Behind the curtain of the Global Times

If you’re curious, you’ll find everything you need to know here. Yes, it quotes me, and also Jeremy Goldkorn, Michael Anti and others. I especially like the headline. But doesn’t it apply to nearly all Chinese media?

Update: Wow, we’re on a roll today. Don’t miss this follow-up.


The “Bi” word

An American translator in Beijing reflects on the word niubi and what makes it so difficult to translate, and it’s a delightful read. A taste:

On the face of it, niubi is not untranslatable at all: the characters niu and bi can be rendered into English with great precision by the words – and I beg your pardon – ‘cow pussy’, niu being the zoological reference, bi the anatomical. But though the denotation of niubi is embarrassingly plain, it’s connotations are far from obvious.

Niubi is a term of approbation, perhaps the greatest such term in colloquial Chinese. Niubi is an attitude, a lifestyle: a complete lack of concern over what other people think of you, and the resulting freedom to do whatever you please. It is knowing exactly what you’re capable of, making the decision to act, and to hell with the consequences. It is the essence of ‘cool’, but taken to the nth degree, and with a dirty word thrown in.

Of course, like all great philosophical concepts, niubi has an inverse side – an excess of niubi leads to self-importance, arrogance, hubris, imperiousness, and very dangerous driving.

His examples of what makes someone a niubi alone are worth the price of admission. Don’t miss it.


The ironies of China’s Web censorship

The irony is that for all the time and energy and resources China throws into censoring its Internet, the more creative, ingenious and brilliant those striving to subvert the system become. And the more brilliant and ingenious they are, the more attention they get, and the attempts to censor information blow up in the censors’ faces.

This is an absolutely marvelous article, a look at how the wit and humor of irreverent, mischievous bloggers, microbloggers and online artists is confounding China’s fleet of Web censors and doing achieving exactly what the censors are fighting: the delivery of mocking, critical messages revealing the injustices of the Chinese government.

No government in the world pours more resources into patrolling the Web than China’s, tracking down unwanted content and supposed miscreants among the online population of 500 million with an army of more than 50,000 censors and vast networks of advanced filtering software. Yet despite these restrictions — or precisely because of them — the Internet is flourishing as the wittiest space in China. “Censorship warps us in many ways, but it is also the mother of creativity,” says Hu Yong, an Internet expert and associate professor at Peking University. “It forces people to invent indirect ways to get their meaning across, and humor works as a natural form of encryption.”

To slip past censors, Chinese bloggers have become masters of comic subterfuge, cloaking their messages in protective layers of irony and satire. This is not a new concept, but it has erupted so powerfully that it now defines the ethos of the Internet in China. Coded language has become part of mainstream culture, with the most contagious memes tapping into widely shared feelings about issues that cannot be openly discussed, from corruption and economic inequality to censorship itself. “Beyond its comic value, this humor shows where netizens are pushing against the boundaries of the state,” says Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, whose Web site, China Digital Times, maintains an entertaining lexicon of coded Internet terms. “Nothing else gives us a clearer view of the pressure points in Chinese society.”

I have posted before about the CCP’s total lack of a sense of humor. Every year in America the president of the United States gets roasted at the White House Correspondents dinner. No government figure here or in most free countries is spared from being laughed at. But can anyone actually imagine the CCP laughing at itself? How surprising, that it’s authoritarian and totalitarian regimes that are utterly devoid of humor. Anything that challenges such governments’ monolithic image of paternalism and benevolence is a threat: jokes unveil weaknesses in the rulers, they reveal vulnerabilities, and if they’re really funny they spread like wildfire. Small wonder that those making the jokes are considered lethal enemies.

Satire is sometimes a safety valve that government might grudgingly permit. Better a virtual laugh, after all, than a real protest. But being laughed at, as Orwell found during his stint as a colonial police officer in Burma, can also be a ruler’s greatest fear. And the Chinese government, which last year sentenced a woman to a year of hard labor for a sarcastic three-word tweet, appears to suffer from an acute case of humor deficiency. “Jokes that mock the abuse of power do more than let off steam; they mobilize people’s emotions,” says Wen Yunchao, an outspoken blogger who often mounts sardonic Internet campaigns in defense of free speech. “Every time a joke takes off,” Wen says, “it chips away at the so-called authority of an authoritarian regime.”

This exhaustive article reads like a thriller and is a good reminder of why we need professional journalists. While it’s largely about humor, and while some of the examples are pretty hilarious (be sure to read the one about Mao), it is anything but funny. The political reality is utterly grim. The use of humor is a last resort, a desperate attempt to enlighten and inform the masses, and a dangerous game. These are acts of incredible courage, and there’s no way China can wipe them out unless it turns the entire Internet off, and cell phones, too. These are real freedom fighters (or “freedom-of-speech fighters”).

Update: Relatedly, you’ll want to read this. These censors must be very busy men.

And then there’s this. What’s going on tonight?


Pinyin’s inventor, 105, speaks out against government

This is amazing.

Zhou Youguang should be a Chinese hero after making what some call the world’s most important linguistic innovation: He invented Pinyin, a system of romanizing Chinese characters using the Western alphabet.

But instead, this 105-year-old has become a thorn in the government’s side. Zhou has published an amazing 10 books since he turned 100, some of which have been banned in China. These, along with outspoken views on the Communist Party and the need for democracy in China, have made him a “sensitive person” — a euphemism for a political dissident.

You simply have to hear this NPR interview to believe it. This guy is sharper than a tack at 105, and he still blogs. His criticisms of the CCP are sharp and specific. Go listen now.

NPR and PBS are the sole sources of sanity in today’s US media. Of course, they are among the right’s primary targets. If they go, I go.


Occupy Phoenix

Best picture I could take at Occupy Phoenix, using my phone; I know, it’s kind of blurry.

I just came from the demonstrations here in downtown Phoenix and was surprised, in a good way, at what I saw. Thousands of polite, civil, friendly protestors had gathered, and I would say that maybe half of them were white collar people in their 40s, 50s and even 60. Lots of youth, but lots of white hair, too. There was no name-calling, no littering, no shoving, not the slightest hint of violence. I bring this up because the new insidious meme from the right is that those participating in the demonstrations constitute a “mob.” Of course, they considered the Tea Party demonstrations a gathering of patriots. The Occupy crowds, in their eyes, are dirty hippies and anarchists. Which, of course, is total nonsense.

There was no leader, just a string of speakers. The message was simple: there is a huge injustice in America, and the criminal bankers are rewarded for their sins at the expense of the working and middle classes. The goals are simple, too: tax reform, with more taxes on the rich and relief for the less fortunate; greater stimulus to create jobs; and transferring power from Wall Street and corporations to the people the government is supposed to represent. (I know, that’s easier said than done.)

There were the expected idiots, but very few. I’m talking about Truthers with their signs about 911 being an inside job, and the Ron Paul kooks with their monolithic call to “end the Fed.” They were few and far between, but it’s always signs like theirs that the right-wing seizes on to show how deranged liberals are. I kind of wished they’d disappear. Free speech has its pluses and minuses.

The police were everywhere, quietly watching. I even chatted with one about a deranged demonstrator who was reading from the bible at the top of his lungs trying to drown the speakers out. The cop said he’d love to do something, but everyone’s allowed their say. From the way he said it, I’m betting he was sympathetic to the demonstrators.

According to the latest poll I saw, 52 percent of Americans now support the Occupy movement, and 27 percent support the Tea Party. Finally, a movement is bringing together groups that have often been at odds: white collars and working-class workers, young people and old, social rebels wearing masks and clearly challenging the status quo, and the status quo itself — ordinary Americans who brought their entire families with them.

The Phoenix event may have been a bit too polite. It needs to be a little more disruptive and in-your-face. That’s a fine line to balance, remaining civil while generating outrage. But it has to shake up the system, like they’re doing in New York. Meanwhile, I’m doing everything I can to support this movement and urge you all to do the same. We’ve never seen anything like it in America in our lifetimes, and it is so long overdue.


Norwegian salmon rots in Chinese warehouses

The Chinese government, one year later, is still simply furious with Norway over awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to NED puppet and criminal Liu Xiaobo. I can’t help but be struck by the maturity and diplomacy with which they are expressing their outrage.

Norway has reported China to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in an escalation of a row about fish which has pitted one of Europe’s smallest countries against the biggest nation in the world.

The Chinese imposed additional import controls on Norwegian salmon last year in apparent retribution for the Nobel Peace Prize awarded in Oslo to the Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo. The result has been a collapse in sales of salmon to China, and the sight and smell of North Sea fish rotting in Chinese warehouses. The Norwegian Foreign Office said overall trade with China had grown by 46 per cent over the past six months. But sales of fresh salmon, meanwhile, have collapsed 61.8 per cent.

Officials said they would not speculate as to why Beijing had ignored trade rules relating to Norwegian salmon. But it seems clear that the threat from the Chinese embassy in Oslo last year, of “damage” to diplomatic ties should the Nobel Prize be handed to “a criminal” has focused on a narrow, iconic target.

And China wonders why the world sees it as a prickly, pouting child. Unfortunately, due to the country’s economic heft, the world always has to walk around China on eggshells lest the CCP have its feelings hurt.

Via CDT Be sure to click that link and read about Liu’s life one year after his arrest. And then, to top it off, read this.


The Zhou Enlai Peace Prize

This certainly sound more legitimate than the ridiculous Confucius Prize. Check out their website; it seems to have a lot of backing from prominent figures in the US, like Henry Kissinger.

From the download link (PDF) on their site:

Zhou Enlai Peace Award

Once a year, on a date near Zhou’s birthday, the Zhou Enlai Peace Award will be presented at a special ceremony held in the Great Hall of the People.

An Award will be given annually to a person within China who practices the principles of simplicity, humility, respect and peacemaking, who meets the personal standard of integrity set by Zhou Enlai. An Award will also be given to a person from the other nations of the world, who will be brought to Beijing to receive recognition for their contributions to peace.

The ceremonies will be broadcast nationwide, and made available in translation to broadcasters in other countries.

Maybe this helps explain why the Confucius Peace Prize has been unceremoniously dumped?

Thanks to the reader who sent me the information.


So much for the “Confucius Peace Prize”

What if they gave an award and the recipient didn’t show up? As we all know, that’s what happened last year when the Nobel committee set up an empty chair for the imprisoned Liu Xiaobo, infuriating the Chinese government, which saw the committee’s choice of Liu as an act of provocation, something that caused China a lot of hurt feelings.

What followed next was a vintage only-in-China fiasco, in which a group in China quickly created the “Confucius Peace Prize,” presented as China’s version of the Nobel, which they awarded to former Taiwan vice-president Lien Chan, who didn’t want it. Once more, there was “an empty seat,” and China once again had its feelings hurt by the ridicule this created.

Now it seems the ill-conceived Confucius Peace Prize is in jeopardy.

The Confucius Peace Prize, which started last year and was widely heralded as China’s Nobel Peace Prize, faces the prospect of cancellation this year, as an official group reportedly behind it has denied any ties with the award.

When the prize was announced on Sept 17 last year, one of the organizers was Wang Shenggui, a division chief for the Beijing-based Association of Chinese Local Art.

However, according to a recent statement, the group said Wang was acting outside of his official capacity, and that plans to start the award were never discussed with association heads, who answer directly to the Ministry of Culture.

“Wang didn’t tell us anything about the prize,” said Zhang Houbang, the association’s standing vice-president.

The group only became aware of it through media reports, he said, adding that the ministry called him on Sept 19 to demand an explanation.

Zhang stressed that the association’s focus is limited to promoting Chinese art, and that Wang’s involvement in the prize was not allowed.

Wang was subsequently dismissed for violating the rules, while his division, which focused on the preservation of traditional culture, was scrapped, said the statement.

This is what we call a train wreck. Everything the CCP has done to suppress the Liu Xiaobo story has only succeeded in keeping it front and center. The Confucius prize only exists, of course, because of Liu, and any coverage it gets dredges up the embarrassment China suffered with the empty seat in Oslo. Now once again China faces smirks as the world witnesses the internal disarray that seems to spell the end of the Confucius Peace Prize. And once again, the story of Liu’s imprisonment and his wining the Nobel prize gets churned up all over again.

I’m not making any comment for or against Liu; we’ve discussed that many times here. This is a story of incompetency and gob-smackingly bad public relations. How could the Confucius Peace Prize have been trumpeted with such fanfare last year if it was never blessed by the government? Something doesn’t add up, and the only thing that emerges as crystal clear is the government’s complete mishandling of something they should have known would result in international ridicule. Well done.


Escape from China

As I’ve said before, China can be a wonderful place, as long as you play by its rules. There are many things to praise about the CCP — the one that’s helping bring technology to the countryside, or the one that helps certain (but by no means all) minorities maintain their culture. But as I also have always said, there is more than one CCP. And the CCP you’ll read about in this superb essay by Chinese writer Liao Yiwu is the worst of the worst.

Liao was once imprisoned for daring to write a poem about the government’s harsh handling of the student protestors of 1989, and his books, needless to say, can only be published abroad. After being barred from entering the US to attend a PEN conference, his handlers told him if he tried to go to the airport he would be “disappeared” just like Ai Weiwei.

For a writer, especially one who aspires to bear witness to what is happening in China, freedom of speech and publication mean more than life itself. My good friend, the Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, has paid a hefty price for his writings and political activism. I did not want to follow his path. I had no intention of going back to prison. I was also unwilling to be treated as a “symbol of freedom” by people outside the tall prison walls.

China for him had become a prison in which he was destined to rot. That was unacceptable. He had to write, and he would do whatever he needed to to secure the freedom to express himself.

Only by escaping this colossal and invisible prison called China could I write and publish freely. I have the responsibility to let the world know about the real China hidden behind the illusion of an economic boom — a China indifferent to ordinary people’s simmering resentment.

Escape he does, crossing from a border town in Yunnan to Vietnam, and finally making his way to Berlin, where one of his books is being published. This is a remarkable story of bravery and refusal to be silenced by government terror.

Which leads me to an observation I made in China last week. Somethings seems to have changed. Censorship, which my Chinese friends used to laugh at as a nuisance, has become a front-and-center national issue. As always on these trips, I talk to as many Chinese people as I can about their feelings toward the government. Granted, these spot interviews are thoroughly unscientific, but I have always found them revealing. In the past, most of the responses I got were along the same lines: We don’t really love the government, but it gets things done, and anything it sets its sights on doing will happen. In general, this is a good thing. We don’t love our government but we support it and are proud of our country.

During the run-up to the Olympics I heard more positive things about the government than ever before. People defended it aggressively in light of the riots in Tibet, and national pride seemed to be at its zenith, which wasn’t too surprising. Along with Tibet, this was when AntiCNN began its successful campaign to convince China it was the victim of a vast media conspiracy to make them look bad. Everyone seemed to close ranks and display their love of China, even placing a “heart China” alongside their names on MSN.

Has there been a sea change? Again, this is not scientific in the least, but all I heard this time, from taxi drivers to old colleagues to new friends, was harsh criticism. The one word that permeated each discussion was “Weibo.” Something about the Wenzhou train crash and its harmonization on Weibo seemed to have struck a nerve with many Chinese (and foreigners, too). Finally, suddenly, censorship moved from being a nuisance to outright repression.

The reaction to the cover-up was across the board: the government had lost the trust of its people, and all the glory they were claiming for its new high-speed rail system was built on sand. Some said they would never ride the fast trains now that they know they are unsafe, and they place the entire blame for that on the government. A government that pledged the trains were safe, and then covered up its flaws. And then censored all conversation about it. This was one whammy after another, and the Chinese people seemed to reach a breaking point. And I don’t see how their trust can be re-won.

With sites like Weibo, it’s becoming impossible for the Chinese government to hide under a cloak of secrecy. They can try to stamp out conversations but it will be like whack-a-mole; one will flare up as the other is extinguished. And the more they censor, the more outraged the public will become.

People might be furious at the government, but that doesn’t mean they’re optimistic. The vibe I got was one of outrage mixed with resignation. And for the umpteenth time, I know this was not a representative sample. But it seemed so prevalent, it couldn’t have just been a coincidence that everyone wanted to complain about the handling of Weibo.

The CCP faces a rocky road as it seeks to repair the damage it created for itself. Millions of their people will be watching them, and attempts to silence them all on the microblogs will be an exercise in futility. China’s relationship with its own citizens seems to have entered a new phase, and it will be fascinating to see how it unfolds.



Yes, I’m here again for a short visit.

We all know the cliches about how gorgeous Beijing is in September. But we need to remember that the only reason it’s a cliche is because it’s true. Perfect time to be in Beijing. With all the chaos going on in the world, “where ignorant armies clash by night,” Beijing is like a wonderful haven, oblivious of the world falling apart around it. Of course, China is going to have its share of chaos, too; it’s inevitable. But right here and right now it is the place to be, despite the inflation. I don’t know why anyone would live anywhere else.

This is a super-quickie but allow me to make one political observation. I’ve been very surprised to hear reactions from my Chinese friends about the Wenzhou train crash. Apparently the way the government handled it has created a lot of animosity and distrust, and I’ve never seen enthusiasm for the party at such an all-time low. Cover-ups suck. Maybe the masses are catching on that despite all the smiles and cheerful news on CCTV all is not well, and the government they want so much to believe in is not necessarily their friend.

Update: Well, today the smog is so thick I can’t see out my window. And the traffic has become almost comically atrocious. I actually saw people get out of their cars and talk, waiting for things to move. No city is perfect.