China Behind the Headline

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In only a few hours, word will come from Oslo and the world will know whether or not this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner is Chinese activist and author Liu Xiaobo, currently serving an eleven-year prison sentence for “subverting state authority.” Speculation about Liu’s odds has been running at a fever pitch this week, so much so that Irish bookmaker Paddy Power made an early payout to those who had put money on Liu by Tuesday. Authorities in Beijing, however, have made it clear that this is one international prize that China doesn’t want to win.

For more about Liu Xiaobo, his work, and his Nobel nomination, Jeff Wasserstrom interviewed Jean-Philippe Béja of the Paris-based Centre for International Studies and Research. Béja is author of A la recherche d’une ombre chinoise. Le mouvement pour la démocratie en Chine (1919-2004) and “The Massacre’s Long Shadow,” which appeared last year in the Journal of Democracy.

JW: What do you consider Liu Xiaobo’s most powerful essay? Or, to put it another way, if we were to direct our readers to one or two pieces that would give them a sense of his ideas and style of argument, what would they be?

JPB: I would certainly direct them to read “猪的哲学” (“The Philosophy of the Pig”), where he describes how the elites let themselves be bought by the regime after the Tiananmen massacre. It is a very lucid analysis of the social contract proposed by Deng Xiaoping after his Southern tour. Another one is the speech he gave when he received the prize of the 民主教育基金会 (Chinese Democracy Education Foundation), in which he emphasizes one of his most constant positions: by living in truth, it will be possible to change a regime which is based on lies. This is his most Havelian speech, which illustrates his deepest convictions. When many Chinese intellectuals were abandoning ethics in order to be “modern”, Liu Xiaobo always insisted on the value of ethics.

Finally, if your readers want to know more about the way he became the “black horse” of literary circles, they should read the article 危机 (“Crisis”) he published in the 深圳青年报 (Shenzhen Youth Daily) in 1986.

JW: Were you surprised when it became clear how seriously his candidacy for this prize was being taken?

JPB: Yes quite, because in the course of the years, I have noticed that Westerners very rarely understand the value of Chinese intellectuals. But, of course, Central and Eastern Europeans are different, because they have gone through a comparable experience. Václav Havel perfectly understands the situation of Liu Xiaobo, and he knows the courage which is required to stand up as he always did.

JW: Were you surprised that the Beijing government tried to get involved in the Nobel Prize process, or did this strike you as quite predictable, given the things China’s leaders have done in the past (like trying to keep Dai Qing from speaking at last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair)?

JPB: It did strike me as predictable. The Chinese leaders always blast the NGOs or the Western governments who comment on Chinese affairs, accusing them of “hurting the feelings” of 1.3 billion Chinese, but they seize all the opportunities to try and influence their partners on the international scene.

JW: Can you tell our readers something about Liu Xiaobo, as a political figure or simply as a person, since in a recent article in the Guardian you are described as one of his friends?

JPB: I admire Liu Xiaobo’s courage and determination. He is a very mild person, his analyses are always quite rational, and, for example, he has always refused to judge the political situation in function of his personal position. Let me explain. At the time he was followed everywhere by two or three plainclothes policemen, when they prevented him from leaving his home, even to buy food, he would acknowledge the progress that was accomplished, congratulating himself of the greater space for society to express its opinions. Personally, he likes discussions, he can be very tough and we often argued about how to analyse some political situations. But our disagreements never had any consequences on our friendship. Liu Xiaobo is a 东北人 (Northeasterner) and, despite his strong criticism of Chinese tradition, he has a deep sense of 义气 (loyalty).

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By Caroline Reeves

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are throwing a charity banquet in Beijing. On September 29th, the two American tycoons will host a dinner for China’s wealthiest magnates to convince them to give their monies away to charity. This event has caused a stir in the Chinese world. Everyone from movie stars to industry moguls is involved. Doonesbury is talking about it. Some billionaires have publicly declined to dine with the dynamic duo, wondering aloud if the event was planned to publicly part them from their new fortunes. Their response has called into question China’s “charitable impulse” and given rise to questions about China’s ability to “do philanthropy.”

Headlines in the international press have sharpened this controversy. The Financial Times“US Tycoons Take Philanthropy to Chinese Peers” [editor’s note: the headline has since been changed to “Buffett and Gates on Chinese mission”]; the Global Times“Uncaring rich may stifle Buffett-Gates”; or the NYT’s “Chinese Attitudes Towards Generosity are Tested” portray the visit as an American effort to bring an enlightened stance on giving to a nation of billionaires badly in need of tutelage.

Though Gates’ and Buffett’s efforts are certainly well meaning, in fact the Chinese do not need Americans to teach them about philanthropy. China has a centuries-old tradition of charitable work, funding education, cleaning up after natural disasters, and helping the poor and elderly. My own work on the Chinese Red Cross Society, founded in 1904 by dedicated Chinese philanthropists—the billionaires of the age—shows that the Chinese have been engaged in these kinds of activities, as well as feeding the hungry, clothing the destitute, caring for the sick and burying the dead, through well articulated networks of charitable giving long before America was even born. A growing literature on China’s charitable traditions (Joanna Handlin Smith on the late Ming, Nara Dillon and Jean Oi on the 1930s and 40s, Vivienne Shue in the contemporary period (see Stanley Katz’s Philanthropy in the World’s Traditions)) confirms these findings, and the topic has rightly become a hot one in academic circles. While Mao’s Communist experiment did indeed interrupt the normal course of Chinese philanthropy for five or six decades, this hiatus is trivial in light of the five or six centuries that China’s wealthy have been caring for their poor in China and beyond.

In recent newspaper articles, references to the Great American Philanthropic Past are rife. Gates and Buffett are called the Rockefeller and Carnegie of the age (NYT). But China’s history of philanthropy is either misrepresented or reduced to the last twenty years, a period hardly representative of China’s past. Rupert Hoogewerf, an expert on China’s wealthy, is also cited as an expert on China’s philanthropic traditions. He seems to be sadly misinformed, however. Hoogewerf is quoted as trumpeting worn and baseless assertions about Chinese philanthropy, the same ones this author has heard from other Western mouths:

“The Chinese have been very generous for a long period of time,” Rupert Hoogewerf, who publishes the Hurun Report, said by telephone. “The difference has been that they do it between families, and don’t publicize it. What we’re seeing now is a new era of transparency.” (NYT)

Here Hoogewerf—who elsewhere has characterized Western philanthropy as “pure” and Chinese philanthropy as its opposite (FT)—falls prey to a stereotyped vision of China’s charitable activity promoted by EuroAmerican missionaries at the turn of the twentieth century. These missionaries, anxious to legitimate the social gospel they were preaching to the Chinese, coined these characterizations to highlight the importance of their own work in China, ignoring the indigenous activities occurring all around them. Later social reformers and well-meaning Americans—such as the head of the American Red Cross in China during the 1910s and 20s—perpetuated these cultural myths to underscore China’s need for Western (particularly American) social and political interventions.

In fact, China’s philanthropists in the pre-Communist period confronted some of the largest natural and manmade disasters in the world with generosity and remarkable initiative. They gave to strangers across their large country—for example, Shanghai capitalists donating for refugee repatriation from Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905—publicly and proudly, with newspapers heralding their work and keeping public records of donations. They donated to San Francisco Fire victims in 1906 and to the victims of the Tokyo earthquake of 1923. This is hardly the clannish and secretive philanthropy suggested by some Western “experts.”

Many Chinese are themselves not aware of their own philanthropic past, including Chinese film star Jet Li, who (according to AFP) called China “a newcomer to the charity business.” The article quotes him: “‘China’s real development has only happened in the past 10 years,’ [Li] said, adding the United States had 100 years of experience in philanthropy.” Li apparently made this speech just as he was being named a Goodwill Ambassador of the International Committee of the Red Cross, whose Chinese affiliate has operated for over 105 years.

Despite the New York Times’ dismissal of the importance of situating contemporary Chinese philanthropy within China’s own tradition (“Academics grumble…about efforts to impose Western philanthropic values on Chinese tradition,” writes journalist Michael Wines), Buffet’s and Gate’s “crusade for converts” might well be viewed as another instance of US finger-wagging or even cultural imperialism by China’s nationalistic citizenry. China’s nouveau riche are no more in need of shaming to part with their newfound wealth than any other nouveau riche around the globe. I agree with Harvey Dzodin’s view that Gates and Buffett would be better off inviting Chinese tax officials to dinner (Global Times), and discussing with them tax incentives to encourage Chinese giving. Through that tactic, the American team might encourage the kind of state-private cooperation in charitable work that worked so well in pre-Maoist China. In light of the recent revelation of Bono’s well known ONE Foundation’s misadventures, Bill and Warren’s excellent adventure might not seem so excellent after all.

Caroline Reeves is Assistant Professor of History at Emmanuel College. She has previously written for The China Beat on the history of the Chinese Red Cross (Part 1, Part 2). For more on the Chinese philanthropic tradition, see Joanna Handlin Smith, The Art of Doing Good: Charity in Late Ming China; Nara Dillon and Jean Oi (editors), At the Crossroads of Empires: Middlemen, Social Networks, and State-building in Republican Shanghai; Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley, Tears from Iron: Cultural Responses to Famine in Nineteenth-Century China (and her China Beat essay on responses to the Sichuan earthquake); and Vivienne Shue’s essay in Stanley Katz, Philanthropy in the World’s Traditions.

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Nicole Barnes, a graduate student in the Department of History at UC Irvine, is currently conducting research in Chongqing. Here, she shares her thoughts on the Chinese media’s treatment of the Qinghai earthquake; see “I want to grow up to be a volunteer,” a guest post by Katrina Hamlin at Alec Ash’s blog, Six, for more reflections on the earthquake and youth involvement in relief efforts.

By Nicole Barnes

As the Qinghai earthquake turns into yesterday’s news overseas and begins to sink into the sea of usual economic stories here in China, I would like to reflect upon the position of 10-year-old volunteer Tsering Dan Zhou in earthquake media.

News coverage of the earthquake here in China is impressive in many ways. The programs convey the information that everyone desires, but are also clearly designed to incite sympathy and get people to dig into their wallets for donations to the Chinese Red Cross and other relief agencies. They also pointedly emphasize “social harmony” (shehui hexie 社会和谐, Hu Jintao’s favorite slogan that is a much-repeated mantra throughout the country) between the Tibetan Chinese majority of Yushu county (which, as Robert Barnett pointed out here, is a Tibetan region) and the local Han Chinese. They frequently feature 10-year-old Tsering Dan Zhou, who volunteered as translator for many of his fellow Tibetan-speaking patients who could not otherwise communicate with the Chinese-speaking doctors.

Tsering Dan Zhou

Tsering Dan Zhou and an aid worker

His heroism has been celebrated on many a news program, and he also mounted the stage in a special ceremony to give a tearful and very moving speech of gratitude to all the Chinese people who had come to Yushu to help the earthquake victims. Another Central Chinese Television news program featured a reporter entering one of the canvas tents supplied as temporary housing to four different families, asking the occupants their ethnicity (both Han and Tibetan) and whether or not they shared food and fun with their fellow tent-mates. Their positive responses prompted him to emphasize the “good relations” between the locals.

Doubtless such situations exist, and it is a good thing to point them out. However, this story of ethnic harmony is the only story that is being told. As Bruce Humes pointed out here, comments about anti-Han tensions have been taken out of news commentary.

Such television coverage proffers an unmistakable message of Han charity and good spirit, which is duly appreciated by the “good child” Tibetan who is moved to tears of gratitude. The imagery of the child is significant. As one of my neighbors here in Chongqing said to me, the government looks upon the minorities as children who need both to be well cared for, and also to learn to appreciate the parents’ hard work and sacrifices made on their behalf. In this context, Tsering Dan Zhou is both a heroic young volunteer who deserves to be recognized, and a fortuitous (for the Party) poster child of the Yushu earthquake who is being manipulated by the media. You can see a Chinese-language news feature of him on Sohu’s website.

Yet there is another truth to this situation. Despite some criticism of China’s relief response, thousands of volunteers have gone from sea level to over 11,000 feet to dig people out of the rubble. Many of them had to seek medical assistance when altitude sickness got the best of them, and went back to work after only a short rest. Certainly when compared with the Bush Administration’s tepid response to my own country’s largest natural disaster of recent times, Hurricane Katrina, China’s relief response was extremely rapid, given the remote location of the earthquake zone from most of the country’s population centers. Canvas tents, emergency food supplies, medical supplies, trained rescue workers, and health professionals have been sent from practically every province. Volunteers have gathered donations from citizens on the streets and in shopping plazas all around the country. It takes a massive amount of resource to muster such a relief program, which is much more readily available in a huge nation of 1.3 billion people than it would be if, say, Qinghai province were its own nation. So despite media manipulations, there is still room for gratitude toward the Chinese people, and even for reflection on the advantages of membership in a nation with such a long history of emergency relief and charity (which you can also read about on China Beat,in posts collected at point #8 on this page). As in all situations, there is no single truth about the Yushu earthquake.

Previous pieces by Nicole Barnes for China Beat include a review of Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem and an interview with Antonia Finnane.

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In mid-December, Financial Times published a piece about China’s south-north water diversion project. Writer Jamil Anderlini begins the article with a brief description of the project:

“[The government] told us they were moving us to new lands to become rich and prosperous but they’ve thrown us into a fire pit,” sobs Ms Li. “The new land and houses are worthless and our lives there are so bitter.”

The peasant farmer is among the first batch of 440,000 people who will be uprooted to make way for the reservoir and a canal that will carry water from the Yangtze river and its tributaries in the south of China to the arid northern plains and Beijing.

This project, with its echoes of Maoist megalomania, does not fit easily with modern China, where Beijing is making concerted efforts to clean up its tormented environment and foster its own green revolution.

Ken Pomeranz, who has been studying and writing about China’s water control and conservation efforts, wrote the following response to the article.

By Ken Pomeranz

The Financial Times article points to very real problems with the south-north water diversion scheme – and there are others besides. But at the same time, the article is quite one-sided (one would never know, for instance, that Chinese water use in agriculture has already declined close to 20 percent since the 1980s, while production has increased a bit), and it misses the reasons why people who are by no means crazy might think this is an idea worth trying. (I have written on issues related to this project – especially the Western leg of the plan, which is its most ambitious and controversial part – at much greater length elsewhere: an easily accessed version is “The Great Himalayan Watershed: Water Shortages, Mega-Projects and Environmental Politics in China, India, and Southeast Asia” in Asia Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, July 27, 2009.)

On the negative side, it is not at all clear that the Yangzi basin can actually spare the 47 billion gallons per year that would be diverted under the complete version of the plan – particularly since climate change is likely to drastically shrink the Himalayan glaciers that are one important source for the Yangzi. And if the plan decreases the rate of flow in the river, and in some of its principal tributaries – the Han River is a particular point of concern — it will decrease those rivers’ capacity to flush out their pollutants. And the problems of displacing people are certainly real enough.

Moreover, technically speaking, the project is almost certainly inefficient. Its estimated price tag is $65 billion (though less if the Western leg never gets built, as some people, not including me, predict). If you put that much money into fixing leaky faucets, lining irrigation ditches, and improving basic waste-water treatment (allowing more water to be re-used), you would almost certainly do more to relieve pressure on North China’s water supply than the diversion will do. But there are serious obstacles to these solutions. It is not at all clear that Beijing has the capacity to monitor the implementation of such a low-tech, decentralized solution – in other words, to make sure millions of faucets and pipes and so forth get fixed, and, more importantly, stay fixed. If you wanted to make sure that water conservation became and remained a priority in the countryside – which is where something on the order of 80 percent of water use (and an even higher percentage of water waste) occurs, you would need to raise prices dramatically – one recent study (by Scott Rozelle et.al.) suggest that a price hike of 150 percent would be needed to even make a dent in the problem. (You would also need to build a lot of infrastructure – among other things, in much of rural North China, water meters simply don’t exist)

What would such a price hike mean? Almost certainly, a significant reduction in North and Northwest China’s agricultural production – beginning with the winter wheat crop, which is almost entirely dependent on irrigation, and with cotton production. This would mean significantly greater agricultural imports – which China could certainly afford, from a foreign exchange perspective, but which makes officials nervous, both for geo-strategic reasons and because the responses of other countries to possible global food price increases are unpredictable. But probably even more important than these factors would be the social effects. For millions of farmers whose incomes already lag far behind those of urbanites, and whose profit margins are often very thin, more expensive water might well push them off the land and towards the cities –at least seasonally (the end of winter wheat production would mean very high seasonal unemployment) and in many cases permanently. Given the already daunting challenges posed by very rapid urbanization in China, it is not at all clear that one would want to make the process even more rapid. Nor is it clear that one wants to make those who would stay behind in the North China countryside even poorer, as this would certainly do.

So while the water diversion scheme carries enormous risks, and is certainly very far from the optimal solution, it may, by default, become a bad idea whose time has come. It’s not, I think, that people in the government don’t realize that controlling demand (and pollution) may be more promising than increasing supply, or that they aren’t trying to do those things, or that those who support the water diversion scheme are indulging in nostalgia for Maoist gigantism. The real point is that its not at all clear that efficiency gains can be realized fast enough to keep North China, which has about 6 percent of the global average per capita water supply, from facing a devastating water crunch – especially if its people are to see their living standards improve. (Remember, for instance, that even a small increase in the amount of meat people consume increases water demand very sharply.) The project may well be too much of an environmental gamble to undertake, at least in its full-blown form; I lean towards that position myself. But it is a response to very real dilemmas: when the Financial Times article calls it a “pharoanic gesture,” and treats it simply as an anachronistic and brutal act of a government completely heedless of its people, it distorts a much more complicated reality.

This essay was originally presented at New Media and Global Transformations, a conference that took place at Columbia University on October 9, 2009. It has been adapted for China Beat.

By Guobin Yang

An Uncanny Story[1]

On July 16, 2009, an anonymous internet user in a popular Baidu discussion forum posted a message titled “Jia Junpeng, your mother wants you to go home to eat.” The message has only twelve Chinese characters in its title and has no other content. Yet it got 3,000 responses within five hours, responses that range from the routine socializing type (“Support!” “Interesting!”) to the funny and sarcastic (“I am not going to eat at home today. I’m eating in the Internet bar. Please pass on my message to my mom.”). Within one day, it received seven million hits and 300,000 comments. Large portal sites like sina.com, netease.com, people.com and newspapers like Southern Metropolis began to cover it, adding to its popularity. A cryptic posting was thus turned into a national media event. Jia Junpeng became a household word in Chinese cyberspace overnight.

No one knows who posted the message or who the Jia Junpeng in the message is. In their responses, many people doubted whether the Jia Junfeng in the posting refers to a real person. The name might just have been made up by whoever posted the message.

As people were puzzling over this bizarre phenomenon, two new developments happened. First, several business firms claimed that the Jia Junpeng event was the product of their online marketing.  The CEO of a new media firm, for example, alleged in early August that the entire event had been created by his firm. He claimed that his firm had hired over 800 marketing personnel, who then registered over 20,000 user IDs to post responses to that cryptic sentence, thus turning it into a national media event. None of these firms has released evidence to prove their claim. It is possible that their real marketing strategy is to try to get some share of the media limelight by making a sensational claim. Even if these claims are unsubstantiated, however, they do suggest that it is possible to manipulate or manufacture public sentiments in cyberspace.

The story does not end here. Just one day before the Jia Junpeng message appeared, a blogger by the name of Guo Baofeng was detained by local police in the town of Mawei in Fujian province. Guo Baofeng was accused of using his blog to spread rumors about local police. At the police station, he secretly sent a text-message asking for urgent help: “I have been arrested by Mawei police. SOS.” Upon receiving this message, his friends started campaigning for his release. Inspired by the Jia Junpeng posting, one well-known blogger called on people to send postcards with the phrase “Guo Baofeng, your mother wants you to go home to eat” to the police station where Guo was detained. The address of the police station was posted online. This created a “postcard movement.” Some well-known names in the Chinese blogosphere began sending postcards to Guo Baofeng through the post office (whether they reached Guo is another matter). Similar messages were posted in online forums. Although it is not clear how much this postcard movement might have helped, Guo Baofeng was soon released.

It is mind-boggling that such an innocuous short sentence could generate so much interest and then was appropriated in rather surprising ways. What does it tell us about new media and social transformation in China?

I think the main message is that in China today, the internet can always be appropriated by users for their own purposes, however closely it is monitored or controlled. Much more than the newspaper and television, the internet depends on user participation. Bulletin boards, blogs, video web sites, social networking sites all depend on users to contribute content if they are to survive. As long as this feature does not change, internet users can always make creative or subversive use of it.

Why do people appropriate the Internet?

The Jia Junpeng case shows that there are both general and specific reasons that users appropriate the Internet. At a general level, their appropriation of Internet forums and spaces is a reflection of social sentiments. Chinese commentators point to the sense of alienation and isolation in contemporary life. Many responses to the Jia Junpeng posting express feelings of boredom. One post says, for example, “What I am posting is not a post. I am posting loneliness.” Other social sentiments, such as nationalism, patriotism, and anger with corrupt officials have also electrified Chinese cyberspace from time to time.

Specific reasons for appropriating the internet vary a great deal. In the Jia Junpeng case, Chinese observers have remarked that it was at least partly an outpouring of frustration by members of that particular online forum. The forum is set up for players of the popular game World of Warcraft. At that time, the parent company of World of Warcraft, Blizzard Entertainment, had just selected netease.com as its new China representative. In preparing to launch the game, however, netease.com had encountered difficulties in obtaining a license. On June 30, 2009, Netease issued a public statement apologizing to consumers for the delay in launching the game. This was frustrating to the members of the forum. Thus, the Jia Junpeng posting became an occasion for expressing their frustration. This would seem to suggest a kind of consumer activism – people appropriated the Jia Junpeng message to express their dissatisfaction as consumers of a popular internet game.

Users also appropriate the Internet for political purposes. This is what happened when the Jia Junpeng phrase was later used by Chinese bloggers to call for the release of activist-blogger Guo Baofeng. At that point, an innocuous and cryptic phrase turned into a potent political slogan.

It is well known that the Internet is closely monitored and controlled in China. How can people use it for subversive purposes?

The issue is not simply a matter of citizen expression versus state control, or freedom versus repression, though these are of central importance. Even during more controlled periods such as the Cultural Revolution, there were what Tang Tsou calls “zones of indifference” which state power did not try to penetrate or control. In some ways, cyberspace is easier to control. A vast online community, for example, may be monitored from a small central control office. Entire networks can be shut down. Yet this does not mean Chinese cyberspace does not have its own “zones of indifference.” Gaming communities, like the one where the Jia Junpeng case happened, are less of a concern for state authorities than online forums on current affairs. In Chinese cyberspace there are also issues of indifference to the state – everyday-life issues that do not touch on the state’s central nerve systems. The Jia Junpeng posting is such an issue (if it is an issue at all). Yet as often happens in Chinese politics, it is through these zones and issues of indifference that people begin to make difference. There exists only a thin line between matters of indifference and difference.

Moving beyond the state-society framework, we will also need to look at the multiple dimensions of the Internet – its economics, culture, society, as well as politics. The government is not the only player in this game. There are other players as well, especially commerce and community. Internet businesses have a vested interest in encouraging user participation. Online communities are an essential component of all major commercial web sites, because they help to build a user base and attract web traffic. Commercial and social forces thus provide favorable conditions for user participation.

Why are some internet postings transformed into major media events, while numerous others attract no attention at all?

Here the Jia Junpeng message poses the ultimate challenge. Does it make sense that such an apparently pointless phrase should instantly go viral in Chinese cyperspace? On the internet in the US, for example on YouTube, there are also postings or videos that occasionally go viral. Although analysts have puzzled over such phenomena and business firms have picked up the concept of viral marketing, no one knows yet why, when, and how a YouTube video or internet posting will go viral.

It seems to me that Internet postings become popular and are widely circulated for the same reasons that folk sayings, folk songs, legendary tales, rumors, or even forbidden books have always been circulated. These popular cultural forms often enjoy no official support. In fact, state authorities often try to suppress them. And yet they have always managed to find their way into society and enjoy wide if sometimes surreptitious circulation.

The reasons are more social than technological. After all, folk sayings and rumors, which are traditionally among the fastest to spread, are low-tech cultural forms. They circulated by word of mouth or relied on primitive media forms (such as hand-copied manuscripts during China’s Cultural Revolution).

Most cases of popular Internet incidents in China, like the Jia Junpeng case, are fairly low-tech by the standards of rapidly developing digital technologies. They happen mostly in online bulletin board systems. People occasionally use cell phones to post messages in online forums. There are sometimes postings of digital images. But most interaction consists of text-based BBS postings. BBS is a dated form of network service in the US, but in China it is still a major platform for online interaction. Blogs and social networking sites are catching up, but their influence still pales in comparison with BBS. The main reason for the sustained popularity of BBS in China is history and culture. Generations of Chinese Internet users, whether they are high school students, college students, or urban professionals, started with BBS when they first went online. As a result, there has formed a rich and dynamic culture of BBS that encourages participation. There is even a form of competitive participation as people try to outdo one another in their jokes.

Another social factor that helps to explain why some postings go viral is the issue under discussion. The Jia Junpeng case is exceptional in the sense that the original posting did not have a clear issue (only the forum members knew they were angry with the delayed launch of their favorite game) and it was in the middle of interaction that people attached issues to it. In less exceptional but equally popular cases, the issues usually resonate with the public. They are often emotionally stirring. They typically concern blatant violations of law and the norms of social morality, such as corruption or violence inflicted on the poor and the vulnerable the rich and powerful. Cases like the death of Sun Zhigang in 2003 or the abduction of teenagers into slave labor in 2007 immediately come to mind. These and other similar cases pressured government authorities to take action after provoking public uproar.

Finally, one must not underestimate the power of play in online interaction. Play is a social act, an essential ingredient for community. Many responses to the Jia Junpeng message are sexual jokes, jokes about family life, workplace relations, school life, and so on. People compete to see who is funnier. Such playfulness is typical of Chinese Internet culture in general – recall how Chinese netizens have recently played with the Grass-Mud Horse or the Green Dam Girl. There is evidently also abundant play in the case of Jia Junpeng and the postcard movement.

Play is also a creative act. The social history of the Chinese Internet in the past ten years is a history of play. Indeed, it is a history of growing playfulness. In content, design, and style, today’s web sites in China are a world apart from those in the late 1990s. In the early 1990s, when Chinese students overseas began to run Internet magazines, those magazines did not look very different from the print magazines they had been familiar with. Today, it is hard to imagine how many different forms Internet publications have morphed into. When personal homepages were in fashion in the late 1990s, people were publishing their personal diary entries, a predecessor of today’s blogs. Yet even a cursory comparison will show how much more playful today’s blogs are compared with the web diaries in the “primitive” days of the Internet. And of course, for those who do not often go online, Chinese Internet culture presents a different kind of challenge – there is a whole new language that netizens have invented in the process of play, a language that makes little sense to those who do not partake in the play. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the main features of Chinese Internet culture today are the products of a history of play.

All this is to say that the seemingly curious case of Jia Junpeng is not so curious after all. A pointless phrase does not go viral in cyberspace for no reason. I am not saying, though, that the circulation of an Internet posting is the same as that of a rumor or folk saying in earlier times. The Internet differs in one crucial aspect. It changes the speed and scale of communication. When large-scale communication happens rapidly, the speed of social transformation quickens and the frequency of transformative events increases dramatically. Consequently, it creates a more acute sense of immediacy and urgency in our consciousness of current affairs.

This has both positive and negative consequences for political action and critical analysis. This sense of urgency demands immediate action against violations of law, morality, and our sense of social justice. It demands instant results. This is of vital importance. Yet I also wonder at times whether this sense of urgency and immediacy, by fanning our desire for instant results, may not be guilty of creating a sort of myopia. By focusing our attention on the possibilities and prospects of overnight transformation, it makes us forget that the seeds of dramatic institutional transformation are often planted in the small changes in everyday life.  Such a myopic view little aids our efforts to gain a more sophisticated and historical understanding of the complexities, multiple zones, and  uncanniness of Chinese Internet culture and politics.

Yang Guobin is an Associate Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures at Barnard College.  He is the author of the recently published book, The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online.


[1] Author’s note: For the use of the term “uncanny,” I am indebted to Lydia Liu, “The Freudian Robot: The Figure of the Uncanny in New Media.” Talk at the conference on “New Media and Global Transformation” on October 9, 2009, Columbia University.

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