People’s Republic of Spiritual Rednecks

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“Trump wins!” At 1pm, November 9, Beijing time, hours before mainstream US media could confidently call the 2016 US presidential election for Trump, eager Chinese spectators handed Trump the presidency using what seems like a photoshopped screenshot of Wolf Blitzer on CNN. The picture might be fake, but the sentiment is all too real: the insuppressible excitement for a Trump upset, or, more accurately, for the defeat of Hillary Clinton.

By now, many who watch China have come to the realization that Donald Trump has a “base” in a country one Pacific Ocean away from where ballots are actually cast. Articles have been written about the phenomenon, with a mixture of amusement and alarm. Understanding Trump’s appeal in China will have limited bearing on how the president-elect conducts his business, but will shed light on the cultural and political propensities of a vocal segment of the Chinese society today.  The Trump fanfare in China embodies an interesting contradiction: outward-looking, intellectually curious Chinese individuals embracing an American strongman who builds his political brand on xenophobia and ignorance.

Why would well-educated, internet savvy Chinese, whom economists consider one of the biggest beneficiaries of the past quarter century of globalization, identify with the vengeful, explosive hero of those who have been left behind by that same historical process?

The Chinese Internet has taken a particular interest in Trump’s unexpected ascension as soon as it became clear that he would be the Republican nominee. At that time, popular Chinese posts about Trump depict him as a symptom of the ailments of American society. He is the manifestation of people’s hidden frustration with political correctness, of the cleavage between intellectual elites and those struggling with their livelihoods, and of “our mediocre and shallow time where entertainment trumps everything.” While there is this you-reap-what-you-sow sentiment in such articles, there is also no doubt that Trump is an ignorant, inexperienced and intolerant hot-head who is clearly unfit for the job.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly when a much more favorable view about Trump starts to bloom in the Chinese cyberspace. Through that lens, he is viewed as a truth-talker, a pragmatist, a fixer, and most importantly, a strong counter-voice against what is believed decadent Western liberal values.

Before we can properly explore the “Chinese support for Trump”, it is important to separate it from Chinese Americans’ rooting for the Republican candidate, which is based on more substantive issues for people who actually live in the US. A considerable amount of what’s written on Chinese-language sites about the election is actually by Chinese Americans, especially first generation Chinese immigrants. Their opposition to Hillary, and Democrats in general, often centers around issues such as the Affirmative Action which is believed to hurt hard-working Chinese American kids. This topic deserves a separate treatment, for which the Sinica Podcast’s Kaiser Kuo did a great job.

There are, of course, substantive reasons for a mainland Chinese to prefer a Trump presidency. A typical response can be found in comments made by military observers and geopolitical types on the Chinese Internet, who see a US under Trump’s leadership set to make “strategic contractions” overseas given his openly isolationist positions and a focus on domestic economic issues. “The US will almost certainly move away from its strategy of Pivot to Asia. It will give up on the South China Sea, or even its influence in Taiwan. Trump is a pragmatic businessman. Confronting China in the South China Sea is a business with a low cost-benefit ratio that he won’t do.” This is probably wishful thinking bordering on fantasy, given Trump’s multiple policy backtracks days after his election. But it does account for why some in China are gleeful about a Trump win.

On the substantive side, there are also veteran Chinese political and economic commentators who express doubts about the potential benefits of the “Trump doctrine”, albeit much more muted than the geopolitical optimists. They argue that China, as one of the largest beneficiaries of globalization, will suffer if the US sways momentously back towards protectionism.

But as we shall see, self-interest seems not to be the primary component of the Chinese affection for Trump. Their fondness of this man is as much value-based as those American voters believed to have voted “against their own interest”. After the election, Routangseng, one of the consistently pro-Trump figure on Weibo, wrote about Trump, as “the true heir of Edmund Burke and John Locke”, relentlessly defending the last bastion of freedom. The comparison is absurd, if not outright hilarious. But the rest of his argument, that high-tax welfare states are fostering a sense of entitlement and are nothing more than “open robbery”, sounds all too familiar to ears weathered by American political rhetoric. And he is not alone in his hostility toward what he labels the evil social programs of “white liberals”(白左). In fact, “white liberals” has become a keyword that tags in much of the Chinese online discussion about the election.

The unveiled, intense disdain for American (and European) liberals demonstrated by a substantial segment of the Chinese social media is the key to understanding Trump’s popularity here, and something that ties the “intellectual” side of Trump’s Chinese support with his apparent lack of any intellectual appeal.

On zhihu.com, the Chinese equivalence of Quora, where enthusiasm about Trump is particularly strong, multiple top posts under the “Donald J. Trump” tag center around the theme of liberal hypocrisy and weakness. For a site that pride itself with informed discussions and a respect for expertise, the overall hostility towards Western liberal ideas deserves a moment of reflection. One of the posts that garners more than 18,000 likes is a broad stroke thesis about the decline of Western civilization under the pressure of Muslim immigration. “There are towns in Britain that are completely under the control of Muslim extremists, who are openly using white girls as sex slaves under the eyes of gutless British policemen. Trump was right when he said there were no-go zones for French policemen in their own country. Western countries are in such a degree of self-deception that politicians like Obama and Merkel can be praised for their appeasement with Islamists while political correctness deters people from talking about the existential threat to Western civilization.”

It is one thing to be critical of the liberal ideas of multiculturalism and freedom of religion, it is quite another when a Chinese shows that level of concern for the demise of the West. Granted, ethnic strife is on the rise between Han Chinese and their Muslim compatriots. This could be part of the reason why some are anxious about a perceived Muslim advancement in other parts of the world. Another factor that might have played into this is the admire-despise complex that many in China harbor about the West. Deep down they still see the West as something to aspire to, and they feel frustrated when “weak” liberal leaders squander their full hand of good cards. “Angry about them not putting up a fight” (怒其不争), as one Chinese saying goes.

What’s more likely to have happened, though, is that somehow right-wing materials from the English-speaking world find their way into China through the Internet. After all, who is more troubled by the fall of (white) Western civilization than the American and European alt-right? This has happened before when, during last year’s European refugee crisis, a viral post on a Chinese website about how Japan “wisely” excludes Muslims from its society turned out to be translated from an openly anti-Muslim Zionist. In this year’s election cycle, conservative websites such as RedState, are used by Chinese media as authoritative sources of news. All kinds of conspiracy theories about Clinton, from pedophile allegations to murder charges, spread widely on people’s WeChat walls, reinforcing the image of her as a conniving, evil politician who embodies the hypocrisy of liberal politics.

In a way, the Chinese Internet is just an extension of what goes on in America this election season. The spectacular failure of mainstream US media to sway public opinion and to foresee a Trump win is a sign of the social media’s unprecedented efficacy in channeling information and aligning the electorates, bypassing established gatekeeping and blindsiding political operations based on rules of the past era. The new landscape enables players such as Wikileaks to reach millions of voters unfiltered, and makes spinning through “surrogates” less effective. Chinese netizens have long harbored a suspicion about the “Western media”, seen as being biased against China. The disorderly situation in the US provides an even larger incentive to look beyond what the NYT or Washington Post is saying. On Zhihu, users pile on Podesta’s leaked emails and develop their own theory of top Democratic officials involving in unspeakably diabolic child abuse. Their ability to consume such materials “uncensored” by mainstream Western media leads some Chinese netizens to consider themselves more informed about the candidates than the Americans.

When those smart Chinese internet users climb over the imagined informational barriers erected by Western media, they are thrilled to find a Trump that speaks to their beliefs. A great many commentators point to the so-called pragmatism in Trump as what resonates with Chinese watchers. Some of them even half-jokingly compare him to Deng Xiaoping, the great Communist leader who opened China to the outside world after Mao’s death. Deng famously declared that “a cat is a good cat if it catches rats, no matter whether its black or white.” The metaphor was advanced to settle heated ideological debates that threatened to thwart his reform to liberalize the market. To many Chinese, “political correctness” is equivalent to socialist dogmas that should be swept aside when addressing the West’s “real” problems. If illegal immigrants or refugees cause social upheavals, say it. That’s the logic for those who believe that Germany’s welcome of refugees, or America’s embrace of immigrants are due to political constraints that prevent them from doing otherwise, much as China’s own communist dogma prohibited the embrace of private enterprises 40 years ago. Breaking the shackles created by naive, holier-than-thou liberals is an act of dogma-shattering pragmatism, seen from the historical experience of modern China.

One Zhihu user offers a more personal explanation why many Chinese seem able to relate to the kind of anxiety that Trump claims to represent. The Chinese white collar class, as the author puts it, is not very far removed from their working-class roots. “Most Chinese born after the 1980s are from a working-class background, who can still sympathize with the uneducated ignorance demonstrated by the less refined and appreciate its political power when mobilized. It is what their parents, uncles and primary school classmates look like.”  Their modest roots make them less repelled by Trump than their “elitist” liberal counterparts in the US. Of course, the stereotype of liberal elites in a Chinese mind, invariably based on some version of an east coast intellectual or a Silicon Valley executive, is more imagination than reality, willfully ignoring the millions of Americans who vote Democrat and who are no less modest in their background than the author’s “Chinese parents”.

There is, nevertheless, a much blunter assessment of why well-educated Chinese love Trump. Zhao Lingmin, a columnist for the Chinese website of the Financial Times, also links it with their upbringing. However, in contrast to the rosy idea that their generational experience with hardship makes it easier for them to relate to their poorer countrymen, Zhao believes that 30 years of unbridled economic growth “without much moral or legal constraints” has enshrined social Darwinism as the guiding doctrine for much of the Chinese society. The widespread worship of winners and contempt of losers prevent the society from developing any “political correctness” that shields disadvantaged communities such as women and the disabled from abuses by those with wealth and power. “Over time, those who master the rules of this winner-takes-all environment have developed a hardened heart and a high self-regard.” They are convinced that those left behind must have something deplorable and are alarmed by any welfare program aiming to lift them up. Trump’s message is a loud confirmation of this value system.

Disgusted by what he has witnessed in Chinese debates about the election, “Pretend to live in NYC”(假装在纽约), a personality on Weibo well known for his effort to introduce progressive message abroad to the Chinese cyberspace, brands Chinese Trump supporters as “spiritual rednecks“, ethnic Chinese who identify with a Texan bigot. They look down upon other people of color, but insist, ironically, that whites should not discriminate against Chinese, a political correctness they’d rather preserve.

Trump’s true Chinese supporter might sit somewhere between the two ends marked by the views above. He is probably not the “son of a working man” whose innate compassion connects him with the suffering of his poor compatriots. He is also not entirely the cold-blooded, prototype social Darwinist who cares only about self-achievement at the expense of others. After the election, a widely-read Weibo post (again originated from Zhihu) summarizes what Trump’s win has “taught China”, generating tens of thousands of retweets.

“1. We should retain our college entrance exam system that ensures a pathway for poor kids to move up the social ladder. The American election shows how a lack of upward mobility tears apart the society;

2. China should protect its manufacturing sector and prevent it from being outsourced. America’s deindustrialization only benefits capitalists, not workers;

3. China should forcefully resist immigrants and reject political correctness. Illegal immigrants usually compete with lower working class people for jobs, not professional middle class. When the daily safety of working class residents is threatened, they should be able to protect themselves without fear of being politically incorrect. 

4. China should be adamantly against excessive care for the LGBT community. Their values and choice should be tolerated, not advocated, especially not at the expense of suppressed mainstream values.

Who would have imagined that a US election can inspire China to come up with what seems like its own conservative manifesto, a strange combination of care for social equality and dismiss of cultural inclusiveness. Through the dizzying image of a triumphant Trump, the Chinese society discovers its funny and distorted reflection, as if inside a funhouse.

China’s Ideological Spectrum and Why Those Behind It Are True Visionaries

ideology

Polling is a tricky business in China. For something that pollsters in a Western democracy do on a daily (or even hourly) basis, Chinese researchers and survey companies either cannot touch at all or need to get their questionnaires scrutinized by the statistical authority for approval. So you don’t just pick up the phone and start asking people questions like “on a scale from 1 to 5, how do you rate the President’s performance so far?” You can ask them about what toothpastes they use, but not on those questions. A few years ago, some group got into big trouble for doing “illegal surveys” in China. So you get the picture.

That’s why the dataset accumulated by the Chinese Political Compass project over the course of 8 years (2007-2014) becomes so unique. For those who don’t read Chinese, you may just go to the original Political Compass to get a general idea. Basically, it is an online test that locates a person’s ideological stance based on their reaction to 50 statements. A sample statement looks like this:

Indiscriminately imitating (systems of) western style freedom of speech will lead to social disorder in China.

A test taker chooses from “Strongly Disagree”, “Disagree”, “Agree” and “Strongly Agree” before s/he moves on to the next statement. After completing the whole survey, the test taker gets scores to indicate how liberal/conservative he or she is politically, economically and culturally. All 50 statements are tailor-made to capture the actual divides in the Chinese society that can be quite idiosyncratic. For instance, as the above sample statement shows, freedom of speech is still up for debate in China while in most Western democracies it is taken as a shared foundation of the society no matter whether you are liberal or conservative.

This brings us to the very unique situation where the Chinese labelling of “liberal” and “conservative” could be confusing for a Western audience. Part of the reason, as explained by Chinese scholar Qin Hui, is the fact that Western liberals and conservatives all operate above a certain bottom line that does not exist in China. With this bottom line as a basic constraint, “ideological options” are roughly defined by where the line of the state/individual boundary is drawn: those on the left advocate for more state intervention and responsibility (Welfare state), while those on the right stand for more individual liberty and less welfare. The constraint is a social contract that power matches responsibility. In such a society it would be very difficult for politicians to bargain for more state power (social control) and less responsibility (welfare) at the same time. That’s why you seldom see democracies with high tax and low welfare. Yet this is exactly the bottom line that is absent in a country like China, where you start to see ideas that could be unfathomable to a mind so accustomed to the basic social contract. A statist position that calls for an omnipresent state while simultaneously asking the people to make “sacrifices” on their welfare is deemed “leftist” in a Chinese context, but I’m sure Elizabeth Warren would find it horrendous. Much of the ideological split in China is actually along the lines that no longer divide Western societies (things like freedom of speech and constitutional democracy).  That’s why the Chinese left/right debates can be so perplexing. (Below is a table that summarizes the divides in the Chinese context).

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From “China’s Ideological Spectrum

It is with those considerations that creators of the Chinese Political Compass came up with their original test back in 2007. It has been thence forth operating in a very low-profile way, with personal reference as its major way of spreading. I took the test back in 2008, when a friend of mine sent me the link on MSN messenger as if passing along banned books back in high school (disclosure: I’m a political 1, economic 0.5 and cultural 0.4). But apparently the test collected momentum even in such a discreet manner, with over one million people taking it in total. This approach of course does not generate a representative sample. The self-selected nature of the test takers fills the cohort with politically curious, male, college students. But this is probably as far as you can get in the current circumstances.

Early this year, the test website unfortunately caught the attention of the Great Firewall of China. People inside the country can no longer access the site unless they use a VPN to bypass that firewall. This deals a heavy blow to the site no just in the sense of lower traffic but, probably more damaging, of further strengthening the self-selection process of test takers (now only those who grasp how to handle a VPN can take it). After making the decision that future data will not be meaningful any more, the creator of the test made the raw data from previous years available for download.

As you can imagine, this dataset is a treasure island. Within less than ten days of its disclosue, a joint research paper by two Chinese students from Harvard and MIT emerged on the internet, which is titled “China’s Ideological Spectrum“. By analyzing the more than 170,000 answers from the test’s 2014 dataset, they come to a set of conclusions that shed light on a part of the Chinese national psyche that few have examined before. Probably the most important insight from this analysis is the finding that the ideological spectrum in China is really uni-dimensional (even though the survey is designed in three dimensions). In other words, those who are politically conservative are also likely to be economically and socially conservative, and the same applies to the liberals. In a sense, this shows that ideologically speaking, China is still not as diverse as advanced democracies where, for example, social and economic issues often constitute two separate dimensions. It will be difficult to find someone like Rand Paul in contemporary China, who is conservative on social issues but libertarian on the economics. The authors claim that this conclusion is likely to hold true even if they use a more representative sample. This I’ll leave to statistically savvier minds to judge.

Other findings from the paper are more expected. For example, liberalism in China is highly related with modernization, education and income. Those who are well educated and with a higher income are more likely to embrace free trade, government transparency and gay rights.

The very fact that the existence of an ideological spectrum in China (though uni-dimensional in nature) is being supported by empirical data is ground-breaking. It shows how far the country has moved away from a monolithic state of mind. And it is probably not going to be reversed. With diversity comes balance and equilibrium, as the left can be checked by the right, the fanatics checked by the moderate. That’s also partly why I started this blog: to show that there is diversity in the lively and noisy world of ideas in this country. And that, in itself, is empowering.

But the creators of Chinese Political Compass have done much more. As a bunch of college students back in 2007, they acted on an idea, held on to it and turned it into a great source of political self-awareness for a generation of Chinese and a treasure box of insights for the whole world. It is this kind of progressive volunteerism that is truly changing the spectrum of China. To quote one of the creators, who released a public statement on Apr 1 about his decision to offer the raw data for download:

We need to better understand our country and its people. This is not easy, and sometimes unpleasant. But this is our responsibility.

All Taboos Are Created Equal. But Some Are More Repulsive.

BiFujian

If an event finds its way onto the dinner table of my parents-in-law, it means it’s turning into a phenomenon. More so if their own social groups, made of retired former state-owned company employees, who are otherwise immune to cyberspace chitchats, are discussing about it vigorously in their WeChat circles.

The recent misfortune of (former) CCTV variety show host Bi Fujian, falls under this category. On Apr 6, a video clip showing a drunken Bi chanting a modified version of a cultural-revolution-era Peking opera at a private dinner party appeared on the internet and quickly turned into a mega-cyberevent. It was not so much the drunkenness but rather the adaptation that got him into trouble. In the playful and somewhat vulgar adaptation, he referred to Chairman Mao as “that son of a bitch who caused us lots of suffering” and the People’s Liberation Army as “just bluffing.”

Bi’s tremendous fame surely is a definitive factor in the blow-up. He is the host of a prime-time CCTV variety show that promotes grassroots performers. His popularity, especially among a middle aged female audience, wins him the privilege to host the annual CCTV spring festival gala, and the nickname “national grandpa”.

But other elements surrounding the video, the fact that it was leaked from a private party, the reference to Mao, and his communist party membership, played out in a more significant way that shapes the online debate.

Is this just one of those “hot mic” moments where celebrities inadvertently reveal their “real” thoughts? At least the Global Times thinks so. In its Apr 7 editorial, it puts this event in the context of a “globally common phenomenon of leaking celebrities’ private utterances onto the internet”, and places the responsibility squarely on the shoulder of Bi himself (“He has only himself to blame”). In terms of the key elements involved, the incident indeed resembles scandals such as Donald Sterling’s (owner of the NBA basketball team LA Clippers) PRIVATE comments to his girlfriend that he did not want her bringing African Americans to games or taking pictures with them, which led to a big controversy in the United States and Sterling’s removal from the league.

Yet liberal commentator on Weibo still can’t let go of the “private” nature of Bi’s chanting. Some of them see the development as a horrifying infringement of freedom of speech. As scholar Cui Weiping puts it, “We thought in a post-totalitarian era, everybody can say anything in private. As long as you don’t broadcast it, it’s ok.” Some of them go even further by saying that “the bottom line is: speech cannot be punished; thought cannot be policed. If you violate these rules, you are anti-civilization and anti-human.”

Really?

By pushing the issue hard as a battle for freedom of speech (in private), liberals provide ammunitions to their criticizers online (who cite the Sterling case as a slap on their faces), and also risk missing the true point of the whole thing: policing a lingering political taboo in the Chinese society.

That’s exactly what the Maoists are trying to do. From the very beginning, their attack on Bi’s denigration of Mao has been politically loaded. “As a CCTV host, Bi’s insult of our founding father, his mockery of the People’s Liberation Army and the Communist Party is flabbergasting. He himself is a party member and an army veteran. Such a betrayal of one’s faith is thought provoking.” An Op-Ed on the Communist Youth League’s official website goes even further by making it explicit that Mao is the ultimate “political bottom line”: “Mao Zedong is a giant of his era. He is the founder of the People’s Republic… Even if it’s a private party, even if it’s a private space, not everybody, everything can be mocked and satirized like this.”

Dealing with the legacy of a previous leader has always been a thorny issue for an authoritarian regime. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev probably knows it the best when his 1956 secret speech lambasting Stalin unleashed political shock waves all across Eastern Europe. Fully aware of this, China has been very careful in its handling of Mao’s postmortem reputation, even though many of those post-Mao leaders (including Deng Xiaoping and President Xi) had personally suffered from Mao-era political persecutions. It’s within this context that President Xi made his famously dialectic and Newspeakish comment that “we cannot use the past 30 years of history (opening and reform) to negate the party’s 30-year rule before that; neither can we use the previous 30 years (Mao era) to negate the later 30 years.”

By charging aggressively to enforce the political taboo on Mao, conservatives also inadvertently triggered a backlash that is only barely short of an online referendum. It is very clear that many reactions to this incident have been stirred up by the memory of Mao-era horrors. As an 80-year-old college professor writes on his Weibo, “for us old persons, that comment of Bi is just plain truth.” Others invoked the “culture of tattling” that was a feature of Cultural Revolution tragedies where wives tattled on their husbands, and sons tattled on their fathers, just to show their loyalty to the revolutionary cause. One of the posts was sneaky enough to bring the elder Xi (President Xi’s father)’s own experience to the attention of the netizens: “Xi Zhongxun was tattled on by his communist colleague in Shaanxi, and all of a sudden he became an anti-party, anti-Mao element to be banished from power for the next decade.” If comparing a leaked video to Mao-era tattling is a bit far-fetched, the hard-liners’ vituperative diatribes on social media only reinforced the mood. The ultimate moment came when Bi Fujian made his public apology on Weibo on Apr 9. Comments, as many as 100,000 at one point, flooded under his post. And before they were being deleted, a great number of them were in SUPPORT of him. If left untouched, it could easily become an incomplete yet revealing polling of the public’s real take of Mao’s legacy. All the tens of thousands of comments were deleted in a matter of hours.

It is one of those rare occasions when you need to appreciate the restraint shown by official media outlets such as the Global Times. In its signature anti-climax tone, the above mentioned editorial contains passages like this: “If we only use this video to make judgments on Bi’s political leaning, it is obviously unsound. This is not something that should be encouraged after decades of opening and reform… It is also not encouraged to release a celebrity’s private utterances online without his or her consent.” This is where some less melodramatic reading of the event starts to converge. As one coolheaded commentator puts it: “No, this is not going to affect YOUR freedom to say anything at a private party, cuz you are not Bi Fujian. Even if you call the police and tell them you said so, they won’t give a damn. Bi is a state-owned TV station employee and a party member. He is subject to an employee’s code of conduct and party discipline.”

If taboos and political correctness are universal checks against freewheeling speeches, and their very existence does not constitute an infringement of personal rights, then is this Bi controversy much ado about nothing? Maybe not. Not all taboos are equal. And (interestingly) an economist most accurately summarizes the difference:

“In the U.S. you can mock the President in every each way as you like, but never caricature disadvantaged communities such as African Americans. In China, it is ok to say whatever denigrating things about migrant workers or the disabled, but don’t say anything negative about the leaders. If you think this is the same, I have no further comments.”

The latest news says that CCTV has suspended Bi Fujian and has removed his name from the catalogue of CCTV hosts on its official website.

The Lee Kuan Yew Complex

I’ve never been to Singapore. The closest “Singaporean experience” I can get is to visit Suzhou, a city two hours of car drive away from Shanghai. In 1994 China and Singapore signed an agreement to co-develop the Suzhou Industrial Park, a tiny area of 278 square kilometers (by Chinese standard) to be modeled on Singapore’s success with Singaporean support in both capital and expertise. It is probably pure coincidence that they picked Suzhou as the location of this experiment, wherein a young, small “Garden City” would teach an ancient Chinese city most famous for its stunningly exquisite gardens how to develop. Nowadays, if you visit the SIP and the old Suzhou city, you can vividly see the difference: the former is built out of fresh blueprints, with glittering skyscrapers, newly paved six-lane roads and well-trimmed roadside greenery; the latter is weathered, more chaotic, with congested old-town blocks still filled with traditional buildings of black roof tiles and white walls, and, of course, gardens listed as World Heritage sites. (Below, Left: old town Suzhou, Right: Suzhou Industrial Park)

Suzhou SIP

The (unintended) symbolism in the cooperation between Suzhou and Singapore: the old learning from the new, the master from the student, the cultured from the unsophisticated, is not without a bit of irony and has an intrinsic “un-Asianness” in it. Yet in some very mystic way it has become a motif in the China-Singapore relationship. Maybe the best example is Lee Kuan Yew’s now well-known exchange with Deng Xiaoping, who was twenty years older than Lee and much more experienced in political struggles. During their 1978 meeting, Lee assured Deng that he had absolute confidence in China’s ability to do a better job than Singapore. “After all”, he said, “we are only the descendants of those poor, illiterate drifters from southern China’s Canton and Fujian provinces, while you get to keep the successors of the most gifted and well-educated.” Those comments reportedly struck Deng silent. Upon his return to China, which was on the verge of ruin after a decade of Cultural Revolution, Deng called on the country to “learn from Singapore.”

This episode, together with Lee’s other encounters with “generations of the Chinese leadership”, is repeatedly referred to by Chinese commentators over the past week, when news of his death finally landed. All of a sudden, a nation is obsessed by the late former Prime Minister of Singapore, a phenomenon that has perplexed some. The Chinese public’s reaction to the passing away of Lee Kuan Yew which is disproportionate to the size of his country again illustrates that perpetual motif which I can only describe as “the Lee Kuan Yew complex”.

One component of that complex is probably just a misplaced sense of ethnic goodwill. Many people in China liberally associate the ethnic Han Chinese with China the country, no matter whether the upbringing of the former has anything to do with the latter. This sometimes leads to an uncalled-for embrace that may confuse its subjects. For example, the Chinese public greeted Gary Locke (a Chinese American) with such a high tide of enthusiasm when he was appointed U.S. Ambassador to China in 2011 that both the Chinese media and he himself need to reaffirm publicly of his allegiance to the United States. If such show of emotions is just simple derivatives of the traditional filial piety that the Chinese expect from any of their extended “families”, then a sense of betrayal can emerge if that expectation is not met.

Vocal Chinese nationalists on the internet apparently cannot let go of Lee’s record of what they consider as “de-Chinesization”. One of them even names it as Lee’s “biggest sin against the Chinese ethnicity”, for he “used the force of the state to crush the people’s identification with the Chinese culture, and turned them towards Western cultures for their identity.” Other nationalists do not hold such an ethnocentric point of view, but they do not regard highly of Lee either. For them, his opportunistic approach towards communist China speaks to his foxy nature: “On the one hand, he took advantage of the Chinese market to advance the Singaporean economy, on the other hand, he urged Western powers to contain China.” These commentators believe that at least in terms of foreign policy China has nothing to learn from Singapore, as a “tiny city state can make a profit out of the chaos, how can a major power attach itself to others?”

But Lee Kuan Yew proves to be a conundrum for the Chinese nationalists, as his authoritarian rule of Singapore provides inspirations that are otherwise hard to resist. The People’s Daily’s WeChat account, for example, describes Lee’s crusade against media freedom, especially his handling of Western media reports, with a tone of envy. In the post titled “Why does the Western press not dare to criticize Lee Kwan Yew’s Singapore,” the author maintains that China has a lot to learn from Lee’s intimidating way of handling media organizations.

Liberal-leaning Chinese netizens are more consistent with their comments about Lee. They tend to view Lee’s political legacy, especially its admiration by some Chinese leaders, with alarm and wariness. For them, Lee’s political legacy is far from set in stone as “the effectiveness of the current Singaporean system so far has been built on Lee’s authoritarian charisma, and the lack of corruption is more because of his self-restraint.” To discredit the assertion that Singapore’s success is a slap on the face of “Western values”, they circulate one of Lee’s famous quotes that “Singapore’s success is less about Confucius values but rather the result of the rule of law left by the British.” One prominent Chinese lawyer got so alarmed that he spoke allegorically of “our own Lee Kuan Yew at home.” His Weibo account was quickly rescinded after that. This looks like something that Lee Kuan Yew would have done.

So far the most balanced and nuanced account of Lee Kuan Yew’s political legacy in mainstream Chinese media is provided by Caijing Magazine. In his in-depth rundown of Lee’s career, commentator Ma Guochuan depicts Lee predominantly as a pragmatic politician not bound by any doctrines. In that, Lee found a “soul-mate” in Deng Xiaoping. And that is probably his biggest contribution to the opening up and reform of China after 1978: his pragmatism inspired and encouraged Deng to take on his ideologist rivals and ultimately take a utilitarian approach to China’s development. Ma did not turn a blind eye towards the downside of Lee’s authoritarian rule. He notes that PAP’s domination of Singapore politics is increasingly being challenged and that the new generation is getting more impatient with the slow pace of political reform. But most importantly, Ma’s account goes beyond the simplistic caricatures of the nationalists and liberals alike, and depicts Lee as having true insights about the challenges that China faces. His warning for a visiting Chinese leader that too much emphasis on patriotic values might actually undermine China’s strategic interest in maintaining a peaceful external environment and a stable internal environment sounds particularly relevant now.

The difficulty for the Chinese society to come to terms with a complicated figure like Lee Kuan Yew mirrors the same difficulty it has to make sense of China itself. For a long time, Lee’s Singapore serves as a reference point for a China that just opened its gate to the world. Deng’s pragmatic Singaporean vision is a core component of the “reform consensus” that has concentrated the country’s energy for three decades. Now that consensus is full of cracks, the energy is dissipating and the schizophrenia about Lee Kuan Yew is a sign of that. In this new round of soul-searching for renewed affirmation of its own course, China comes to the dying Lee Kuan Yew again, only with pickier eyes. Ditto to authoritarian ruthlessness. A more global cultural identity? No thanks.

The substances of Lee’s political wisdom no longer matters that much. What matters now is his stance as a staunch challenger of Western universalism and an advocate for the ill-defined “Asian values.” In his keynote speech at the annual Boao Asia Forum yesterday, President Xi paid tribute to Lee Kuan Yew for his contribution to “Asia’s peace and development.” But in a speech titled “Towards a Community of Common Destiny,” the President seems to have chosen to omit the fact that Lee’s recipe for peace in Asia has never been a so-called community of shared interests (let alone common destiny). It has always been the cool-headed check-and-balance of major powers.

What “Under the Dome” tells us about where China stands on air pollution

ChaiJing

Three days ago something very unusual happened on the internet in this country. Almost overnight, hundreds of millions of smart phone screens here were occupied by just one person and one thing: Chai Jing’s nearly-2-hour documentary on air pollution, called “Under the Dome.”

Who’s Chai Jing? She is a former reporter of CCTV’s prime-time news program “News Investigation,” which is sort of China’s 60 Minutes. So roughly speaking she can also be considered China’s Katie Couric, only more famous. A while ago she quit her enviable job and gave birth to a daughter. After being away from the spotlight for over a year, she came back with this documentary that adopts the format of a long TED talk, or (if you still remember) Al Gore’s award-winning documentary on climate change, An Inconvenient Truth. What she did was standing in front of a studio audience, narrated a fascinating personal story about trying to figure out the smog problem for the sake of her little child who was born with a benign tumor, with the help of state-of-the-art visual aid technologies. To answer three basic questions (What is smog? Where does it come from? What shall we do about it?), she interviewed dozens of top experts and officials in China, visited LA and London to learn from their experience, and consulted tons of scientific literature, all in the capacity of an individual citizen. She claimed that she spent 1 million Chinese yuan (about 160,000 USD) out of her own pocket to make this documentary. And the Chinese public responded to her initiative with absolute enthusiasm: One estimate puts it at more than 175 million clicks within merely 48 hours, a jaw-dropping performance for a serious, lengthy piece of hardcore journalism.

No compliment would be too flattering for such a tremendous public service that Chai Jing has done. And the viewership of her documentary probably has already surpassed that of An Inconvenient Truth, which won Al Gore an Oscar and a Nobel Peace Prize. And just like An Inconvenient Truth, Under the Dome has a very clear intention of influencing public opinion on an issue that is so crucial to this country now. So appreciation and admiration aside, a critical question arises: what kind of impact does the documentary has on Chinese public opinion about air pollution? What does it tell us about where the country stands on this issue?

What we should all be painfully aware of is the tragic irony that Al Gore’s award-winning documentary, no matter how “critically acclaimed” it was, seemed to have ZERO impact on widespread public opinion about climate change. What’s worse, some claim that “(its impact on) public opinion was to increase public skepticism about climate science and polarize public support for both climate and clean energy action,” largely due to Gore’s messaging of “sacrifice” which made him a partisan target (and climate change a collateral damage). This should be a dire warning to anyone who believes that you can sway public opinion just by presenting “solid facts.” It’s the frame, stupid!

Apparently Chai Jing entered the venture with an assumption that there had already been a strong consensus within the Chinese society about tackling air pollution, all she needs to do is to build on this consensus and give the country a little nudge towards action:

“Easily put, everybody wants to breathe clean air. No consensus is stronger in this society than this one. That’s the source of my confidence,” she told People’s Daily’s official website which arranged an exclusive interview with her PRIOR to the release of her documentary.

Even though it is probably too early to make a conclusive analysis of its impact, so far the public response to the documentary shows that the consensus is there, but with certain tensions that may threaten to tear it apart.

What becomes immediately very clear after the release of the show is the official backing it enjoys. And that constitutes a major component of Chai’s “consensus.” The fact that People’s Daily’s official website was one of the first on-line channels to distribute the documentary speaks to the unprecedented level of official support. Other social media channels run by the People’s Daily, such as Xiake Island (a WeChat account), also did not hold back their endorsement, proclaiming that the country’s decision makers should “get used to” this mode of agenda setting. The Global Times’ official Weibo account even criticized those who questioned Chai’s motives as “not genuinely patriotic.” Official endorsement of the documentary was so strong that some observers started to wonder about the true intention underneath. One of them ruminates openly about whether it is the top leadership’s strategy to claim an alternative source of legitimacy by attributing the slowing economy to a noble “war against pollution.”

If the authority’s support was unprecedented, the general public’s reaction was by no means surprising. Chai Jing is a household name in this country and the personal touch of her documentary only makes it more powerful and appealing. A browse of comments under her documentary on Tencent shows overwhelmingly positive reaction to her effort. Many commentators were deeply touched by her account of a personal journey from an indifferent citizen to a deeply concerned mother. A widely read post on Zhihu.com expressed another mother’s strong determination to follow Chai’s lead in taking personal actions to protect her own child. The CEO of one of China’s largest portal websites, Sohu.com, immediately heeded Chai’s call to refrain from driving cars for short-distance errands. And such a sense of agency is a refreshingly new element that she introduced to the public mentality.

Strong official endorsement plus wide public support, this is what assures us that an anti-smog consensus is still “sound”. But is it sound enough to carry tough, unpopular, drastic measures? The documentary actually helps us to run a “stress test” of this precious consensus and disturbing cracks did emerge.

If accusations of hypocrisy (that Chai Jing is a smoker) can be readily dismissed as cheap excuses to continue doing nothing about pollution, there are challenges which should be taken more seriously. Some reactions to the documentary suggest that air pollution may get caught in the entrenched fight between the “liberals (Chinese right)” and “conservatives (Chinese left)” in China’s net space due to Chai’s long time (perceived) affiliation with the former. This may have the effect of alienating or even agitating a still powerful faction in online opinion. For example, the Left’s major criticism of Chai is her advocacy of loosening up the monopoly of state-owned energy companies and allowing more competition so that cleaner energy sources could gain more ground. This triggered guarded reactions from those conservative Leftists who emphasize China’s energy security and state control. A more extreme reaction that got many nods today branded Chai Jing as an agent of a “sinister Green agenda” that intended to undermine China’s industrial strength. This illustrates the real possibility (albeit small at this moment) of an opposition to the entire environmental agenda based on ideology, which is different from the kind of interest-driven opposition from industries that might be affected (see the oil industry’s reaction to the documentary). In a country without partisan politics, how far an ideology-based, sweepingly anti-environmental opposition can go is something interesting to watch.

Class is another potent element that has the potential to rift the existing consensus. Some criticizes the documentary for “completely representing the perspective of an urban middle class,” for them “smog is an enemy that has nothing positive associated with it. But if you interview a steel worker, he may say ‘I would rather have this smog than losing my job.’” None of these oppositions at this moment shakes the consensus that air pollution is a problem. However, they might have a larger impact on how the society chooses to tackle it. Actually a debate is already happening around whether Chai’s documentary prescribes the right medicine to China’s smog problem, with coal industry representatives arguing that existing measures, if fully implemented, are sufficient to render the air breathable, and environmentalists arguing that Chai did not go far enough in advocating for renewables.

When Al Gore made An Inconvenient Truth, his biggest challenge was to overcome that self-denial which was paralyzing climate politics in the United States. Chai Jing faced a completely different public opinion landscape. And her challenge (and responsibility) is how to steer that consensus, which is at the same time strong and vulnerable.