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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Sex, lies and Wang Baoqiang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patriotic July

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.