Sex, lies and Wang Baoqiang

wangbaoqiang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woman Power

Liu Yan

Even if one only takes a casual interest in what’s going on in China’s cyberspace, one can’t help but notice the high volume of women’s voice in the past few weeks. In April alone, the internet has been rattled by successive controversies surrounding women and their experience. First there was the episode from a celebrity wedding, where one bridesmaid’s embarrassing experience triggered a debate about sexual harassment. Then netizens were deeply troubled by the case where a woman was beaten up by thugs at a downtown Beijing hotel, a horrific incident that brought about nationwide discussion about systemic violence against women.

There is no indication that this wave of highly publicized incidents is in any way a coordinated push to advance certain agenda. But a common thread is nevertheless discernible: public events are being actively used to reshape social values when it comes to women. Through actively “critiquing” the behavior and utterance of public figures, especially show business celebrities, gender-minded opinion leaders on the internet are essentially enforcing a kind of “political correctness” that is almost entirely grassroots-generated. In a country where there are more political taboos, enforced top-down by the state through an extensive bureaucracy, than “political correctness”, a society’s own check against cultural abuses of disadvantaged communities, the appearance of cultural vigilantes policing values is remarkable.

The bridesmaid episode is illustrative of the phenomenon. By itself, the incident might seem trivial. Liu Yan, a TV star who usually does not shy away from accentuating her sexiness publicly, found herself in a slightly uncomfortable environment at her friend Bao Wenjing’s all-star wedding in Bali, where a bunch of the groom’s best men, all of them celebrity actors and singers, tried to throw her into a swimming pool. Liu resisted the mischief, while another bridesmaid came to her rescue and saved her from the embarrassment. From the video clip that circulated widely on the Internet, the occasion was not particularly unpleasant. People were shrieking with excitement while watching a bunch of men lifting Liu up grabbing her arms and legs.

That’s probably why a few of those best men acted clueless when they suddenly went under fire in the cyberspace. Influential social media accounts that command a large female followership cried foul at those men’s behavior as borderline sexual harassment. They read Liu’s body language (huddling the waist of another bridesmaid, pulling up her dress, etc.) as a clear sign of her discomfort with the “prank” or whatever the males would call it. The awkward moment of her rearranging her strapless dress after she stood up was seen as a testament to her being violated.

Female commentators went out to educate netizens why it was wrong. Some of them provided insightful, sophisticated interpretation of what went on at that scene. “Slut shaming“, as one of them put it, was at the center of the controversy. Since being sexy has always been part of Liu Yan’s brand image as a star, society holds an assumption that she somehow accepts, or even welcomes, such physical contact from males, despite the above signs of her resistance. It is the society’s prejudice against female sexuality that puts her in a situation where violation is seen as justifiable or “self-inflicted”.

Those commentators did not stop at education. They went on to name and shame high profile online figures for expressing problematic views. Liu Chun, a former chief editor of a major portal website and a guest at the wedding, was criticized for his view that people overreacted to the “joke” and that he “would be more than happy to be thrown into the pool.” Criticizers maintained that his own preference was not equivalent to Liu Yan’s consent. More unforgiving criticism was thrown at others who express opinions that were outright offensive. Liuyishou, a Weibo figure, was labeled a “straight male cancer” (zhinan’ai), a popular term coined to describe a Chinese male with typical male-centric values. He openly mused about whether Liu secretly “wanted it”, despite her objection to the game. It is exactly this kind of thinking, argued his critics, that leads men into sexual aggressions.

Naturally, those directly involved in the prank were under the heaviest pressure to admit their wrongdoing. By this point, the outcry on behalf of Liu Yan had become all but irrepressible. But for reasons inexplicable to her defenders, it was Liu Yan who came out first to apologize through a prerecorded video, expressing her regret for disrupting a “happy occasion”. The gesture, rather than putting the controversy to rest, directed more fury against the best men, who so far had kept their silence. Public pressure was mounting on Korea-trained superstar Han Geng, who had cultivated an image of upbeat wholesomeness. After ignoring the call for apology for a few days, Han finally succumbed to the sentiment. Earlier, the groom had already offered a grudging sorry containing a veiled complaint about online trolls unfairly putting his wedding under spotlight.

Barely had the wedding drama subsided in the cyberspace when another one took its place. This time the woman involved was not subject to subtle harassment but violent assault. On Apr 5, a Weibo account called Wanwan uploaded footage from a surveillance camera showing a gruesome experience she had at a hotel in a busy business district of Beijing. As she was searching for her key card in front of her room, a stranger appeared behind her and attempted to drag her away into the emergency exit. While she struggled on the ground, hotel staff on the scene tried to intervene but did not act forcefully, a response that drew fierce criticism after the story broke. While the man was making phone call to what appeared to be his fellow thugs, the young woman tried to escape to the elevator, which only agitated him. This time he violently pulled her by hair. And just when the poor girl was about to disappear into the exit, a female customer who happened to be in the corridor offered her help. The noise brought more people to the corridor, after which the perpetrator left the scene.

A traumatized Wanwan described the incident in a string of fragmented pieces of Weibo posts. Her account of the arrogant hotel management and the indifferent police infuriated netizens, especially women, and touched off a sense of profound insecurity. (It turns out that the thug mistook her for a prostitute who unknowingly strayed into his turf.)

But besides triggering the usual outrage, the episode also brought about something that can only be described as “meta-response”, i.e. a response to other responses. So instead of commenting on the incident in itself, opinion leaders took a particular interest in how others had been responding, and passed value-based judgments on their merit.

Once again, celebrities became vehicles for value dissemination. Certain responses, particularly those from male stars, were criticized for being opportunistic and misguided. For instance, actor Yuan Hong advised female fans to learn self-defense techniques that can be applied in similar situations, only to receive ridicule from female opinion leaders. Many of them believe that women can hardly benefit from unnecessarily agitating male aggressors who are often physically much stronger. So when official outlets such as the People’s Daily also advocates for self-protection, they couldn’t contain their contempt. On the other hand, female stars were praised for their call for more mutual support that creates safer environment for women. Materials from overseas, such as advertisements and TV drama clips, are also used to exemplify the “right” kind of response.

Observers, at once amazed and perplexed, have offered a few plausible explanations for the prominence of women’s voice in recent public debates. Some see this as a natural result of more “white-collar, middle-class” females gaining access to cyberspace podiums, especially positions in the country’s media establishment. “When female editors and journalists grow in their numbers, their dominance in the industry manifests itself in the prominence of a female discourse in the society.” There is no statistical corroboration for such a statement, even though it is said that Wanwan, the victim of the hotel episode, is herself a media professional and has used her communications savviness to mobilize support.

Another thesis, though not directly linked to recent incidents, is worth noting for its political insight. More than one commentators have remarked on the women’s voice online of late as a flank of the burgeoning, organized feminist movement in China. They argue that besides the real world advocacy and campaigning on issues such as domestic violence and workplace equality, a branch of the movement takes on online discourses as a cultural battleground. They use social criticism as a deliberate strategy to advance a feminist agenda. A signature of their online campaigns is their dogged attack on the cultural manifestation of “male supremacy”, which also draws criticism for omitting more structural suppression of women by the state.

No evidence shows that major feminist advocacy outlets such as nusheng (women’s voice), which are usually very active in gender-related public debates, ignited the fuse of public rage over the above two incidents. Number of clicks for its WeChat commentary on the hotel case are dwarfed by better known outlets that do not openly identify themselves as “feminist”. But a scrutiny of their message reveals a commonality in their underlying message that makes people wonder how the organized movement is connected to the seemingly spontaneous general discourse, and vice versa. As it turns out, the feminists’ major critique of the discussion about the hotel incident is precisely what major social network outlets have been saying: the misleading nature of so-called self-defense tips that are being doled out to women. “This is passing the responsibility from the state to women themselves.” On Apr 6, a few activists protested in front of the hotel where Wanwan was assaulted. The movement took the online debate offline.

No country for Phoenix man

dinner

Food occupies a sacred place in the celebration of the Spring Festival. The whole Chinese experience during these few days each year is built around eating: the careful preparation before, the sophisticated rituals during, and the extended wrap-up after the feast.

This year, one such dinner party went terribly awry and became a national spectacle. Not only did the extended wrap-up not happen, it actually involves a guest running away from it. And she did not just run from it, she ran hundreds of kilometers from where the dinner was to her home in Shanghai, in a borrowed car.

So how horrible can a table full of food be? The young woman posted a picture on a Shanghai-based web forum. For eyes not spoiled by the aesthetics of the Chinese cuisine, it might not be immediately obvious why it is that bad. It looks like there are plenty of meat on the table, all put in large steel containers that can hardly contain them. If relocated to another context, this might as well be a symbol of abundance. But for a Chinese, it is at once clear that this is an unrefined dinner from the countryside. The color is unsightly; materials are illegible at best; and the containers, steel rather than china, are simply indecent, particularly for a dinner on the New Year’s Eve.

Even though the authenticity of this dinner party is heavily contested, it is understandable that a white collar from Shanghai can feel frustrated with such quality of food. It was supposed to be her first dinner at the home of her boyfriend, a colleague from rural Jiangxi province, one of China’s most poverty stricken landlocked provinces. Before making up her mind to embark on that over-dramatic cross-country escape the next day, she sought support from fellow forum goers in Shanghai. The underlying message was not just about the dinner, it was about whether she should give up that relationship.

The post almost touched off a referendum on the issues of marriage, etiquette, and women’s right, among others. Compared to that, the suspicion that the whole thing was fabricated by the online forum to salvage its dwindling traffic is beside the point. The bizarre incident once again thrusts the issue of rural China into the national conversation. Only this time, the collective gaze turns unambiguously harsh.

The intellectual tradition that sympathizes with the peasantry runs deep in the Chinese culture. The canon of Chinese classics is stocked by beautifully written passages that bemoan the abject lives of its men and women in the countryside. That tradition paves the foundation for the egalitarian aspirations in much of China’s dominant political thinking throughout its quest for modernization. More recently, the precarious situations of “farmer”,”agriculture” and “countryside” capture the imagination of not only the country’s intellectsia, but also its leadership, making rural issue the nominal “number one” issue for the past decade.

That warmth toward the dirt roads, the paddy fields and the hunched figures laboring in them is dissipating. And strangely, the forces tearing that emotional attachment apart are supposedly “progressive” trends: the advocacy for women’s right, the belief in equal status of husband and wife, the care for children’s well being…

All that newfound hostility is concentrated in a term originated on the Internet: “the Phoenix man”. Its precise origin is untraceable but it is safe to say that it emerged out of the pages upon pages of online sharing of family tensions and dramas, at forums that excel at such topics, such as Tianya or Liba.

Even though the Phoenix, a mythological bird that regenerates itself through blazing nirvana, is often associated with luck and blessing in the Chinese culture, the “Phoenix man” is actually a satirical play of that cultural heritage. It refers to a category of Chinese male, who invariably comes from poor, rural roots and have received higher education in the cities. Through that education they manage to join the ranks of the urban middle class or even higher, get married to an urbanite, and settle down in one of the concrete jungles of the east coast. It sounds like an inspiring story of the China Dream but it’s not. The narrative of the “Phoenix man” is actually a wake-up call of the China nightmare.

The rural roots of the Phoenix man carry much “baggage”, both material and emotional, as the story goes. He feels infinitely indebted to his family, his relatives, his kinsmen, who are left behind in his hometown. Their sacrifice has propelled his rise in social ranks. So he needs to pay them back (and they feel entitled to that payment), often by squeezing his own modest resources. The urge to reciprocate starts to shape his personality: he becomes paranoid, petty and ultra-sensitive to his status. It takes a toll on his relationship, as his girlfriend/wife is often reluctantly drawn into his orbit of incessant repayment. There is a strong patriarch element to the legend. Despite coming from more modest background than his female partner, a Phoenix man is yet adamant in insisting that they play by HIS set of values. She can’t reject that ancient obligation to his village folks. She has to embrace it lest she loses his love.

The fact that in early 21st century a kind of prototypical personality can be so precisely and vividly pinned down through anonymous “crowd-posting” on the Internet is in itself something spectacular. To some extent, it can be read as a quiet, unobtrusive resistance to a suppressive relationship imposed upon a large number of Chinese women. Instead of an open revolt against their men through nasty fights, splits, divorces, they take to online forums to share, recount, and mock. Their collective work is no less powerful. In no time, there are novels personifying that character and television dramas visualizing that label.

But a supposed correction of one set of imbalance (men vs. women) has exacerbated another (city vs. countryside). And that other set of imbalance has been in a state of disrepair for a long time. The Chinese peasants have endured the fate of being an “afterthought” for millennia. They have been the subject of heavy taxation, brutal conscription and devastating collectivization. Even with political movements ostensibly run in their names, they end up becoming the loser, being locked up in their backwardness by a system that restricts their upward mobility in the society.

The “folk education movement” (pingmin jiaoyun) tradition, albeit marginalized in the upheavals of 20th century Chinese history, is probably the only serious attempt from China’s educated elites to “payback” to a class perpetually betrayed. That tradition manifests itself in recent years in the form of sympathetic accounts of the sorry state of the Chinese countryside by liberal intellectuals, journalists and artists.

Almost around this same time last year, a wave of nostalgic sentiments swept through the Chinese Internet. The annual reverse migration back to the countryside during the Spring Festival by the hundreds of millions who work in the cities creates first-hand accounts of the country’s struggling rural communities. In the most popular ones, authors lament about the dissolution of traditional rural values, demoralization of those remaining in the countryside and the disintegration of once strong bonds among people. The eruption of such sentiments became a national post-Spring-Festival topic that drew in the country’s most powerful media institutions.

This year almost saw that same mood unfold as the Lunar New Year approached. Weeks before the national celebration, a piece written by a female scholar who spent some time in her husband’s hometown in the underdeveloped part of Hubei province started to circulate on the web. It is a troubling account of a family and a community disintegrating under the pressure of poverty and sheer whims of life. Their social safety net is so thin that one construction contract going awry sent a relatively prosperous family deep into the abyss of debt. The stress spreads across the family and starts to eat into the life of the author and her husband, who is the only son in his family with a higher education and an academic job in the city. He is a “Phoenix man”. But the author, a deeply compassionate social scientist, was sophisticated enough to reject that label and to relate to the tremendous ethical burden her husband shoulders. She is also sorely aware of how stigmatization like this could close the only remaining channels of upward mobility for people from China’s poor rural regions. The article again raises concerns over the precarious state of the country’s rural communities.

But that concern was completely drowned out by the dubious dinner in Jiangxi province. In its place, a very genuine distaste descends on the farmers and the “lifestyle” they embody. In its most extreme form, a self-claimed “petty bourgeois” female writer goes all the way to explain, with a seriousness that borders on being scary, why social classes are not supposed to mingle, and why it is a good thing to have social stratums separate themselves naturally “like mud from water”. A girl who grows up knowing that steel plates are indecent does not deserve to marry into a family that prepares a dinner like this. The unabashedness and self-righteousness in her message are already glaring. What’s even more troubling is the unexpected surfacing of another line of assault, which, strangely, springs out of a concern for women’s fate in the province of Jiangxi. By highlighting the legitimately disconcerting data that shows Jiangxi as among the provinces with the highest fatality rate for baby girls, posters make a far-fetched case for the escape of our heroine, claiming that she has the right to leave behind a place that treats women in such hideously evil ways (The suspicion goes that peasants in Jiangxi province kill baby girls intentionally as a way of sex selection).

The problem with that argument is that it casts the systematic practice of sex selection of newborn baby simplistically as a moral failing of individual farmers, and from that reading women’s right advocates derives a kind of punitive indignation completely directed at the rural community. No question is raised about the role of the state in causing this problem: the issues of one-child policy or rural education never surface during such discussions. People seem to be complacent about stopping the questioning at the individual level of the poor farmers. They finally have someone to blame for the misery of Chinese women in the countryside.

The feminist backlash against the peasant class is the most intriguing turn of events in this saga about one silly dinner. It is hard to tell how much of that can be attributed to the systematic removal of the “root cause critique” from public discourse. As observer Song Zhibiao puts it: “Prejudice is often de-politicized. From the very beginning there is no mention of the government, as if the Chinese countryside is an isolated utopia, a self-contained sin that has nothing to do with the cities. It only deserves to die by itself, silently.”

In 21st century China, its aging, sick and disenfranchised countryside is faced with another menace: urban public opinion turning unforgiving.

 

* It has just been confirmed that the story of the dinner is completely fabricated.

Further reading on this blog: Poor Man’s Violence

The Master

Wanglin

The women were screaming with excitement. The half-naked man was teasing them with a snake, trying to hang it on one woman’s neck. After being prodded by her companions, the woman obliged and happily took a photo together with the man. The snakes were magically summoned by the man from under an enamel basin that was supposed to be empty inside. Before he did that, he stripped off his tie and shirt just to prove that he did not hide anything underneath his clothing. In another scene, the camera shows him feeding liquor to the same group of well-dressed men and women. The liquor came out of nowhere into the cups that he was holding in his hands. It appears that he was able to fill the cups endlessly. A few faces cringed when fed the alcohol but played along obediently. Everybody was laughing and clapping hands profusely.

This is a home party from the 1990s captured on a video. It looks like the video was prepared for the eyes of Communist Party cadres only (with the words “internal reference” at the beginning). The purpose, according to the preamble to the video, was to open their eyes to “human body science” and its mysterious wonders. The half-naked man is called Wang Lin (“the Master”), at that time a lecturer at a Jiangxi province cadre training school. For the past two years, his story has provided the Chinese public a rare chance to peep into the secret social lives of China’s ruling elites.

The latest public interest in Wang has been triggered by a murder case. On Jul 16, news broke out that a Jiangxi province businessman called Zou Yong was kidnapped and murdered, his body thrown into the Poyang Lake. Zou used to be Wang Lin’s “apprentice” but fell disillusioned with the Master after two years of “practicing”. The break-up of the apprenticeship turned out to be nasty, with both suing each other for embezzlement. The cases are still pending final ruling from the court. Yet Zou will not have the chance to see them through. On the night of Jul 15, Wang was arrested by police along with several others who accompanied him. He was suspected to be involved in Zou’s death.

Murder. That is the latest charge against the Master after he was brought into national spotlight in 2013. Illegal medication and owning guns are two of the others. Many of these charges exist because of Zou’s relentless reporting to the police and press. But the authority has never been able to pin down any real evidence of Wang involved in such activities. He proved too elusive and mysterious for investigators. More importantly, he seemed to be “protected” somehow by a web of benefactors that he has cultivated over the years. His admirers and acquaintances include central government Ministers, chairmen of powerful political bodies and top notch celebrities. It was the 2013 visit by Jack Ma, Jet Lee and A-list actress Zhao Wei to his “castle” in Jiangxi province that aroused tremendous interest from the public in this previously unheard of Master, which unleashed a wave of probing media attention that ultimately proved damaging for Wang.

The latest murder charge transforms those elites’ entanglement with Wang Lin from a mere embarrassment to something much darker. One commentator calls the Wang Lin phenomenon “the darkest metaphor of the Chinese elite circles.” Through him, “we can see how stupid and decadent this country’s 1% really are.” In another widely circulated commentary that is said to be from novelist Wang Shuo, those elites are described as “low IQ, insecure, lack of scientific common sense, and have no sense of responsibility”. For those ordinary Chinese who can feel inequality and unfairness at every turn of their daily life, seeing the country’s richest and most powerful flocking to pay tribute to someone who is so apparently a hoax gives them an outlet to vent their despise. “For most middle class Chinese, a doctoral mortarboard and a decent downtown apartment means a life time’s achievement. Yet for the power wielding elites, the middle class is just a bunch of boring monkeys. Only an ‘interesting’ person like Wang Lin can raise their heavy eye lids.”

The celebrities in show business took the heaviest hits, as they often embody quick money and brainless ignorance. Star singer Faye Wong was particularly picked at, not only because she and her (former) husband seem to have paid the Master more than one visits, but also for the fact that she has been spearheading a kind of life style that glamorizes “alternative” spiritual experiences. With a public image of being ultra-cool and aloof, she was often seen kowtowing to Buddhist monks and frequenting Taoist temples. Some of the “Masters” she visited were later found to be nothing more than swindlers and were sent to jail. Commentators blame Faye Wong for helping popularize a kind of hypocritically self-contradictory personality within the society that becomes a fertile ground for the Wang Lins:  “On the one hand, they worship religious creeds that advocate detachment from secular, materialistic pursuits, while on the other hand they closely monitor their assets in the stock market.”

The elites are not without their defenders. Apparently disturbed by the above attacks, established business writer Wu Xiaobo wrote a piece arguing that those who paid tribute to Wang Lin do not deserve such searing criticism. They are probably “just curious about the secrets of life”, as Albert Einstein said “the best thing we can experience is mystery, as it’s the source of all arts and sciences.” Comparing Chinese billionaires’ visit to a magician and murder suspect to Albert Einstein’s pursuit of the ultimate truth of the universe is more than the Chinese society could stomach. As expected the article met with unforgiving ridicule on-line, and Wu’s reputation as a respected business writer is likely to be irrevocably tarnished. But in his article he also points the “Wang Lin phenomenon” to its historical origin, which helps shed light on the deep currents that propelled Wang’s emergence in the first place. In the late 1980s, a “Chi-gong Fever” swept across the country, largely thanks to the sudden interest in “paranormal phenomena ” from a few high level leaders and established scientists such as Qian Xuesen, the father of Chinese rocket science. Their support and patronization produced all kinds of government sponsored “research” and absorption of magician-type drifters such as Wang Lin into the official system. In bringing up this history, Wu tries to argue that the elites’ curiosity in Wang Lin has certain legitimacy. But inadvertently, he reminds people of the deep-rooted irrationality of the Chinese political elites.

For some observers, the debate about whether those elites are stupid completely misses the point. Of course they know these are just magic tricks, the argument goes. They just play along because what they treasure is not the SUPERNATURAL power of Wang Lin but the NATURAL power that he is able to bring them. It refers to his other identity as one of China’s first-class power broker. The “home parties” at which he performs his “repertoire” are just excuses to hold low-profile, exclusive gatherings for those who use such occasions to exchange resources. It is reported that he introduced Zou Yong (his now dead apprentice) to China’s then Railway Minister Liu Zhijun (who was later sentenced to life in prison on corruption charges) and secured Zou a deal worth a billion RMB. He also used his network to help a high level Guangdong official to get pass “turbulences” caused by damaging corruption allegations, which won the unwavering allegiance of that official (who kneeled in front of Wang to thank him, but later fell victim to the new administration’s anti-corruption campaign).

If the likes of Jack Ma are truly just knowingly “playing along”, which seems to be a more plausible  explanation of their behavior, then what the Wang Lin saga demonstrates is not the elites’ stupidity and ignorance but rather their spectacular cynicism. These are the smartest guys in our room. Their readiness to entertain and bow their heads to a snake magician is an allegory of power’s erosive effect on reason and human dignity.

“Copycat University” and the Noble Plagiarizer

Fudan

For many Fudan University alumni, last week was like riding an emotional roller coaster: from pride, to shock, to disbelief, to disappointment, to shame and to anger. As one of China’s most prestigious institutions of higher education most known for its School of Journalism, the Shanghai-based university turned a joyful headline-grabbing celebration of its 110th anniversary into a self-inflicted PR disaster that nearly ruined its hard-won reputation as “the best university on the southern bank of the Yangtze River”.

It all started with a promotional video that the university proudly unveiled on May 27. At first glance, the 5 minute video clip is imbued with refreshing novelty in both its core message and storytelling techniques. In stark contrast to similar efforts by other top Chinese universities, which invariably fall into the cliché of shopping-listing “achievements” and campus attractions, the Fudan video adopts the perspective of an individual graduate, one of China’s very few female commercial flight test engineers, and tells a story of empowerment through an enlightening journey of education at Fudan. In a somewhat quirky way, the video shows her sauntering on the Fudan campus wearing blue full-body uniform and a clumsy pilot helmet that covers her entire face. With that helmet on, she attends lectures of graceful, silver-haired Fudan professors, visits laboratories full of serious researchers, reads at libraries stacked by aging volumes of classics, and plays Taiji with fellow students on a lush meadow. At the end, she finally takes off the helmet and reveals her young, beautiful face. The onscreen text then simply says “Le Yafei, class of 2009, now a flight test engineer of COMAC.” Throughout the video, the protagonist narrates her story in decent English, against a sublime background music that matches seamlessly with the theme of a soul soaring up high through knowledge and enlightenment.

Viewed on its own, the video so completely transcends the whole genre of boring Chinese college promotional videos that it deserves a stand ovation. It redefines a university’s success as the incubator of creative, truth-seeking individuals, rather than a factory producing wealthy alumni, fancy laboratories or high rise buildings. Its strive for novelty and memorability in form also speaks to the ambition to connect with a real, global audience, rather than poker-faced bureaucrats seeking a mere visualization of their own achievements.

All of the above only makes the sudden reversal of events even more pathetic.

Almost as soon as the launch of the video, people noticed its impeccable similarity with the University of Tokyo’s 2014 promotional video “Explorer“, which features female astronaut Naoko Yamazaki navigating the campus wearing her spacesuit. She goes through similar on-campus scenes: libraries, laboratories and classrooms, and at the end of the video, takes off her helmet when the text says “Naoko Yamazaki, class of 1993, astronaut”. More embarrassingly, people found out that the goose bump raising background music of the Fudan video was simply borrowed from the original soundtrack of the award-winning Hollywood movie, Gravity.

For the Fudan alumni who had been in a festive mood in the running up to their alma mater’s birthday, the brazen plagiarism of the video was a profound disappointment. Many of them occupy prominent positions in China’s media establishment, which makes their rage particularly audible. One of them, who had been a Weibo royalty, was so hurt that he decided to suspend microblogging indefinitely. The fact that Fudan chose to copy from a Japanese university only makes it even more insulting for some. Screenshots of Japanese media reports of the incident quickly spread on the Chinese web sphere as a painful reminder of the humiliation. Angry netizens started to refer to Fudan University as “Fuzhi (copy) University.”

In no time, media attention turned to the man behind the promotional video: The director of Fudan University’s news center, Mr. Teng Yudong, who had a PhD in journalism. Interestingly, the individual depicted by media reports turned out to be a complex and authentic human being that vividly represents the multiple contradictions of contemporary China. In what seemed like an unpublished in-depth piece that probed into the making of the video, Teng came off as an over-ambitious, over-confident figure eager to transform the university’s publicity norms. He was widely credited to have reinvented the university’s campus newspaper “The Fudan Youth” into a semi-serious journalistic venture with original, in-depth reporting of all sorts. He was also known for his intolerance of mediocrity and for setting high benchmarks for his subordinates, often using others’ work as “reference points.” Failing to reach those bars set by him would result in criticism and scold. It was in this atmosphere of “aiming high” that the University of Tokyo’s “Explorer” caught his attention and imagination. He had always wanted to tell the story of alumnus Le Yafei, whose involvement in China’s attempt of making its own commercial airliners as a female flight tester had already made headlines in major party newspapers since 2012. He memorably told his colleagues that “this is a story that should not be wasted, and should be packaged in a completely different way.” It fitted his taste of storytelling as a college propaganda director: the stories of alumni contributions to advancing the national goals of China. So his theme for the video was subtly different from its U-Tokyo counterpart from the outset: Yes, it celebrates individuals, but not as who they are. They are celebrated for their dedication to greater collective objectives. When you look at it through this lens, you better understand his alleged response to early warnings of plagiarism from his own team: “Don’t shy away from being similar. Try to outdo them!”

That attitude, a mixture of noble ambition and shocking ignorance, brought him some sympathy and much ridicule in the Chinese web sphere. The most vocal sympathetic voice came from The Paper, the Shanghai-based digital media that is considered China’s Huffington Post. The outlet not only carried an exclusive interview with Teng on May 29, where he apologized for the video but insisted that the core story had been original, but also allowed the reporter, a Fudan alumna herself, to come up with a first-person account of that interview. The account later turned into a major controversy that further complicated the incident. As it turned out, the journalist not only did not care to conceal her full sympathy with Teng (describing him as being treated too harshly by online opinion for trying to be innovative), but went so far as to allow her interviewee to edit her draft (incidentally cutting it by half) before she submitted it to her editor. While people debated her journalistic integrity, the focus of her sympathy, that Teng so desperately wanted to produce something “different”, and that borrowing others’ work was an important part of a learning process, speaks to the fundamental appeal of Teng’s philosophy of “copy, and then outdo”. Others compared his approach to a small time newspaper trying to adopt the narrative style of the Wall Street Journal.

But the majority of public opinion simply cannot stomach such valorization of the plagiarizer. They trashed the Paper News journalist and made crude jokes about anything associated with the University. Like many other major cyber events, the incident taps into some long existing anxiety of the Chinese society, which helps to amplify it to a magnitude that may seem disproportional to the original matter. That deeply-rooted anxiety about China’s lack of original thinking and creativity is like a drifting balloon filled with explosive gases in the web space. Whenever poked at by a burning cigarette or incense, it explodes and makes a huge noise. All of sudden, the internet is filled with all-to-familiar articles telling you “why China cannot produce a Steve Jobs” or “What’s wrong with China’s education system.”

We don’t know exactly why the Jobs and the Gates and the Zuckerbergs don’t roam the land of the central kingdom. But one thing is clear: Mr. Teng is probably going to lose his job. On May 29, Fudan University quietly took down “To My Light” from official channels and replaced it with a bland, shoddy and tedious 13-minute alternative full of footages of cadres making speeches. So much for noble plagiarism and storytelling ambitions. Let’s fall back to the safe and assuring realm of boredom.

How did China’s Spring Festival Gala turn into a feminist’s nightmare?

It’s the Chinese New Year again. Besides lunar new year mainstays such as fire crackers and Jiaozi, watching the CCTV’s (China Central Television) Spring Festival Gala has been “a force of habit”(CNN) since its debut in 1983. “Combine the viewers of the Oscars, Emmys, American Idol finales and MTV Video Music Awards — then throw in the Super Bowl ratings for good measure — you are not even close,” CNN provides a reference to understand the magnitude of the annual variety show. This was proudly broadcasted by CCTV as a somewhat envious compliment. (Yes, we in general hate the biased “Western media”, but never hesitate to quote them verbatim when they compliment.)

To many viewers this year’s show was nothing special. Ever since the diversification of entertainment became possible in the late 90s, the appeal of the show has started its gradual decline. Long gone are the days when a catch phrase in the show becomes a permanent establishment in the Chinese language almost over-night. Today, comedians have to borrow heavily instead from the vibrant internet world for puns and jokes that to some viewers are already too outdated to be relevant. For a person like me, the show has become a kind of background noise of which the only function is to remind people that it’s the New Year’s Eve.

But this year, in addition to the regular ridicules and parodies of the stupid show (which have become more fun than the show itself with the emergence of social network sites), a very serious conversation started to develop as soon as the show was over. It turned out that many female viewers were deeply offended and disturbed by the values expressed in the show. More specifically, they were aghast to see how a 4-and-half-hour show could squeeze in so much content demeaning to women in each and every way.

Imagine if NBC aired a comedy sketch that features a punch line comparing women with sexual experience to “second-hand products” and genuinely expected it to be funny (not as a ridicule of such references), or if the theme of a 10-minute sketch on the Academy Award show was about two men telling a “female loser” (30-year-old, single and overweighted) how to pick herself up by having an attractive super model as her role-model, with all sincerity. (This is of course not to say that Hollywood does not have its own problems with the portrayal of women.)

This was what ACTUALLY happened in front of 700 million pairs of eyes on the night of Feb 18, if CNN’s viewership figure is correct.

Many female viewers were fuming with anger. The hashtag #spring-festival-gala-discriminates-against-women (#春晚歧视女性) on Weibo accumulated over 5 million clicks in only 24 hours after the show.  A popular post (with close to 20,000 re-posts) describes the show as a complete collection of discrimination against women, “from appearance discrimination, to job discrimination, to marriage discrimination, to the objectification of women as a whole.” Serious critiques of the show quickly appeared on sites such as zhihu.com (a Q&A site similar to Quora). In one of the most viewed posts, the author cited the objectives set by the 1995 World Women’s Conference (held in Beijing) for “women’s representation in the media,” one of which was to “promote a balanced and non-stereotyped portrayal of women in the media.” The author then asked pointedly if China’s national television station was promoting or actually impeding the achievement of this objective set 20 years ago.

What those female viewers find even more disconcerting is that neither CCTV nor those participating in the show (including many actresses) seem to consider this a problem. Indifference proves to be a bigger challenge for advocates of women’s right. Therefore, many of the commentators voluntarily took up the educational and enlightening role, disseminating arguments about why women should speak up and openly resist such treatments that they considered repulsive. Some of them started to spread images that they claimed to represent women’s deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, implying that it was largely due to women’s quiet acquiescence of injustice (even though such simplistic depiction of the Afghan situation met with strong skepticism).  Petitions were quickly put in place to call for CCTV’s open apology.

Such sentiments do not resonate with everyone. Accusations that such criticism is unfair and over-reacting have dogged the debate from the very beginning. There are also self-professed “feminists” offering counter-arguments that women should not feel entitled to treatments not proportional to their own capabilities, calling criticizers of the Gala a “feminist cancer.” From this mixture of rebuttals emerged a more comical “school” of thinking that the criticism represents “a blind adoption of Western values.” (Not surprisingly many upholders of such views are men).

Yet again, in the discussion of the world’s most watched variety show, two unconnected parallel universes appeared in China. When the heated debate about women’s representation by the Spring Festival Gala was still far from over on social network sites, China’s mainstream media outlets, CCTV included, were busy selling a different story about the show: “Anti-corruption themed sketches considered the most ‘edgy’ in the show’s history.”

The country acts as if it has watched two different Spring Festival Galas.