January 2012

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By Jeff Wasserstrom

Every society sees and treats its poorest members differently. The distinctive way that Victorian Britain dealt with poverty is a central theme in many novels by Charles Dickens, the prolific author whose books are getting even more attention as the bicentennial of his birth is being marked. For those more interested in India’s present than England’s past, the book of the moment on this theme seems to be Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, which is earning enthusiastic advance reviews and is due out soon (coincidentally or not on February 7, Dickens’ birthday). For China specialists, the most important new publication on the impoverished is one that neither goes as far back as the days of Dickens nor deals with out own time, but is rather Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953. It’s a very impressive first book by historian Janet Y. Chen, a member of Princeton’s History Department. A blurb by China Beat co-founder Ken Pomeranz describes it as a “surprising and creative work” that is “social history of the highest caliber,” and political scientist David Strand and I also have very good things to say about the book on its back cover. Rather than present my own assessment of the book, though, I’ll let you hear about some aspects of it from the author herself. I recently sent Janet a set of questions by email, which she was good enough to answer as follows:

JW: One thing that sets your book apart from a lot of first monographs on the Republican era (1912-1949), from Gail Hershatter’s The Workers of Tianjin, 1900-1949 (1986) to Peter Carroll’s Between Heaven and Modernity: Reconstructing Suzhou, 1895-1937 (2006), is that you deal with two cities rather than just one. Did you know from the start that Shanghai and Beijing comparisons would be part of your project?

JYC: At the outset I considered six different cities. My goal was to write about the experiences of the poor, and I worried that there would not be enough materials. So the initial plan was to do a kaleidoscope, piecing together what I thought would be patchy sources. But against all expectations, I found more archival materials than I knew what to do with. I could have chosen one city, but I had found such amazing sources that I did not want to give any of them up. The single-city focus is the model for urban studies on the Republican era, and the inevitable question is always whether city x was typical or not. By using two cases, I foreground that question, and I use the comparisons to highlight the specific local conditions that shaped experiences of destitution. Crafting a narrative based on two cities was challenging, but ultimately I think my research was much more interesting for it.

JW: In a similar vein, though there are other works I can think of that move from the Republican era into the Mao years (1949-1976), such as Susan Glosser’s Chinese Visions of Family and State, 1915-1953 (2003), stopping your story in 1945 (with the end of the war) or 1949 (with the establishment of the PRC) would have been options. Did you consider those, or were you set upon crossing the 1949 divide and dealing with the early 1950s from the beginning?

JYC: The first iteration of the book, in its dissertation form, stopped in 1949. Just about everyone I knew urged me to “do something” about the post-1949 era, and when I finally did, I was very surprised at the continuities that I found. Despite radically different ideological underpinnings, and despite rhetorically emphasizing the National regime’s failure to provide for the welfare of the people, the new socialist state in 1949 embraced many of the assumptions and institutions that its predecessor left behind. The biggest surprise in my research was a moment when I figured out a poorhouse established in the final years of the Qing dynasty in Beijing was still in use in 1950, as a Communist detention center for vagrants.

JW: What was the biggest challenge in terms of archives and materials that you had to deal with in researching this study?

JYC: In retrospect, I was very lucky in terms of timing. I was at the #1 Archive in Beijing and the #2 Archive in Nanjing in 2001 and 2002, and at the time both places were very open and welcoming. That has changed dramatically, and if I were to attempt the same project today I probably would not get very far. At the local archives in Beijing and Shanghai, which the research draws most heavily from, the challenge was literally too much material. I cast my net very widely (since my initial worry was about not finding enough sources). It became a sprawling and at times out of control process—but it also led me to some unexpected places.

JW: Some readers of this interview are likely to be more interested in China’s present dilemmas than in its past, so what would you say makes your book relevant for them?

JYC: It is completely unfashionable to use the words “poverty” and “China” in the same sentence today. But the rising tide of prosperity in Chinese society has produced new forms of homelessness and impoverishment, and questions about government responsibility and public concern and indifference are surfacing as vital issues. I hope this book will provide a historical lens for understanding present-day contestations over the meanings of poverty and welfare in Chinese society.

JW: Finally, just as courses in a meal are sometimes paired with specific wines, can you name a specific book or article on a different period or a different subject that would go well with Guilty of Indigence—or if want to belabor the culinary metaphor, maybe a reading per section like a wine per course?

JYC: I learned a lot from Joanna Handlin Smith’s The Art of Doing Good: Charity in Late Ming China. For the PRC, Dorothy Solinger writes powerfully about issues of social citizenship (Contesting Citizenship in Urban China: Peasant Migrants, the State, and the Logical of the Market). For a different part of the world, Brodwyn Fischer’s A Poverty of Rights: Citizenship and Inequality in Twentieth-Century Rio de Janeiro.

Chen, Zhongping. Modern China’s Network Revolution: Chambers of Commerce and Sociopolitical Change in the Early Twentieth Century. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011. xxi, 289 pp. $55.00 (cloth)

By Brett Sheehan

The title of Zhongping Chen’s new book has a double meaning. Modern China’s Network Revolution refers both to his claim for new, revolutionary forms of networking among lower-Yangzi Chinese elites at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries and to the revolutionary roles of those networks in elite mobilization, especially in the 1911 revolution which overthrew the Qing. As such, the book makes a meaningful contribution to debates on the nature of Chinese organizational practices, especially merchant organizational practices, and to debates about the nature of late-Qing elite mobilization and the relationship of those mobilized elites to the state.

The first three chapters focus on the new organizational forms, or what Chen calls associational networks (p. 7). Chen traces the beginnings of chambers of commerce, their growth and their bourgeoning relationships with each other. Specialists will appreciate the detailed information on specific merchants and organizations in these chapters, though general readers might find the number of names daunting. In theorizing about new organizational forms, Chen does not dismiss particularism as important in network formation, but he does argue for the importance of formal organization. Chen summarizes the gist of this organizational revolution as a series of new institutional norms and links: “formal leadership, membership, periodic meetings, competitive elections, network hierarchy” (p. 208). The result was organizations which were neither natural results of earlier guild evolution nor simple imitations of Western counterparts (p. 18).

Chen shows the “revolutionary” results of these new institutions in a series of fascinating case studies. Chapter four discusses the extension of relationships among chambers of commerce as they banded together for the 1905 anti-American boycott, became involved in municipal governmental affairs, especially in Shanghai, and as they helped found other new organizations such as the extremely important merchant militias. Chapter five portrays chamber activities in the commercial and industrial realms as chambers organized tax protests, became involved in the Railroad Rights Recovery Movement, organized the Nanyang industrial exposition, and negotiated with American business interests. Chapter six provides an absorbing account of chamber involvement in the growing constitutional movement and then eventually in the revolts and secessions of the 1911 revolution which overthrew the Qing dynasty. Chen argues that the revolution did not, as some have claimed, grow out of the railway rights recovery movement which peaked in 1907, four years before lower-Yangzi businesspeople broke from the Qing (pp. 158-159). Chapter seven carries the story beyond 1911 to discuss the fates of lower Yangzi chambers in the republican period after 1911, but this chapter has less detail and is less satisfying than the other rich cases studies.

Chen’s topic fits within a series of important debates about local elites in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Taking a middle ground in terms of the balance between state and local power, the book portrays chambers as a combination of state-down direction and bottom-up mobilization on behalf of merchants (p. 56). Thus, initially the Qing court preferred merchant leadership for chambers so these new organizations would not enhance the power of the government’s own provincial officials at the expense of the center (p. 52). At the same time, once formed, “official attempts to divide and rule chambers failed” (p. 76). The chambers were creatures of the state and simultaneously tools of local elites. Merchant elites, however, were not just interested in local dominance, but also showed public interests and joint actions with the populace against both the Qing government and foreign encroachment (p. 14).

Although this last conclusion echoes the public sphere debates of two decades ago, Chen is careful to avoid this terminology. He shows that the relationship between merchants and the state is more complex than many arguments about the public sphere allow, and he presents a picture of “interactive dynamics and changeable relations with the state” (p. 16). Some of Chen’s more interesting examples of this interaction come when chambers cooperate with the state in some areas while simultaneously protesting against the state in others. During the railway rights recovery movement, merchants approached the Qing court for an under-the-table loan to finance joint projects with Americans in spite of their disgust with the government over the railway issue (pp. 156-159, 167).

In some places Chen’s terminology is hard to pin down. For example, he excludes “old style” shops from his list of capitalist enterprises without defining capitalism (p. 92). The reader is left with the impression that capitalist simply means Western. More central to Chen’s argument, he divides merchants as either “elite” or “common” with the former having elite connections and gentry training (p. 77), but throughout the book there are references to elite merchants, chamber leaders, gentry, and sometimes just “elites” without any clear sense of discrete groups.

In addition, Chen argues for connections between merchant elites and the populace through shared provincialism, nationalism, and economic interest (p. 156). While large crowds showed up at chamber-sponsored patriotic events and people subscribed to railway shares in fairly large numbers, it is hard to see what shared economic interest elite merchants and ordinary Chinese shared. Chen himself acknowledges elsewhere that chambers’ primary concern was for elite merchant interests (p. 148).

Most importantly, it is clear from the evidence in this book that chambers of commerce were only part of the story of elite networks. At almost every turn, the chambers of commerce cooperated with other elite groups such as education associations and local gentry. Chamber of commerce organizations were clearly only one manifestation of larger elite networks and a fuller description of those networks might show more personal links and less reliance on formal organization. Thus, the book effectively proves that late Qing chambers of commerce were important both at the local and national levels, but the claim of “institutionalized and irreversible change” (p. 207) is less convincing.

Brett Sheehan is Associate Professor of Chinese History at the University of Southern California

© 2012 by Twentieth-Century China Editorial Board. All rights reserved.

By Daisy Yan Du

The Three Gorges Dam is the largest hydro-electric power station in the world. The construction of the dam began in 1994 and was completed in 2009. Proponents bill it as a symbol of China’s rise on the global stage, while critics worldwide see it as a huge humanitarian crisis that has the potential to worsen in years to come. The biggest controversy of this project concerns the forced migration of around two million people, who, due to the rising water, have been displaced from their hometowns along the upper reaches of the Yangzi River in Chongqing and Sichuan and Hubei provinces. Many novels and films have found fertile topics for exploration in these ongoing drastic social-historical changes, large-scale population movements, and everyday narratives of displacements and loss of homelands.

In the Lap of the Gods (2010), a lyrical novel written by Li Miao Lovett, is set against this complex landscape of disappearances. The novel begins in an evacuated village about to be submerged by the Yangzi River as the water crawls steadily uphill. Nothing but ruins remains. In this deadly quiet ghost village, Liu Renfu, a poor scavenger, is digging in the ruins, collecting the trash and occasional valuables left behind by departed villagers. Among the ruins on the riverbank Liu finds an abandoned baby girl. He brings her home to Wushan, a small city also about to disappear under the rising water. The rest of the novel revolves around Liu’s life with the baby girl named Rose. Her English name is unique because other characters have typical Chinese names, a distinction perhaps explained by her illegitimate status. The novel takes place over several years as Rose grows into a toddler, and the scope of the story is expanded as it is interwoven with other narratives about people’s daily lives and their pasts in the Three Gorges area.

Although there are many perspectives from which to approach this novel, the figure of the baby girl is the pivot of the whole story, because it is she who connects or disconnects all the other characters. After Liu brings her home, he does not know how to take care of her, so he turns to Fang, a shrewd and well-connected old broker. Fang advises Liu to take the baby girl to the orphanage in Chongqing. On their way there, however, Fang’s car breaks down. Liu then changes his mind and brings the baby girl back home, functioning as her surrogate father from then on. Later, when Fang finds out that Rose is the granddaughter of Sulin, the woman he has loved for many decades, he intervenes again and tries to get the child back from Liu in order to please Sulin, who wants the baby.

Mei Ling, a waitress in a restaurant in Liu’s neighborhood, desperately wants to escape from her tyrannical father and to start a new life of her own. Mei Ling thus marries Liu in rush without knowing of his poverty. However, Rose, although affectionate with Liu, is instinctively hostile to Mei Ling. Many conflicts take place between Rose and Mei Ling, and Mei Ling finally leaves Liu for Chongqing to begin her life anew.

Rose serves as an allegory of memory and the haunting presence of the past that resists to be effaced. She is an illegitimate child born to the daughter of Sulin and the son of a Party member in the village. Although Sulin volunteers to raise the girl herself, her daughter, who desperately wants to forget the past and start over, declines her offer and abandons the child on the riverbank as she leaves for her new home designated by the government. Rose, because she is illegitimate, lacks a family name and represents an embarrassment, repeatedly reminding people of the unspeakable past associated with her. In saving the baby girl from being drowned by the river, Liu not only saves a life, but also salvages the disturbing memories and secrets that would have otherwise been submerged.

The whole novel is fraught with this tension between memory and amnesia. The grand narrative of the forced migration of the Three Gorges Dam is predicated on the rhetoric of forgetting. As the wheels of history relentlessly move ahead, the local residents are expected to forsake their pasts, which are to be buried under the water forever. Memories are disavowed as the nation pushes forward in a collective enterprise of progress and modernity. However, traces of the past can never be completely erased by the master narrative, because what is repressed and oppressed will eventually return to haunt those who seek to forget.

Liu the scavenger is not only digging up and collecting the personal belongings buried among the ruins, but also salvaging the memories and desires about to be submerged forever. His discoveries form a living museum for the vanished space. As a scavenger, Liu is the most sentimental character, a man who stubbornly clings to the past. Fei Fei, his pregnant first wife who was drowned by the river in a boating accident, haunts him constantly. As a ghost that exists only in Liu’s memory, Fei Fei assumes a role even more significant than that of Mei Ling in Liu’s life. Associated with Fei Fei is the memory of the already submerged city of Fengjie, where they had found a home and spent happy times together. Torn between the past and the present, Liu painstakingly searches for the meaning of his life before the imminent disappearance of his whole world.

In the Lap of the Gods is filled with stories of unfulfilled desires, voluntary or involuntary abandonment, aborted hopes, ephemeral emotions, failed relationships, unending regrets, and nostalgic longings for a home that is no longer welcoming. Against such a drastically changing landscape, perhaps nothing remains constant. The only thing one can always hold on to is memory itself.

Although most of the characters in this novel are ordinary people such as peasants, scavengers, beggars, brokers, and migrant workers, they are nonetheless endowed with dignity, respect, and even tragic heroism. Confronted with unprecedented physical and emotional crises resulting from the deluge, some of them choose to follow the call of the mainstream rhetoric, move ahead, and start anew, while some choose to linger in the past and indulge in the disappeared world. Whatever the case, memory still asserts its presence and leaves traces among the ruins, just like the abandoned child Rose, who is rescued from the coming deluge and stubbornly lives on as a haunting reminder of the vanished past, whether others welcome it or not.

Daisy Yan Du is a PhD candidate in modern Chinese literature and visual culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is now completing her dissertation on Chinese animated film between the 1940s and 1970s.

By Kate Merkel-Hess

Several years ago, I gave a talk on my research to a community group. My first slide included the words “Republican China” and as I waited to begin I heard a woman in the front row lean over and whisper to her neighbor, “I had no idea they have Republicans in China too!”

At this time of bruising primary battles, though, the China that the Republicans have seems more relevant—as China, imagined and real, has played a recurring role in the raucous Republican primaries. Here’s a rundown of some of the ways China has popped up on the campaign trail in recent months:

The Manchurian Candidate
He’s out of the race now, but few China buffs are unaware of the Huntsman-China connection and the many jabs and jokes it spawned. The most infamous is the video created by a group of Ron Paul supporters that intercuts clips of Jon Huntsman speaking Chinese with nasty rhetorical questions about his patriotism and the parentage of his adopted daughters.

Huntsman, who learned to speak Chinese on his Mormon mission in Taiwan and is the former US ambassador to China, was widely panned for speaking Mandarin in the January 7th Republican debate. In an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” former RNC chair Michael Steele said “I thought he was ordering takeout.” Jon Stewart mocked Huntsman and the racist backlash in this clip from the Daily Show (jump to 5:00; and be forewarned: the pronunciation you are about to hear is painful in the extreme):

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Indecision 2012 – New Hampshire Primary Results
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook

Meanwhile, “The Relevant Organs” on Twitter (a feed that pretends to be an official PRC mouthpiece) tweeted:

Huntsman, already old news after last week’s withdrawal from the race, is not the only candidate who opponents have attempted to discredit by tying him closely to China. In the final days before the South Caroline primary, one of Romney’s Super PACs set up robocalls that accused Gingrich of supporting funding that, via the UN, paid for “China’s brutal one-child policy.”

China Policy
China has more often been bogeyman than policy debate subject for the Republican candidates, but even in regards to the latter, the China “policies” that have been floated center on well-worn debates over trade and currency, as when Bloomberg reported that Mitt Romney

already knows what he would do on his first day in the Oval Office: crack down on Chinese “cheating” on trade. Romney vows to designate China a “currency manipulator” and impose duties on its imports if the yuan isn’t allowed to float freely.

Even while locals noted that, “We can’t be protectionist; look at who our biggest employers are.”

China came up in the last South Carolina debate as well, when CNN moderator John King asked Rick Santorum how he would bring Apple Computer jobs back (from China) to the US. Santorum’s answer focused on cutting taxes at home. Santorum’s anodyne answer contrasts with economic saber-rattling in debates last fall, as when Santorum declared, “I want to beat China. I want to go to war with China and make America the most attractive place in the world to do business.”

In contrast, Ron Paul has insisted that “we can’t go looking for scapegoats, we can’t blame China” for economic problems at home, noting that China is increasing its influence through investment in other countries, while, he argues, the US has downgraded its influence through foreign military intervention—one of his major campaign themes (jump to 3:20).

China as Analogy
Beyond China realities and policies is China as analogy—what the US could become, given x or y. For instance, this video (also created by Ron Paul supporters, not the campaign) uses an excerpt in which Paul likens American occupation of foreign countries to an imagined Chinese occupation of Texas in order to drive home his views on the provocative nature of American presence abroad.

Meanwhile, Niall Ferguson has called Romney the “technocrat candidate,” drawing comparisons to Chinese political leaders: “These days, the world headquarters of technocracy is arguably in Beijing, where China’s leadership is chosen through a wholly opaque process of inter-apparatchik machination.”

China policy is unlikely to be a deciding issue in this fall’s election, as the state of the economy and other domestic issues loom large. But if the Republican primary soundbites demonstrate anything more broadly, it is that China—whether as real policy or as recognizable stand-in for autocracy, threat, or other civic depredations—is part of America’s political shorthand.

By James Leibold

The Chinese internet is a wonderfully raucous and interesting place. It has greatly expanded the scope of public discourse and activity, despite the party-state’s extensive censorship regime. Not surprisingly, the world’s largest cyber-community exhibits tremendous depth and diversity: progressive cyber-activists and professional agitators; navel-gazing starlets and steam-venting gamers; mundane infotainment and the banal waxing of quotidian life; and, sadly, dark corners of fear, hatred and paranoia. It’s all there; it simply depends on where one looks. Like other technologies before it, the internet is normatively neutral, and thus can be put to good, bad and anodyne uses: individuals—not tools—shape the contours of different societies and their cultures.

Yet, to date, Anglophone literature on the Chinese internet has tended to celebrate its liberating, subversive potential. The focus here is on those brave dissent-bloggers (Ai Weiwei, Murong Xuecun, Pi San, Zola, and others) who dare to speak truth to power while cleverly poking holes in the “Great Firewall of China.” In recently published books and articles, one finds numerous examples of whimsical yet biting digital parodies (grass-mud horses, river crabs, and steamed buns), online environmental and community activism (the PX and Green Dam incidents), cyber-attacks on local corruption and vested interests (Li Gang Gate and human-flesh search engines), and even occasional open criticism of the Party and its leaders. These are examples of the “blog revolution” that Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California at Berkeley and its widely read China Digital Times (CDT) website, claims is sweeping China, and “shaking up the power balance between the people and the government of the world’s most populous nation.”

In the latest issue of the Journal of Asian Studies, I put forward an alternative scenario (see “Blogging Alone” and Guobin Yang’s reply “Technology and Its Contents”). Without denying the significance of the above examples, I offer an outsider’s critique: an intervention informed by, but positioned outside, the burgeoning field of Chinese internet studies, and instead rooted in my own research on Han cyber-nationalism. In the article, I argue that the Sinophone internet is producing the same shallow infotainment, pernicious misinformation, and interest-based ghettos it has created elsewhere in the world, and these more prosaic elements need to be considered alongside the Chinese internet’s potential for creating new forms of civic activism and socio-political change.

Here I want to take up one concrete example from the “dark side,” a tale which due to space limitations wasn’t included in my JAS article but provides some of the “content and context” that Guobin Yang rightfully suggests is missing from my article. It demonstrates, I would argue, the limits of the Chinese internet as a progressive, bottom-up “marketplace of ideas.” The sort of dynamic “online carnival” that Guobin Yang and others argue is increasing the transparency, accountability and “grassroots, citizen democracy” of Chinese society.

Over the past four years, I have been engaged in a type of digital ethnography, which has taken me deep inside one of the small corners of the Chinese internet—a rather dark, sobering periphery inhabited by an increasingly truculent community of Han nationalists. As I have pointed out elsewhere, this community of several thousand hardcore members is extremely diverse, crossing both national and ideological barriers, but also passionately convinced that the Chinese party-state and its allies are intentionally undermining Han power and privilege. In seeking to draw attention to a regime of government policies that are rendering the once mighty Han race “second-class citizens,” Han cyber-nationalists have created a network of weblogs and BBS forums. Yet the deeper one probes into their online discussions and activism, the murkier truth and reality becomes.

As part of my ongoing research, I published a short essay on China Beat analysing the group’s reaction to the immensely popular 2004 novel Wolf Totem (Lang tuteng 狼图腾). In the article, I described how Hanists view the novel as a despicable celebration of uncivilised and parasitic nomadic culture, which in the words of one of its leading members, was “actually preparing public opinion for the carrying out of racial genocide against the Han.” I also posited that this sort of cyber-racism seemed to be spilling over into Chinese streets, with the 2008-09 race riots in Lhasa, Shaoguan, and Ürümqi serving as an important reminder of how internet rage can whip the marginalized and socially dispossessed into bloody action.

In March 2010, my China Beat article was translated on the Hanwang 汉网 BBS community (www.hanminzu.com), under the title: “Western article suggests: Hanwang incited the bloody attack on minorities during the Tibetan and Xinjiang riots,” and immediately elicited a flurry of discussion, with now over one hundred replies and cross-postings across the Sinophone internet. The seven year-old Hanwang community has over 120,000 registered members and attracts on average 2 million unique visitors per month, although this number tends to fluctuate wildly and was as high as 7 million in April 2010.

I half-expected the sort of unreflective vitriol and spleen-venting that saw me labelled a “white skinned pig” (baipizhu 白皮猪) on Baidu Tieba 百度贴吧 and suggested elsewhere that I allow “the nomadic, war-like and democratic lupine culture,” which I clearly worshipped, “to trample on the naked belly of my wife.” But what really surprised me were the hollow death threats—I received two such warnings—and the way these threads quickly slipped into the realm of bogus babble and absurd conspiracy theories.

Within hours of its translation, Hanwang members were already referring to my article as “the result of collusion between domestic tartars and Western Nazis.” This quickly led to extensive speculation about my ethnic heritage. Someone speculated that I was a Manchu sympathizer seeking to inflame Hanwang members. Noting that I was an academic in Australia, one blogger argued that my surname seemed German and the large number of Turkish migrants in Germany could help to explain my nomadic affinities. Others asserted that Leibold was actually a Muslim surname: “This tool is quite likely a Turk.” Another member piped in: “Although he is German, I bet he’s a minority,” and later asked: “Does anyone think that this guy has a Germanic demeanor?” Another contributor posted up a link to my La Trobe University webpage and photo, stating: “Leibold seems like a fairly common surname in Germany, but this doesn’t mean he is German as there are a large number of German migrants in America and Canada, as seems to also be the case in Australia.”

Based on my photo and suggestions that I was trying to link Han nationalism with Nazi-style racism, another blogger concluded that I must be Jewish. This then lead to further speculation about my nose, with one member declaring it was not high enough like the typical Jewish and Palestinian noses. Others disagreed: “In my opinion, Middle Eastern people have beak-like noses, the bridge of the nose is not too high like Albert Einstein and Yassar Arafat.”

For most Hanwang members, I represented yet another foreigner who hates the Chinese, especially its Han majority. Posts that moved beyond my physical appearance speculated instead on my connections with domestic and international forces opposing the Han. According to the translator of my article, I was part of a complex, international conspiracy ring that linked former Mongolian prince and failed independence leader Demchugdongrub with Harvard Professor John King Fairbank, and George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld of all people.

In an attempt to reassure Hanwang members of my scholarly intentions while engaging them in a bit of honest dialogue, I posted a Chinese language reply to their comments on 3 June 2010. In my response, I pointed out (tactfully, I hope) that many of their comments reinforced my rather dim view of the Hanwang community, and its tendency to “spin conspiracy theories that are often wrapped in racial language.” But I also praised the Chinese internet’s ability to expand the scope of public discourse on issues as sensitive as ethnic relations, and acknowledged the legitimacy of some of their grievances.

Despite some initial discussion about the PRC’s ethnic-based affirmative action policies, the thread once again descended into hysteria and name calling, with Hanwang members suggesting that—among other things—I was “insincere,” “crazy,” “savage-hearted,” and a “stupid liar” who was doing the dirty work of some spy agency. Admitting that he did not have any proof of my links with anti-China spy agencies, one blogger called on me to “please clarify the source of your research funding and why this funding body is willing to spend money so that you can understand our non-mainstream speech on the internet?”

But before I could reply, I found myself banished from Hanwang. On 12 June 2010, Hanwang’s chief administrator intervened, stating that my original post triggered an attack on Hanwang by the censors and its closure to mainland-based netizens. “For the benefit of everyone that likes to browse, I’m afraid I can’t permit Mr Leibold to post any more comments on Hanwang. If Mr Leibold wants to post further explanations, I invite him to do so elsewhere.” In response to a plea from one overseas-based members about upholding freedom of speech on Hanwang, the administrator asserted: “Hanwang isn’t a place where ‘free discussion can occur’,” and that overseas members could not possibly understand the difficulties faced by those living and writing inside “the shield.” “In order to make sure that other netizens don’t lose out,” he concluded, “I ask you to go elsewhere to explain yourself. Thanks for your cooperation.”

Rumors and conspiracy theories have long been a part of the fabric of human society. Yet in the era of instant communication—emails, SMS, and tweets—they can spread like wildfire throughout our communities, and produce disastrous consequences. This type of “counter-knowledge” can easily damage markets, people, and institutions. On one level, the online musings of Han cyber-nationalists can be dismissed as outside the mainstream but innocuous. After all, we are talking about only a handful of China’s half a billion netizens. But rumors and hate speak can prove a toxic combination. Take the way in which online rumors touched off one of modern China’s deadliest race riots in Ürümqi. As Cass Sunstein has argued, misinformation spreads through two distinct yet interconnected processes—social cascades and group polarization—with both of these phenomena rampant on the Sinophone internet.

The flow of information on the internet can resemble a game of Chinese whispers, with a story breaking in one corner before being tweeted, cross-posted and flamed across virtual networks. And when we lack any independent source of information, we tend to believe the views of others, especially if they come from those that share a similar ideological disposition or worldview as us. One can point to numerous examples of rumors on the Sinophone internet: there was the bizarre run on salt and iodine products following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the online hyping of the Li Gang incident last year. In terms of the latter, a recent investigative report by two Chinese journalists pinned the popular internet meme “Sue me if you can – my father is Li Gang” to an anonymous thread on the Tianya BBS Forum, and argues that a terrified, drunk and visibly shaken Li Qiming never uttered these now infamous words after running over two students on the campus of Hebei University.

The problem of internet rumors is compounded by group polarization. Social psychologists have long identified the human tendency towards homophily, the seeking out of like-minded individuals in social spaces ranging from friendships, neighborhoods, playgrounds, and online communities. The filtering and point-casting power of the internet makes it even easier for us to live in information cocoons. And the biased ways in which we all process information means that the opinions of homophilic social circles tend to harden over time, allowing even the most preposterous rumors and conspiracy theories to find widespread acceptance. How else can we explain why a quarter of Americans still think President Obama wasn’t born in the United States and/or is a Muslim? Again, there are plenty of examples of group polarization on the Sinophone internet—from pop-star fan clubs to religious cults—and the popularity of anonymous BBS and micro-blogging communities intensifies this phenomenon in China.

Internet rumors, of course, are not unique to China. But the authoritarian, tightly controlled nature of PRC society and official media makes them more dangerous. When I surf the internet and encounter the latest meme, I can crosscheck information against any number of generally reliable and authoritative sources. Inside the PRC, citizens have come to rightly distrust the mainstream media, leaving them few options—other than scaling the firewall—to verify information. Yet, sadly, only a tiny minority of Chinese netizens possess either the skill or the desire to access information outside the Chinese intranet.

There are various scenarios available here. But let me end with two possible (arguably extreme) alternatives: 1) an informational cascade, either false or true, spreads rapidly throughout Chinese society, and like a virtual prairie fire, undermines the authority and control of the party-state, resulting in a mass revolt or political revolution; or 2) the social cascades and filtering power of the internet continues to polarize Chinese society, with different social and discourse communities walling themselves off from one another, and thus allowing the party-state to easily isolate and stamp out any spot fires of dissent. One might hope for the former, but are we not already witnessing the latter?

James Leibold is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and Asian Studies at La Trobe University in Australia and one of the co-editors of the forthcoming Critical Han Studies: The History, Representation and Identity of China’s Majority (University of California Press).

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