Soft Power, Hard Sell

Wolf Warrior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ping Pong Fury

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knock Out: a thuggish MMA fighter demystifies Chinese Kung Fu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.