history of “eight thousand Hunanese women” caused a stir in Chinese society. In the 1980s and 1990s, when materials about the buried memory resurfaced, there was a healthy discussion about the human dimension of the “grand history”. The experience was demystifying and even liberating for some: the “minority” who did feel hurt by that campaign were finally able to have their voices heard. Unfortunately, the “honest and pragmatic” approach to that history has been replaced by a much more ideologically rigid one of today, remarked commentator Song Zhibiao. The now familiar frame of “anti-historical nihilism” immediately trumped any attempt to reopen the history for critical review, and the otherwise debate-savvy feminists quickly retreated from their confrontational stance. “A debate about history has itself become part of Chinese history,” observed Song.

RELATED READING ON THIS BLOG: Down with the Nihilists!

The Atheist Manifesto

55f6f027ly1fbl88241mjj20go0b4q52

“Religion is the opium of the people.” — Karl Marx

Almost every Chinese who goes through some middle school education must, at some point, run into the famous statement about religion by Karl Marx. It is enshrined in text books that introduce students to the philosopher’s materialistic interpretation of the world, which considers religion as a “fantasy” used by reactionary forces to disarm the revolutionary proletariats by promising salvation in the afterlife while preaching endurance in the current one.

Some will argue that there is a Leninist spin in such a presentation of Marx’s view and that his is a more nuanced one that recognizes, albeit grudgingly, the historically progressive role of religion. Still, Marx’s view has become probably the only modern critique of religion that many ordinary Chinese are familiar with, besides Confucius’s largely agnostic approach to spirituality. It also forms the basis of the Communist Party’s self-branding of a fundamentally atheist party.

That being said, textbook does not dictate how millions of Chinese actually approaches faith, nor does Marxist dogma completely defines how the CCP handles religion in the People’s Republic. The harsh criticism of religion by Marx does not stop a large number of Chinese from embracing the teaching of Buddha, the message of Jesus Christ or the words of Mohammed. If anything, the “value vacuum” left by the retreat of a fanatic Maoist ideology since the death of the Chairman has increasingly been filled by religion, demonstrated by skyrocketing numbers of new converts.

At same time, however, the officially “atheist party” has seen its position shift dramatically on this thorny issue over the decades. From courtship in the early years for the sake of building political alliance, to open hostility in the radically leftist years as a result of internal political struggles, to reconciliation in the early days of the Reform and Opening period, and finally to cautious ambiguity that defines its approach today.

It is in this ambiguity that a recent revision of a low-level administrative regulation aiming at maintaining social order stirred up a great controversy online. In the draft change, authorities added a clause that, by the Chinese standard of social control, may seem innocuous: “Anyone who produces contents in publications or online platforms that contain insults or prejudice against a religion or ethnicity may be subject to administrative detainment from 10 to 15 days.” As a society dominated by a largely secular majority of Han Chinese, setting up certain mechanisms to prevent the abuse of minority ethnic groups does not appear controversial. Measures designed to prevent hate-speech are also not unprecedented. The 2009 Measures for Ethnic Unity Education enacted in Xinjiang, where a great number of ethnic minorities, particularly the Uighurs, live, also contain a clause that forbid hate-inciting speeches.

However, this time the outcry was loud and clear, with one Weibo post asking people to oppose the measure collecting 60,000+ forwards within a short period of time.

There are a few notable things about this wave of pushback against the regulation. First, it primarily targets Islam and Muslims even if the proposed clause does not specify any religion or ethnicity for which it is designed. Second, online mobilization for the cause concentrates in “pockets” of the cyberspace that have a track record of anti-Islam activism; and rather than a concern with freedom of expression in general, it appears to be sparked by a very specific grievance that has been gradually festering on the Chinese Internet: a discontent with the perceived (unprincipled) accommodation of the spread of Islam by the Chinese state.

Like many online sentiments that accumulate over time, it is likely shaped by the recurrence of events that are perceived (and interpreted) as having a repeating theme. Researchers may point to the violent riots in Xinjiang in 2009 as the starting point of the narrative of the Chinese state being “too accommodating” to ethnic minorities, particularly Muslim Uighurs. And as this recent online mobilization will show, the narrative has evolved and gained momentum from a host of new sources.

Many events that are reinforcing that narrative today may seem trivial: airlines carry only halal-certified foods aboard domestic flights; police in Shanghai hesitant to intervene in a bully case where supposedly Muslim beef noodle shop owners tried to stop others from opening competing shops; CCTV’s annual spring festival gala accused of distorting a Chinese New Year tradition to avoid mentioning pork. Compared to violent ethnic conflicts, these are stories of minor frictions that often flow beneath the surface of sensational news headlines.

Popular Weibo posts opposing the proposed measure cite the “secular joys” of the Han Chinese life as worthy of protection, going all the way back to the times of the Monkey King when such classic literary works as the Journey to the West could make fun of the ridiculous aspects of religion. “The proposed rule will destroy a core part of Chinese culture”, asserts one post. Some of the commentators see a slippery slope in front of them: “First you can’t eat pork, then girls can’t don short skirts…, then your kid can’t go to school because enrollment favors kids from certain religions. It’s about our very dear interests!”

This highlights the intrinsic contradictions in the Chinese experience with Islam, and, by extension, issues of ethnicity. On the one hand, the impression outside China has been influenced by its heavy-handed social control in regions such as Xinjiang, especially after the riots in the late 2000s. On the other, domestic experience, particularly in Han-dominated central and coastal areas, often contains an element of hurt and frustration. This may seem ironic given the overall economic and cultural advantage that the majority group enjoys, many of which related to its access to opportunities and public resources that tend to concentrate in the developed eastern provinces.

But on a micro, personal level, the experience is also very likely to be real. China’s ethnic policy of today, wherein religion constitutes an organic part, features a series of preferential treatment of minorities, ranging from affirmative action in higher education to leniency in the criminal justice system, some more controversial than others. The so-called “two restraint one leniency” policy, issued by the Party’s Central Committee in 1984, instructs law enforcement across the nation to practice restraint in arrest and execution and leniency in treatment when dealing with minority criminals. Even though the supposed intention of the original policy was to accommodate traditional customs in minority areas that could be criminalized under the sweeping campaign to crackdown on crimes in the early 1980s, it nevertheless led to a lingering situation where “in legal and civil disputes, authorities throughout the nation tend to side with ethnic minorities for the sake of preserving ethnic unity, even to the dissatisfaction of the Han Chinese.” Reports of police officers turning their eyes away from crimes involving ethnic minorities abound on the Chinese Internet.

China’s different approaches to religion in and outside the Xinjiang (and Tibet) Autonomous Regions, where “leniency” is probably the last word used to describe ethnic/religious policy there, is something worth keeping in mind when examining online sentiments on this issue. For instance, in this recent controversy, many who oppose the draft cited situations in places like Ningxia or Qinghai where the issue of Islamic expansion seems particularly salient. People share pictures of grand, luxury Mosques being built in those remote, poverty stricken areas in Western China with the blessing of local governments, and accounts of local children being organized to attend religious schools.

Many netizens online feel uneasy of such developments. And this is where Marx clashes with Islam. One of the major concerns that emerges from this wave of criticism is the worry that the Chinese society’s unique equipment to keep religion at bay, its atheist socialist ideology, can be severely constrained with the introduction of the proposed measure.

Xi Wuyi, a scholar of Marxism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a leading voice denouncing the amendment, embodies this unique Chinese response to Islam. In her strongly worded commentary that was posted online, she asserts that “to research religion and to critique theology is the classic academic paradigm of contemporary Chinese Marxist religion studies” and questions if the clause will undermine the “scientific atheists’ efforts to curb the negative impacts of religion”, a stated aim of the National Conference on Religion-related Work held by the Party in 2016. Her arguments were echoed by other influential personalities on Weibo, who are more colorful when expressing their disapproval: “Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, which topples biblical creationism, and The Internationale, which refutes the existence of gods, can all be taken as offensive to a certain religion. Should they be banned under the new rule?”

An atheist conviction is not their only weapon, especially when it comes to Islam. Broader concerns with women’s rights and the religion’s perceived aggressive hostility toward non-believers are also major factors contributing to online acrimony. Again, they are reflected in the online activism of an opinion leader like Xi Wuyi, who constantly intervene in cases of Islamic “intrusion” into secular freedoms. Just as the petition to scrap the amendment was ongoing, she mobilized public support for an ethnic Hui girl whose father threatened to kill her for her dating a Han boyfriend. A large portion of the Hui ethnicity are Muslims. The father allegedly told the girl that “killing you would violate Han Chinese laws but I would be celebrated as a hero by my Muslim brothers.” The mobilization to support the girl reinforced the sense of urgency felt by those dreading an Islamic encroachment into Chinese social values, further energizing the opposition to the proposed regulation.

For many commentators who piled on the topic, the invocation of Marx can be purely a strategic choice: citing the Party’s ideological idol in opposition to a governmental initiative seems politically acceptable as a “kind reminder” of its communist roots. It also speaks to an important aspect of this online revolt: the grievance is directed as much towards Islam the religion as it is to state favoritism and incompetence, hence the almost “scolding” element in the online criticism that’s designed to “alert” the Party of deviating from its “true color”.

Such “alerts” can be at times very specific, tracing the proposal to powerful religious figures that are able to influence Party policy. The message is that those figures, mullahs who wear governmental hats, have swayed a Party which so far have resisted religious interference into its rule of the country. The curious Taoist support of the campaign, which won applause online, only adds to the perception that the clause was created solely to block criticism of Islam.

A few commentators are careful in making a distinction between religion and ethnicity, separating what they consider religious prejudice, which for them is a false concept, and ethnic prejudice, which is much less defensible. They maintain that every person, no matter of what ethnic lineage, has the freedom to believe or not believe in a religion. It is also in line with the kind of thinking long advanced by prominent scholars such as Ma Rong, who advocates the “depoliticizing” of ethnic “group” identities and the uphold of “individual” identities. He believes that group-based preferential policies are making ethnic identities more acutely felt, and should be replaced by individual-based welfare policies blind to a person’s ethnicity.

Not everybody has patience for nuanced distinctions. This wave of opposition to the regulation also brings to the foreground some of the more disturbing elements in Chinese online discussions about the Muslim community. Blanket derogatory terms such as “cult” and “green cancer,” a term that derives from the religion’s symbolic color, are tossed around casually in conversations, which triggers the exact kind of worry that is probably behind the draft measure. “Demonizing Muslims will undermine ethnic unity in our country,” Prof. Ding Long declares in his article, accusing people like Xi Wuyi of “exaggerating the threat of Islam.”

Yet online sentiments cannot be easily tuned down by voices calling for more open dialogues, as developments overseas continue to feed into that narrative, with even the President of the United States signing off a Muslim travel ban. Violent events in countries like Sweden and France, which further fuels anti-Muslim rhetoric globally, were quick to find their way into Chinese cyberspace. The memory of the bloody event that occurred to Charlie Hebdo editors, also an aggression against expressions, only intensifies that sense of threat. In this regard, Marx’s other important teaching, the camaraderie among fellow proletariat brothers and sisters that transcends ethnicity and national borders, is less important to Chinese netizens eager to contain Islamic influence in the country. Their intense insecurity with Islam, energized by both a love for secular freedom and a frustration with unfair state policy, will likely shape religious and ethnic relationships in China for years to come.

The River

e240009dd514e625c6f

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Translation from Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

1949: River and Strait

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mother nation complex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Anatomy of an (alleged) online scam

20161218_120834000_ios

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

The rest is legend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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