Brave the enemy’s gunfire, rejuvenate!

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Defining the win in a trade war is difficult, even for a “winner” like Donald Trump. In an Apr 2018 tweet, the US President declared the trade war “already lost” with China by his foolish and incompetent predecessors. What he had been doing, first initiating a Section 301 investigation and then asking for tariffs to be imposed on roughly 150 billion USD worth of Chinese goods, appeared more like a penalty long overdue than the a strategically planned assault with clear objectives.

On the other side of the Pacific, victory was equally elusive to the Chinese government. “There is no winner in a trade war” was the official line repeated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs(MoFA), the Ministry of Commerce(MOFCOM) and the official mouthpiece outlets such as People’s Daily. In the early days of the standoff, the message from the Chinese authorities was essentially of “peace through war”: we don’t think the war will benefit anyone, but if fighting is the only way to bring some sense back to the offender, we will retaliate with matching forcefulness.

That rhetoric escalated dramatically on Apr 6 upon Trump’s latest round of threat. In a MOFCOM statement responding to the US President’s announcement of his intention to slap penalizing tariffs on 100 billion USD worth of Chinese imports on top of earlier measures, the words used was “to fight till the end” and “at all costs”, even though, curiously, China has so far refrained from announcing its counter measures against Trump’s 100 billion “bluff”. If the country opts to follow suit in a one-eye-for-one-eye manner, it would mean a near blanket 25% tariff on all US imports (In 2017, total imports from the US amounted to 130 billion USD).In this sense, being rhetorically strong but substantively vague is all but rational.

Where official intentions remain ambivalent underneath the confrontational posture, social media is itching to offer some clarity. The trade war creates a rare spectacle of a massive Internet debate on China’s industrial and trade policies, through which one gets a glimpse of the public opinion foundation for China’s own brand of economic nationalism that is growing into an integral component of the increasingly prominent “national rejuvenation” narrative. If Donald Trump’s trade war has any effects, one of them would be uniting the Chinese internet under the flag of industrial self-armament.

Rejuvenation under threat

While the cyberspace was pretty calm about the relatively targeted tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum announced on Mar 8, the following proposal to slap tariffs on another 50 billions worth of Chinese goods, a sure sign of a possible full-blown trade war, ignited the Chinese social media with excitement. As soon as China’s MOFCOM released its list of potential US products targeted for retaliation, online opinion leaders took note of the stark differences in the industries covered by each country’s measures. The Chinese goods and services included in Trump’s proposed levies ranged from industrial robotics to new generation information technologies, whereas China’s matching list consisted almost entirely of agricultural products: pork, fruit and nuts.

There was an almost gleeful response to the comparison. “It’s a trade war between an agricultural economy with an industrial power,” as one commentator put it. This might be a mischaracterization of both the makeup of the US economy and the nature of the trade war. The 10 categories of Chinese products selected by the Trump Administration were there not because they made up majority of Chinese exports now. They represented sectors that could challenge US industrial advantages in the future.

The message was not lost in Chinese online discussions, which seemed to be seized by a mixed sense of pride and threat. The juxtaposition of the two countries’ tariff lists quickly developed into a theory about what the trade war was really about: it was seen as an attempt to undermine China’s rise as a developed industrial power, with industries capable of competing at the highest level. “The trade war is but one interlude in China’s rise as a great power,” one commentator wrote in a long Weibo post.

Fluxing China’s engineering muscles has increasingly become part of broader patriotic propaganda in China. In 2013, a CCTV documentary series, “The Pillars of a Great Power“, amplified the “engineering equals national strength” narrative in the public’s mind. In Mao’s era, when China faced severe economic blockade from the rest of the world, developing its industrial might was often associated with achieving self-sufficiency. Today, honing China’s manufacturing capabilities has attained new significance: asserting China’s global competitiveness. The documentary, co-produced with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology(MIIT), the government body overseeing the implementation of “Made in China 2025” strategy, was a tour de force of Chinese equipment manufacturing companies already occupying advantageous positions in their respective value chains: heavy duty bulldozers, high efficiency power generators, industrial robots. In one episode, a Chinese corporate executive recollected how, years ago, he and his colleagues got belittled by German engineers at a trade fair. By 2013 his company, a producer of cranes, was competing head to head with that German company globally. Similar accounts of an underdog fighting its way up abound in the series.

More recently, another CCTV made documentary “Amazing China“(the title is more literally translated as “Awesome, My Country!”) hit cinemas right before trade war talks began to heat up. The movie featured Chinese feats in building roads, bridges, high-speed trains, ports and networks. It was a visual manifestation of “industrial nationalism” at full play.

The propaganda shaped the national psyche when confronted with Trump’s provocation. The fact that the 10 sectors targeted by the US government were taken directly out of China’s catalogue of industries supported under the “Made in China 2025” strategy only intensified those sentiments. Zhanhao, one of the most-read grassroots nationalist accounts on social media, penned an incendiary Weibo post declaring that the trade war was the US’s desperate effort to “keep China in the bondage of low-end industries to be eternally exploited by the US hegemony, technologically and financially.”

Less melodramatic voices, which would not go so far as to brand Trump’s move as a calculated “Cold War” strategy to suffocate China, nevertheless saw it as a real trap in the way of a great national ascent. Multiple commentators pointed to Japan as a cautionary tale of the kind of unforced mistakes a country could make under the pressure of a trade war. “China is approaching the same sensitive spot where Japan was 30 years ago, in terms of population trends and economic conditions”, one observer noted. Improper response could cost China dearly, even ushering in its own version of the “lost decade”. He listed the four “wrong responses” China should absolutely avoid: restart real estate bubbling to hedge the potential loss of trade surplus; halt de-leveraging efforts due to external pressure; encourage households to take on more debt to boost consumption; reduce government support on new strategic industries to appease the US.

National strength vs. free trade

The conversation marks a notable departure from how trade issues have been discussed on the Chinese Internet. For years, online opinion leaders tend to hold the view that China should open its door wider, which would benefit consumers with cheaper and better imported goods and services, and, more importantly, exert much needed external pressure on the inert state-owned sector.

A 2015 article on FT Chinese summarized those sentiments. Two generations of Chinese leaders, from Deng Xiaoping to Zhu Rongji, had relied on a determined charge toward opening to integrate the country with the global market and inject much-needed energy and a sense of urgency into the reform process. Deng unleashed the nation’s productivity by removing shackles of the planned economy. Zhu spurred the system further by negotiating China’s way into the World Trade Organization (WTO). “Reformers have since then used China’s agreed deadline to meet its WTO commitments to accelerate domestic reforms of the state-owned sector and the expansion of the private sector.”

Those sentiments erupted at a few key moments in recent years, including when the negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) neared fruition in 2015, and when China’s 15-year grace period under WTO expired in 2016. Those moments invariably triggered public scrutiny of China’s fulfillment of its pledge to open up its markets, which would make desirable imported item, from cars to Hollywood films, more accessible to domestic consumers. One recurring theme in those discussions was a complaint that China never actually met its promises to the WTO, effectively taking advantage of its trading partners by winning access to their markets while restricting entrance to its own. “When China entered WTO in 2001, probably no Chinese took the 15-year deadline seriously… Nobody believed China would pay any price for violating the contract, ” a 2016 Weibo post by Huang Zhangjin, a veteran journalist and editor noted.

The pro-opening stance reemerged in the current debate in the form of support for Trump’s actions against China. A few dovish commentators said things like “Donald Trump is a godsend gift to China” and that “Chinese consumers would benefit the most from the trade war,” given the expected lowering of tariffs for imported goods and freer flow of capital and services. Some pleaded “surrender” and “compromise”, arguing that China’s unreasonable industrial policies should have been scrapped a long time ago.

But with “national rejuvenation” talks in the ascent this time around, such “capitulation-ist” voices got challenged, their core premises explicitly picked apart. “That China did not fulfill its WTO promises was a myth fabricated by the TPP camp (a trade bloc of nations excluding China),” one Weibo post stated after a Vice Minister of MOFCOM claimed that China had allowed access to 120 WTO designated business sectors, way more than the 100 it had agreed to open in 2001. In a lengthy WeChat post, Prof. Cui Fan of the University of Foreign Commerce and Trade traced the “myth” to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a US think tank that produced a “misleading” list of China’s WTO entrance commitments. To the astonishment and dismay of the author, the “fabricated” list was translated and widely circulated in the Chinese cyberspace as evidence of China’s dishonest behavior. He quoted former WTO Director General Lamy as confirming, in multiple occasions, that China had fully met its commitments upon its entry into the trade club, and it was the United States whose number of violations way surpassed that of China. The issue of whether those commitments, made almost 17 years ago when the Chinese economy was way weaker than it is now, are inadequate by today’s standard, should be treated separately and “through re-negotiation.”

A telling sign of the turning tide in Chinese public opinion is social media reactions to Elon Musk’s open complaint to Donald Trump about China’s “unfair” treatment of foreign car companies.   In early March, the founder of Tesla sent out a few tweets, addressed to Trump, protesting China’s high import car tariff (25%) and coercive joint venture rules. To be clear, these restrictions, as highlighted by the above WeChat post, do not violate WTO rules, which allow developing countries to put up protection measures for their nascent industries. And Musk, despite his otherwise popularity on Chinese social media as a cultural hero, got a fair amount of ridicule for his comments. People questioned why he bellyached about the situation when other foreign car companies formed profitable joint ventures in China. Instead of supporting Musk’s plea to lower the bar for entering the Chinese market, which would potentially lower the price of imported vehicles for Chinese consumers, many opinion leaders spontaneously ran to the defense of Chinese policies nurturing its own EV industry.

ZTE complication and the “developmental state”

On Apr 10, President Xi Jinping delivered a closely watched keynote speech at the Boao Forum, re-affirming China’s commitment to global cooperation and to market openness. “Opening brings progress, while a closed door means backwardness,” the Chinese leader told his audience before announcing a series of market opening measures, including lowering import car tariffs. The second day, a MOFCOM spokesperson had to fend off interpretations of the speech as a concession to Trump’s threat, claiming that it represented a long-standing Chinese position on trade issues.

Even though it’s hard to believe that the speech was not some form of response to the trade war, there was detailed analysis showing that the high-handedness was indeed in line with earlier decisions made by the leadership, way before Trump got elected. Later developments, however, would soon put that commitment to test. 6 days after Xi’s appearance at Boao, a decision by the US Department of Commerce would send shockwaves across China and force the Chinese society into an intense round of soul-searching about its industrial ambitions.

On Apr 16, US secretary of commerce Wilbur Ross Jr. activated a “denial order” against ZTE, a Chinese telecom conglomerate, which would essentially bar any US company from exporting components and services to the Chinese company for 7 years. ZTE was accused of lying repeatedly to the US government while the denial order was in suspension after it paid a billion dollar fine and reached a deal with US authorities in Mar 2017 for violating US embargo to Iran and North Korea (it exported products containing US technology to the two countries).

The severity of the punishment already became clear on Apr 15, when a slew of US microchip suppliers, including Qualcomm, Intel and IBM, informed ZTE that they would terminate contracts, sending the latter’s production lines to a grinding halt. “The US denial of export could knock us into a coma,” ZTE’s President Yin Yimin told reporters at an Apr 20 press conference. An industry insider told Caixin magazine that ZTE’s microchip inventory wouldn’t last for another month.

The company’s predicament exposed just how vulnerable China’s telecom industry was to upstream supply shocks like this. Notwithstanding their reputation as pioneers of the country’s manufacturing upgrade and global competitiveness, players like ZTE and Huawei, which are able to compete head-to-head with traditional industry giants such as Cisco and Ericsson, nevertheless have to source core components of its products almost entirely from outside China. A widely shared chart showed the pathetic rate of domestic availability for a host of semiconductor chips.

Even though legally speaking the ZTE episode was a separate matter from the on-going trade war (investigation of its behavior started in Obama years), it inevitably got intertwined with trade war debates in Chinese social media. Ironically, the news made some nationalists almost ecstatic. Zhou Xiaoping, a notoriously provocative figure, openly celebrated the US ban as an “enormously positive development” that would force China to cast aside illusions about global interdependence and concentrate on creating its own microchips, “the spring has come for home-made chips!” Others even cited Mao-era philosophy to justify a return to complete industrial self-reliance. For economic nationalists, the incident only affirmed their belief that it was an all-out attack on China’s grand industrial ascendance. “This is a US plot to stave off China’s momentum of attaining dominance in 5G telecom technologies. The Americans are scared and desperate,” Global Times’s editor in chief Hu Xijin asserted as he mobilized support for ZTE on Weibo.

China’s state media, People’s Daily in particular, quickly distanced themselves from this brand of economic isolationism. It openly criticized Zhou’s view for being “extreme”, as it presented domestic R&D and international cooperation as “mutually exclusive”. On the other hand, the propaganda outlet also raised the flag of economic security by declaring that China would develop its own chip industry “at all cost”, after the painful realization that China is still very much at the mercy of a supply chain controlled by technologically more advanced countries.

“Extreme views” aside, ZTE’s troubles seemed to have pushed official stance and public opinion to converge on one key point: that China needs to build its own competitive processor industry. One Weibo user claimed that building the processor industry had become the new “political correctness” on the Chinese Internet. Public support for state nurturing of the industry was at all-time high. The difference was only on the question of how. In a long blog post, Liang Ning, a researcher who was deeply involved in China’s botched effort to develop its own CPU and operation system around 2001, advocated for massive government investment to be run in the fashion of venture capitals. The lesson she generated from the unsuccessful bid to open a new path not blocked by the Windows/Intel hegemony 17 years ago was insufficient funding into the field and the need for a domestically cultivated hardware/software ecosystem, which could only be achieved through an enhanced “natural selection” process on a massive scale.

Others did not agree. Government-run “venture capitals” are doomed to fail, as bureaucrats would certainly abuse their “permission to fail”, one commentator predicted. Only a genuinely incentivized healthy capital market can rise to the occasion of picking the right winners. Wu Jinglian, one of the most well-respected liberal economists, openly warned about the “danger of a state-led campaign to develop the semiconductor industry at all cost.” The old man was worried that corruptive administrative power would use the excuse to plug itself deeper into the economy. The alarmed voice found some resonance on social media, which was full of accounts of wasteful government R&D spending and the 2003 Hanxin scandal, where a former Motorola executive cheated the entire Chinese science and technology establishment by claiming to have developed China’s first 180nm chip, which turned out to be purchased Motorola products.

Nevertheless, advocates insisted that the Chinese state had a very big role to play, if not directly handing out cash to the industry. They pointed to China’s East Asian neighbors, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan as examples of “enlightened” industrial policies that led to the taking off of their respective semiconductor industries, with Samsung and TSMC now dominating the field. One commentator even came up with a full roadmap for how China’s weak microchip industry could catch up with its South Korean and Taiwanese competitors through strategic financial support from the government. The key, according to such views, was for government to help its high-potential corporates withstand the industry’s cruel business cycles: subsidize them to lower cost when they need to fight uphill price wars to snatch market shares from dominant players, reap benefits during high-demand booming years and patiently wait for an era-changing moment to complete a leapfrog. These once-in-a-generation moments came when email substituted fax and smartphones replaced PC. The next one, many believe, would be when custom AI chips become more widely used than generic processors.

No matter what route China takes with its chip industry, many commentators seem to share one presumption: it has to happen within the context of a global value chain, a functional capital market and strategic government intervention. In a 2016 article by Fudan University scholar Tang Shiping, he summarized the key factors contributing to a successful “developmental state”, a concept first advanced by Chalmers Johnson in the 1980s in his groundbreaking book about the “Japan Miracle”. Tang emphasized that an effective developmental state should play by the rules of a market economy, set industrial policies that take into account international division of labor, and most importantly, serve as a “helping hand” for a vigorous private sector, not a control-all planning machine.

This is the kind of thinking that Maoist isolationists don’t get, and neo-classic liberal economists, suspicious of all forms of state intervention, too readily dismiss. But increasingly, this is the message that the likes of People’s Daily send, and around which a social media consensus is growing: China needs strong state-guided industries that embrace the market and globalization.

Epilogue

On May 3, a high-level US delegation landed in Beijing. Chinese media described the visit as the “touching down of hawks”, as the team consisted of the most ardent China-bashers of the Trump administration: Robert Lighthizer, the US trade representative, White House trade and manufacturing adviser Peter Navarro, and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross Jr. In a leaked “draft framework” brought to the table by the American side, the hawks demanded China to reduce its trade surplus with the United States by “at least 200 billion dollars by the end of 2020,” and “immediately cease providing market-distorting subsidies and other types of government support” to industries under the Made in China 2025 industrial plan.

The proposal was met with laughter and dismissal by Chinese netizens. “Those Americans came here just to poke fun at us,” as one financial observer quipped, “do not harbor any illusion about the intention of those American rightists.” Another Weibo user noted the short stay of the delegation, only for an afternoon, “this is not a negotiation. It’s declaration of a war using the trade dispute as harbinger.”

Trump’s negotiators might have misunderstood China’s state-directed economy. In a recent event, Lou Jiwei, a former Finance Minister said of the arbitrary surplus reduction target as “planned economy style” when China itself had all but given up on rigid GDP targets. They might have also underestimated the public support for the government’s industrial upgrade strategy, in part mobilized by US provocation. “If Made in China 2025 is negotiable, this Chinese administration might as well dress-up in Qing Dynasty costumes,” joked a Weibo commentator.

In response to the US proposal, the Chinese side, led by vice premier Liu He, suggested a list of counter-measures, which included cancelation of Trump’s proposed penalizing tariffs, adjustment of the ZTE denial order and a commitment to not initiate any future Section 301 investigation against China. The two sides held “constructive” discussions,  and agreed to disagree. No deal was reached, no victory declared by either side. The hawks left Beijing, leaving behind a nation more alerted and vigilant than ever about staying its course toward regained glory.

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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.

Flood Buffer

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For 60-year-old Li Ailian, life along that stretch of the Yangtze River is a gamble. Before this year’s monsoon hit, she decided to defy the odds and went along with her usual planting regiment of corn, soy bean and cotton in her tiny patch of land. If nothing had gone wrong, she would have earned about 20,000 RMB for the year, not too bad for a farmer like her. But a climate event that started in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean called El Nino messed with her dice this time. Her field got inundated before she could harvest her crops.

The village where Li lives is located in a “flood buffer zone” that is specifically designated to protect downstream urban centers like Wuhan. When water levels further down the Yangtze become too high, the authority would order the evacuation of entire villages in the zone before it blows up dikes to let in the flood, relieving the pressure on downstream lines of defense. The buffer has been there for as long as 4 decades. The constant threat of floods severely constrains economic developments in the region. No major developments requiring substantial capital investment would go into a place where being submerged is an annual possibility. It is one of the poorest corners of Hubei province, right in the middle of the Yangtze.

Amidst an outburst of national concern about one of the severest floods in decades, a story about vulnerable communities and their sacrifice is apt for a press that values social justice and pursues progressive improvement of governance. If it were 10 years ago, such reports would have filled the pages of those newly liberalized, progressive newspapers. But this time, the story is more of an exception than norm. By the time it emerged on Tencent’s in-depth news platform Prism, national attention on the flood had largely waned.

So what were people reading while massive downpour in early July was paralyzing towns and cities along the Yangtze? Pigs.

On Jul 4, a piece of news report about 6000 stranded pigs in an Anhui province farm suddenly became the focus of Internet sympathy. The picture of the pig farm owner crying in waist-deep water got more than viral on the Internet, it went live. The Anhui website that broke the news outdid its national competitors by bringing a full crew to the farm and live-streamed the scene through the web. It was a sensational success: at one point more than 20 million people linked in to watch how rescuers moved the pigs to a safer place. The phenomenon raised eyebrows all across the observers community. People lamented the pathetic fact that pigs got more attention than humans: at almost the same time, a People’s Daily Weibo post about 16 thousand people being dislocated by the flood received just over 700 retweets.

While conventional wisdom may place the blame on the shallow curiosity of the public, we can also advance a more daring thesis that the pigs have simply occupied a vacuum left by the absence of more dominating narratives that are supposed to guide and channel public sentiment.  

One such narrative, the authority-challenging, justice-pursuing, right-defending line of inquiry was subdued this time, but not by its usual counter-force, the nation-glorifying, unity-championing, Party-praising narrative that often trumps everything else at moments of crisis, through the state-controlled propaganda machinery. Ironically, the latter also found itself in an inhospitable environment in this episode of natural disaster. And curiously, the forces that tore it apart were not the usual suspects of liberal intellectuals.  

As soon as the flood situation in Hubei province got critical, the military was mobilized, as usual, to save the day. Pictures of the heroic PLA quickly began to spread through state media. These are usually good raw materials to erect the monument of national strength and determination. Yet pictures of soaking wet soldiers eating cold, mud-stained buns on the front line of flood fighting triggered a slightly different emotional response than its disseminators had intended: not a sense of awe and gratitude, but indignation. The online community most agitated by this picture turned out to be the most unlikely: military fans.

In terms of fan base, the online military/weaponry sub-culture is probably only outnumbered by the sports fan community, especially among young males. Their jaw-dropping erudition about all aspects of the armed forces can be read as an alarming sign of the militarization of the country’s young minds. But this time, the obsession with anything military turned around and became a source of frustration with the nation state. Opinion leaders in the online community openly questioned why in the 21st century, Chinese soldiers were still fed with cold buns in the field. One of them wrote a comprehensive analysis about how the national propaganda apparatus repeatedly brought embarrassment to the military due to a misguided urge to highlight the “suffering” of disaster relief efforts. “Our people need to see a well-equipped, highly-trained modern armed force.” 

To drive home their point, military fans even researched Russian military food service and showcased the impressive collection of ready-to-eat self-heating full meals available to Russian soldiers in battlefield. Feeling the heat, the Communist Youth League’s Weibo account tried to defend the practice, claiming that eating cold buns was the soldiers’ spontaneous response to an emergency situation, and that “buns were more delicious than pre-prepared meals full of preservatives”. The explanation was heavily ridiculed by the army’s online supporters, who saw the lame response as doing more damage than good.

If narratives run like rivers, their currents wind and swerve following the shape of the terrain. When their main arteries are clogged, the water linger and find other outlets. Pigs and military foods are the buffer zones of the flood of public opinion, as its massive torrents need a space to spread and stay after more consequential destinations are blocked from being pursued.

The debates over the Three Gorges Dam or the myth about magical century-old German sewer systems left in Tsingtao are other futile, distracting buffers that consume public attention and energy. Even though the intensive downpour happened in the lower stream areas unregulated by the dam, it does not stop people from tossing old insults at it, provoking the same old response from the dam’s defenders. And media had to spend serious time busting the groundless myth of the German sewers. 

Occasionally, the pool of trapped water cut off from its journey to the ocean carries an interesting tinge, a tinge from 1998. During the days when Wuhan was besieged by water, people circulated posts about the legendary flood that hit the same region 18 years ago, and how the leaders of that generation, President Jiang Zemin, Premier Zhu Rongji and Vice Premier Wen Jiabao, presided over a flood-fighting campaign that decided the life and death of tens of millions of people. Nothing in the posts was brand new information. Yet their appearance at the particular moment had subtle effects on the undercurrents that ran deep in the national psyche. 

There is this episode about Wen Jiabao’s decision not to blow up the dikes and harness the flood buffer areas upstream of Wuhan to reduce downstream risks of breach. As Vice Premier delegated with full authority to make such a decision on the spot (and urged to do so by subordinates), he had all the indicators in front of him (including a pre-designated water level by a State Council decree) pointing to opening the dike. However, his order was continued fortification of the dike at all cost, until water level finally started to drop. In the end, no breach happened downstream, and the 330 thousand people in the flood buffer zone were saved from death, losses and displacement.

In the WeChat post that described this episode in great detail, Wen was depicted as risking his political career for that consequential decision. No one would have blamed him if he opened up the dike and sacrificed the people in the buffer zone, as he had all the justification needed. Even if downstream defense still got compromised, he would have the cover of having exhausted options. But not doing it would put him in politically disastrous circumstances if flood did overcome the dikes of the lower Yangtze. For a Chinese Vice Premier, taking care of the marginal and vulnerable is an act of compassion elevated to historic altitudes. 

The complex, ambiguous undertones of such posts provide opening for multiple interpretations. By somehow linking the current situation with the 1998 campaign, which was preserved in the national memory largely as a monument of national unity and struggle untainted by the whines and ridicules nowadays, they introduce the positive elements of state strength and legitimacy into today’s discourse that is facing increasing difficulty of erecting that kind of narratives. On the other hand, highlighting the historical feat of a previous administration always invites comparison and contrast. And when public narratives about party leaders are infested by the frame of power struggle among cliques, boosting the legacy of one former leader often has the effect (intended or unintended) of jeopardizing, if not outright undermining, the stature of their successors.

Like the yearly monsoon of the mighty Yangtze, the din of argument, bicker and question about the flood will ultimately pass. Life in the flood buffer zones, literal and metaphorical, will have to continue. The Li Ailians will need to cope with a new landscape changed, once again, by something that is at once the source of life and its destruction. While spectators like us will need to tell if the winding waterways of a national story about flood is changed permanently or only temporarily by the clogs and breaches that redirects its currents.

Titanic on the Yangtze

Oriental Star

There are no deadly icebergs on the Yangtze. But the river can be as treacherous as the capricious Arctic Ocean. At around 21:30 on Jun 1, the Oriental Star, a triple deck Yangtze River cruise ship, reached its tragic turn of fate in the middle of a section of the river that was barely 750 meters wide. Amid what was supposed to be an extreme weather event which may have involved a violent tornado, the huge ship, with 456 passengers on board, was instantaneously overturned. When people around the country woke up to the shocking news the next day, what they could see was the ominous sight of a completely belly up ship floating on the river, like the body of a dead whale.

A high profile rescue effort not unlike the one surrounding the sunken Korean ferry MV Sewol quickly ensued. Up to this moment, after 9 days of intense search, 8 passengers remain missing. The death toll on the other hand has reached 434. Only 14 have been successfully rescued.

Much can be said about navigational safety, crew judgment and the execution of the rescue mission. But the one thing unique that emerged from this disasters is the confirmation that disaster communication in this country has thoroughly morphed into a kind of grand “mood management” exercise which involves state control as well as the negotiation within the society itself. The fundamental questions that are being asked by those watching the unfolding of the tragedy are not “what happened” and “why did it happen”, but “how should people feel about it” and “when is the right time to feel about what.” You see debates about whether it is right to be skeptical about government conclusions of the accident, or whether it is appropriate to feel proud of the country when so many people are still under water. You also see strong reactions to the authority’s attempt to downplay the sorrow of the victims’ relatives, and the official media’s overwhelming emphasis on the greatness of the state rescue efforts. Deep down, people seem to believe that how their countrymen FEEL about the disaster matters a lot on a substantive level. No wonder that on the second day of the accident, official news outlets called on the public to “suspend their questioning” and “empty out a virtual highway for useful information to pass”, as if in their mind, people’s sentiments could actually block the passage of imaginary informational ambulances that need to somehow “get” to predestined places.

Part of it can be seen as an old tug of war between the state and the society, where the former, out of social stability considerations, often tries to divert public sentiments towards “desirable” directions, sometimes using utterly clumsy methods. For example, in a widely ridiculed report, the Xinhua News Agency’s Hubei provincial branch opened the article with the nauseating cliché that “the river is merciless but the human world is full of love”, referring to the “grandiose national rescue action.” The online world responded to it with merciless mockery. Shrewd observers see patterns in such behavior, identifying two common strategies of state “mood control” efforts: “national muscle flexing”(兴邦) and “empathy shifting.”(移情) The former refers to a framing that highlights national strength and unity, so as to divert attention from more unsettling details of the disaster. The latter is a technique to have the public focusing on sympathy-worthy figures: the victims, their sons, mothers, wives, who bring out the warmth of human tenderness rather than the coldness of facts. None of the two strategies are coercive. They are achieved by allowing journalists and commentators broad freedom to pursue these tracks, while creating subtle hurdles in the way of hard-core truth-finding. Time is also a factor: digging up facts and details can be time consuming, but interviewing rescuers or survivors is not.

The Chinese web society responded to the above tactics with its own increasingly sophisticated antidote: sarcasm and parody. Almost overnight, people’s WeChat walls were filled with funny, spicy spoofs that make fun of what they saw as silly propagandist maneuvers. One viral article named and shamed “the 10 most disgusting news headlines of the Yangtze ship wreckage incident”, while another one pretended to be a journalism textbook instructing journalists about how to write “moving” pieces about disasters happened in China.

That said, the Chinese society’s obsession with the emotional dimensions of a disaster cannot be entirely reduced to a state/society dynamic. There is a genuine collective struggle about how to come to terms with a tragedy, and the debate about “what to feel” represents the bewilderment of a hurt community. For instance, when truly heroic figures appear, is it right to express gratefulness and offer compliment? Weird as it may sound, this was the key discussion around Guan Dong, the scuba diver who saved two passengers from the bottom of the river.

Guan was among the dozens of divers who were sent down into the muddy, torrential river to save the hundreds of passengers trapped in the ship. It was a dangerous task to say the least (remember, two divers died in the rescue mission of the Korean MV Sewol). Weather conditions remained terrible for the days after the incident and visibility under the water was close to nothing. It was in such extreme circumstances that Guan managed to pull out two survivors. To save them, he let them use his own breather. When he emerged again on the surface of the water, his nose could be seen bleeding due to under water pressure.

His feat soon became the focus of media attention and online bickering. While nobody denied the nature of Guan’s heroism, the suffusing sentiment of feel-good celebration made some wonder if it was a bit over the top when hundreds were still dying under the water and their relatives were in a state of tortured despair. This was where a divergence of opinion occurred. One group deemed the celebration premature and should wait until the rescue mission was completed. The other considered it legitimate as a way to boost the morale of rescuers who were enduring extreme pressure. “He could die in his next shift. Should celebrate him when he’s still alive,” said one commentator.

The search for decency in the treatment of their diseased fellow-countrymen seems to have become a recurring theme in disasters like this. In 2010, thousands on thousands of Shanghai residents lined up in the streets to offer flowers to those who lost their lives in the big fire that devoured a residential building in the middle of the city, a defiant act that was deemed “the renaissance of civic spirit” in China. In the Yangtze case, the local residents of Jianli, the town closest to the sinking, again touched people’s hearts and minds through their selfless support to the victims’ relatives and journalists.

One thing that people do repeatedly after such disasters is turning to other countries’ experiences for reference. Japan once again became a source of inspiration: a Weibo post about how Japan responded to and commemorated a similar incident in the 1950s resonated strongly within the Chinese web sphere, even though some felt repelled by that country. You can’t say such resonance within the society is futile. After all, it was sentiments like this that gave birth to China’s first national mourning period for ordinary people, the tens of thousands of victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

The disaster reminded people of the Titanic. They thought of the graceful captain who sank with his ship, after arranging the evacuation of the children, women and the elderly. It became a sort of shared imagination of naval decency which led people to feel angry about the fact that the first one rescued from the Oriental Star was the captain. The resentment was so strong that it warranted a serious explanation: as the ship was overturned in a matter of minutes, there would have been no time for him to act as gracefully as the Titanic captain. And when rescuers saw him in the river, they couldn’t just ignore him.

“Copycat University” and the Noble Plagiarizer

Fudan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qing’An: the Disappearance of Authority and the Billion-member Grand Jury

Qingan

On May 2, right in the middle of a tiny train station lounge, with dozens of bystanders watching and surveillance cameras shooting from at least three different directions, a policeman gunned down a  man in front of his 80-year-old mother and three young kids.

Almost two weeks have passed and the entire country still has not fully figured out what exactly happened in this supposedly well-recorded and easy-to-reconstruct incident. The collective pursuit of truth involves angry editorials from the nation’s most powerful propaganda machines, scores of investigative journalists sent to the site by the most elite media outlets, courageous and determined citizen journalists, anonymous whistleblowers, and an army of relentless netizens using their search-engine savviness to dig out the most obscure details. In the process, hundreds of millions of Chinese people got to know the trivial personal details of Xu Chunhe, the farmer that got killed; a deputy county chief from Qing’an, where the incident happened, got suspended for corruption charges; the entire Qing’an county government apparatus almost got paralyzed by corruption investigations and media inquiries.

Tragically, this near-epic quest for truth in the end failed to deliver what participants hoped could settle down fundamental disputes over what exactly happened. The situation leads observers to lament about the “disappearance of authority” in this country that can serve as the final arbitrator of truth. “Every tiny fact has multiple facets. If you want, you can infinitely challenge the minute details. Without authority, there will be no truth.” But the loss of a final arbitrator is probably not the only reason why truth proves so hard to find. In many ways, the fact about the Qing’an incident is like an allegorical bullet shooting into a powerful force field of public opinion that ultimately bends its ballistic trajectory.

Narrative acts like gravity. When it is reinforced by repeated occurrences, it turns into a gigantic black hole in the universe of public discourse: people can’t resist being drawn to it.

From the very beginning, the interpretation of the shooting is profoundly shaped by the popular narrative that often defines the encounter of China’s law enforcement forces (police, urban administration, etc.) with its subjects. The memory of landmark cases such as the Xia Junfeng case of 2009, where law enforcement forces brutally handled unarmed, marginalized members of the society, lays the foundation for a deeply-rooted mistrust in the minds of ordinary Chinese. So when news came out on May 2, with scant details that a man was shot dead after clashing with the policeman at Qing’an railway station in Heilongjiang province , suspicion immediately ensued. It only intensified after websites released photos from the scene showing an old woman sitting mournfully in front of the man’s dead body, and a young kid clinging to her helplessly.

The man is a Qing’an farmer, Xu Chunhe. The old woman is his 82-year-old mother, Quan Yushun. And the girl is his 7-year-old daughter. At the time of the shooting, Xu’s two sons, one 4 years old and the other 5, were also present. Such a combination of family members, old and young, is sure to draw sympathy for the dead man. Another story of “bad cop killing innocent people” is about to be nailed on the Chinese wall of horror. The revelation of Xu’s previous “petition and complaint” (shangfang) experience adds to the suspicion that the killing might be of a more sinister nature. Could he be killed for wanting to visit higher level authorities to petition for something? After all, petitioners are among the most downtrodden communities of the Chinese society. Their poignant experiences full of beating, interception and detainment are testaments to the dysfunction of China’s judicial system.

This new revelation brings the wrath of Chinese netizens to the point of boiling. The force field of “police brutality” starts to block out information that challenges the initial reading of the event. For instance, a detailed May 4 report by the official news agency Xinhua trying to reconstruct the scene falls short of making a dent on that perception. The Xinhua journalist, who reportedly had the privilege to review the recording of surveillance cameras, provides disturbing details of the scene: Xu lifted his own daughter overhead and THREW her on the ground; he also grabbed the policeman’s baton and hit the policeman even after the latter pointed the gun at him. Both new details are damaging to Xu, who has been imagined by many as the suppressed and disadvantaged. And attacking the policeman makes the shooting more justifiable. But the Xinhua report only provokes more intensive questioning. It has become obvious now that the authority is in possession of the full surveillance video. Then why don’t make it public if what it shows truly makes a case for the policeman? This is a question that bugs even the most pro-government minds. The Global Times’ Weibo editor becomes visibly angry by scolding the Qing’an local government for procrastinating on releasing the surveillance video: “Why wait until your credibility is completely bankrupted? Why can’t you learn from previous lessons?”

Well, the whole country has to wait a few more days for the video to come. And while everyone is waiting, shrewd Chinese netizens come up with a plan to force the hand of the local government. You don’t publicize the video. OK, I will dig up any dirt I can find about the county until you oblige. This vigilante-style online blackmailing campaign has the potential to be one of the most memorable episode of government-netizen interaction on the internet in years to come. It is not only full of bitter irony, but also powerful enough to make other local governments quiver in the anticipation of possible future campaigns against themselves.

The first to fall victim to the netizens’ tactic is Qing’an’s deputy county chief, who, in the wake of the incident, made an unwise decision to publicly praise the policeman for his “bravery in front of the mobster.” Incensed netizens “gang-searched” him on the internet, yielding tons of embarrassing results: his resume was shown to have been falsified, his residence registry was manipulated, and his wife was found to be enjoying a government salary without actually doing the job.  On May 12, ten days after the railway station shooting, Deputy County Chief Dong Guosheng was suspended from his duties.

No matter whether the tactic actually accelerates the release of the video, it clearly helps to keep the issue in news headlines. What it also does is further complicating public perception of the incident: now that we know the county government is corrupt, it is even more difficult to break free from the pulling power of the temptation to think that something sinister is behind the incident.

Almost at the same time of the suspension of the deputy county chief, Caixin Weekly released its exclusive report of the shooting, which adds yet another spin to the story. This time, it is the moral weaknesses of the protagonist that are under scrutiny. Caixin interviews fellow villagers of Xu to find out that he has a reputation for being “lazy” and is frown up for drinking profusely. He spends much of his leisure time in an Internet cafe. From his mother’s recollection, he downed a full cup of Chinese baijiu and half a bottle of beer before entering that fateful train station on that afternoon. He had no intention of petitioning anybody. Caixin’s report is not the most damaging for Xu’s (postmortem) reputation. There are also netizens who turn their search savviness to the same direction. One of them finds out early on that Xu’s irresponsibility is already a matter of media attention way before the shooting. As early as 2011, a Dalian newspaper reported about Xu’s mother begging on the street with the three kids, a result of her son’s tardiness and alcoholism.

Just because this guy is an irresponsible loser, he deserves to be shot dead in a train station? While part of the online discussion moves readily towards that direction, Tsinghua University political scientist Liu Yu insists that mixing one’s morality with one’s procedural rights is a sign of China’s pre-modern immaturity. And moral judgment also influences one’s reading of the incident, especially with regard to the victim’s motive. So far no one has got any clear idea about why Xu clashed with the policeman in the first place. And depending on one’s moral leaning, public opinion oscillates between “self-defense against police violence” and “malicious provocation under the influence of alcohol.”

It seems that only the surveillance video itself can dispel all the man-made mist over what happened on that afternoon. Even Xinhua News Agency joined the chorus of voices calling for its publication. Apparently, its own verbal re-creation of the video does nothing but further mystifies the issue. The Qing’an county authority itself might also be secretly craving for a closure: the national spotlight has proved to be too glaring for an otherwise backwater town. Thirsty journalists and netizens are following every lead they can find of scandals in that county, which is quickly increasing. So here it comes. At 11:00 sharp on May 14, CCTV News aired the EDITED version of the much expected surveillance video.

Viewers of the video would be shocked to find a drunken Xu Chunhe stumbling his way into the station. After sitting for a while, he started to harass other passengers and turned many of them away at the security check point, for no apparent reason. At this point, the policeman came to intervene. He grabbed and twisted Xu’s arms to allow other passengers to enter the station. But Xu resisted and hit him with a water bottle. Curiously, without cuffing Xu up, the policeman let go of Xu and rushed back to his office. Xu chased (!) him to the office and kicked violently at the door. When the policeman re-emerged into the camera, a nasty street-fight-style struggle ensued. His police baton did not scare Xu. It was in the middle of this fight that Xu did something horrible: he tried to throw his own daughter at the policeman. The video did not record sound from the scene, but at that split second, one can almost hear the banging of the kid’s head on the cement ground. That inaudible sound eliminated whatever sympathy most people still had for Xu.

The rest of the video is well known. Xu grabbed the baton from the policeman. Despite being pointed at by a gun, he did not stop his attack until hit by the bullet. He collapsed on the bench. And then the camera recorded a moment that crystallized probably the most unfathomable human expression: Xu’s mother, the old woman, picked up the baton slipping from the hand of his dying son, and hit him twice, as if disciplining a petulant child.

By then most people would consider the policeman’s use of gun not completely unjustifiable. But the fact that CCTV plays the role that should have belonged to a prosecutor or an independent fact finding commission makes some people feel icky. What’s even ickier is the video being edited before showing to the public. For those critics, key questions remain unanswered: what provoked Xu to block others from entering the station? How to make sense of another leaked video from a bystander’s mobile phone which shows the policeman brutally beating Xu up for 30 seconds with his baton, something that is not reflected in the CCTV version?

These questions probably will never get answered. Even they do, they will not alter the basic facts of the incident: Xu violently attacked a policeman on duty. But the ultimate difficulty of even reaching to this conclusion, collectively, shows just how tortured the process is for any official position to be recognized by the public in those controversial cases. Paradoxically, it seems that now more than ever, the authority eagerly wants to win over public opinion on such issues. Instead of resorting to a restraint and detached judicial body for the arbitration of controversial cases like this, the authority relies on mass media outlets such as CCTV and Weibo, to settle them. It acts as though it was dealing with a billion-member grand jury, and would do anything to sway its verdict on issues ranging from police brutality to celebrity using.

Insomuch as this approach of judicial populism “respects” public opinion, it has the fatal downside of poisoning the well of public discourse. To influence a grand jury of that scale, you have to deploy advocacy “nuke bombs” such as centralized propaganda machine. What it leaves the country with is the irreversible erosion of the credibility of authoritative institutions and the force field that becomes ever harder for truth to penetrate.

China’s Most Dangerous Woman Meets Her Most Dangerous Rival

HuShuli  Guowengui

The event of the week is roughly the Chinese equivalence of this: the Huffington Post carries an in-depth story revealing that Donald Trump has built his business empire with the help of corrupt high-level officials at the NSA, who used illegal surveillance methods to crush his business competitors. Trump shoots back with a tweet accusing Arianna Huffington of adultery with his main business competitor and using her website to smear his name for the sake of her lover. He even asserts that Huffington and the man has a son out of wedlock and published the kid’s Social Security Number.

Now, replace the Huffington Post with Caixin Weekly, Arianna Huffington with Hu Shuli, and Donald Trump with Guo Wengui, the billionaire who owns Beijing’s landmark Pangu Plaza, and you get the picture. But to fully comprehend what’s going on, you need to have the mind of a Frank Underwood.

Guo Wengui is a name that was unknown to most people in China until the end of 2014. At that time, a nasty dispute between him and the former CEO of the Beida Founder group regarding top management appointments escalated into a mutual tattling that led to the latter’s arrest a few weeks later. Guo remote-controlled the fight from abroad and had thence forth stayed outside of China. According to Chinese media reports, this fight was a prelude to the downfall of a Deputy National Security Minister, who was a mutual friend of both of them and had used his special power in the security apparatus (a department that deploys China’s secret police) to protect their business interests.

These events put this otherwise low-key billionaire under the spotlight and arouse the interest of daring investigative journalists, including Ms. Hu Shuli’s Caixin team.(See their coverage of Guo Wengui in English)

Caixin Weekly, a leading news magazine in China, is known for its in-depth coverage of the country’s most hefty political and economic issues. Hu Shuli, the founder of Caixin, is considered the “female Godfather” of Chinese journalism and “the most dangerous woman in China.” She treads the fine line between truth-finding and China’s boundaries for freedom of expression, a tricky business of which she is a master. Under her leadership, Caixin has become the go-to place for authoritative reporting of all aspects of the Chinese society. Some also believe that her success so far is in large part due to her personal connections well up to the highest echelon of the Chinese leadership, a network that she cultivated back in the early 90s when she was a reporter for one of China’s earliest business newspapers. One of those contacts is Wang Qishan, then a reform-minded party upstart, and now President Xi’s anti-corruption tsar. (See Evan Osnos’s 2009 profile of Hu for the New Yorker)

Over the past one year or two, along with the intensification of the administration’s anti-corruption campaign, Caixin’s exclusive coverage of those fallen under the campaign’s hammer and anvil has won it applause and also a bit of disdain. Those applauding consider Caixin the standard bearer of journalistic professionalism in China. Those questioning it muse about the extent to which it is being used by one faction of the party against another. Its now legendary coverage of Zhou Yongkang, former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest ranking official being charged so far, exemplifies these competing views. The report (an unprecedented full-volume coverage that amounts to a mini-biography) came out minutes after the official announcement of Zhou’s disgrace. On the one hand, the thoroughness of its investigations (a year-long process) immediately inspired a sense of awed respect among media observers all over the internet (later the lead journalists won awards for this report). But on the other hand, the seemingly unusual access enjoyed by Caixin journalists to sources surrounding one of China’s most sensitive political figures also brought questions regarding Caixin’s “special” role in the anti-corruption campaign.

Such mixed perceptions played out in a very big way last week, when Guo Wengui launched his nasty personal attack on Hu Shuli from abroad. The open letter he released through his company’s Weibo accounts (now deleted) asserts that Hu has ulterior motives in doing the investigative piece about him, namely to smear his name in order to benefit her “lover” the Founder group CEO currently under investigation. Furthermore, the letter goes sensual in detailing the “sexual relationship” between Hu and her lover, their “secret son” and even Hu’s sexual appetite. Besides that, he also accuses Hu of using her magazine as a tool to blackmail other enterprises in exchange of expensive advertisement contracts.

It is interesting that Guo picked Hu as his target, as Caixin was not the only media outlet that did investigative stories about him lately, nor the first to do so. Both Tencent’s Prism, a WeChat-based outlet for in-depth original stories, and Caijing Magazine did similar stories about Guo’s rise from a nobody in rural Shandong province to one of China’s richest business tycoons. All these stories depict Guo as a cunning, ruthless “street fighter” who builds up his wealth by crushing anybody in his way. He has torn down minister-level officials using secretly taped sex videos, and his partnership with high level officials in the national security apparatus was a key to his success.

Knowing Guo’s style, one probably would not be surprised by his move against Hu. After all, if his purpose is to stir up a controversy, Hu proves to be a more suitable target than lesser known journalists. And his tactic to play into voyeurism, the basest instinct on cyberspace, also seems to have paid off. Hu’s sympathizers were upset by how happily netizens are willing to spread the defamatory letter, even with stated “doubts”. Guo also tapped into another dark side of the Chinese cyberspace: its cynical attitude toward truth in general and the resulting disregard for the relative weight of evidence. In other words, many Chinese netizens tend to treat any given information with the same level of (dis)trust. Anything could be true or false, no matter what evidence you present. And this makes a fertile ground for character assassination. In 2012, a prolonged online campaign to discredit popular writer Han Han in effect pushed him out of debates on social affairs, even though the attackers produced no solid evidence to buttress their claims that all his previous writing was done by shadow writers. Hu’s supporters were quick to point out the outrageousness in Guo’s accusations, especially concerning she having a kid with the so-called lover. As a public figure constantly in the spotlight, it is pretty unfathomable that Hu could be pregnant at the age of 50 (based on the identity card information Guo disclosed of the “kid”) without catching the attention of the public. Many Hu’s defenders, among them are prominent editors and journalists, were disheartened by how gleefully even some media operatives spread this piece of junk.

But the apparent ridiculousness of Guo’s accusations led some observers to wonder if a distraction is actually all that he wants. If Guo is indeed a shark fish in China’s muddy water as the media have suggested, why did he present something that is so blatant a lie? Maybe he has a message to send to someone else, one commentator bemuses, and maybe his actual target is not Hu but the person behind her. He is sending a coded warning to her patrons in the leadership that he is in possession of damaging materials not of her, but of them.

This leads some observers into believing that this fight is just the surface of much fiercer power struggles deep underneath. And it is in a way linked to the above-mentioned perception of Hu as being somehow protected or even “fed” by much larger forces that are currently driving the anti-corruption campaign. There are also speculations about who is actually behind Guo. But no matter whether such conjectures are true, one effect of this Guo-Hu feud is the further perpetuation of the public perception that the anti-corruption campaign is merely a factional struggle for power. For the leadership, such a perception can be damaging, as it undermines the legitimacy and moral high ground that the campaign occupies. That’s why until very recently, official media outlets such as the pro-Xi WeChat account under the People’s Daily have been pointedly rebutting claims that the campaign is a selective purge of political rivals. They argue that the campaign has actually indicted Xi’s previous colleagues and subordinates in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, something that’s overlooked by the Western media, particularly the New York Times. But they never clarify whether the purge is of a different nature, where the line is not drawn along personal connections, but between those “born red” and the “hired hands”. (See Evan Osnos’s most recent article “Born Red” for more details) As long as such doubts are not quenched, the campaign may always be seen by cynical bystanders as a grandiose dog fight.

Hu Shuli never responded to the controversy directly[1]. Her stellar reputation within China’s media establishment ensures that plenty of journalistic heavy weights come to her defense voluntarily either out of personal affection or out of a sense of solidarity. On Mar 30, one day after Guo’s open letter appeared on the internet, she quietly posted on her own Weibo account the links to the original Caixin report, without a single word of comment, as if to say: let the report speaks for itself.

[1] Although Caixin the company did send out a statement on Mar 30 saying they were initiating legal actions against Guo’s company for libel.