June 2008

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In early May, we published the first installment of our feature, “China Around the World.” We asked scholars, journalists, and graduate students working outside China and the US to reflect on Chinese media and coverage of China. This reflection on the implications of Hu Jintao’s recent visit to the People’s Daily newsroom is from Nicolai Volland, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chinese Studies at the National University of Singapore.

By Nicolai Volland

One June 20, Hu Jintao paid a high profile visit to the People’s Daily. His foray to the editorial offices of the CCP mouthpiece was first announced in the form of what turned out to be all but a Hoax: “General Secretary Hu chats with Chinese netizens!” The news spread like a wildfire, but surfers who rushed to the People’s Daily’s “Strong Nation Forum” found themselves barred from entering. Disappointed, they vented their anger in the freely accessible Tianya forum.

As it turned out, they may have missed little. Sitting in the offices of the People’s Daily, “Boss Hu” (Hu zong – the slightly irreverent way Chinese netizens refer to Hu is, ironically, a consequence of Hu’s name being blocked by most online forums) looked at a screen and was read three questions asked by what presumably were loyal and prescreened users of the forum. All questions were harmless (“Mr. General-Secretary, what do you read on the web?” “Mr. General-Secretary, do you review many suggestions and proposals from netizens on the web?”). Hu answered to one of the forum’s editors, who keyed in the general secretary’s answers. Then the “chat” was over and Hu rushed on to other business – his real business.

It turned out that Hu Jintao’s June 20 visit to the People’s Daily was not accidental, and the “chat” was but a deft move to raise the publicity of his visit. So much has become clear in the following days, when the Chinese media began to roll out a massive campaign relaying the importance of Hu’s visit, with the People’s Daily itself spearheading the movement. Hu Jintao used his visit to the offices of the paper to deliver a short but carefully planned speech to the newspaper’s assembled staff; in fact, his target audience were not the several hundred employees of the Central Committee organ, but rather the three millions employees across China’s vast media sector in general. Hailed as a “programmatic document” by the Central Propaganda Department, Hu’s speech in fact sets out the rules for the Chinese media not only for the upcoming Olympics, but in fact for years to come.

Hu’s visit and the high profile attached to it is not without precedent. For more than half a century, CCP top leaders have made it a tradition to visit the Party press and, in the course of “chats” with editors and journalists, to outline the Party’s policy towards the media. In April 1948, Chairman Mao visited Jin-Sui Daily, one of the CCP’s wartime papers. His “Talk with Editors at Jin-Sui Daily” was included in volume four of Mao’s Selected Works and has since been a cornerstone of CCP press theory.

In 1956, Liu Shaoqi held two meetings with journalists at the Xinhua news agency in which he signaled a significant relaxation on the ideological front that became known as the “Hundred Flowers” policy. Xinhua staff should not dogmatically copy the Soviet TASS agency, said Liu, but also see what might be learned from the news agencies in capitalist countries (Liu’s remarks were quoted by radicals from Beijing media units during the Cultural Revolution and were taken as evidence of Liu’s “crimes”).

In 1985, then general secretary Hu Yaobang paid a similar visit to People’s Daily, as did Jiang Zemin in 1996 (thanks to Alice Lyman Miller for the references to the visits of Hu and Jiang). Jiang’s speech was given wide publicity, especially his attempts to balance the media’s function as loyal mouthpieces of the Party with their emerging role in “public opinion supervision” (yulun jiandu) through means such as investigative journalism. It is thus obvious that Hu tries to place himself within a long tradition of making major announcements of media policy through visits to the Party’s top media. So what are we to expect from the Chinese media in the coming years? A closer reading of Hu’s June 20 speech tells us much about core points of the CCP’s media policy in the twenty-first century.

First of all, what makes Hu’s speech interesting are his acknowledgement of new developments in the Chinese media industry. In particular, Hu mentions the popular urban dailies (dushibao, such as Nanfang dushibao, the cutting edge investigative paper from Guangzhou) and the Internet as crucially important new components of the Chinese media landscape. The rise of a popular press appealing to readers’ tastes in a competitive market is probably the biggest change in the decade since Jiang Zemin reiterated the importance of the Party papers. Hu elevates the product of the Party’s media reforms and the commercialization of the press sector and gives them legitimacy within the Party-dominated public sphere. In a similar vein, the electronic and web-based media are now officially incorporated into the CCP’s media theory – as demonstrated by Hu’s “chat” with surfers at the Strong Nation Forum.

However, Hu Jintao is quick to balance the newly emerging media and their counterpart, the Party press, and lay down an authoritative definition of the respective roles of the two media types: “With the Party papers and broadcasting stations as the mainstay…” – the commercial papers are supplementing the role of the Party press, but are by no means supposed to replace the latter. In fact, the urban dailies and the web-based media are what the Party press is to the CCP: “propaganda resources” (xuanchuan ziyuan). Hu Jintao acknowledges the existence of a “multi-layered public opinion” and the need to take all these layers into account in the Party’s propaganda work. That seems to be evidence for a more sophisticated and flexible approach to thought work and propaganda.

Propaganda, however, is the core theme of Hu’s speech, and it remains the defining framework for the Chinese press of the 21st century. The overall parameters have changed remarkably little, and in these respects Hu’s speech closely follows Jiang’s 1996 address. Indeed, in the very first paragraph, Hu speaks of the “news front” (xinwen zhanxian), a term that is decades old; the militaristic vocabulary harks back to the CCP’s perception of the media as a weapon in its struggle for power. Of all the media principles that Hu consequently invokes, the first and most prominent is partiinost (dangxing), a Soviet concept that has been the core of the CCP’s approach to the media since the 1930s. Its reiteration in the current context is a clear signal that the basic line remains what it has been: the press – no matter Party press or other media – must unwaveringly follow the line of the Party center.

The third and fourth paragraphs of Hu’s speech in particular are outright cold war rhetoric. Hu declares that “News and public opinion are at the forefront of the ideological field,” and in the next paragraph he explains that China finds itself amidst an intensifying ideological conflict with the West (“…the struggle in the field of news and public opinion is getting more intense and more complicated”). The means of this struggle may be changing, but not its nature. China’s ideological conflict with the West remains as acute as ever in the eyes of the CCP’s top leader. These are the external factors that determine the Party’s use of the media. In his explanations on partiinost, Hu says that “correct guidance of public opinion benefits the Party, the nation, and the people”; incorrect guidance, in turn, is prone to bring disaster: the CCP has learned its lesson from the democracy movement in 1989 and from the breakup of the Soviet Union. The CCP is not going to let it happen in China.

A crucial measure to ensure that the Party stays in control of the media is journalism education. Again, Hu takes his cue from Jiang Zemin, who had stressed the same point in 1996. As the gatekeepers in the media field (there is no pre-publication censorship in the PRC, so journalists and editors are responsible to judge what goes and what not), journalists will be carefully watched; their ranks may be weeded from time to time, to ensure that they stick to the role the Party has assigned to them. Over the last years, the CCP has driven an aggressive push to standardize registration and examination of prospective and practicing journalists, and in light of Hu’s speech, more of the same may be in the offing.

In the run-up to the Olympic Games, the Chinese media have been in the headlines repeatedly. On the one hand, the Party has cracked down across the board, discouraging expressions of dissent before and during the Olympics. In particular, publications that have existed for many years in the cracks of the Party-state, such as the popular English-language magazine That’s Beijing have been ordered to shut down or have seen takeovers by their Chinese joint venture partners. Experiments with new media forms are clearly not encouraged.

On the other hand, much has been written about the surprisingly swift and broad coverage of the Wenchuan earthquake, when the Chinese media ignored an early ban on reporting and went into a nearly round-the-clock coverage of events, while Xinhua and the other paragons of the state media stood by. An emancipation of the Chinese press? Less so in Hu Jintao’s eyes. The upsurge in earthquake reporting was quickly brought under control and was superseded by massive mainstream propaganda that focused on the heroic rescue efforts of the PLA and the national Party leadership. Controversial topics such as construction problems at school building that collapsed and corruption were quickly suppressed. Well done: Hu Jintao congratulated the People’s Daily staff on their extraordinary achievements during four major news events earlier this year: the winter storms that brought traffic to a collapse in much of Southern China, the struggle to “protect social stability in Tibet,” the preparation of the Olympics, and finally, the Wenchuan earthquake.

No fear of media openness, then; the CCP has demonstrated its ability to open up temporarily but quickly rein in the media once a return to its close control of the media was deemed desirable. Overall, both Party media and their more popular counterparts have played their role within the Party’s concert on the “news and propaganda battle front” remarkably well. In his speech Hu Jintao, or “Boss Hu,” as the surfers at Tianya called him, has summed up from the theoretical vantage point the experiences of the past decade, and has staked out the direction for the next years: be open to the new, but only once it is effectively co-opted and integrated into the Party’s existing framework of governance.

China Beat occasionally reposts material that contributors have prepared and published in other venues. Below, Yong Chen has provided the transcript of an interview with a Brazilian paper.

By Yong Chen

The recent earthquake in Sichuan Province that devastated Wenchuan and the surrounding areas has generated much sympathy from people all over the world. They are also concerned about the broader impact on China, especially its economy and the upcoming Olympic games. Recently, I was recently interviewed by Correio Braziliense, the most important and influential in Brasilia. The interview questions exemplify such concerns and the global attention to China’s future development.

Q: Your nation is recovering from a big earthquake and is still under polemics about Tibet protests. What kind of economical impact will the earthquake have on the Olympic Games? Does there exist the risk of China not be able to be ready to host Olympic Games this year? Why?

A: China will be ready for the Olympics. There is no question about it. The earthquake is undoubtedly devastating, especially for the local residents and enterprises in the damaged areas. And economically, it will have some impact on the national economy. According to Chinese official figures, about 14,207 enterprises were affected, and the direct economic loss would be around 67 billion Chinese dollars. The indirect cost will be much, much higher. Experts estimate that China’s GDP growth rate will be reduced by .5%. Overall, however, the Chinese economy remains strong.

There are weakening sectors, such as the financial and real estate industries, which had shown signs of weakness even before the earthquake; but I have seen an indication that the growth trend will be reversed or even significantly slowed down. Moreover, investors have not lost confidence in China, which is evidenced by the continued growth of China’s enormous foreign currency reserves in the aftermath of the earthquake (such growth does not result from a corresponding growth of exports, as is shown by China’s trade figure in the first quarter of 2008).

As devastating and disastrous as the earthquake has been, it has also increased the sense of solidarity among the Chinese, socially and politically. As a nation, the Chinese are more determined than before to be successful in conducting the 2008 Olympic Games.

Furthermore, the earthquake gives the Chinese, including the government, more experience in dealing with unexpected events. Finally, it also eased the recent tension between China and some Western media organizations. I have do doubt that cities and villages in the earthquake will rise again from the ruins of the earthquake. As a nation, China is ready the Olympic games.

Q: How much money is China government investing in the event?

A: They spent a lot of money for sure. I do not think anyone could put a precise figure on such investments. I cannot, for sure. This is in part because of the money spent was directly related to the event; others are more indirect, including the cost of improving the roads, relocating some f the major polluting factories. The important thing is that China can afford to spend the money – as much as it requires to have a successful 2008 Olympic Games; and it also has the organizational capacities to do it at this moment.

China had tried to bid to host the 2000 Olympic games but failed. That failure may have been a failure in disguise because I think the country is in a much better position to do it now than 2000.

Q: What kind of economical impact do you believe Olympic Games will have for China? How much money and investments opportunities would it be possible to create with this event? Why?
A: In the short term, I do not think the event will generate much revenue in any significant way. Its success will have to be measured in other areas, such as global image, internal improvement in numerous ways — including people’s behavior patterns, the environment, social organization—and China’s connectivity to the rest of the world. For the Chinese, these are far more important than economic measures. If China can succeed in those non-economic areas, investors will see the country as a desirable place to invest. They will do so.

The Olympic Games will be a watershed event in Chinese history. In the past 20 years (some people say 30 years), China’s phenomenal economic growth has transformed the country, and the world. In the past few years, some of that growth is geared toward, or perceived as connected to, the Olympic Games. So the entire world is watching the Olympic Games very closely. A successful Olympic Games event would boost the confidence of the Chinese and the rest of the world in China’s future. I do not think the Olympic Games will immediately and directly bring a lot of investments. People have been investing in China heavily in the past 20 years, and they do not need to “discover” China as a place for investment opportunities. They want to see if China can remain such a place in time to come.

Just as we should not underestimate the importance of the Olympic Games, we must not overestimate its economic impact. Many people in Latin America remember the 1968 Mexican Olympic Games and the fact economic growth of the Mexican economy in the post-World War II years. I do not think the economic difficulties that Mexico experienced after 1968 can be attributed to the Olympic Games. By the same token, we cannot simply attribute the economic success of post-war Japan to the 1964 Tokyo summer Olympic Games.

In short, the hosting of Olympic games is not the only thing going on in China; its importance should be appreciated in the context of what is happening in the country as a whole. In other words, instead of focusing solely on the event, especially its immediate economic impact, we should use it as a window through which to understand China and appreciate what is taking shape there in the economy and in people’s everyday life. The Chinese world will not come to halt after August 2008, nor will the Chinese economy.

China Beat is a global operation (with posts being written thus far everywhere from Beijing to Boston, Colorado to Cambodia) but it is edited at the University of California, Irvine, and more than a few CB pieces have grown out of casual conversations held on this campus. This post, for example, began when one of us mentioned to Xia Shi, who moved here from Beijing last year to do graduate work in history, that an interesting essay on the novel Fortress Besieged had appeared in the June 12 issue of the New York Review of Books (alas, only a teaser for this essay by Pankaj Mishra is available free online if you don’t subscribe), and she asked if it had dealt with the old novel’s popularity among members of her generation. It hadn’t. And her explanation for the 21st century relevance of this pre-1949 work seemed well worth sharing, so we asked her to write about it.

By Xia Shi

Wei Cheng (Fortress Besieged) has been hailed by some critics as “the most delightful and carefully wrought novel in modern Chinese literature” and “perhaps also its greatest.” (See Hsia, C.T., arguably the novel’s earliest proponent, A History of Modern Chinese Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961) Written by Qian Zhongshu in 1947, it is an acerbic comedy about the hapless hero Fang Hongjian’s wanderings in middle-class society. Its 1979-translated English title is based on a French proverb: Marriage is like a fortress besieged: those who are outside want to get in, and those who are inside want to get out. The British equivalent of this French saying draws a picture of a gilded bird cage with the birds outside wanting to get in, and the birds inside wanting to fly out. Both these versions are mentioned by Qian’s characters.

Since its initial publication, the novel’s reception in China has swung from early criticism of the book as a product of elite culture to the 1980s and 1990s wide acclaim amid pop culture’s frenzied consumption. Nowadays, Wei Cheng and Qian are household names. Its canonization process involved not merely “rediscovery,” but “reinvention,” in a surprisingly diverse number of ways. In 1990s China, “Wei Cheng” was a prominent popular word, ranked alongside “Karaoke,” “stock market,” “privacy,” and “MBA.” Nowadays, it has been incorporated into common people’s daily speech. If you ask an urban Chinese of average education what “Wei Cheng” means, most of the time, the answer will fall within the following four aspects:

First of all, “Wei Cheng” is used as a metaphor for marriage. It denotes the complexities of the institution of marriage. Jonathan Spence in his Foreword for the novel’s English version (just reviewed by Pankaj Mishra in the New York Review of Books ) regards it as “one of the finest descriptions of the disintegration of a marriage ever penned in any language.” When Fang Hongjian deplores marriage as a besieged fortress, Qian clearly conveys an anti-romantic pessimism about marriage.

Considering the ever-increasing divorce rate in big cities, more and more Chinese are catching Wei Cheng”s connotation today, as the following typical daily life dialogue on marriage reveals:

Friend A: I am going to get married soon.
Friend B: (joking) Wanna enter “Wei Cheng,” huh? Congratulations!

To be sure, ambivalence towards marriage is a universal mentality. However, it could be said that it was Qian who first created the Chinese equivalent of the French “fortress besieged” or the English “gilded bird cage.” According to Jonathan Spence, the phrase “Wei Cheng” in Chinese “had been most prominently used by a Chinese poet back in 1842 to describe the city of Nanking when it was besieged by the British after their defeat of China in the first of the so-called ‘opium wars.’” Thus, he infers, “shame and national humiliation would have been very much in people’s thoughts.” However, since Qian’s usage, it has gained a new life and it is this new meaning that contemporary Chinese are most familiar with.

Interestingly enough, the phrase “Wei Cheng” in Chinese not only conveys similar meanings to its French or English equivalent, but also has unique national and cultural characteristics. If literally translated, it should be “surrounded cities.” If you ask Chinese people what image they conjure when hearing this phrase, many will reply that they picture ancient Chinese architecture—walls in rectangular shape, with four gates, sometimes with four turrets. Even the textures of the bricks of the walls, they will sometimes vividly add, resemble those of the Great Wall (Chang Cheng, literally “Long Walls”). It is absolutely not a fortress or a birdcage or a modern city. However, it should be admitted that it is hard to concisely and precisely translate this layer of distinct Chinese architectural flavor of the term into another language. As Lydia Liu argues, the choice for translatable equivalents between languages always faces the danger of leaving something missing. Nonetheless, “fortress besieged”, in spite of bringing to mind “European” castles, can still be regarded as a rough equivalent of Chinese city walls. Qian in his book never give any specific descriptions on what this “Wei Cheng” looks like and thus left a space for individual imagination. In analyzing the varied meanings of Wei Cheng, however, it becomes clear that amazingly similar images can be deployed to represent a common human idea—that of marriage as an imprisonment, of sorts—despite vast national, cultural, and linguistic differences.

More broadly speaking, “Wei Cheng” can also be used to describe the dilemma of perpetual human dissatisfaction. By insisting that the human condition is doomed to dissatisfaction, Qian’s attitude toward humanity is outside any particular context. In this sense, it is more often used in the phrase of “Wei Cheng Xianxiang” (the phenomenon of Wei Cheng). A google search will reveal to you an amazing amount of “Wei Cheng Xianxiang” that are currently perplexing modern Chinese society, in the fields of education, investment, or retirement and so on. For instance, you may see a report on the current fever of college graduates taking the highly selective national examinations to vie for the limited posts of government employees. Here, the “Wei Cheng Xianxiang” the reporter points out is between those who see stability and “invisible but potential” good income offered by government jobs and are thus eager to get in on them, and those ambitious talents who are already in government jobs but soon became bored and thus wanted to quit.

The third aspect of the novel that has entered the Chinese idiomatic lexicon is associated with the fad of studying abroad and fake diplomas. In particular, the term “Carleton University,” (克莱登大学) from which Qian’s character Fang Hongjian purchased his fake Ph.D. diploma, can be applied to refer to an illegitimate degree qualification or academic institution. Qian scorned the fake diploma as “Adam and Eve’s fig leaf,” which “could hide a person’s shame and wrap up his disgrace.” Since China’s open and reform, more and more Chinese have been choosing to study overseas so as to return years later with a “gilded” layer. (镀金). Correspondingly, many people soon realize that some of these returned students, like Fang Hongjian, have fake diplomas. As a result, we can see that public discourse on various media soon began to warn employers of removing the scales from their eyes to recognize those who were back from “Carleton University”. However, it should be noted that Qian’s satire was not merely limited to those fake degree holders. In his novel, even those characters with real Ph.D. degrees were nothing but pretentious and arrogant intellectuals. In fact, in Spence’ s view, what Qian was aiming to satirize is the whole “baleful effects of the excessive adaptation of Western literary and aesthetic theories,” which had “corroded the integrity of the Chinese.” In other words, Qian expressed his doubts that China had to throw off the shackles of tradition and urgently modernize itself in order to be a strong, self-confident nation. He mocked the entire phenomenon of overseas studying as “modern keju” (Imperial Examination System), the alternative of “reflecting glory on one’s ancestors” (光宗耀祖). The following words from Wei Cheng have been widely regarded in China as the most classic satire of the mentality of those who blindly followed the fever of studying abroad.

“…the studying abroad today is like passing examinations under the old Manchu system…It’s not for the broadening of knowledge that one goes abroad but to get rid of that inferiority complex. It’s like having smallpox or measles, or in other words, it’s essential to have them….Once we’ve studied abroad, we’ve gotten the inferiority complex out of the system, and our souls become strengthened, and when we do come across such germs as Ph.D.’s or M.A.’s we’ve built up a resistance against them… Since all other subjects ….have already been Westernized, Chinese literature, the only native product, is still in need of a foreign trademark before it can hold its own…”

It should be noted that Qian himself received a Bachelor degree on English Literature from Oxford University in 1937. His thesis was about “China in the English Literature of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century”.

Last but not least, if you happened to be familiar with the more “vulgar” side of contemporary Chinese popular culture, unexpectedly, you will be amused to find that many laobaixing (commoners) like to use “Wei Cheng” to refer to playing Mahjong. It is unclear why and when “Wei Cheng” became a Mahjong nickname. Probably it is because the way playing mahjong is like building up “surrounded walls.” As an aside, it is equally interesting to notice that Qian mentioned Mahjong in his novel. When he described bored Chinese students playing Mahjong on the ship home from their overseas studies, Qian referred to it as “the Chinese national pastime,”that was “said to be popular in America as well,” and sarcastically remarked, “thus playing mahjong not only had a down-home flavor to it but was also in tune with world trends.” As early as the 1920s, if not earlier, Mahjong was well known in China for its corrupting influence. In particular, it was often associated with the stereotypical image of the “parasitic and decadent” taitais (wives of upper or middle class men), as you may have seen from the beginning of Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution or in the descriptions of novelist Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing), whose works often invoke popular nostalgia for the 1930-40s Shanghai. (Interestingly, she began to receive escalating critical attention almost at the same time with Qian and both of the two writers had been greatly promoted by C.T. Hsia) Therefore, here by using mahjong, Qian actually scorned that China’s “bright future” was in the hands of these returning students, representatives of modern “civilization and progress,” spending “their entire time gambling, except for eating and sleeping.”

All of the above four aspects demonstrate that the degrees to which Wei Cheng has permeated contemporary Chinese popular culture. In a sense, it could be argued that Wei Cheng’s “metamorphosis” from a novel to a phrase or idiom in Chinese daily lexicon provided a new arena for the expression and elaboration of social phenomenon and mentality on many major fields such as family life, work, and education. It is closely linked to a post-Cultural Revolution China on its road to modernization.

Wei Cheng’s later popularization was something that Qian could never have expected considering the various criticizing voices he heard after its initial publication in 1947. In spite of the recognized accuracy of the novel’s biting social commentary, it was derided by critics as “high class reading,” “out of this universe,” unconnected with ordinary people’s devastating wartime living experiences, and for being apolitical, “not embodying either leftist or anti-Japanese values.” As for the majority of the population, they barely heard of it due to its limited circulation.

Half a century later, exhausted from various political struggles and movements, apparently, the Chinese masses have changed their tastes and reading expectations. Caught by its tone of futility, they began to enjoy its apolitical stance, honesty and humor, psychological insights, and the erudite display in its skillful manipulation of language. After its adaptation to a well-received TV show, mass media further led common people to find the rich relevance of this novel to their own lives in 1990s China, a society with a reflective orientation amid its everyday newness. Lacking even one lovable character or role model (including its four heroines), readers nonetheless believe that Qian gave them a sympathetic portrayal of real persons, in whom they found a little bit of themselves. Meanwhile literary critics’ lavish praise set a new standard of evaluation, emphasizing the importance of aesthetic criticism and cultural cosmopolitanism, and confirmed the masses of their “high” tastes as well. This criticism raised consumption of the novel from the simple act of reading to the demonstration by its readers of their participation in a “high quality” and cultured lifestyle. Consequently, we see that the dramatic transformation Chinese people and society experienced changed readers’ expectation as well as the novel’s relevance to society and hence led to its unexpected canonization and its author’s apotheosis. In other words, it can be argued that the process of reception to the novel of Wei Cheng tells us a lot about China’s historical journey in the past half century.

Finally, a question that some Wei Cheng scholars have been perplexed and obsessed with for a long time is: Considering the novel’s wide influence and status in modern Chinese literature, why is the existing body of English language scholarship on Qian and Wei Cheng extremely limited even today? The answer to that question would require another post altogether.

1. Qian Zhongshu
2. A still from the popular television series, based on the book.

Recent events have shown just how vital a part of Chinese life and politics the Internet has become, so China Beat asked sociologist Yang Guobin, who has been researching the topic to share some of his thoughts with our readers about this important subject. Here is his guest post, which ties together two recent developments that highlight sources of trust and distrust in cyberspace and other realms.

By Guobin Yang

On December 15, 2007, China Digital Times posted a story about last year’s “Tigergate incident.” Titled “The Truth is More Endangered than Tigers in China,” the story begins:

The “South China Tiger” [华南虎]saga continues. Now known as “Tigergate” among Chinese netizens, this event will no doubt be one of the top media/internet stories of 2007. On December 2nd, NetEase (one of China’s leading news portals) published all 40 digital photos that farmer Zhou Zhenglong alleged he took of the tiger and also published six independent experts’ evaluations of the authenticity of these photos. These six independent third party evaluations include no less than American Chinese criminologist Henry Lee (李昌钰), the China Photographers Association (CPA)’s digital photo authentification center, and China’s top South China Tiger expert Hu Huijian (胡慧建). And all of their evaluations of the tiger photo reached the same conclusion: they’re fake.The story goes back to October. On October 12, 2007, the Shaanxi Forestry Bureau announced at a news conference the discovery of a South China tiger believed to be extinct in the wild. The proof of the discovery was a photograph taken by a peasant hunter called Zhou Zhenglong. The photograph was allegedly authenticated by a team of scientists and experts the local government had commissioned to appraise it. Yet as soon as the photograph was released on the internet, China’s inquisitive netizens challenged its authenticity. On November 16, someone posted the image of a traditional Chinese New Year tiger painting in an internet forum, contending that Zhou’s tiger was a photo of the tiger in the painting. Even as the evidence overwhelmingly showed that Zhou’s photograph was a forgery, the Shaanxi Forestry Bureau remained evasive and refused to acknowledge the truth. Lasting for months, the online debates among frustrated netizens became a virtual quest for truth that was just not forthcoming.

The “Tigergate” incident has symbolic significance. As the CDT posting puts it, it is “a reflection of the existing crisis of public trust in China society.” It reflects citizens’ yearning for trust.

Not only do people use the internet in search of real-world trust, as the Tigergate case shows, but there are many acts of trust in cyberspace. This is not to say there is no dark matter on the internet. Cyberspace is no more a pure land than other places. And yet, talk to any “net friends” (网友), and they usually have a supply of stories about friendship, love, philanthropy, understanding, trust, and solidarity in virtual reality.

But let me turn to the recent Sichuan earthquakes. One striking thing about public responses to the earthquakes was the demonstration of public trust. According to a survey of 523 respondents conducted on June 1, 2008 by researchers from Qinghua University, the internet was the most important channel of information after the earthquake, while television came the second and newspapers the third. The sample is admittedly small, but it is still revealing and thought-provoking. If it is true that more people used the internet than television for information, it indicates, among other things, a high degree of trust in information online.

Another example of such trust was the amount of donations people made online. Many people donated online. In partnership with several other web sites and Jet Li’s One Foundation, Tianya.com began to solicit online donations for disaster relief on the day of the earthquake. Three days later, on May 15, it had already raised 24 million Yuan (RMB). Most of this amount came from individual online donors, who would have to trust the web sites they use to make monetary donations.

Expressions of online trust interacted with and were matched by the outpourings of trust offline. Han Hai Sha, an environmental and educational NGO in Beijing, raised money, medicine, tents, and other materials and equipment for disaster relief within days of the earthquakes. Initially, however, activists in this small NGO were at a loss about how to transport these donations to the distant earthquake regions in Sichuan. They then thought of a friend in an internet-based automobile friendship club (che you hui 车友会). This individual immediately posted messages in the web sites of several such clubs. Within about ten minutes, Han Hai Sha had recruited ten netizens, who all volunteered to provide free transportation with their own automobiles at their own costs (which included expenses for gas, meals, and accommodation for a 4-5 day round trip from Beijing to Chengdu).

These acts of trust among common citizens, online and offline, formed a contrast with a deep-seated distrust of government officials. Entertaining doubts about whether local government officials would put the donations to proper use, many people resorted to the internet to push for transparency and accountability. In the middle of all the relief efforts, netizens revealed online, complete with digital photographs, “disaster only” tents showing up in the streets in Chengdu when they should have belonged to the much more heavily hit earthquake regions. In response to such public demands, the Chinese government issued policy guidelines avowing severe punishment of corruption related to earthquake donations.

In China today, stories about the lack of trust are many and all too familiar: People have poor trust not just in government officials, businesses, and police, but also in teachers, professors, scientists, and even physicians. There are fake foodstuffs, fake brand-name liquor, fake medicine, fake diplomas, fake beauty products. Everything is fake. Nothing and nobody can be trusted. At least for some people, that seems to be China’s harsh reality.

Why can there be trust in virtual reality when it is lacking in “real” reality? Why do people seek trust in cyberspace rather than in their communities? This puzzling phenomenon probably says more about the sorry condition of community than about the internet. If the degree of trust is a good measure, its weakness indicates the weakness of community. If people go online in search of trust, does it mean that there is an alternative community online? Do online communities make up for the poverty of community in the “real” world? Are they signs of escape or do they signal new practices of civic engagement? Contrasting citizens’ quests for trust in the Tigergate incident and after the Sichuan earthquakes opens up some interesting questions.

One member of the China Beat team, Susan Jakes, has had the unusual experience of both taking Jonathan Spence’s famous “History of Modern China” course as a Yale undergraduate, and then later returning to the university as a graduate student and serving as a teaching assistant for a later version of the same class. As a complement to our series on Spence’s Reith Lectures, we asked her to reflect on this experience.

By Susan Jakes

I first heard Jonathan Spence give a lecture thirty minutes or so after the first time I heard his name. It was the beginning of my fourth semester at Yale in 1995 during the chaotic week known on campus as “shopping period,” when students are allowed to attend any classes they choose. My roommate had announced that she was going to “shop Spence” and invited me to join her. Fortunately, she wasn’t too aghast to bring me along after I’d replied, “Sure, I’ll come with you, but what’s Spence?”

I don’t remember precisely how she answered, but whatever she said persuaded me to get dressed in a hurry and follow her to Yale’s largest auditorium a full half hour before the first lecture of History of Modern China was scheduled to begin. As my roommate had predicted, the huge room filled up quickly. A few minutes after we arrived, a figure in a hooded coat slipped through the crowd toward the blackboard and began, silently, to fill it with a list of unfamiliar words written in slender uppercase letters. When he took the lectern, he made no sales-pitch to the assembled shoppers. He said only, “I’d like to start now” and began a lecture he called, “Ten Things I Find Fascinating About China.” I’ve lost the notes I took that day—though I’m fairly certain the list included the Three Gorges Dam, the future of the one-child policy and the legacy of June 4th—but what has stuck with me, indelibly, is how quickly after Spence began to speak I knew that anything he found fascinating was something I needed to hear more about.

I wasn’t the only one. When the lecture ended, there was applause. I don’t how long it lasted because my roommate, whose wisdom I was beginning to appreciate, insisted we sprint to the bookstore a block away and buy the books for the course before they sold out. Which they did. Before we’d even left the store.


Spence lectured three times a week that year, which meant he had about forty lectures to span the period from just before the Manchu conquest to the present, or roughly a decade per each 50 minute class. The course moved chronologically, but it did so at what felt like an unhurried pace, with time for detours into art or literature and often deep within the layers of individual lives.

The lectures had the feel of finely crafted short stories, and at times full-length novels. They were beguilingly titled—“The View from Below,” “All in the Translation,” “Into the World,” “Bombs and Pianos”—and they built in intensity to end in startling revelations or quietly delivered lines of poetry. Often they played on the juxtapositions in their titles to explore social tensions: “Famine and Finance,” “Sects and the Social Fabric,” “Warlords and Bandits,” “Socialists and Revisionists.” Spence liked to put two biographical sketches side by side to capture different dimensions of a given moment, a technique he used to electrifying effect on Yuan Mei and Zhang Xuecheng in the “The Poet and the Historian,” and on writers Ding Ling and Xu Zhimo in a lecture called “Being Modern.”

Even in less experimental modes, he always put individuals front and center. No event worth mentioning was too large to be refracted through a single human life and no life was too minor to have its humanity summoned up from the past alongside the abstraction of its historical significance. Spence could manage this level of detail even in a 50 minute lecture because of his knack for drawing a profile out of a single image—the Kangxi Emperor advising a bondservant on his health, Ding Ling’s mother running around an athletic field on her newly unbound feet, a Boxer victim’s Steinway piano, Mao aboard his private train. He could “catch the essence,” as he sometimes describes it, of people and of historical moments so they lit up like lightning bugs in a jar.

Not that his delivery was flashy. He spoke casually, musingly, from behind a sheaf of yellow notepaper, in a way that sometimes made it sound as if what he was saying was only dawning on him at the moment he said it. The effect was disarming. There was an open-endedness about the way he presented even the subjects he knew best that invited us to feel a part of them. Seldom did a lecture not include the phrase, “I’ve always hoped someone would write an essay on this subject.” Questions were as much a part of the lectures as exposition and from time to time he answered them, “Well, we’re not sure.” But for the most part, his lectures held out the promise that China and its past could be, if not quite within our reach, than at least a little closer than they seemed.

Among some of my classmates this promise produced an almost instantaneous decision to reorient their studies or move to China. I came more hesitantly to the subject and the country, but I am sitting in Shanghai as I write this, quite as certain as one can be about historical causes and effect, that had I not found my way to that lecture hall in the spring of 1995, or if Spence had been lecturing on astrophysics or on Luxembourg, I would not be here.


That first Spence lecture was very much on my mind this January as I returned to the auditorium, amid the hubbub of another shopping period, to hear Spence teach a course now called “History of China: 1600 to the Present”—this time as a graduate student and one of his teaching assistants. Little had changed at Yale in the intervening 13 years, but China was a different place or at least it meant something different to my students than it had to me. During my first meetings with them I asked them to write a few sentences about why they were taking the course. A few wrote that they had heard the class was excellent or that Spence was “awesome.” But the vast majority explained their interest in terms of China’s prominence in world affairs, its power, its “rise.” Some of them explicitly related their interest to future careers in business. One described the class as “a necessity.” They were at least as interested in China’s future as they were in hearing about its past.

That China had become a much more forceful presence in the consciousness of his students must have been on Spence’s mind as he began his first lecture. He spoke about what he called “the extraordinary drama of emotions aroused by China,” and said he found “depressing” the recent “great emphasis on the negative aspects of China.” In place of 1995’s list of ten fascinating things, he gave two lists, one on China’s frequently emphasized negative sides (pollution, corruption, tainted products, Tibet, etc.) and the other on developments he saw as more encouraging, including “the development of urban restoration” and “Chinese presence in Africa” along with the transformation of the middle class, stability in recent leadership transitions, the Olympics and the fact that “China [was] working enormously hard on energy.”

If I found it hard to share his optimism on some of these counts, I was reminded at the end of that first lecture of just how much change in China’s present Spence has witnessed in the years he has been studying its past. “I started out studying China here at Yale in 1959,” he told the final group of students who would hear him teach the course, “We weren’t being told very much…We really didn’t realize that one of the largest famines in China was happening—a missing cohort of 20 million to 30 million people…The People’s Republic was only 10 years old—now it’s 58 years old and somewhere in there is my life.”

This year’s lectures moved more briskly than they had in 1995. There were only two a week now and an extra decade to cover. But even in more compressed form they teemed with the kind of detail that had captivated me the first time around. Spence reflected more often about the development of his scholarship, and on his own encounters with contemporary China. Often when the class ended, he would climb down to the corner of the room where the teaching assistants sat and regale us with anecdotes or questions he hadn’t had time to include in the formal part of the class.

One side of the class I hadn’t remembered was the way Spence used humor, the way his formal British diction could give way to a reference to Kangxi as Yongzheng’s “old man” or a description of people in the 17th century “visiting tea houses for R&R.” He likened the life of a low-level Chinese scholar to “being trapped in high school your entire life—a grim prospect for many of us.” When the Yankee Doodle, a local greasy spoon where Spence had eaten his first American meal in 1959 closed its doors this winter, he asked the class for a moment of silence. Then he said, “Don’t write this on the midterm but Kangxi would have liked the Doodle and Qianlong wouldn’t have gone near it and that may explain my feelings about those two emperors.” Watching my students respond to these moments of playfulness, the way their affection and awe for their teacher drew them closer to his subject, I understood a little better how I had wound up where I was.


Spence used his final lecture to explore seven “enduring themes” in Chinese life that spanned the four centuries covered in the course—and new pressures on Chinese society. Another two lists. The first included the absence of permitted public debate on leadership transition, the closeness to power of highly educated male elites, the lack of a powerful nationwide religious structure, “good order” as a high state priority, changing borders and ideas about borders, pressure on scarce resources and rich aesthetic and cultural realms including wit, erudition, sensuality and history. Among the new stresses were the internationalization of China’s strategic interests, the scale of urbanization, the collective leadership of the CCP, the availability of capital for “colossal projects,” environmental degradation, the battle for control of information technology and “seeing China as a source of change for the rest of the world.”

In closing, Spence turned toward one last enduring theme, one that was much closer to home and yet more fleeting. To an unusually packed house full of former as well as current students and a good number of colleagues, he read aloud Mark Strand’s poem, “The Whole Story.”

How it should happen this way
I am not sure, but you
Are sitting next to me,
Minding your own business
When all of a sudden I see
A fire out the window.

I nudge you and say,
“That’s a fire. And what’s more,
We can’t do anything about it,
Because we’re on this train, see?”
You give me an odd look
As though I had said too much.

But for all you know I may
Have a passion for fires,
And travel by train to keep
From having to put them out.
It may be that trains
Can kindle a love of fire.

I might even suspect
That you are a fireman
In disguise. And then again
I might be wrong. Maybe
You are the one
Who loves a good fire. Who knows?

Perhaps you are elsewhere,
Deciding that with no place
To go you should not
Take a train. And I,
Seeing my own face in the window,
May have lied about the fire.

“The only gloss you need is that ‘train’ is Yale,” he had said as he began to read, “and the fire is China.”

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