October 2009

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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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1. This is a rather belated link, but in case you missed it at China Digital Times, you might be interested to read their translation of a piece on “‘The Wall’ and ‘Climbing Over the Wall’” by Tu Zifang from Southern Metropolis Weekly.

For so many years, the busiest people on the Chinese internet are those who make the Wall software and the “Climbing the Wall” software. It has been said that those people all have something in common: 1. They are all Chinese, 2. They all made a fortune, 3. They all have studied in the US. The only difference is that those who write the Wall software have come back from the US and those who write the Climbing the Wall software are still in the US.

2. Last week, we ran an image of the Expo buildings from contributor Jonathan Hwang. For more amazing pictures–including workers doing quite a high-wire act against the structure’s frame–check here.

3. The new issue of The Journal of Current Chinese Affairs is now available. Articles of interest include “The Chinese Communist Party: Recruiting and Controlling the New Elites” by Cheng Li and “Climate Change in China — The Development of China’s Climate Policy and Its Integration into a New International Post-Kyoto Climate Regime” by Andreas Oberheitmann and Eva Sternfeld.

4. Timothy Garton Ash had a review essay in this weekend’s New York Review of Books titled “1989!” Though none of the books under discussion are related to the 1989 event that will most likely spring to mind for China Beat readers–instead they focus entirely on the events in Eastern Europe–Garton Ash calls for a reinvestigation of ’89’s events that rings close to home for those interested in China 1989:

So, in a classic Rankean advance of historical scholarship, we know more than we did at the time about these traditionally documented areas of high politics. By contrast, we have learned little new about the causes and social dynamics of the mass, popular actions that actually gave 1989 a claim to be a revolution, or chain of revolutions.

I spent many hours of my life standing in those crowds, in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and Prague; their behavior was both inspiring and mysterious. What had moved these individual men and women to come out on the streets, especially in the early days, when it was not self-evidently safe to do so? What swayed them as a crowd? Who, in Prague, was the first to take a key ring out of his or her pocket, hold the keys aloft, and shake them—an action that, copied by 300,000 people, produced the most amazing sound, like massed Chinese bells?

Historians such as George Rudé, with his pioneering study of the crowd in the French Revolution, E.P. Thompson, and Eric Hobsbawm have attempted to understand the underlying dynamics of popular protest in earlier periods. It is surely time for contemporary historians, with better sources at their disposal (hours of television, video, and radio footage, for example), to take up the challenge of trying to analyze 1989 from below, and not merely from above.

And, indeed, at the end of the essay, Garton Ash raises the China case and argues for its resonance in the narratives of Europe’s ’89:

China also plays an important part. The Tiananmen Square massacre occurred on the very day of Poland’s breakthrough in a semifree election, June 4, 1989. I will never forget seeing on a television screen in the makeshift offices of the Polish opposition daily Gazeta Wyborcza, amid the excitement of Poland’s election day, the first footage of dead or wounded Chinese protesters being carried off Tiananmen Square. “Tiananmen” happened in Europe, too, in the sense that both opposition and reform communist leaders saw what could happen if it came to a violent confrontation, and redoubled their efforts to avoid it.

To put it another way, the fact that Tiananmen happened in China is one of the reasons it did not happen in Europe. However, an influence then flowed back in the other direction: from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to China. As David Shambaugh and others have documented, the Chinese Communist Party systematically studied the lessons of the collapse of communism in Europe, to make sure it did not happen to them. Today’s China is a result of that learning process.

The NYRB has also launched a blog. One of their first posts several weeks ago was from Perry Link, “China at 60: Who Owns the Guns?” and it is well worth reading.

5. For those readers in the Salt Lake City area, Ken Pomeranz will be giving a talk at the University of Utah on October 26 on “Chinese Development and World History: Putting the ‘East Asian Model’ in Perspective.” Pomeranz has also just been awarded the Distinguished Faculty Award for Research from the University of California, Irvine and will be giving a lecture at the December 3rd award ceremony on “Land, Water and Economic Development in China: Historical Perspectives and Contemporary Implications.” Both events are open to the public.

China Beat has run several pieces recently on the Xinjiang riots. On October 2, we featured Rian Thum’s “The Ethnicization of Discontent in Xinjiang,” which argued that the riots had raised ethnic tensions in the region. A few days later, we published  “Islamic Fundamentalism: An Ignored Specter in the Xinjiang Riot,” written by Liang Zheng. Zheng argued that the foreign media had ignored indications that the riots were instigated by fundamentalists from southern Xinjiang, an argument that preserves the notion of ethnic harmony in Urumqi itself.

Today we run a response to Zheng’s argument from Mark Elliott, Professor of Chinese and Inner Asian History at Harvard University. Further responses may be sent to thechinabeat <AT> gmail.com.

By Mark Elliott

With great interest and no little concern I read the recent post by Liang Zheng (“Islamic Fundamentalism: An Ignored Specter in the Xinjiang Riot,” 6 October), arguing that Islamic fundamentalism is behind the violent protests that took place in Urumqi this past July. If Mr. Zheng’s claims were true, that would indeed be cause for alarm on more than one level. Yet, because this is such a contentious point – dovetailing as it does rather neatly with the government’s line on discontent generally in Xinjiang and the justification given for “striking hard” against Uyghur dissent – the evidence should be examined extremely carefully. As far as I can tell, the evidence presented by Mr. Zheng seems to be little more than hearsay.

Disregarding the argument that Xinjiang’s shared border with Afghanistan and Pakistan is prima facie evidence of fundamentalist influence, the assertions in the post regarding the spread of Islamic extremism to Xinjiang and the July violence are based mainly on the comments of the journalist and blogger Gheyret Niyaz, quoted in an interview in the August 2 issue of Yazhou zhoukan (English translation here). Gheyret says first that during one street protest in Urumqi he heard slogans being shouted for the imposition of Shari’a law and the establishment of an Islamic state. One would like to have independent verification of these claims, and to know whether similar calls were made at other locations. I myself am unaware of any confirmed accounts that this was the case, but perhaps other readers of China Beat have information they can provide? Gheyret goes on to say that since these goals coincide with those of Hizb ut-Tahrir (Islamic Liberation Party, or ILP), that organization must have helped to organize the protests. This seems to be mere inference. As further evidence of this involvement, he points to the fact that the people in the crowd of one hundred he observed that day were all wearing tennis shoes; that “they came together and dispersed in unison, in a highly organized way”; and that they spoke with accents identifying them as coming from Kashgar and Khotan. On this last point he is tentative, since, as he says, “I could not see if they had knives” (!). None of this seems convincing to me as evidence of a link to outside fundamentalist organizations. (A perusal of ILP’s UK website turns up no indication of any special interest in events in Xinjiang or support for the Uyghur cause. Quite the contrary: it approvingly reports the Pakistani president’s praise of the Chinese government’s handling of the unrest.)

It is well known that people often resort to conspiracy as a way of explaining how otherwise inexplicable and terrible events come to pass. That earlier in the same interview Gheyret alleges that Rebiya Kadeer was also involved in helping to organize the protests (this, of course, being another claim made by the government, which so far also lacks independent confirmation) demonstrates, I think, his susceptibility to this very tendency. I will say that I have heard, but cannot confirm, that a broadcast on Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur language service shortly before the violence included remarks by Rebiya that might be characterized as provocative. Even if this were so, it is hardly proof that she or those around her helped organize the protests; indeed, had she been so directly involved, it seems unlikely that she would have taken the trouble to advertise the fact on the radio.

Mr. Zheng also cites local witnesses among his friends and acquaintances to the effect that there were a lot of people from Kashgar (or elsewhere in Altishahr) in Urumqi at the time. I suspect that others may also have heard these rumors. But as Mr. Zheng must know, there are always many people from the southern part of Xinjiang in Urumqi at any given time. Who is to say if the number was higher than usual? Assuming it were, how are we to know whether these people were there in response to a call from fundamentalist imams to take to the streets, protest the treatment of Uyghur workers in Guangzhou, and exact a bloody retribution? If many of Urumqi’s Uyghurs deny involvement in the violence, this is to be expected. For one thing, doubtless relatively few indeed were involved; for another, it would make sense for them to shift the blame to people from outside (“It wasn’t us!”). All these considerations encourage skepticism of reports that Urumqi was secretly infiltrated by organized columns of extremist Kashgarliks in early July.

While Mr. Zheng is doubtless well-informed as to the situation generally in Xinjiang, his observations on the July unrest as reported in China Beat appear to be based on unconfirmed reports and second-hand information. He does not seem to have been in Urumqi when the events occurred or to have witnessed anything firsthand. While the post is largely sympathetic to the plight of Uyghurs, it seems to me that it serves also as a Trojan horse for a more sinister interpretation of the situation in Xinjiang and the “danger” there of Islamic fundamentalist influence and terrorism, an interpretation that ultimately only facilitates government policies of repression.

No one approves the violence, obviously. One can concede the likelihood that there has been some increase of fundamentalist beliefs in segments of Xinjiang society. But spreading unsubstantiated stories about the ties of fundamentalist organizations to the July demonstrations adds nothing to our understanding of events. On the contrary, for the reasons stated here, I see it as quite harmful. In my view, this post falls short of the usual high standards maintained by China Beat.

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By Dustin Wright

There has understandably been no shortage of commentary on China’s rapid economic development. Much like Japan’s economic “miracle” of the last century, this other industrialization in East Asia has generated considerable discussion, both in academia and popular media. No doubt, much of the discussion rests on a healthy crop of skepticism regarding the actual sustainability of China’s growth. However, though export growth has slowed since the boom apex in 2007, the country’s economy is nonetheless continuing to grow and many observers maintain that China is surviving the global recession better than any other major economy.

But as both domestic and foreign observers continue to watch China’s economic growth, it follows that we should want to know more about the individuals behind it, the entrepreneurial cogs in the increasingly battery-powered wheel. In Shanghai, China Beat contributor Anna Greenspan called the city’s street vendors “the most entrepreneurial and creative sector of society.” One way to see how the average person—a Shanghai street vendor perhaps—views the growth is to take a look at what they watch on TV when they go home at night.

WIN Revised Poster

Back in 2007, in an entertaining piece, James Fallows reported on the Chinese game show “Ying Zai Zhongguo,” or “Win in China.” The TV show has immense popularity in China, generating ratings that make the Super Bowl seem like a city council meeting on your local public access channel. On his blog, Alec Ash spoke with one of the show’s fans.

The premise will be familiar to American reality TV fans: entrepreneur saplings compete for prize money put up by some of China’s most successful entrepreneurs-turned-venture-capitalists, who also serve as the show’s panel of judges. Promoting your business plan, displaying business acumen that would thrill any MBA student, exposing your competitor’s lack of experience and undermining their qualifications are all keys to winning a chunk of the prize money, which totals over USD $5 million.

Filmmaker Ole Schell, son of renowned Sinologist Orville Schell, has profiled the show in a new documentary, also called “Win in China.” The filmmaker recently posted a great piece at CNN’s AC360 blog, where he describes meeting up with one of “Win’s” successful contestants, now putting his prize money to use with a lingerie business. Here, Ole Schell talks with us about the film.

Read the rest of this entry »

Shanghai Expo photo

“祖国万岁. Long Live the Nation.” The main pavilion of the Expo looks like a cross between a UFO and the hull of a ship. I spoke with some bystanders who turned out to be residents of the area. The old couple comes out everyday at night to marvel at the dramatic displays on the Expo pavilion. It seems that there isn’t enough to warrant a lawn chair but they beg to differ. It’s their city.

Photo by Grace Park, caption by Jonathan Hwang. Both are students at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies.

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