Tom Carter’s China: Portrait of a People

One of the few benefits of blogging is that I get sent a lot of books to review. I only review about half of them, the ones that interest me most. And then when I’m done, the books get stacked in a corner of my study. But Tom Carter’s gorgeous book China: Portrait of a People, went straight to my living room coffee table, the only book ever to grace a table cluttered with antiques and China paraphernalia. It will stay there where guests will see it.

Embarking on a two-year quest to travel across China’s 33 provinces and capturing photos of the very different faces of China, including all 56 minorities, Carter has produced a moving tribute to the Chinese people. It’s easy to forget all the different Chinas that there are and this comprehensive book puts them all together in one place. And what a place it is! This book is well over 600 pages and includes more than 800 photographs. Carrying just a backpack and a digital camera, Carter achieves the impossible, portraying Chinese people and their environments as they go about their daily business, as they sleep on the streets or on park benches, as they farm the soil, as they fish, swim, party and protest.

No words can do justice to the book; it’s the photos that say it all. This beautiful video captures the heart and soul of the book.

These are rare, wonderful photographs. In his introduction Carter writes, “The snapshots in this book are not works of art. I was too preoccupied with participating, with reveling in the moment to worry about perfection.” I have to disagree. These photos are works of art. If you are still in doubt, visit this tribute to the book in the Atlantic and tell me if you’re not deeply moved. If any photos are works of art, these qualify. One can only marvel at how intimate they are, how Carter managed to win the trust of his subjects, at how he captures them at the perfect moment, whether they are shooting an arrow or walking out of a coal mine or peeing on the sidewalk. I asked Carter how he managed to be right there at the right moment:

Intimate moments were captured as a result of me not approaching subjects and situations as a “photographer”, but simply by being there in the first place. My only priority at the time was total immersion in China’s culture and humanity; the photography was an afterthought.

As he says in his introduction, “Where I have been, you will be; what I have seen, you will see.” He visited one-third of all the cities and villages in China, so there’s a lot to see. He captured the essence of every Chinese minority. And it’s not just pictures. Each chapter begins with a beautifully written description of that chapter’s region. These are not snips from Wikipedia or random web searches. The descriptions are as intimate as his snapshots. He writes, for example, of Heilongjiang.

I never in my life felt colder than here on the top end of China. Pain is actually the sensation I most vividly recall. During the bus ride to Beijicun, China’s northernmost village on the banks of the Amur River, two elderly Manchurian women sitting beside me couldn’t help but notice this underdressed foreigner shivering uncontrollably.

Wrapping me in the People’s Liberation Army coats, they held me close in their arms until we arrived, the warmth of Chinese hospitality radiating in China’s least hospitable climate.

As you’ll see when you open the book, hundreds of subjects allowed Carter to enter their world, and to trust him enough to allow him to photograph them. This was something I wondered about from the first page: how did he win the people over and have them share intimate moments? Carter explained:

Winning my subjects’ trust can be attributed to my sincerity in wanting to get to know them without having any kind “ulterior motive,” as might a journalist who is more concerned with bylines and facts than the actual human being in their presence.

Finally, I asked Tom what his favorite photo is, even though I knew this was impossible to answer. I wanted to know which one(s) was closest to his heart. Here’s one of those photos, and Tom’s response.

There are too many photos from this journey that have special and significant memories attached to them for me to recount, but one pic that I think really stands out is this one, taken in Yinchuan, the capital city of Ningxia. I came across hundreds of out-of-work men standing around a street corner waiting for day-labor, but they had spotted me as soon as I spotted them and immediately swarmed around me out of genial curiosity. I must have answered a couple dozen of the same questions (“Where are you from?” “Do you like China?” etc.) before I realized what a fantastic photo was right in front of me. The stories on each of their faces speaks volumes about China on so any levels.

You love China or you wouldn’t be reading this. So get a copy of this book and experience what Carter has achieved. It belongs on all of my readers’ shelves, or coffee tables, anyplace where it is within easy reach. You will want to open it again and again. Get it here; for a mere $16 this is a wonderful treat.

You can like Tom’s Facebook page here, and visit his website here.


China’s Spoiled Brat Generation

I don’t think I need to say that blogging hasn’t been a high priority for me recently. But I saw a piece this week that I need to share, even though it’s already been out there a couple of days and has received enormous interest. It’s by editor, author, friend and all-around genius (and I mean that) James Palmer. (I reviewed his most recent book here.)

His story that has gone viral is all about the balinghou, Chinese young people borne after 1980, and the many myths about them, namely that they are all spoiled brats with no social skills and infinite greed and a sense of entitlement. Not so fast, Palmer argues. In fact, those descriptors may apply more to their parents than to the balinghou. It is the parents, disoriented by China’s hyperbolic growth and relatively new focus on money, so different from their lives under Mao, who now see greed as the key to success, to survival.

[M]any of the post-1980 generation — contrary to their reputation for greedy materialism — want to help others. Levels of volunteering are higher than ever, though still significantly lower than in the West, and college students or young white-collar workers are the primary founders of NGOs. But to their parents, charity can be a dirty word. ‘One of my friends has a sick wife, and very little money,’ said Zhang, the PhD student. ‘I wanted to give him 500 yuan to help him, but while I was waiting to meet him, I could hear my mother’s voice in my head, telling me I was a fool. Every time I give money to someone, I feel like I’m being cheated somehow.’ Another person I interviewed said: ‘If I tell my mum I gave money, she berates me because I don’t even have an apartment of my own yet.’

…And for parents whose own dreams were frustrated by history, the temptation to force their children into the path they wanted for themselves is even stronger.

This article is so brilliant, so intriguing, so well argued and so beautifully written that it generated a discussion from a panel of China experts including the likes of Orville Schell that is as essential a read as the article itself.

I’d like to quote nearly every line of Palmer’s article. This is partly why I am so down on blogging at the moment. There are many others who can offer more insight into China than I can, and there is no sense in my trying to add to it: Palmer’s article is as perfect as they come.

Let me just add that the myth of the balinghou as social misfits who’ve been spoiled to death, like all myths, certainly has an element of truth to it, as Palmer acknowledges up front. In my own research on the topic more than a year ago I spoke to several Chinese young people who grew up with no siblings, and they felt they were cheated — with no siblings they didn’t learn how to interact with their peers (or so they told me) and they lacked the social skills their parents had learned in their larger families. But that doesn’t mean they think only of themselves and have no moral compass. Greed is not their sole driver.

After reading the article (which you have to do) you may well feel that the ones who we should feel most concerned about are the parents, not their children.

[T]he parents of China’s post-1980 generation (themselves born between 1950 and 1965) grew up in a rural, Maoist world utterly different from that of their children. In their adolescence, there was one phone per village, the universities were closed and jobs were assigned from above. If you imagine the disorientation and confusion of many parents in the West when it comes to the internet and its role in their children’s lives, and then add to that dating, university life and career choices, you come close to the generational dilemma. Parents who spent their own early twenties labouring on remote farms have to deal with children who measure their world in malls, iPhones and casual dates.

Older Chinese, especially those now in their fifties or sixties, often seem like immigrants in their own country. They have that same sense of disorientation, of struggling with societal norms and mores they don’t quite grasp….

The young people’s sense of materialism didn’t spring up in a vacuum, but was instilled in them by their parents, suddenly living in a world with values radically different than the ones they grew up with in rural China.

There is much more to this article, and it is no surprise to see the storm it has generated. I would say it is the single best piece on China I’ve seen in a very long time, maybe years. It is gripping, and it is shattering. (Sorry, I don’t mean to gush, but I’ve rarely been so mesmerized by an article on China.) Read it now if you haven’t already, and if you’ve read it already go and read it again. Just two words to James: Thank you.


China’s “Black” Public Relations Industry

As a former PR practitioner in China, I’ve heard stories of unethical, underhanded and illegal activities carried out by certain Chinese PR companies many times. A common complaint I heard was the agencies slandering their client’s competition and artfully spreading the attacks on search engines and blogs and portals. But that said, I worked with a few Chinese PR agencies and found them to be incredibly hard-working, industrious, talented and ethical. I never worked (to my knowledge) with agencies in China that dealt in the “black arts” of PR though I heard their stories and have no doubt they’re true.

And now we have documentation. Thanks to commenter t_co for bringing to my attention this intriguing article on just how China’s “black” PR industry operates. This summer the government waged a widespread crackdown, arresting hundreds of practitioners of Internet deletion and shutting down a number of companies that sold clients on their ability to scrub away material on the Internet that they believed harmed their reputations.

Almost everyone knows about the public relations industry, but fewer people know about what in China is referred to as Black PR, the underground internet industry that has evolved with the spread of web 2.0 through China. Black PR firms provide client companies with both post deletion services to help them escape negative news stories, and some also provide placement for soft ads and hit pieces attacking competitors. The top black PR firms can offer these services even for stories posted to China’s most popular news portals.

Getting posts deleted is an exercise in sleaze. One of the original and worst perpetrators was a PR company, now closed down, called Yage Times. Its founder, Gu Dengda, now awaiting trial for bribery and other charges, used to work at Baidu, where he developed a business on the side helping companies scrub posts from Baidu’s search engine and portals. Gu figured out how to game the system at Baidu and began to make serious money. As an accompanying article in Caixin notes,

Gu’s knowledge of Baidu’s website-user rules worked to his advantage. He knew, for example, that the search engine’s around-the-clock complaint department would work with website technicians to quickly remove any posts about which they received a Baidu-user complaint. At that time, blog posts, comments and other data could be scrubbed based entirely on a single complaint.

Moreover, Gu knew how to make direct contact with website administrators and their colleagues. This skill – coupled with his ability to grease palms and cultivate good relations with website staffers – proved to be the key to his business success.

Gu started by charging 800 to 1,000 yuan per deleted post while still employed at Baidu. He would start working his magic after finding an image-conscious customer who wanted something scrubbed from the Internet. He would then file complaints with Baidu about relevant postings, and watch the Web until they disappeared.

Blocking keywords on Baidu requires high-level connections, but Gu did it, probably by bribing Internet management officials outside of the company. It is to the government’s credit that they have cracked down hard on this activity, but it reveals an Internet management system rife with corruption.

Yage is gone, but I suspect there are many other “black” PR companies still in operation. Yage used to boast openly on its website of its ability to block keywords on Baidu. Now, companies that offer such services will probably go underground.

If you want to get a negative article scrubbed from the web, or post fake bad news about your competitors, you still have plenty of options. And while it’s increasingly well-understood that such services are illegal — a Baidu search for “delete posts” now displays a special warning reminding users these services aren’t legal, for example — it’s not likely that much will change if black PR companies can make literally millions in profit, and internet management officials and police are all also onboard the money train.

No way to stop it until the corruption is dug up by its roots. I suggest no one hold their breath.


David Vranicar’s “The Lost Graduation”

Can it really be five years since our Great Recession hit? I was in Beijing at the time the ax fell in the Spring of 2008, first with the sudden death of investment house Bear Stearns and the shocking chain reaction that ensued. I felt distant from it at first, but I was not immune. Within six months I and other Westerners at my firm would find ourselves laid off as the company lost clients. Luckily I got another job very quickly, but many millions of Americans would not have it so easy.

David Vranicar is the brother of this blogger, whose praises I often sing (and I wish he would update his blog more frequently). David is also the author of a book, The Lost Graduation: Stepping Off Campus and into a Crisis, that has been waiting to be written: a page-turning memoir of a college grad in the class of ’08 and his search for employment as things go from bad to worse to unbearable. Along the way, he manages to walk us through the calamity of America’s falling employment numbers and lost opportunities, humanizing what at the time seemed like a bundle of meaningless statistics. The never-ending stream of bad economic news is seamlessly woven into the very personal story of Vranicar’s plight. He writes in a funny, self-deprecating style and there are many long laughs along the way. But the story itself is tragic, heartbreaking. So many young people living in the bedrooms where they grew up, with parents who are as anxious as they are about their future. The shock waves of month after month of worsening economic news, soon to be year after year.

To make matters worse, David is a journalism major whose dream is to work as a sports reporter, just as one newspaper after another folds and more and more unemployed journalists join the competition for scarce jobs in a dying field. He comes so close to landing opportunities, only to watch them disintegrate in front of his eyes.

I’ve read countless articles about the “lost generation” and the difficulties they will face for years to come, if not forever. But Vranicar’s book offers the perspective of an actual victim, his day to day travails and attempts to keep his head above water and his spirits high even when his job search leads to countless dead ends.

Needing to do something, Vranicar is led by fate to Shandong’s capital city of Jinan to teach English. He captures the horrors of teaching young, bored, hyperactive Chinese children and of living in a dorm adorned in front with a stream of sewage, dubbed Shit Creek by the teachers. But life in Jinan isn’t all horrible; the teaching hours are short and there’s plenty of time to travel and explore. This section and other descriptions of his days overseas are a welcome relief from the painful rendering of looking for a job in a jobless America. Improbably, Vranicar ends up studying in both Copenhagen and Amsterdam, where he is amazed at the generosity of socialist countries – scholarships, stipends for their foreign students, summers at the beach, etc.

The book does not have any happy endings. Vranicar has no steady job, but after all he has gone through his spirit has not been defeated. He has learned resiliency and resoluteness. As he says at the end,

[W]hile the recession has altered the fortunes of so many, it has also steeled us against the worst. We have learned how to cope with what’s been lost, and to keep our eyes open for what can be found.

The Lost Graduation is a bittersweet microcosm of the plight of college graduates in the Recession Age. It paints vivid pictures, not just of the author’s hometown of Kansas City but of the cities he visits such as Jinan, Amsterdam and Copenhagen, and brilliantly interlaces history and current events and numbers that are too painful to believe into a very human, poignant and moving story. I was charmed throughout; you will be, too.