The River

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Translation from Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

1949: River and Strait

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mother nation complex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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.

Subculture Hegemony

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Try to think of great subcultures worldwide, those surrounding Japanese anime and Norwegian black metal might come to mind.  After January 21, 2016, you might as well put Chinese online forum in that pantheon.

On that date, tens of thousands of users from mainland China logged onto Facebook and “occupied” the comment sections of the pages of major Taiwanese news organizations and politicians to express their disapproval of Taiwan independence.

If as a non-Chinese speaker you are confused by references to “Diba”, “D8” or “Tieba” in news reports about this incident, it means you are normal. By definition, a subculture tries to construct an alternative identity that differentiates itself from the one bestowed by the parent culture. It often has its own language, symbols and rituals that may be unintelligible to an outsider. Not surprisingly, it took many usually Internet-savvy Chinese observers some time to figure out what was going on. Equally dazzled were the Taiwanese targets of this campaign.

Getting some basic understanding of that subculture has become somewhat imperative not just because it injects itself so forcefully into the high politics of the Taiwan Strait this time. Its permeation into the daily discourse of Chinese society and the favorable attention it gets from China’s propaganda machine warrant a deeper look into its root and temperaments.

Our protagonist this time is called “Diba”, a keyword-based online forum (or “Tieba” as they are known in Chinese) hosted by China’s largest search engine Baidu. It was at first just a regular Tieba dedicated to a mediocre Chinese soccer player, set up in 2004. Over the years, it has gone through major transformations that make it outstanding among the hundreds of thousands of Tiebas that exist, boasting a membership of 20 million, which easily dwarfs any other such forums in the Chinese cyberspace.

One of such transformations is to go beyond its designated “keyword”, “Li Yi”, the soccer player who said stupid things such as “my skills resemble those of Henry”, the French superstar. Since Henry was fondly referred to by fans as Henry the Great (Henri le Grand), members of the Tieba jokingly dubbed Li “the Emperor”, hence the forum’s nickname “Diba” (“Di” means emperor in Chinese). Participants of the forum initially gathered to make fun of Li Yi, but then quickly extended their sarcastic talents to whatever issues that attracted their attention.

As a recent analysis of the Diba phenomenon puts it, the forum gradually transcends its namesake and is increasingly organized around a unique discursive strategy: a veiled, satirical way of badmouthing someone that disguises itself as compliments. It’s the Chinese equivalent of singing hymn to Justin Bieber. The strategy also has a class signature to it: members of the group self-deprecatingly refer to themselves as “Diaosi” (another play with the pronunciation of “Di” but has the meaning of pubic hair), which is considered a label of those from a lower social class. Rather than avoiding a label like this, participants, mainly young males, embrace it proudly. Furthermore, they invented a host of terms applying to the opposite social class, such as “Gaofushuai” (“tall, rich, good-looking”), with very little resentment embedded in them. Instead, self-branded “Diaosis” use them with humorous resignation, adopting a posture of self-disarming capitulation. Both “Diaosi” and “Gaofushuai”, among other Diba-originated words, have find their place in modern Chinese language, a sign of the subculture’s ability to reciprocate its influence to the parent culture.

Why would a loosely organized online community so self-involved in constructing subtle jokes suddenly wake up to a nationalist call to confront the so-called Taiwan independence force?

Events in January alone could not fully explain such an eruption of enthusiasm, although they do serve as a trigger. Prior to the presidential election in Taiwan on January 16, public sentiments on the mainland were influenced by an agitator coming, ironically, from Taiwan. Since late 2015, a third-tier Taiwanese singer and former TV show host, Huang An, had been running a personal campaign against “Taiwan independence” by crucifying fellow Taiwanese celebrities in front of the mainland authority and public. His approach was clumsy and tacky, at one point involving holding a banner in front of the mainland’s Taiwan affairs office with anti-independence slogans. Yet it was also effective in its own way. Many Taiwanese pop stars named and shamed by Huang saw their business plans in the mainland disrupted for appearing to be sympathetic to the independence cause. Huang’s motivation for such uncalled-for agitation is unclear, as his behavior alienates the Taiwanese society, effectively burning the bridge back to his home market. Some conjectured that he was just trying to camouflage his practice of advertising for dubious health products in the mainland with disingenuous patriotic posturing. What’s more interesting is the mainland authority’s willingness to entertain such behavior and watch Huang lynch Taiwanese public figures with the mainland’s ultra-sensitive political taboo as a weapon.

Things got a bit heated up when in November 2015 Huang set his eyes on Chou Tzu-yu, a young Taiwanese pop star who had barely started her performing career in South Korea. Huang regards some of her acts in public, such as waving the Taiwanese flag in a video clip, as reflecting an “independence tendency”. But what finally agitated Huang into a full attack mode, as he later claimed, was Taiwan’s pro-independence media, which used Chou as an upholder of the Taiwanese identity and crowned her “the light of Taiwan”. The unfortunate 16-year-old saw herself sucked into a nasty swirl propelled by two mutually reinforcing forces: one that sees Taiwanese independence as an absolute, non-negotiable taboo and would err on the side of caution by eliminating any possible association with it, and the other that amplifies any conscious or unconscious expression of one’s own identity as a political statement. The result is a string of cancellations of her appearance in mainland TV shows.

Apparently under tremendous pressure, Chou released a pre-recorded apology on the Internet on January 15. In the VCR, people saw a pale, distressed girl wearing a black turtleneck. She read from a piece of paper with a blank face, saying she “felt proud being a Chinese” and expressing her regret for irritating the public from “both sides of the Strait”. In the end, she announced that she would suspend all her activities in China to “reflect on her mistake”. She bowed to the camera.

People on both sides of the Strait were indeed irritated, but for very different reasons. For those watching in Taiwan, the VCR was an appalling scene of a 16-year-old being politically bullied and humiliated publicly. Some of them vented their anger on a mainland TV star who joked about Chou’s stuttering performance in the video by flooding his Facebook post with criticism.

This became the detonator of a massive mobilization campaign at the Diba, where its millions of members vowed to give the other side a lesson.

On Jan 20, the Long March began. According to a first-hand account from a participant, “conscription” ads started to appear on the Internet asking people to join numerous “columns” formed to execute the campaign. There were groups responsible for translating materials into foreign languages so that “foreigners can be sympathetic to the cause”. Others were in charge of all the Photoshopping and graphic design of “pic-emojis”, which became the main ammunition of the campaign. Leaders of the mission set down rules that were at once militantly disciplinary and comically naive. There were rules about not using dirty language, and also those barring participants from using images of the top leader. People were asked to differentiate separatists from “the Taiwanese people.” You can be merciless to the former, but should be friendly to the latter.

The landing was set at 19:00 sharp. Participants were asked to register at Facebook, something many of them had never done until that very moment. Together with Twitter, YouTube and Google, Facebook is blocked in mainland China by the infamous Great Firewall. To get over the wall, netizens had to use VPN services, a cumbersome undertaking. This did not stop them from parachuting into Facebook en masse. In no time, comment sections under the posts of Apple Daily, Sanli News and Taiwan’s president-elect Tsai Ing-wen were filled with seemingly mass produced contents: patriotic poems, communist party slogans, pic-emojis, and pictures of food.

Some people on the mainland were repulsed by the shallowness of the message sent by the young patriots. Others laughed at their lack of erudition. By reciting textbooks and acting as if they were “educating” the other side, theirs was essentially a message of rejection: refusing to understand the aspects of the Taiwan society that are simply alien to a mainland mind. This is not an awfully unfair characterization. The “class struggle” mark on the guiding principles of the campaign was too glaring to not notice. The idea that people can be easily identified as “separatists” and “brothers”, and should be treated in completely different ways betrays the mindset from another era, a mindset that lingers in middle school textbooks and gets passed along to the millennials. Even though “rules” bar participants from using dirty words, they found other creative ways to intimidate their perceived opponents. Calling them “independence dogs” seemed to be perfectly fine for most of the Facebook crusaders.

Among the participants of the pageant, there is a visible tendency to approach things merely from a materialistic point of view, as if the Taiwanese people could be wooed by pictures of fancy cuisines or shiny skyscrapers. To be fair, this might be just a response to the caricature of the mainland by the Taiwanese side: the Taiwan pundits’ misrepresentation of the mainland as still living in the poverty stricken era of Mao hurt the pride of many across the Strait. But the notion that economic power trumps everything, and that a superior economic position is somehow equivalent to a superior value system is not only logically flawed, but also disconcerting when a large number of Chinese youth seem to take it for granted.

When the battalions of China’s young Facebook warriors were armed, organized and aligned along such an overarching logic, it is not surprising that their narratives were full of patriarchal metaphors wherein Taiwan was the “younger brother” and the “son”, even when they were showing good will.

Military terms notwithstanding, it would be a mistake to see these youngsters as an organized force answering the call of the Party. Their tone and style set them apart from the more uptight “online patrols” the Party dispatches to enforce its political creed. This is probably the most intriguing aspect of this Facebook saga: no one, left or right, seemed to be prepared for such a massive expression of patriotism, especially from this corner of the Internet. Even though official outlets such as the People’s Daily’s WeChat account spoke highly of the newfound patriotic zeal in the Chinese millennials and the Communist Youth League came close to giving it a virtual standing ovation, their moves were more like trying to catch up to a novelty they were (pleasantly) surprised of. Conservatives were also busy helping the millennials fend off attacks from the liberals, who immediately dismissed the kids as online “Red Guards”. Unfortunately, the liberals, who are traditionally more internet savvy than their rivals on the left, seemed to be as confused this time. Red Guard is clearly a misnomer: there is no indication that those youngsters are violent fanatics. So is “little pink”, the supposedly derogatory term coined by the liberals to describe what they consider as “mildly and playfully red”. But those more attuned to online subcultures pointed out that “little pink” was an existing community with very different political leaning.

The failure of existing opinion leaders to recognize, let alone understand, the young kids who jumped over the Great Firewall to bicker with the Taiwanese, is indicative of the generational gap between the old order on the internet and the emerging new. Cautious observers took a more detached position, without cheering or condemning the episode. They considered it a rare chance for young people from across the Strait to have direct dialogue about an issue that had proved thorny for an older generation.

Interestingly, this is hardly the first time that the Diba crowd collectively expressed their political stance through post bombardment. But their previous feats were obscured by the fact that they happened largely within the underground world of subcultures. A review of the ten-plus-year history of the forum shows that at least in 11 previous cases, they “carpet bombed” other forums for views they did not approve. Nationalism, albeit an unsophisticated version,  underlines 4 (out of the 11) such campaigns. In one case, they paralyzed a Tieba dedicated to a Taiwanese pop star for her disrespect of Nanjing massacre victims; in another, they overwhelmed a Korean singer’s forum because he allegedly beat up a Chinese pregnant woman. One analysis attributes this spontaneous airing of nationalism with the forum’s soccer origin. It is said that modern sports, particularly soccer, is closely associated with nationalistic sentiments. As Orwell once famously put, “There cannot be much doubt that the whole thing is bound up with the rise of nationalism — that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.”

There are others who read the Diba’s increasingly patriotic vibe as a result of the intentional guidance from its board managers, who, in interviews with the media, had indicated their interest in connecting the forum’s passive-aggressive cynical culture to the more upbeat mainstream discourse as a way to establish its legitimacy. And nationalism provides a perfect shortcut to that connection, given the forum’s largely young and male membership.

From a more macro perspective that locates the ascendence of the Diba subculture in the tectonic plate shift of China’s online opinion geology, the recent incident is a strong signal that the political pendulum of the Chinese internet is swaying momentously to the left after years of domination by liberal values. Insulated from the major battles on Weibo that decided China’s online sentiments in the past few years, the generation that has grown up chatting about ACG in obscure online communities using their own language begins to assert its own political values disregarding rules set by any established camps. The fact that they climbed over China’s notorious internet firewall to wage a patriotic campaign highlights the rebellion/allegiance contradiction in their action. The later shutdown of their VPN services reflects the authority’s uneasiness in handling this new force, and the intrinsic difficulty in co-opting it.

At this moment, it is hard to predict how this impulsive youth subculture would create any lasting political impact. The collective action might just be one of the ways a subculture reasserts and rejuvenates its own distinctive identity. Just like an active volcano, after a major eruption, the community relapsed into its everyday mode of nonsensical jokes and undecipherable jargons. Is it going to belch flames again in the future and occupy the Facebook page of Hillary Clinton, or overwhelm the Twitter account of Shinzo Abe, as some have suggested? Will it go beyond its current role of political taboo enforcer and public opinion vigilante, and adopt the more sophisticated strategies of other online subcultural communities such as Anonymous? Before anyone can clearly see the consequence, the best thing to do is to get familiar with some Diaosi vocabulary.

Further Reading on this Blog: Love Thy Country

Love Thy Country

TG

In early 2007, a chic, young CCTV news anchor called Rui Chenggang posted a blog on Sina.com titled “Why Starbucks Needs to Get Out of the Forbidden City?” In the blog, he declared the presence of a Starbucks shop in the Forbidden City “obscene” and demanded its removal. In a distinct style that later became his signature, he incidentally brought up, with apparent pride, his encounter with Starbucks CEO Jim Donald at a Yale event where he made the latter “flushed” in front of the audience with his challenging questions. The blog created a wave of support from the Chinese public, generating half a millions clicks, tons of media reports and awkward responses from both Starbucks and the Forbidden City administrator.  Six months after the blog’s appearance, the Starbucks store was closed, ending a 7 year presence in the very heart of Beijing.

The Starbucks incident in 2007 was a landmark of China’s surging nationalism at that time. And Rui stood for its new face: young, well-educated, confident and most importantly, sufficiently exposed to Western ideas and values. The last one was a defining feature of China’s new brand of nationalism: participants considered their nationalistic stance a well informed choice, rather than brainwashed parroting. The sense of agency, the feeling that “I know exactly what you Westerners are talking about yet I beg to differ”, adds to the vitality and potency of the surge, whose rising crescendo ultimately reached a peak around the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In Evan Osnos’s resounding piece (“Angry Youth”) that featured this new generation of young nationalists, his subjects were PhD students in western philosophy who took their ideas partly from the likes of Leo Strauss and Harvey Mansfield. Like Rui Chenggang’s criticism on Western businesses’ disrespectful encroaching into the sanctity of Chinese culture, these “angry youths” had their own target: the Western media’s biased portrayal of China. The “anti-CNN” website was the most well-known product that captured the Zeitgeist of the time.

Seven years have passed since the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The interval has not only seen the relative decline of nationalism in Chinese online discourse, but also its complete degeneration into something unrecognizable. The recent controversy surrounding a “patriotic youth” called Hou Jusen demonstrates how nationalism (or “patriotism” more specifically) has changed into an obscure sub-culture of young people that contains troubling elements. And increasingly, this new nationalism is used against domestic, rather than foreign targets.

On Jul 22, in what seemed to be a regular street fight among a group of adolescents in Shandong province, a high school student called Hou Jusen was injured. He posted photos of his wounds on his Weibo account and cursed the ones who attacked him. He called them “Na Qu” (纳蛆), a code name that literally means “the Na maggots”. The post quickly got the attention of the Shandong Provincial Youth League, whose official Weibo account tweeted about the incident and @ed the police. Furthermore, it added a spin to the incident: “a patriotic youth was brutally attacked by a mob for expressing patriotism on the internet.” The framing immediately raised a few eyebrows. Elevating a street fight to an assault on patriotism is to excessively politicize the incident and further polarize the society, one argument goes. And this time, unlike previous cases that involved law enforcement, the local police reacted swiftly on the internet. It declared the case a mutual provocation, where both sides agreed on a rendezvous place for a fist fight. The conclusion negated the Provincial Youth League’s framing of the incident and won the police rare compliments on the internet.

But why would a group of adolescents taunt each other to a street fight in the first place? And what does it have to do with “patriotism”? A probe into those questions leads us to the curious and troubling world of online “adolescent political rivalry” that runs almost completely outside the spotlight of the grown-up occupied media .

Our first key is “Na Qu”, the supposedly derogative term used by Hou to refer to his attackers. To understand the meaning behind the code name, people should first get to know an online animation series titled “That Year, That Rabbit, Those Things”, which is apparently a “cult animation” popular among a quite large audience (the first episode so far has collected more than a million clicks on Youku.com). Viewing the animation (which now contains 11 episodes) is an utterly weird aesthetic experience. In terms of visual style, it betrays a heavy influence of Japanese manga; in terms of language, it is filled with the puns and catchphrases of today’s Chinese internet; and yet in terms of its theme, it touches upon an essentially solemn topic: contemporary Chinese history. The hero of the animation is a bunch of white rabbits with red stars on their bellies. Without further hints you can easily figure out that these rabbits represent the Chinese Communist Party. Their opponents are also humanized animals: Japan is represented by a chicken, Russia a bear and the United States, not surprisingly, an arrogant eagle. In a worse-than-simplistic way, the first episode of the series depicts how the rabbit, after witnessing other animals humiliating his hometown, allied with a bald head (reference to the Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek) to beat the chicken (with the help of the eagle) and in turn kicked the dishonest bald head out of the country.

Why the rabbit? Some speculates that it’s a subtle reference to “TG”, a commonly used acronym on the internet that makes fun of the Party’s peasant roots (“Tu Gong”, meaning the country pumpkin communists). And in Chinese, Tu shares the same pronunciation as “rabbit”.

With the popularity of the animation also comes disparage. There are those who regard it as stupid and disgusting, who self-organized to attack fans of the animation. Their battle field is Baidu Tieba, a topic-based online forum created by China’s biggest search engine. To ridicule the Rabbit forum, netizens created the “Na Year, Na Rabbit, Na Things” forum (already banned), in which “Na” is simply a wordplay with the same pronunciation of “That”. Participants of the two forums taunt and abuse each other online. One side calls the other “Tu Za” (Rabbit Bastards) while the other refers to their enemies as “Na Qu” (Na Maggots). Their areas of dispute go way beyond the merit of the animation to touch on recurring debates that polarize Chinese cyber space constantly: Kuomintang vs. Communists; China vs. U.S./Japan; Democracy vs. Stability. Most of the time they are not real discussions but rather simple declarations, caricatures, and, worst of all, obscene personal attacks. “Bao Ba” (Burst the Forum) is a commonly used tactic which means posting tons of nonsensical shit on the other side’s forum to bury unfavorable contents.

The young Hou Jusen emerges out of such online shit fights. Materials dug up by netizens about his online track record depict a disconcerting picture. As a staunch Rabbit defender, he argues indefatigably with those who he disapproves. And this strong political leaning leads him into even weirder realms of online sub-culture: Soviet worship. He seems to be an ardent supporter of the Soviet Union and frequents the “Soviet Red Army” forum at Baidu. Participants of the forum share a common contempt for Gorbachev, referring to him as “Gorba-pig“. In one earlier exchange, Hou complained to fellow Soviet lovers that “My history teacher was again smearing the Stalinist model. I objected in class but he insisted.” Someone replied approvingly, “I recommend you to read ‘Da Guo Bei Ju’ (A Great Nation’s Tragedy). Next time you can challenge your teacher with those materials.” At one point, his allegiance to the Soviet cause even led him to question Mao directly: “If not for [Mao]’s petulance, we would not have departed with the Soviet Union!”

Online quarreling more often than not degrades into genital spattered mutual curses. And it creates enemies that transfer their online hostility off line. To intimidate each other, forum fighters deploy far more threatening tactics. “Gang search” is used to dig out one’s off-line personal information. And it is then used in many a “creative” ways. Hou has often been on the victim side of those tactics. His ID card information was leaked onto the internet. Before long, photoshopped pictures of him in shameful positions started to appear. His nemeses also posted his contact information on gay dating sites, which became an annoying intrusion of his daily life. Later on, his girlfriend was harassed, and had to put an end to their relationship. Hou claims that he only fought back verbally, often just by copy pasting the dirty language that was used against him. In Jun this year, he posted a long article on his Weibo account, lamenting his poignant experience of being a “patriot” but at the same time showing determination to persist. Weeks later, the aforementioned street fight happened.

What ultimately turned this high school kid into a national figure was the high pitched response of the country’s political establishment. Not only did the provincial Youth League tweeted about his experience, the Central Youth League also got publicly involved and tried to escalate the matter to the attention of the Ministry of Public Security. The central party organ adopted the same patriot-got-attacked narrative and made it into a hashtag. But the move backfired in a big way. Rarely do Chinese netizens side with the police on controversial issues, yet this time even some leftists criticized the Youth League for interfering with the due process of police investigation and over-politicizing an otherwise mundane case of affray. Probably emboldened by the support they enjoyed online, the local police defiantly talked back at the Central Youth League on Weibo, expressing frustration that their hard work to maintain social order was not appreciated, even though the post was later deleted.

The most urgent appeal came from Tsinghua University sociologist Sun Liping. Deeply troubled by the violent tendency of youth “patriotism”, the professor called for the stop of “any political mobilization among the juniors, especially the kind that stirs up hatred and violence.” The concern harks back at an earlier warning that China, especially its youth, is increasingly prone to the influence of militarist ideas. As a 2005 article by intellectual Wang Yi puts it, “Among all the countries, China is where military magazines are the most popular. Almost every middle school boy reads one or two military or weaponry related publications. It is probably also one of the few countries that not only do not restrict, but actually organizes children to watch war movies.”

The years in between Rui Chenggang and Hou Yusen witnessed Chinese nationalism’s metamorphosis from an expression of the young generation’s new found cultural confidence and assertiveness to an obscure sub-cultural phenomenon that is seething with anger and hatred. More importantly, the new brand of patriotism is becoming more and more introverted. Instead of bringing substantive grievances before multinational corporations, Western media and rival governments, the young patriots of today are busy chasing and intimidating Chinese “traitors”, speaking languages that only they themselves can understand.

* A side note on Rui Chenggang’s dramatic turn of fate: http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-china-blog-28291107

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.

Milk Powder Nation

This week, a Hong Kong judge destabilized two fault lines deep in China’s national psyche with just one comment, causing earthquakes in the Chinese internet space with far-reaching aftershocks. As the Standard reports, Fan Ling court principal magistrate Bernadette Woo Huey-fang lashed out at parallel traders for smuggling infant formula from Hong Kong, and called the mainlanders’ reluctance to buy China-made milk powder a “national shame.”

Her comments definitely touched a raw nerve with a society already ultra-sensitive about the safety of its food. Ever since the first tainted milk powder scandal in 2008, the Chinese public’s confidence in the country’s dairy products has virtually collapsed and never fully recovered. In that incident, thousands of young children were sickened by infant formula laced with melamine, an industrial chemical added by producers to boost “protein” readings of their products. As a result of this and many other food scares, every new scandal will cause a heated national venting of discontent, which increasingly takes its target at the government. Early last year, the public debate about McDonald’s selling expired meat in China took an unusual turn when voices sympathetic to the American fast food chains started to challenge mainstream media’s “unfair” treatment of these companies. The commentators turned their fire toward the government, which they thought should be held accountable for not fulfilling its supervisory role over the Shanghai-based Chinese company that supplied the expired meat to McDonald’s. The debate marked a dismantling of the dominant nationalistic narrative that “foreign companies,” instead of domestic regulators, are to blame for such food scandals.

Not surprisingly, the Hong Kong judge’s comment unleashed another round of venting. Under the Weibo post by “Headline News,” a popular online news account with more than 30 million followers, the thousands of comments overwhelmingly shared the sentiment of the judge, with some going even further by claiming that there are too many national shames to give a damn. Serious commentators used the opportunity to deepen the discussion into a questioning of China’s “national strength:” The public’s insecurity about milk powder is a reflection of their lack of confidence in the country’s competence in general.

What the judge probably did not expect was the fact that she inadvertently stumbled on another fault line that has been very shaky since last year. Just when Chinese netizens were airing their disappointment with food safety, another line of questioning started to develop. “It is more shameless (for the Hong Kong government) to set restrictions for people to buy safe milk powder.” This came from comments picked up by BBC Chinese. Apparently it was referring to the quota system that the Hong Kong government set up in 2013 in response to a public outcry against mainlanders buying up powdered formula. Hong Kong parents complained that it was depriving their own babies of the access to this crucial product. Under the quota system, individuals leaving Hong Kong are allowed to carry no more than 1.8 kg of milk powder (roughly two cans), or they may face penalty and even jail time. A commentator at Southern Metropolis Daily echoed the sentiment of the BBC comment and questioned the value of the quota system itself, claiming that a “new equilibrium” of milk powder supply had been reached in Hong Kong under which the needs of both the Hongkongese and mainlanders could be met without restrictions. But other commentators’ concerns went way beyond the quota system per se. For them, a general anti-mainland tendency in Hong Kong should draw more attention, and this milk powder incident can easily be used to lend power to political oppositions to the mainland.

“We should not allow those who advocate ‘Hong Kong independence’ to use ‘anti-smuggling’ as a camouflage,” an op-ed on the pro-mainland Ta Kung Pao proclaims.