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.


The Great Leap Forward: Liars and Deniers

[Note: I am ten days late to this story due to my being away on vacation. Pardon me while I catch up.]

No one knows better than I do that over the past couple years this site has become top-heavy with posts about the Great Leap Forward. The truth is it’s a topic of unending fascination for me and one that will mystify and sadden me nearly as much as twentieth century acts of genocide like the Holocaust and the forced starvation in the Ukraine under Stalin or the crimes against humanity of Pol Pot. Each of these is unique, of course. Mao was no Hitler or Stalin. A key differentiator is that there was no grand design for exterminating farmers in China, and Mao derived no pleasure from news of the mass starvation, even if he could have shown a bit more empathy. That’s not to say, however, that the tragedy wasn’t caused by Mao and his reckless policies. There is simply no doubt it was, as Liu Shaoqi dared to say nearly in so many words, to his political undoing.

The reason I’m resurrecting the topic again is two excellent posts over at Sam Crane’s incredibly insightful and beautifully written blog. You’ll find one here and another here.

In the first post, the blogger walks us through the patterns of GLF-denial and revisionism and the spurious claims that the high estimates of those who died could only be concoctions of the West used to vilify China. He writes,

I will not link to these sites, because I do not want to advance their project; moreover, they are an insult to the countless victims of the CCP’s horrific assault on rural society… [T]here will always be uncertainty about the true toll. But GLF denialists are pursuing a political agenda: to protect Mao Zedong from bearing responsibility for the massive loss of Chinese lives. They are not simply engaged in an honest search for the truth. They are trying to obfuscate and divert. We cannot let them.

And he doesn’t let them. (I won’t link to deniers either — you can find plenty of these fenqing arguments right here on my blog if you look up old posts on the GLF.) Some of the most fastidious and reliable of the researchers into the GLF are respected Chinese scholars. He cites Tombstone author Yang Jisheng, who shatters the preposterous myth that the horrific death toll was the result of famines (when hasn’t China had a famine?) or the Sino-Soviet split. Those often-trotted-out explanations are pure BS.

The key reason is political misjudgment. It is not the third reason. It is the only reason. How did such misguided policies go on for four years? In a truly democratic country, they would have been corrected in half a year or a year. Why did no one oppose them or criticize them? I view this as part of the totalitarian system that China had at the time. The chief culprit was Mao.

I realize that many Chinese people, to some extent understandably, take offense when a Westerner criticizes Mao. It’s too bad; there is too much to criticize to just leave it alone and not remember. I remember all those who brought about great suffering, including my former president. So we shouldn’t have to walk on eggshells when it comes to Mao.

Sam’s follow-up post is just as interesting, a response to the commenters in his first post:

I knew this was going to happen. Was it George Bernard Shaw who said: “Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pigs like it”? That is where I find myself now. In my previous post, I criticized Great Leap Famine denialists, knowing full well that this would likely spark an attack against me personally. And, lo and behold, like clockwork, it has.

Not everyone who questions the numbers is a denialist, and Sam is careful to make this clear.

But it is rather obvious that a particular subset of that criticism is denialist. This is difficult for ideologically- and politically-motivated people to grasp, because they think only in black and white terms. So let me be painfully clear: not all critics are denialists, but all denialists are rooted in a political agenda that keeps them from maintaining an open and, ultimately, critical attitude. They are apologists.

He goes through the various denialist strategies, like pointing to issues with the 1953 census as proof the death rate couldn’t be as high as claimed. And then there’s the fenqings’ complete and total denial of the latest research to come to light by researchers like Yang. As we’ve seen in previous threads, the denialists talk right over this evidence. And Sam is right: it’s all to perpetuate the myth of a magnanimous and blameless Mao. (And let’s not forget that standing by Mao’s side and implementing the GLF with gusto were Deng and Zhou Enlai.)

Please go and read the two posts, and do not miss the comments, some of which inadvertently prove Sam’s points, shifting the conversation away from the evidence toward a personal attack against the messenger. What a surprise.


China’s Word of the Year: Reform

There have been a dizzying array of articles over the past two weeks about reform in China — all kinds of reform, such as opening up about air pollution, to what extent Xi Jinping will serve as a “reformer,” calls by reformers for China to live up to its constitution, Southern Weekend calling for reform of censorship and forced propaganda. It’s been hard to absorb it all, and even harder to evaluate what all this noise means. And really, there’s only one answer to all these questions and claims: It’s too soon to tell. And, No one knows.

I’ll never forget the mood in China after Hu Jintao took office in 2003. There was something akin to euphoria among some English-language China blogs (now all gone). Hu had just lifted the curtain on the government’s mismanagement of SARS and all but admitted its malfeasance in deceiving its people about it. Heads rolled. Surely this was proof that China now had a reformer in charge. Wen, too, immediately established himself as the good leader, the friend to the little man who would initiate reforms to ease the plight of the poor and the disenfranchised.

Wen’s image as a reformer never really died, whether he was one or not. Hu’s image as a reformer, on the other hand, was painfully short lived, and soon we were back to the usual government propaganda, censorship and repression. Censorship only got worse. At the time, I argued that reform under Hu would be impossible simply because it would threaten the one-party state, and reform didn’t seem to be the people’s No. 1 priority.

Things seem very different at the moment, with calls for reform coming from so many different directions. So with Xi Jinping I’m not placing any bets. Maybe the whole point of this post is simply to say I don’t know. The only thing I can say is that it will be fascinating to watch. It would be a cliche to say China is now at an inflection point, but I believe it to be true. My guess, however, is that we will see change occur only at glacier speed as the party deals with how to enact reform while holding onto power with an iron fist.

Possibly the most pessimistic piece I wrote on the subject can be found here. It’s written by a China watcher I have huge respect for.

Future historians wondering exactly when the PRC entered its pre-revolutionary phase may focus on a series of speeches that General Secretary Xi Jinping delivered behind closed doors to the Communist Party elite after being promoted to the top slot in the leadership. It was rumored early on that his tone was not encouraging to anyone hoping for an incremental transition to the rule of law with wider scope for civil society and greater accountability in government. Now Gao Yu has provided a few quotes from one of these speeches in an essay which Yaxue Cao has translated. In these fragments we glimpse a ruling class that not only is prepared to defend its privileges with force but anticipates the need to do so, and views proposals for reform as threats to its grip on power.

I urge you to visit the site and see the quotes from these speeches. They won’t encourage you to believe this is a government that will lean toward compromise.

At the moment, things look so positive for reform that reformers are speaking out openly about the need for China to recognize and enforce its constitution, a document that has proved infinitely irrelevant ever since it was enacted.

Now, in a drive to persuade the Communist Party’s new leaders to liberalize the authoritarian political system, prominent Chinese intellectuals and publications are urging the party simply to enforce the principles of their own Constitution.

The strategy reflects an emerging consensus among advocates for political reform that taking a moderate stand in support of the Constitution is the best way to persuade Xi Jinping, the party’s new general secretary, and other leaders, to open up China’s party-controlled system. Some of Mr. Xi’s recent speeches, including one in which he emphasized the need to enforce the Constitution, have ignited hope among those pushing for change.

A wide range of notable voices, among them ones in the party, have joined the effort. Several influential journals and newspapers have published editorials in the last two months calling for Chinese leaders to govern in accordance with the Constitution. Most notable among those is Study Times, a publication of the Central Party School, where Mr. Xi served as president until this year. That weekly newspaper ran a signed editorial on Jan. 21 that recommends that the party establish a committee under the national legislature that would ensure that no laws are passed that violate the Constitution.

One very astute article says we’re all asking the wrong question. It shouldn’t be whether Xi will be a reformer, or what kind of reforms he’ll initiate and when.

Better questions are needed in order to produce more useful analyses and forecasts of China’s political development. Such analyses should start by recognizing two facts: First, the new leadership’s various initiatives and pronouncements after taking office indicate that it fully accepts the need for change. Second to quote the American political scientist Samuel Huntington, the leadership is clearly aiming at “some change but not total change, gradual change but not convulsive change.” In short, the leadership wants controlled reform, not revolution or regime change.

Huntington has argued that implementing reform is far more difficult than staging revolution. The methods, timing, sequencing and pace of changes all need to be carefully managed. If not handled well, reform will lead not to stability but to greater instability and may serve as a catalyst of revolution. China’s experience with reform and revolution through history, especially its modern history, certainly lends support to this argument.

Finally, for an exhaustive and incredibly well-researched look at China’s leaders’ challenges maintaining stability in the face of social pressures, this article is a truly must read. Just a sample, from an essay by the Director of the Social Issues Research Center at the China Academy of Social Sciences Rural Development Institute. Reform seems to be on everyone’s lips at the moment.

The key to stability preservation lies in resolving the standoff between government attempts at stability preservation and popular efforts at rights protection. Essentially, rights protection is not in conflict with stability preservation. Quite the contrary, rights protection is the basis of stability preservation, as the process of rights protection is also one of stability preservation. The recognition and protection of people’s basic rights form the sole foundation upon which sound and lasting stability preservation can be achieved. Indiscriminate violation of these rights in the name of stability preservation will yield a stability that is fragile and ephemeral. The construction of a fair and just system for social distribution is the crux of stability preservation in contemporary China, but this requires first addressing the issues of interest imbalance and interest articulation. The frequent instances of rights protection and emerging rights discourse in today’s China have generated a gradual awakening of a rights consciousness among the Chinese public. This presents a golden opportunity to institutionalise a mechanism for rights protection, to open channels for the articulation of citizens’ interests, and to level the playing field for laborers and disadvantaged groups in the areas of interest aggregation and policy-making. If seized, this opportunity would enable the rapid realisation of true harmony and stability. The rationale is simple; effective stability preservation is dependent upon rights protection, which in turn requires a mature and institutionalised claims-making mechanism.

I know, that’s a lot of links and a lot of quotes. My point being that there is rather suddenly a tidal wave of discussion about reform and how it might work. I feel more optimistic than I did when Hu took office because this time the demand for reform appears to be far more extensive, coming from all segments of society. Even if a Pew Research Poll proves that most Chinese are charmed by what they see as the infallible leadership of their leaders, a lot of them seem to believe it’s time their leaders initiate broad-based and meaningful reform.


Tibetans, second-class citizens?

Yes, I know all about the schools, the hospitals, the highways and the end of serfdom. I know about improvements in the quality of life and all the economic benefits. I know how Chinese people see Tibet and I know that there is some justification for it. But I also know that many, many Tibetans do not see the CCP’s involvement in Tibet to be liberating. Many rage against the interference of the Han Chinese even while they profit from it. (This phenomenon is described in one of the best chapters of the new book Chinese Characters.) Some even go so far as to self-immolate.

But the debate as to how much the Tibetans have benefited thanks to the largesse and munificence of the CCP is largely irrelevant to the discussion of how so many Tibetans are treated as second-class citizens. And the fact that they are is simply undebatable. It is a matter of fact.

I urge you all to read this excellent interview of a leading Tibetan scholar by my former blog buddy Matt Schiavenza. Tibetans are being denied passports because the Party fears they’ll travel to India to hear the teachings of the Dalai Lama. Han Chinese, of course, face no such restrictions. Tibetans are the Untouchables. Matt asks the scholar, Robert Barnett, about other restrictions:

There have been many. These include the Chinese government putting Communist Party cadres in every monastery, requiring every monastery to display pictures of Chairman Mao Zedong, putting troops on every corner of the Tibetan quarter in Lhasa, limiting foreign visitors to guided groups, having to give their names before photocopying, not being allowed to enter Lhasa without a police guarantee if they’re from another Tibetan area, and many more.

The strategy of pouring money into Tibet has failed to bring the Tibetan people to that stage of enlightenment wherein they view the Communist Party as liberators. It will never happen so long as the CCP tries to force its own culture down the Tibetans’ throats. Things have only deteriorated since the riots of the Spring of 2008, and no matter how thrilled the CCP propagandists say the Tibetans are with their liberation (and you gotta check that link), the truth is far darker. The Party can trumpet its generosity and label all protest as the work of the jackal the DL, but the fact remains that many Tibetans do not believe they have been liberated, and instead see the Han as colonizers. Is it that hard to wonder why?

Read the whole piece


Another day, another thread

Share links and talk about anything.

The topic that’s been on my mind lately (but which you are free to ignore) is what the recent uproar over censorship means for China. I read this in a Japanese newspaper and wondered if it’s really true:

BEIJING–In an apparent attempt to quell the uproar over censorship, Chinese leader Xi Jinping expressed displeasure toward the media control division and said he would not punish journalists who disobeyed its latest order, sources said.

Xi, general secretary of the Communist Party of China, appears to have given top priority to preventing the row from expanding further and threatening his new leadership installed in November.

Arguments for free speech erupted after the reform-oriented Southern Weekly based in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, was forced to rewrite its New Year edition before it was published on Jan. 3.

The propaganda department then instructed all major newspapers to toe the party line concerning the censorship of the Southern Weekly.

At a meeting in Zhongnanhai in Beijing on the night of Jan. 9, Xi, visibly displeased, asked if the media control division was not adding to confusion, sources familiar with the discussions said.

Are China’s leaders listening to the voice of the masses and backing down from censorship? Hard to believe. Can this story possibly be accurate?


SARS Ten Years Later

Incredibly enough, it’s now nearly ten years since SARS became an international crisis and turned much of China inside out. SARS affected my impressions of China more than any other issue and shaped the tone of this blog for years. Below are my recollections of this turbulent time.

Life and Death in Beijing in the Age of SARS

It was the winter of 2002 and I was having a difficult time in Beijing. I was wondering whether I wanted to live there at all. On my first night in my new apartment I lay down on the bed and it collapsed onto the floor with a crash. As it got colder my central heating only worked about half the time. Sometimes I slept in an overcoat. I had to send part of my salary back to the US to pay for my mortgage and soon learned the bank simply wouldn’t let me. The government wanted to keep all the renminbi in China. And I wasn’t quite prepared for the culture shock of rampant line-cutting, drivers who saw pedestrians as moving targets, questionable sanitation practices and worse.

I was eventually going to be enthralled with Beijing, but in the winter of 2002 all I felt was frustration, intensified by weather so brutally cold I could barely step outside. Everything was going wrong. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, my blog suddenly became inaccessible (along with all other Blogspot blogs; I could get in the back end to post, but I couldn’t see the blog.) I had started it several months earlier in Hong Kong and it had become an important part of my life, my one creative outlet. January marked the month that my blog posts became increasingly political. I was fed up with the censorship, the idiotically cheerful spin all stories received in the state-controlled media, the government’s obvious prevarications, the blatant propaganda that was always on the television. I let it all out on my blog. And now I couldn’t open it.

The day I first read about a strange new disease afflicting southern China there was record cold, and the wind sliced across my face as I walked from my apartment to the subway to work. It was mid-February of 2003. I had just taken off my heavy lambs-wool coat and turned on my PC when the story flashed across my screen: an unidentified disease was infecting people in Guangdong province. It was a respiratory infection and health workers had no idea what it was. More than 200 had been infected and five had died. It was a lead item on Yahoo News and there wasn’t much more information except that Chinese government officials were saying very little about it. No surprise there.

Southern China has long had a reputation of being a breadbasket for new diseases, in particular different strains of flu. As news of the infection spread over the weeks to come, some would hypothesize it was caused by people living in close proximity to animals. At Guangzhou’s notorious animal markets wild game and dogs and pigs are jammed into cages adjacent to one another. I had seen a news report about these markets and wondered how people could work amid such squalor. The report, on CNN, showed a young boy, maybe nine years old, wearing shorts and flip-flops, squatting in the slime that covered the floor. Who knew what kind of virus might mutate and spread from one animal to another, and finally to the men working the cages or to shoppers? No matter how it started, it appeared that once again the region had spawned an insidious new pathogen.

The story on my screen said the illness had started infecting people in November of 2002, and immediately I felt my blood pressure rise a notch. Nearly four months, and only now were we hearing of a potentially lethal situation. People’s lives were at stake and the government had been sitting on its hands. It brought up all my issues with how the Communist party operated, of how China’s leaders’ obsession with harmony trumped its concerns for its own people. Bad news was automatically repressed. The government always had to look good. (more…)


Chinese love, marriage and weddings

An excellent, exhaustive video on proposing, romance and weddings in China. (Yes, there’s a brief reference to my book.) If you intend to propose in China you’ll find this especially useful. Weddings are very big business in China, with 13 million couples expected to get married in 2013, and they pump tens of billions of dollars into the Chinese economy, from wedding gifts, makeup, wedding attire, flowers, etc. Most interesting is just how traditional Chinese weddings remain, despite ever-growing Western influence.

Update: Although not exactly related, I thought I’d point readers to a new article about my book in the newspaper I used to work for, The Global Times. Full page with photos, including a comment by me about censorship in China.


Han Horse

I went to a meeting of a local Chinese-American relations committee last night, and I briefly mentioned my book, specifically alluding to the careful documentation of the emperors’ sex lives during the Han Dynasty. As I finished, I noticed the Chinese man next to me scribbling with a pen on a paper napkin. “Han Dynasty,” he said to me, and handed me the napkin. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay for the end of the meeting and slipped out before I could ask him to explain it to me. In any case, the drawing was so beautiful I had to post it here. Remember, he created it in about three minutes. (Click to enlarge.)

This is another open thread and I’m closing the last one. Finally.


Guest Post: Charity with Chinese Characteristics

This is a guest post by our commenter Xilin.

Charity with Chinese Characteristics: Nourishing Africa’s Indigenous Culture?

The Amitofo Care Centre (ACC) is a charity working in association with a number of other organisations in Taiwan and South Africa. It was founded by Master Hui Li after he visited Africa in 1992 and witnessed firsthand the suffering caused by AIDs and the plight of the orphans it had left behind. Among other activities, the ACC has built and run a number of orphanages in Africa.

The following is taken from the ACC’s website:

The main principles of ACC are based on local African culture, Chinese culture and Buddhist philosophy which are given to the orphans in need. This is considered a unique and remarkable characteristic of ACC although it must be stressed that none of the orphans have taken refuge to Buddhism, as we respect their religious freedom and will allow them to choose their own religions as they enter adulthood.

Now here is a translation of a section from a speech given by Master Hui Li in Malaysia, the original of which is available here on the ACC website:

And we all deeply agree that the obvious benefits from the orphanages in the three countries of Malawi, Swaziland, and Lesotho, are that they have helped raise over three thousand orphans, and besides providing basic food, accommodation and education, have passed on Buddhism and Chinese culture to the children, allowing the bodhi seeds of Buddhism and the spiritual civilization of Chinese culture to shine in Africa. We look forward to raising a new generation of Africans, and lighting the heart light of benevolence, wisdom, the power of vow, and gratitude in them and then from this foundation we can start a virtuous circle and change the bitter fate of Africa’s needy, war, savagery and disease.

Giving details of the education and care of the children, the following is a translation of part of a newspaper article, the original of which is available here on the ACC website:

They receive a trilingual education here. Everyday, besides their mother tongue (Nyanja) and English, they also have two hours of Chinese classes. Master Huili himself teaches ‘Standards for being a Good Pupil and Child’ [弟子規] , ‘The Three Character Classic’ [三字經] [both Qing dynasty Confucian works], poems from the Tang and Song dynasties, and other Chinese culture. He wants to use ancient and broad Chinese culture to nourish Africa’s indigenous culture. He has even invited an wushu coach from China to pass on to the children orthodox Shaolin wushu in order to train the children’s bodies so that they all have strong physiques and vigorous spirits.

If you are interested in seeing the results of ACCs work in Africa, you can check out one of their videos on youtube. In it, you can see the children learning Chinese, meditating, reciting Buddhist scriptures, eating a vegetarian diet (which includes eggs and milk), using chopsticks and practicing Shaolin wushu.

Other videos online show the orphans performing at fundraising concerts in Taiwan. You can check them out if you want to see the children singing or doing Shaolin Wushu.

The ACC’s mission to help these orphans is commendable, but what of the cultural and religious elements of ACC’s work? Is it right, or even necessary, to try and ‘use Chinese culture to nourish Africa’s indigenous culture’ (‘中華文化去滋養非洲的本土文化’).

Finally, here is a translation of Master Hui Li’s own thoughts on what Chinese culture can offer the world:

And only by carrying forward Chinese culture can we bring genuine peace for humanity and for the world and get rid of the disasters of confrontation, division, and of all humanity set against each other, caused by five hundred years of white supremacist-lead European colonialism, might, and Euro-American pride, discrimination and plunder.

The translations above are all my own. If you have any questions about certain words or how I have translated them, please post a comment.


Mo Yan and his stories

A.E. Clark, the translator of one of my favorite contemporary Chinese novels, has written an essay about Mo Yan and his defense of himself in the light of attacks that he is not concerned enough with human rights in China or with the plight of his fellow Nobel winner Liu Xiaobo, about whom Mo has remained silent. In response to such criticism, Mo told three stories, each of which Clark translates and analyzes (they were translated By Howard Goldblatt).

I cannot urge you strongly enough to go to his site and read these translations and commentary. I can’t do justice to them in a blog post. I love the way Clark writes, and I stand in awe of his panoramic knowledge of China. Each of these stories (parables, really) is an attempt by Mo to put into perspective his reactions to the criticisms of him, but Clark sees them as telling us much more about Mo than the author intended.

The first story is about a young boy who, along with his classmates, is expected to cry when viewing “an exhibit of suffering” presumably during the Mao era. Clark explains:

This scene was not an uncommon one for its time. The “exhibit of suffering” (in ‘63 or ‘64) would have consisted of dioramas that showed landlords extracting rent from peasants, KMT officials lording it over the poor, and other scenes representative of life under the old regime. The exhibit might have included Japanese atrocities and perhaps even the depredations of the British during the Opium Wars. What is important – and what Mo Yan as a novelist would grasp perfectly even if this anecdote were not autobiographical – is how meaningless and bewildering the exhibit must have seemed to a bunch of eight-year-olds from a farming village…

The unnamed situation to which the scene is being compared is none other than the situation in which Mo Yan finds himself today. Now he is the boy who will not cry. In the weeks since the award’s announcement, he has been badgered about human rights by Western reporters, pressured to sign a petition on behalf of Liu Xiaobo, and invited to join in Western handwringing about Chinese censorship. He has refused. But with this story, he does more than refuse. He dismisses all these issues as fake indignation manufactured in the service of a conformist ideology. He doesn’t feel the distress or the outrage voiced by his critics and, crucially, he doesn’t think they do either (“the tears are only for show”). This is not as extraordinary a statement as it might appear. Apologists for the Communist Party of China often say that foreigners’ purported concern for human rights is a pretext for China-bashing. To put it personally: Mo Yan doesn’t care what happens to people like Liu Xiaobo, and he doesn’t believe you care either. To him, the clamor for rights is humbug and bullying like what he witnessed under Mao, and he asserts his right to stand aloof from it.

This is very powerful stuff. I am somewhat on the fence about Mo because I still haven’t read his works (I have one ordered) and I’ve read wildly contradictory opinions about him. One writer/translator I have huge respect for recently wrote an eloquent post about Mo’s constant criticisms of China’s government, its policies and its cruelties, and how he is anything but a government patsy. And that’s a matter of fact. But I see those as two separate issues. As scathing a critic of the government as he might be in his novels, might it not be possible that at the same time he functions as an apologist for the party? Are the two mutually exclusive? I find Clark’s arguments more than compelling.

I’m not offering a definitive answer. But reading Clark’s essay certainly made me think, especially his take on the third story (too long for me to paraphrase here). He concludes by asking why it even matters if Mo Yan is making apologies for the CCP.

It matters, finally, because – even if he never wanted this role – winning the most prestigious international prize moves Mo Yan to the forefront of China’s pursuit of soft power. The leadership is surely pleased that he dismisses as hypocritical nonsense the values underlying the defense of human rights against the State. We will hear more of this, from Mo Yan and others, and it won’t always be so subtle. That is not to say there will be no improvements in the area of human rights. Liu Xia has probably already been assigned better guards.

Again, please read the whole brief piece. Even if you disagree with Clark’s conclusions, his arguments are beautifully crafted and certainly thought provoking.