The Disconnect Between Virtual and IRL: Han Han’s Dismissal of Online Protest

(If you’re already familiar with Han Han, feel free to jump ahead.)

Today, the Nobel Committee celebrated the Arab Spring by awarding a share of the Peace Prize to Tawakel Karman. Though Ms. Karman is certainly deserving of the award, it very well might have gone to any number of other individuals without argument; it could have also been awarded to the entire nations of Tunisia, Egypt, and others, ala Time’s “You” as Person of the Year, without much fuss as well (though cutting the check 200 million ways might be an administrative nightmare for Oslo).

Though Karman’s role as an inspiring leader in Yemen is indisputable, our elevation of people like her and Wael Ghonim and others as first among equals taps into something deeper than just a prize announcement: this is our desire for simple narratives of Great Men leading forth mass movements. Deviating from this storyline introduces (or, rather, accurately reflects) complexity and the possibility of the message being clouded or misrepresented—see the Occupy Wall Street protests as an example, with the mainstream media at wit’s end trying to figure out how to sell the story of varied, collective action.

Similarly, in recent years, those outside China have anointed a series of Great Democratic Hopes in China. In the run-up to last year’s Nobel Prize announcement, interest spiked in Liu Xiaobo and Charter 08. Then it was Ai Weiwei’s turn to get the hero treatment and coverage as the man leading masses of Chinese netizens toward the path to freedom.

Now revolution seems to rest in the hands of Han Han, he of the Evan Osnos New Yorker profile (behind a paywall, but well worth trekking down to your local library for): a renegade cultural icon, wise-ass blogger, and dogged reporter of government corruption. The voice of the Chinese youth is another way to put it. Though his name recognition here may still be on the low end, he’s more popular than Ai and Liu across the Chinese-speaking world and heralded at home as the next Lu Xun, one of China’s most important intellectuals and critics of the past century and so popular that he’s able to get away with writing just about whatever he wants–though especially hard-hitting posts often get deleted after the fact, but not after they’ve already been re-posted thousands of times over.

Which brings us to this recent interview he did with Channel News Asia (fast forward to 17:45):

Amid this mostly vapid interview suffused with social media buzzwords and one especially curious moment* where Han Han explains why he rejected an offer to meet with President Obama (see Will Moss of Imagethief for an insightful breakdown of Han Han’s answer), his dismissive comments on the illusory nature of online protest are seemingly shocking for those who expect Han Han to fit neatly into their preconceived notion of online freedom fighter: Continue reading

Weibo and 星期 vs 礼拜

Just a note to myself that WEIBO IS AMAZING. After throwing up my hands at Twitter’s worthless search functionality* (Google’s discussion search is useful, but no holy grail), it is a pleasure to use something this intuitive, even if I have to re-translate the whole thing into my second language, I daresay it still makes more sense than Twitter does. I’m playing around right now with all sorts of things, including working with my friend on writing some simple code for searching for banned keywords. For instance, searching for “艾未未” (Ai Wei Wei) yields this hilariously transparent message:

根据相关法律法规和政策,搜索结果未予显示。热门微博推荐 (Rough translation: According to laws, legislation, and policies, the search results are not shown. We recommend blogging about popular things. [emphasis mine; literal translation of 热门.)

Pussyfooting around this Weibo is not.

So, interesting results so far?

1) As someone who grew up speaking Taishanese, laibai (pinyin: libai; 礼拜) was my word for week (eg, 礼拜一 for Monday) while sengkay (xingqi; 星期) was reserved for newscasters and certain older speakers. While speaking with my language partner, who is Taiwanese, she almost exclusively used 礼拜 as well. But as any student of Mandarin today, 星期 is the standard word and 礼拜 seems to have developed a religious connotation.** But for the most part, they are semantically equivalent, and thus, variations in usage appear to simply be either a) regional b) generational or c) context (informal or more formal). It’s sort of (emphasis on sort of) like the great American debate between soda versus pop, and with Weibo, you don’t have to actually design and tabulate a survey of who uses what where; the data is all already up online, coded by gender, age, and location.

It’ll take some time to scrape some of this data (no way in hell I’m going to sit here and do this by hand; but the sad thing is that it probably will take me just as long to figure out how to code the script to do what I want… sigh), but preliminary results:

礼拜天: 251748 results 星期天: 2461924
礼拜日: 48962 星期日: 1115494
礼拜一: 272460 星期一: 3436480
礼拜二: 78241 星期二: 1336238
礼拜三: 88890 星期三: 1287634
礼拜四: 91038 星期四: 1272936
礼拜五: 245327 星期五: 3157894
礼拜六: 253894 星期六: 3177002
礼拜七: 2664*** 星期七: 50031***

All right! And because the deputy likes dots, here it is in visual form:

So it’s official, on Weibo, Monday is the most popular day, closely followed by Saturday and Friday. Wednesday and Thursday are in a dead heat for least popularly cited. Curious what a similar chart would be on Twitter… oh wait, I can’t generate one. Dur. (Though I guess you could use Google to get a rough estimate, but those aren’t hard numbers like these on Weibo.)

Future project would be to do similar analysis of paired words like this, and to further dig into the data and figure out where these libai users come from and what similarities they share.

*What is it with Web 2.0 folks and broken search? That was aimed at you Tumblr, get your act together.


***Not a real date, but just curious to see if it’s used. I’ll have to go back and analyze what it actually means when people say Seven-day.

You can pry hanzi from my cold, dead hands!

I first learned about years ago when someone linked to the much-circulated essay by David Moser hosted on the site, Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard. When I first read it, probably when I was still struggling through my second year of learning Mandarin, the essay heartened me. I remember thinking, “Wow, this grad student has been learning Chinese for 5 years and still can’t read a newspaper! Phew, I shouldn’t feel so bad about myself.” But in the end, it was Dr. Moser who would have the last laugh (over me and Chinese) as he’s become probably among China’s most famous Chinese-speaking White Guys,* up there with Da Shan, Jon Huntsman and the guy who plays the British guy in all the Cantonese imperial dramas and HK cop shows.**

I regularly check up on, and though some of the posts are rather pedantic to someone outside of the pinyin movement or linguistics world (misuse of apostrophes! non-semantic CamelCaps!), I do think pinyin has great value as a teaching tool and for making Chinese a more inclusive language and deserves to be defended by someone as knowledgeable as Mark Swofford against those traditionalists who bemoan the encroachment of English and Romanization into Chinese. I still remember cackling my way through Swofford’s devastating breakdown of an op-ed by author Ruiyan Xu in the NYT about the usage of Baidu vs 百度.

As I was making my way through my twitter feed today (sometimes it can feel like a chore…), I noticed with interest a new post about a similar topic by China Beat contributor Xujun Eberlein’s on her excellent blog Inside-Out China. In it, she notes how the Caixin website (which I could have sworn Bruce Humes had done regularly pieces about, but now I can’t find them–#googlefail) has included an English word in the headline of an article, the first instance she can think of where a reputable national publication did this. It’s a short little commentary which touches on the debate between those who pushed China to further reform its writing system even more than it had and instead fully adopt alphabetization, and she mentions the Peter Hessler article from the New Yorker which served as the basis for his 2006 book  Oracle Bones. Continue reading

Austerity backlash: Gary Locke has too much integrity

If you’re already familiar with The Locke Affair,* you can skip down to this quote I dug up from Richard McGregor’s The Party about Wang Xiaofang’s Director of the Beijing Office (also known as The Chief of the Beijing Office Liaison and a couple other names).

With all the recent to-do about the Chinese media backlash against new U.S. ambassador to China, Gary Locke–he of buyer-of-own-coffee, carrier-of-own-luggage, wanderer-of-hutongs, rider-of-(gasp)-economy-class fame–most of the U.S. stories seem to direct reader’s ire at the easily manipulated Chinese news industry (Chinese media take aim at ‘showy’ U.S. ambassador”). Which is interesting when one thinks about who China is attacking here (besides Locke for being a show-off of course and for America for nefariously planting him here): that’s right, an easily manipulated Chinese news media. From notorious CCTV host Rui Chengang’s Weibo:

“His public behaviors, from using a backpack to buying coffee, from taking a van (instead of a car) to taking economy class, are all accurately received, photographed, spread and discussed. He knows how the media works because he used to run for governor.” (in Chinese)

And from the Global Times editorial, which along with the Guangming Daily editorial(were those really the only two sources of criticism?!) caused the firestorm:

Media that actively sensationalize Locke should show restraint. There are too many occasions and angles to criticize the corruption and bureaucracy in Chinese official circles. It is not suitable to overly praise a foreign ambassador, particularly when his task in China is rather complicated. Chinese media should be calm and rational when discussing the private lives of people like Locke.

But what’s actually at play here is more than just Gary Locke playing the media like a fiddle (or just being himself as the case may be) and the Chinese media/netizenry lapping it up, but also, like most things, about politics (which is hinted at in the Global Times editorial with the reference to Chinese corruption). CSM and others astutely pointed out that:

The attention Locke has garnered is freighted with political significance, says Mr. Yao. “None of the things written about him are really about him at all,” explains Yao. “They are just painting a picture to contrast with Chinese officials; it is all meant as ironic commentary.”

Indeed, this is a common tack, to criticize the ills of Chinese society by highlighting success elsewhere. And in fact, there’s even a recent precedent of this same exact story: an official full of integrity making his fellow colleagues look bad and the backlash against him–except in fiction. Here are some quotes from Richard McGregor’s fascinating book about the CCP, The Party, which has a brief passage on Wang Xiaofang’s bestselling 2007 novel, Director of the Beijing Office.

The belief that you cannot be successful without being corrupt is commonplace enough to have been the theme of a best-selling novel in 2007, called Director of the Beijing Representative Office. The book, part of a series about the Beijing-based lobbyist for an unnamed city government in north-eastern China, pits a clean official against a corrupt one. . . In Wang’s novel, the first official, Li Weimin, is an upright and principled cadre who cares deeply about the community he is serving. Parachuted into the municipal government, he bristles with integrity and makes sure his family members do not exploit his position for personal gain. Far from endearing himself to his colleagues, Li’s austere lifestyle infuriates them. Drivers and secretaries do not like working for him, colleagues feel embarrassed by his decision to live in an old residential building instead of moving into the gleaming new official compound where they are housed, rightly sending that he has made them look bad in front of ordinary people. And he spurns sumptuous government banquets, opting instead for a simple meal at his desk [BIDEN NOODLES!–ed], forcing his colleagues to follow suit. His behavior, the narrator says, makes him seem ‘an unreasonable man who has no sympathies for his colleagues.’ (pg 95)

The NYTimes had a pretty good rundown of the cultural issues at play in the development of Locke’s hero status and CFR has a quick summary of The Locke Affair.

*I am guaranteeing that something will happen during the next year and this’ll get coined [currently, only 28 hits on Google for it]–it’s just sounds too good not to be used. And of course, there will be the requisite movie starring Matt Damon as Locke, the first Asian American ambassador to the dictatorial empire of Shyna, who battles evil doers with impeccable integrity and an AK. There’ll also be a dramatic sequence in the middle where he buys a cup of coffee at the Starbucks in Pundong airport. The shop vendor hands him the coffee and Damon walks away without paying, casually tossing his backpack over his shoulder, his back muscles rippling, practically escaping from his tasteful (but not designer!) suit. He takes three steps, then slowly turns. “You know why I didn’t pay for this cup? [beat] Because freedom is priceless.” The puzzled shop vendor stares at Damon and then he is enlightened. He begins a slow clap as Damon strides out the sliding doors to board a private, single-engine Cessna.

As he takes off, the airport explodes below him. We see him grimace and sip from his coffee. “Too weak,” he says. “Shoulda made it myself.” THE END.

Buddy Roemer and Death by China

I don’t watch much TV these days,* but when I do, it’s C-SPAN…2.

Well, not by choice, but I got home the other day and was in the mood for distraction. We don’t have many channels here over the air, but C-SPAN is one of the few that doesn’t make me feel like I’m purposely churning my brain into mush, but I might have to question that assumption after watching about forty minutes of Buddy Roemer rant about China, the sleeping bear that has come to steal our American honey.

As you know (jk), Buddy Roemer is a fringe presidential candidate whose claim to fame (according to him) is that he served as both a governor and as a Congressman. He’s also pushing hard for campaign finance reform, a laudable goal surely, and has promised to limit all contributions to $100–something easier said and done when you don’t have donors banging down your door to give you money.

That said, he seems like a decent guy with a modicum of integrity, even if he plays the usual GOP-blame-the-prez-populist shtick though. He’s no wacko, but he sure as hell isn’t electable at all–he’s just too small town. But more interestingly, he confronts straight on the contradiction that is China–for a Republican, what is one to do? Wave the American flag and decry the baddies across the ocean for stealing our jobs? Or be the Good Friedmanite and applaud free market for doing what they’re supposed to. What to do?!?!

Roemer goes for door number 2 and it is not pretty. The arguments are specious to say the least, but rather than outline them, you can watch them below in the full, edited 2 hour speech and Q&A session he provides in front of a few reporters (wow, New Zealand, you guys have some kind of foreign reporting corps!) and a Falun Gong protester.

Ha, just kidding, you’re not going to actually watch it, it’s a 2 hour rant by a politician who has less name recognition than most celebrities’ pets. But some quick notes:

  • including Japan with China and India as places that exploit workers with unfair wages? I hope that was a brain fart and not actually something he believes, because if not, then we have some serious questioning of what kind of ethical standards he expects from nations.
  • Fair trade adjustment… uh, what’s the difference between that and a tariff?
  • He kinda ducks that question about labor practices in the US pretty well huh?

And finally, while doing this googling for the past hour, stumbled on the provocatively named Death By China, a blog that is all over the place with regards to indicting China for unfair trade (leading to impending world doom). After reading the over-the-top book description, let’s just say I was a bit surprised to realize that the authors of the book (though not the blog, that’s written by the co-author) is a seemingly well-respected Econ and busines school professor at that neoconservative hotbed (joke) UC Irvine. Though I do admit the description of the book on his personal website is tempered down quite a bit, so maybe the book is less of a polemic than it appears to be. But then again, there’s this hilariously un-nuanced video by the other co-author:

Our trading partner is preparing to kill us!

Hai Death by China gaiz, vid needs more slow zoom in on nukes! And blood. K, thx!

*Because of this stack of books that I have sitting here on my nightstand. I can hear them accusing me each night before I sleep, “You don’t know anything yet you dolt. You haven’t even read me!” And then I sleep fitfully, their voices growing louder and louder until I wake up in a panicked start, crack open one at random, and glaze over the words before drifting off again.

I should just burn them. That’d shut them up.

For now

Starting school in two weeks. Hopefully the fun times can begin then. For now, editing a fascinating book about CCTV by Chinese media scholar Ying Zhu, reading Orville Schell’s post-Tiananmen book Mandate of Heaven, doing some freelance research on translated Chinese books, and trying to get in as much bouldering at Brooklyn Boulders as I can before decamping to Pittsburgh.

For now, too much. But that is a good thing.