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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,, 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 as its new China representative. In preparing to launch the game, however, 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.


By Nicolai Volland

The Frankfurt Book Fair (Frankfurter Buchmesse), the largest trade show of its kind, turned messy this year before it had even started. At the center of the brouhaha: China, the official guest of honor of the book fair 2009. Or, to be more precise, the row over the revoked invitation of two Chinese “dissidents,” Dai Qing and Bei Ling, to a symposium in the run-up to the Book Fair. The incident had an air of tragicomedy, and turned into a public relations disaster for the organizers as well as an embarrassment for about all those involved. In a larger sense, the debacle illustrates the paradoxes in the public perception of China in Germany; it also raises questions about the status of China-related knowledge in Europe and its ability to reach and influence decision makers in politics and business.

In comparison with the fallout, the story itself seems simple. During the planning stages of a symposium on “China and the World: Realities and Perceptions,” the hosts decided to invite, apart from representatives selected by the Chinese co-organizers, two intellectuals well-known for their critical opinions. The participation of Dai Qing and Bei Ling was announced to the press, only to be revoked a few days later after protests from the Chinese side: The Chinese co-organizers had threatened to withdraw from the event if Dai and Bei were allowed to participate in the planned symposium. After an internal debate (the actual process of the deliberations that took place remain unclear) the German side withdrew their earlier invitations and asked Dai and Bei not to come. Predictably, the revocation of the invitations caused a public outcry and allegations in the press that the organizers of Germany’s most time-honored cultural event were bowing to bullying from a Communist Chinese regime. Once the incident spilled over into the international arena – with reports that the two Chinese intellectuals had been “banned” from the Book Fair (patently untrue of course: they had been disinvited from the symposium, but not barred from participating in the book fair, which will be held four weeks later, from 14-18 October) – Dai and Bei were under pressure to react. Initially annoyed by the flip-flop of the German event management, both decided to attend the symposium nonetheless. Dai secured a visa with sponsorship of the German P.E.N. club (miraculously, she found her ticket to Frankfurt cancelled despite reassurances from the travel agency), while Bei flew to Germany at his own expense. Amidst enormous press attention, Dai and Bei attended the symposium as audience members, and – predictably – triggered a walk-out from the Chinese delegation, who agreed to return only after Dai Qing and Bei Ling had left the conference venue. The spectacle was perfect for the press.

Why Dai Qing and Bei Ling? Dai has received a considerable amount of attention both in China and abroad for her lobbying against the Three Gorges Dam hydroelectric power project (which has gone ahead despite her protests and is nearing completion this year, amid continuing concerns about its environmental impact and the embezzlement of relocation funds) and other ventures into investigative journalism. Her work on the Three Gorges Dam has been translated into English. Bei Ling is a U.S.-based poet and founder of the literary journal Tendency, whose poetry has been translated into numerous languages, including English and German. Both Dai Qing and Bei Ling are thus modestly familiar to China-interested audiences in Europe. The German press (and journalistic peers elsewhere) has been quick to invest Dai and Bei with the honorific “dissidents,” a label that may be disputable, to some extent, and that has contributed to the multiplicity of misunderstandings. After all, Dai Ling continues to live and work in China; she has difficulty publishing in China but retains her passport and is allowed to travel freely. Dai Qing and Bei Ling are dissidents in the sense that they hold opinions at variance with those of the Chinese government, and insist in publicizing these opinions, at sometimes considerable personal cost. For European audiences, however, the category “dissident” is shaped chiefly by the image of activists from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (Aleksandr Solshenitsyn, Vaclav Havel, Wolf Biermann), who were openly hostile to the political regimes in their countries and thus faced constant and highly visible repression. The European press is usually quick to use the term “dissident” in the discussion of Chinese independent intellectuals, and it is not always clear if doing so actually helps their respective domestic audiences to understand the situation of critical minds like Dai Qing.

By revoking the invitation to Dai and Bei, the organizers of the event invited controversy. In fact, the choice of China as “guest of honor” was controversial to begin with. The Frankfurt Book Fair has a history of selecting news-making (headline grabbing) countries as “guests” (the 2008 “guest of honor” was Turkey; in 2004 the focus was on literature from the Arabic world). But the invitation of China may have been especially prone to evoke emotions on radically different ends of the spectrum of political imagination. Perhaps even more so than in the U.S., the public in Europe is torn between the image of China’s economic juggernaut and that of the nation as the last bastion of Communism. Press voices continue to hail China as the “white knight” who is going to save the world from the fallout of American’s reckless financial binge with its massive stimulus program. At the same time, 2009 marks the twentieth anniversary of both the Tiananmen Square massacre and the collapse of those repressive Communist regimes that had cast a shadow over Europe for four decades.

The clash of these two distinct images of China also reveals the schizophrenic nature of the Frankfurt Book Fair. On the one hand, the Buchmesse is the largest trade fair worldwide, attracting more than 7,000 publishers and booksellers worldwide. The Book Fair is a crucial venue of copyright trading and deal making, an industry event that few important players in the industry can afford to miss. During the first three days, admittance is restricted to industry insiders; it is only during the last two days that the Book Fair opens its doors to the general public. Then, however, the fair presents itself in a radically different light: From a multi-billion dollar industry, publishing then becomes a bastion of culture and entertainment; publishers compete with each other to present their stable of writers, by organizing book signing event and public readings. The Book Fair styles itself as the celebration of High Culture, drawing the attention of the German intelligentsia with innumerable discussion forums, many of which are carried in the press and on television.

China, the “guest of honor” 2009, has been torn between these two identities of the Frankfurt Book Fair. Industry interest in the Chinese publishing market is huge. Despite its admission to the WTO in 2001, China has kept its publishing industry almost entirely off limits to foreign investment; while some international publishing groups have tried their luck in fringe businesses, with mixed results (for example, the German giant Bertelsmann Bookclub), no foreign companies have been allowed to enter the market nor has the Chinese government approved foreign investments in Chinese publishing houses. There have been signs recently, however, that the Chinese publishing industry is being prepared for the next step in marketization; after the establishment of publishing conglomerates that have become the new behemoths of the industry, these conglomerates are expected to go public on the Chinese stock market before long, and there have been rumors for some time that the semi-official “gray” publishers (these “second channel” publishers usually operate as “publishing consulting companies”) may be given increased legal leeway. For the foreign publishing industry, the potentially huge Chinese print market thus remains enormously attractive. The consideration to invite China as “guest of honor” to the world’s biggest industry fair is motivated by these considerations. The fact that sixty Chinese state-owned publishing houses have heeded the call to Frankfurt shows that there is considerable interest on both sides to increase collaboration.

On the other hand, the Frankfurt Book Fair mobilizes the German intelligentsia with a wide array of meetings, symposia, and public debates organized in the run-up and on the sidelines of the fair – events that receive ample press coverage. In these debates, a very different image of China surfaces: The critical lens of the European intelligentsia tends to zoom in on topics including human rights and democracy; in the public imagination, publishing and the world of books are inseparable from the freedom of speech and related core values of the democratic polity – Gutenberg’s printing press in Mainz (a stone’s throw from Frankfurt) and Martin Luther’s print rebellion against the imprimatur of the Roman Catholic church go hand in hand. China’s political system and the Communist Party’s censorship of the press flies in the face of the professed core values of the German intelligentsia, which celebrates itself annually at the book fair.

The decision to name China as the guest country of the 2009 Book Fair made the clash of the economic-superpower-China and the repressive-Communist-regime China virtually inevitable. Both images are simplistic and little more than caricatures of the complexities embodied by contemporary China. It is discomforting to see, then, how easily an otherwise well-informed European public could be taken hostage by images so crude and superficial. The brouhaha around Dai Qing and Bei Ling shows exceptionally poor judgment by the organizers of the symposium and the managers of the Book Fair. Yet the incident also highlights the deplorable limitations of China-related knowledge in Europe. Germany is home to first-rate scholarship about modern China (for example at my alma mater, in Heidelberg, or at the University of Frankfurt itself), but sinological expertise is still failing to reach a wider audience and affect decision-making processes such as those at the management level of the Book Fair.

The decision to hold a symposium on “China and the World” in the run-up to the Book Fair was ill-conceived to begin with. To turn the event into a propaganda show for the official Chinese delegation was out of the question and would have invited protests from the critical public, but the decision to mend the situation by inviting two “dissident” writers and asking them to perform a dialogue in front of German TV cameras – and hoping that the official Chinese delegation would comply with this design – must be described as outright naïve. The protests of the Chinese side would have been predictable to anyone with a modest knowledge of Chinese affairs, but it seems that no one in the organizing committee did ever seek expertise from the German Chinese Studies community. If the German side wanted to create a genuine dialogue about “realities and perceptions” of China, there would have been other means than inviting personae non grata like Dai and Bei.

The unrealistic expectations of the Book Fair organizers filtered into the rhetoric surrounding the “China and the World” symposium, and remain visible even in translation, in the awkward term “official China” that was used by the spokespersons for the Book Fair (“The objective of the symposium is to facilitate dialogue with official China…,” as Book Fair director Juergen Boos put it). The German term, das offizielle China, reflects the assumption that there is an official Chinese position on topics ranging from literature to press freedom, in contrast to “unofficial” – i.e. dissident – opinions. Informed observers, including those from the academic community, have tried for years to emphasize the diversity of contemporary China and the complexity of its cultural sphere, but as the tumultuous symposium shows, they seem to have made little headway in communicating this more nuanced understanding to the public at large, which all too readily looks at China through the lens of Stalinist Eastern Germany.

Looking back, who has gained from the symposium incident? No one, I believe. The buzz surrounding the revoked invitations to Dai Qing and Bei Ling has ended in embarrassment for all those involved. The first casualty of the incident is the Chinese government. The concerted walk-out of the Chinese delegation from the auditorium left the impression of an overly nervous government whose representatives duck away from controversy and difficult questions posed by a critical public. Neither has the sentence “We did not come to be instructed about democracy,” which a former Chinese ambassador hurled at reporters, helped the image of China. True, a self-confident and powerful nation can and should resist attempts at moralizing and grandstanding, but the vehemence of the protests against the invitations to Dai and Bei and the walk-out achieved just the opposite. The pressure the Chinese government put on the organizers of the symposium confirmed the image of China as a bully, in blatant disregard of its own rhetoric about non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations (this observation was made by Frank Ching in the New Straits Times). It shows a poor understanding of the workings of a time-honored institution such as the Frankfurt Book Fair, disregard for the conventions of public debate at symposia like this one in a democratic nation and, more generally, utter misjudgment of public opinion in Europe. If the Book Fair was an attempt to bolster China’s soft power abroad, then this attempt has failed spectacularly.

It is questionable, too, what Dai Qing and Bei Ling have gained from their defiant stance. Their decision to come to Frankfurt is understandable, and the ferocity of the Chinese government’s reaction made it almost impossible for them to back down. But was their public protest during the “China and the World” symposium the only – and the most effective – way to voice their protest? The symposium was convened weeks before the Book Fair even begins, and most of the international audience will not arrive until shortly before the fair kicks off in October. During the Book Fair itself, hundreds of China-related events will take place, and it should be assumed that Dai Qing and Bei Ling would easily have found better opportunities to communicate with the German and international public. The Book Fair program itself hosts a wide variety of voices and guests; as Didi Tatlow of the Wall Street Journal points out, hard-core dissidents such as Uyghur independence activist Rebiya Kadeer and representatives of the Dalai Lama are scheduled to speak in Frankfurt during the Book Fair. Dai Qing has generally taken a much less confrontational approach towards her critics; it is not clear how her appearance at the symposium helped to promote her cause in China or to communicate with the public in Europe, beyond the sensational headlines.

The prize for the poorest performance undoubtedly goes to the German organizers. The planners of the symposium demonstrated particularly poor judgment in their attempt to present their German audiences with a stage-managed debate between a Communist regime and its dissident critics; the conceptualization of the event reads like a public demonstration of a European brand of tolerance and dialogue that never took place. A stage-managed confrontation of different opinions has little to do with the commitment to nuance and mutual respect that real dialogue requires. The revocation of the invitations proved to be predictably disastrous, as it alerted the German and international press to an event that would have otherwise received little attention. Instead of fostering dialogue and reducing the temperature of the fraught Euro-Chinese relationship, the symposium incident became a re-enactment of numerous previous clashes in which European politicians exposed themselves to charges of hypocrisy or of “bowing to China” – the German chancellor Angela Merkel has not too long ago learned what it means to be punished by Beijing for meeting the Dalai Lama, and French president Nicolas Sarkozy has had similar experiences. European decision makers large and small, have found themselves caught between their domestic public opinions and the need to manage their relationship with the emerging economic superpower. Sarkozy’s sudden policy reversals have not helped his position, and neither has the statement by Book Fair director Boos that “the Frankfurt Book Fair will not allow itself to be pressured by anyone” enhanced his own credibility. Driven by misjudgment and an overly simplistic view of China, the event management had maneuvered itself into a hopeless situation. The public is unlikely to be served any better unless decision makers such as those in charge of the Book Fair take into serious account the significant amount of expertise on China that is available in Europe, and develop a more nuanced understanding of China that goes beyond the economic-powerhouse and repressive-Communist-regime dichotomy.


On Sept. 24, the Spiegel magazine reported that the poet and critic Liao Yiwu had been barred from leaving China to attend a Book Fair related event. Liao had been invited by the Haus der Kulturen in Berlin, a non-profit, to attend a symposium, but had been told by Chinese State Security personnel that he would not be permitted to leave the country. The news predictably caused a storm of protest in Germany, with the head of the German P.E.N. chapter publicly musing that it may have been “too early” to invite China as “guest of honor” to the Frankfurt Book Fair. Stay tuned for more controversy in the run-up to the fair, which starts on October 14.

Nicolai Volland is Assistant Professor in the Department of Chinese Studies at the National University of Singapore and previously wrote “Boss Hu and the Press” and “After the Olympics, What?” for China Beat.


It has been almost a decade now since China regained control of Macau, but the city’s present and future crops up in news coverage much less than Hong Kong, another reclaimed colony. We’re delighted, then, to be able to run this piece about Macau from someone who has been spending time there, meditating on not only whether or not Macau is democratizing but also how Macau’s relationship to the mainland and the world is changing its economy and society. For those interested in background information on Macau, see the reading list that follows the piece.

By Dustin Wright

Sitting in a hip dessert shop recently, I asked three University of Macau undergraduates, all Macau natives, what they thought about Macau’s new Chief Executive-elect, Fernando Chui. He is only the second person to hold the post since the Portuguese handover in 1999.

“I don’t really think about it,” one told me. “Young people here don’t really think about who is in the government.” The two others nodded in agreement. “Connections are the most important thing to succeed in Macau. Anyone here who is rich was born rich.”

Such apathy can be understood, given that Chui’s appointment as the new head of Macau was decided by a 300-member “election committee” comprised of the city’s elite, many of whom have strong ties to PRC officials. Chui, the former Secretary of Social Affairs and Culture and holder of college degrees from the United States, including a PhD in Public Health from the University of Oklahoma, will be officially sworn in this December. The victory of his unopposed election was a foregone conclusion, emphasized by the fact that The Macau Daily lead with a headline declaring Chui’s victory before the vote actually took place. An online poll at the English language showed that 44 percent of respondents felt that Chui’s top priority should be combating public corruption, while only 2.3 percent stressed the importance for political reforms. This strong displeasure towards corruption was likely exacerbated by a recent high-profile case involving a former official in Macau, now serving 28 years in prison.

However, not everyone is apathetic toward the election process. On election day, pro-democracy legislators unveiled banners and staged a protest in front of the iconic façade of St. Paul’s ruins, calling for universal suffrage by 2019. The rally hinted at the fact that political (and economic) disparities are just as Macanese as Portuguese egg tarts.

As with the changing of the guard in the Chief Executive’s office, the gaming sector might also be in a state of transition. For nearly four decades, the casino industry has been heavily influenced by one man, the philoprogenitive Stanley Ho, whose failing health has raised speculation as to who will make up (and benefit from) Macau’s next generation of corporatists.

All of this begs the question: What is the Macau that Chui will soon be running?

Macau Special Administrative Region (SAR) is a city of variations, scattered with amalgamations, and permeated with assimilations. Since the sixteenth century, Macau’s seemingly effortless blending of cultures has impressed and marveled those who visited and inhabited this Portuguese outpost on the Pearl River Delta. “Culturally,” writes Austin Coates, “there has never been anything like Macao, where so much of China and so much of Europe are enshrined in one small place.”[1] Wang Zeng Yang, President of the Cultural Institute of Macau, remarked that this is a city “where different cultures are treated not as mere rituals, but instead, as truly symbiotic, as totally complimentary,” and that “even tourists in Taiwan advise their friends if they wish to know Europe but do not want to take long trips, to visit Macau, to know how it feels to be in a European city.”[2] At a very cosmopolitan and Iberian dinnertime of 10:00 p.m., you might find yourself dining on stewed bacalhau (Portuguese salted fish) and African chicken. At the same restaurant the previous night, it was mapo tofu, steamed Chinese broccoli drowned in oyster sauce, and eggplant sautéed in oil and chilies, washed down with milk tea.

Just as identity and cuisine are in constant motion in Macau, so is the movement of capital. Since the handover of Macau back to Chinese rule a decade ago, and the relaxation of monopolistic gaming licenses in 2002, foreign casino operators have set up shop at a dizzying pace. Macau peninsula—along with the islands of Taipa and Coloane—makes up only 29 square kilometers and often goes unnoticed when compared to the larger Hong Kong SAR. However, in terms of generating wealth, size doesn’t matter: Las Vegas is 7.5 times bigger than Macau, yet more money is generated in the SAR than Sin City.

Climbing up the hill to Guia Fortress, one of the many historical sites that pepper the peninsula, one can see much of Macau spread out below. Looking south, the Sands Macao Hotel, which is responsible for fully two thirds of Las Vegas Sands Corp.’s profit, fights for elbow room with a bevy of Chinese and foreign-owned casinos. Large condominium complexes are still being built within sight, though at a slower pace than this time last year. Fisherman’s Wharf, a Disneylandesque amusement park built in the images of famous landmarks and cities, including a mock Coliseum, sits atop 111,500 square meters of concrete along the waterfront. Even Isidoro Francisco Guimarães, governor of Macau from 1851 to 1863 and the first to introduce licensed gambling, could hardly have imagined the garishness of the city today.

To the west, towards the central business district of Macau, one can see the immense and lotus-shaped Grand Lisboa rising from a sea of comparatively diminutive casinos, along with banks, shopping malls, pastel-colored cathedrals, and apartment blocks. Nearby, a towering needle, complete with a rotating restaurant and bar, confirms Macau’s ascension as a tourist haven. Wynn Macau is visible, a casino as much as a high-end shopping bonanza for tourists, most of whom come from mainland China. An American expat working in Macau told me about his experience watching a man, who was half-naked and sweating profusely, struggle to fit into a shirt while standing in the middle of Wynn’s Giorgio Armani store. I asked why the store personnel would allow such behavior, to which the expat, shocked by my ignorance, replied without pause, “Because he had money.” (When Henry Kissinger came to Macau a few months ago to speak at Macao Polytechnic University, his old friend, Steve Wynn, made sure to come to listen and, perhaps, comped the former Secretary of State’s room at the Wynn Macau.)

On a clear day you can catch a glimpse of a smattering of islands to the east, the largest of which is Lantau, part of Hong Kong SAR, while to the north is the city of Zhuhai, gateway to Guangdong Province and mainland China, visible from much of Macau. Travelling between the SARs and the mainland ensures one’s passport is stamped with the frequency of a pre-EU jaunt through Europe.

It’s a small city, yes, but the numbers are big. Macau’s population is roughly 560,000, nearly identical to that of Las Vegas. With such a small land area, Macau is one of the mostly densely populated places on earth. Government figures indicate that 23 million people visited Macau in 2008 and helped the city generate nearly $22 billion in GDP. With so many visitors spending so much money, Macau is a city that truly never sleeps.

The massive expansion of Macau’s gaming industry dovetailed with the global real estate gorge of the last decade, giving way to a bevy of expensive condominium projects, followed by the subsequent drop in market prices late last year. In Senado Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a lodestone for tourists, the young professionals who bought many of those condos bark into Blackberries and loosen their European-brand ties, while tourist families vie for space to take their portraits in front of the picturesque St. Dominic’s Church. Macau’s overall standard of living is quite high, with a quality-of-life index comparable to Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

However, even with the huge influx of capital (or because of it), economic inequality is prevalent. Not far away from Senado Square, in an area known as Fátima Parish, lies a rusted and mosquito-infested slum, where elderly women can be seen washing dishes at a communal spigot. It isn’t a unique example of poverty in greater China, but it’s proximity to the corporatist wealth of the casinos makes the disparity all the more egregious. Inoperable cars sit on blocks as they are slowly parted out, while above, a messy labyrinth of wires indicates that much of electricity that people can access in this area is pirated. It is a squatter community of mostly mainland Chinese immigrants, some of whom entered Macau illegally but were later granted legal status. Until 1979, Chinese mainlanders could enter Macau without restriction, though it was illegal for them to do so under PRC law. Portuguese administrators tacitly endorsed the immigration of Chinese mainlanders, eager to have a ready supply of cheap labor that could be easily repatriated once their labor had been exploited.

Fatima Parish. Photo by Erica Hashiba.

The size of the slum has been halved since 1991, mostly through government campaigns to tear down the shacks and build high-rise housing and commercial buildings, evicting many of the squatters once their labor had been utilized to build the more expensive new real estate. Today, these towers loom over the shacks of corrugated tin that remain. Even though the slum is physically smaller and stronger immigration laws have made it more difficult for mainlanders to come to Macau, squatters are just as essential for today’s labor demands as they were twenty years ago. Sociologist D.Y. Yuan, a longtime researcher of Macau’s immigrant community, writes that, “Squatters have continuously provided a cheap source of labor, helping Macau to remain competitive in the international trade market.”[3] Last year’s census indicates that there was an increase of 8.2 percent in the number of “non-resident workers,” making up a population of over 92,000, many of whom have less than a junior high school education. Most of these workers are not salaried staff in the casinos (jobs which can require expensive training) but are instead employed in construction and more vulnerable to the global recession. When the economic crisis hit last fall, many ambitious building projects were shuttered and thousands in the construction industry lost their jobs.

For those lucky enough to have kept their jobs in the casinos, gaming is still profitable, even though the number of tourists has decreased (due in part to travel restrictions by Beijing and the curtailing of gambling by PRC officials). Direct gaming tax revenue doubled from 2006 to 2008 to nearly $5 billion and many of the Macau government’s 20,000 employees can expect a pay raise this year. For the slums in Fátima Parish, things will likely remain the same.

The hotel Lan Kwai Fong. Photo by Erica Hashiba.

It remains to be seen whether Chief Executive-elect Chui will be able to oversee the level of prosperity heralded during the last decade, or indeed whether Macau can remain a global gambling Mecca. For some, surely, things could be worse. Down the street from my apartment, I recently happened upon the opening party for a new hotel. On the street where I stood, looking rather pathetic with my mouth agape, throngs of people queued for admittance, while glittery VIP couples seemed to prance in slow motion as they made their way to the front of the line. Up above us, the silhouettes of a dozen voluptuous women—paid performers—gyrated in the windows of the new hotel. A powerful sound system blasted Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” throughout the neighborhood, inviting all of Macau to find “someone to hear your prayers, someone who cares.”

This fall, Dustin Wright will begin his doctoral studies in the Department of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Recommended readings on Macau:

Lucky for us, Hong Kong University Press just republished many of Austin Coates’ informative and immensely enjoyable books on Macau: City of Broken Promises (fiction), A Macao Narrative, and Macao and the British: 1637-1842 Prelude to Hong Kong.

For a general background on Macau, check out Jonathan Porter’s Macau : The Imaginary City : Culture and Society, 1577 to Present (Westview Press, 1999).

Cathryn H. Clayton, Assistant Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii and a prominent scholar on Macau, has written the forthcoming Sovereignty at the Edge: Macau and the Question of Chineseness (Harvard University Press, 2009).

Atlantic correspondent James Fallows’ take on Macau.

César Guillén Nuñez, art historian and Research Fellow at the Macau-based Ricci Institute, recently wrote a wonderful book entitled, Macao’s Church of Saint Paul: A Glimmer of the Baroque in China (Hong Kong University Press, 2009).

[1] Austin Coates, A Macau Narrative (Hong Kong: Heinemann Education Books [Asia] Ltd, 1978), p. 105.
Wang Zeng Yang, “Unveiling a Cultural Dialogue,” in Lucy M. Cohen and Iêda Siquera Wiarda (eds.), Macau: Cultural Dialogue Towards a New Millennium (USA: Xlibris Corporation, 2004), p. 17.
[3] D. Y. Yuan, Chinese Immigration and Emigration: A Population Study of Macau (University of Macau, 2000), p. 11.

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By Haiyan Lee

America’s finest news source The Onion has a new owner! Since last week, readers have been bombarded with the good tiding, from the modified masthead, logo, and tagline, to news headlines, editorials, audio and video clips, and ads, lots of ads. The new owner goes by the appetizing name of Yu Wan Mei 鱼完美 Amalgamated Salvage Fisheries and Polymer Injection Group, supposedly a Chinese conglomerate from the inland province of Sichuan. The corporation specializes in fish by-products salvaged from the “ocean’s bounty.” Some of its finer samples are “Broiled Shark Gums,” “Multi-Flavor Variety Pack Of Pickled Fish Cloaca,” “Lightning Power Monkfish Cerebral Fluid Energy Drink,” “Mr. Steve’s Safe And Natural Rhinoceros-Cure For The Inferior Male,” and “Yu Wan Mei Miscellaneous Flavor Paste.”

But, as the YWM homepage proclaims in bold letters, the corporation is “diversifying into myriad subsidiaries” such as “Szu-Maul Lethal Injection Truck And Van Manufacturing,” “Speedee Slab Quick-Setting Concrete Consolidated,” “Jhonson & Jhonson Baby’s Shampow,” “Yu Wanmei EZ Home Foreclosure Program,” and “Amalgamated Chinatowns of America, Inc.” The new owner is pushy, to say the least. Every news and non-news item in the paper comes with at least one YWM product placement reference. Ads containing shibboleths in simulated non-grammatical English (“Glorious Fish By-Product Make for Long Life, Good Fortune”) rudely bisect or multiply interrupt any and all reports. At a more subliminal level, the end of every text is marked with the Chinese character for fish. The video clips go overboard with animated YWM icons and messages flashing across the screen and with the anchors blending YWM commercials effortlessly into their tabloid-style interviews. The Onion has positively turned fishy. Read the rest of this entry »


By Timothy B. Weston

It’s been moving to watch the response in China to the July 11 death of renowned scholar, Ji Xianlin (1911-2009). While Ji’s unsurprising departure at the ripe old age of 98 has not brought quite the same flood tide of emotion and cultural stock taking in China as Michael Jackson’s completely unexpected death a few weeks earlier at age 50 has in the United States and around the world, the way the venerable scholar is being remembered in Beijing is nevertheless remarkable. Long lines of people wishing to pay their last respects waited for hours to gain entrance to a memorial ceremony held on the Beijing University campus where Ji taught, the press was full of tributes, and Communist Party leaders were very public in the honors they paid to the man from academe. In the United States it is hard to imagine the death of an elderly scholar, of a humanist who worked on the ancient past no less, ever attracting anything approaching the level of attention that Ji’s passing has in China.

Ji Xianlin and Michael Jackson shared nothing in common except the coincidence of the timing of their deaths and the fact that in passing both were mourned as departed cultural symbols. Frankly, as the hysteria over Michael Jackson’s death has continued to pulsate through American society I have found it refreshing to follow the treatment that Ji Xianlin’s high-minded life has received in China. I feel this way even though it’s clear that the Chinese Communist Party’s highly public paeans to the deceased scholar have not been free of political considerations and while also acknowledging that Michael Jackson’s life and career certainly merit serious reflection and social commentary. Still, when looking at the way Ji’s death has been treated as compared with Jackson’s, and at what the two cultural symbols meant to their times and places, I find myself more drawn to the values and maturity on display in China than to the self-referential, entertainer-obsessed conversation that Jackson’s death has occasioned in the United States (even if much of that conversation has been about the sadness and oddity of Jackson’s life).

Ji Xianlin was without doubt an outstanding scholar whose career was noteworthy for its singular achievements and cosmopolitan dimensions. Originally a student of Western literature at Qinghua University, in 1935 Ji traveled to Germany for foreign study. At the University of Göttingen he moved in a dramatically new direction, choosing to major in Sanskrit and other ancient Indian languages under the direction of Ernst Waldschmidt and Emil Sieg. Ji received his Ph.D. in Germany and after World War II returned to China where he took a position at Beijing University and founded the Department of Eastern Languages. He chaired that department for the next three decades and built it into one of the most important academic departments at Beida and China’s premier center for the study of Eastern languages.

Ji’s greatest scholarly accomplishments came in the realm of the history of Indian Buddhism and comparative linguistics. According to his former student Zhang Baosheng, now a professor in the Department of Foreign Languages at Beijing University, Ji’s academic achievements represented the next wave of greatness within the long, proud tradition of Chinese evidential scholarship after the great contribution made by Ji’s patron, the celebrated historian Chen Yinke, who helped bring Ji to Beida in the first place. Whereas Chen Yinke used literary works as a means of verifying history, Ji Xianlin pioneered a method of using comparative linguistics to verify historical events and to track changes over time. Ji’s scholarly findings attracted international attention and made him a world leader in his field; over the course of his career he was awarded major academic prizes in India, Iran and Japan.

In addition to pioneering new methodologies and creating new knowledge, Ji Xianlin also held important administrative positions in the later part of his life. Following the Cultural Revolution he was called upon to help re-build major Chinese academic institutions ravaged over the previous decade. In 1978 he became vice president of Beijing University (which position he held until 1984) and also director of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ South Asia Research Institute. During his career he also served as chairman of various professional organizations, such as the Chinese Foreign Literature Association, the Chinese South Asian Association, and the Chinese Language Society.

Ji Xianlin’s achievements within academe distinguish him as one of the towering humanistic scholars of the Chinese twentieth century, as an intellectual whose name deserves to be mentioned, as it was again in a tribute piece recently published in Beijing, along with luminaries such as Chen Duxiu, Chen Yinke, Hu Shi, Li Dazhao, Liang Qichao, Lu Xun, Wang Guowei, and Zhao Yuanren. But Ji’s career, centered as it was in the esoteric academic field of Indology, which few people understand or appreciate, cannot account for the long lines of people wishing to pay their last respects at Beijing University nor for the tributes that poured in from highly placed people within the academic, publishing and cultural spheres upon news of his death. Likewise, Ji’s scholarly accomplishments and official positions at key academic institutions do not explain why the Chinese press has carried so much discussion of the scholar’s life, why Communist Party leaders Hu Jintao, Jiang Zemin, Wu Bangguo and Xi Jinping sent flower wreathes and offered condolences upon news of his death, or finally why, on July 19, his corpse draped in the red flag of the People’s Republic (Ji joined the party in 1956) and laid out for a final viewing, other top officials, including Wen Jiabao, Jia Qinglin, Li Chanchun, and Li Keqiang, showed up to make their farewells in person.

To understand why Ji Xianlin’s passing has struck such a chord it is necessary, I believe, to recognize that in his later years he had become a living symbol of the ideal Chinese scholar, and as such of a type of person who it is ever more difficult to find in today’s fast-paced, money-crazed Chinese society. Here was a man who had been born and raised in the old society, who knew the classics, who had attainted great fame and yet who did not attempt to convert his glory into power, wealth, or celebrity, who in fact talked down his achievements and continued to work hard at his research as long as he was able. Ji was not first and foremost a Confucian philosopher but he nevertheless came to be seen as a kind of secular Confucian sage who personified the committed life of the scholar. His integrity and wisdom, then, not his outstanding scholarly achievements, led to his being recognized as a “national treasure” (国宝), though he himself rejected such a label.

While the world around him buzzed first with Maoist revolutionary fervor and then with Western-style modernization, Ji Xianlin, identified with the secluded garden campus that is Beijing University, remained committed to his study of the ancient, non-Western past. He devoted his life not to the practical but to historical discovery, and in so doing was adamant in claiming that civilizational values other than those associated with the modern West deserve to be known, celebrated, and even selectively embraced as humanity collectively makes its way forward in time. The steadiness of conviction that informed Ji Xianlin’s life, and the messages he derived from his life’s work, proved highly reassuring during a period of unceasing and disorienting change.

In his humility and seriousness of purpose it is hard to imagine a greater contrast to Michael Jackson, the fallen American cultural symbol. Whereas Jackson forever reinvented himself and never ceased turning his life into spectacle, Ji occupied a well-established scholarly role with grace and distinction. Jackson was all artifice, Ji not the least bit affected. Jackson appears never to have known who he was, Ji to have possessed a remarkable inner compass and knowledge of self. The scholar lived simply, dressed in the clothes of a common worker, and was available, kind and respectful to one and all, regardless of social station. As those themes come up again and again in the articles that appeared after Ji Xianlin’s death I sense in them a nostalgia for the ideal of a life defined by the quest for pure knowledge and self improvement, for an age when those ideals were aspired to by society’s best and brightest.

For Chinese intellectuals Ji Xianlin meant more still. To them he was a hero who used (and so risked) his reputation to speak out on issues of concern to all. Like most of his colleagues, Ji suffered during the Cultural Revolution. Nevertheless, during that period he secretly worked to produce a brilliant Chinese-language translation of the Ramayana from the original Sanskrit, an act of bravery and scholarly devotion for which he later became celebrated. When after the Cultural Revolution he was named to high administrative posts at Beijing University and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences he became one of the great survivors of the age and a symbol of the indomitable spirit of truth-seeking Chinese intellectuals.

In the mid-1980s Ji Xianlin added to that reputation when he published an essay calling for a new and more favorable appraisal of Hu Shi, who of course had been vilified during the Cultural Revolution. Ji’s point was that whatever Hu’s political mistakes, his contributions to the study of Chinese literature stood on their own and needed to be recognized. Not everything should be politicized, Ji maintained, a message that was widely praised within Chinese intellectual circles at the time. In the late 1990s, with the publication of his widely read and highly acclaimed account of his own experience during the Cultural Revolution, Memoirs from the Cowshed (牛棚杂亿), Ji’s reputation for speaking the truth in a courageous and thoughtful manner was deepened still further.

While it is impossible to know with certainty, it would seem that the Communist Party lavished so much praise on Ji Xianlin upon his death not only because many of its top leaders recognized his scholarly achievements and admired him personally (Wen Jiabao is even said to have referred to Ji as his mentor) but also because in embracing him and what he stood for they were able to communicate to Chinese intellectuals on the eve of the all-important Sixtieth Anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China that they share heroes in common, that they speak a common language. Unlike American political leaders, most of whom do not feel compelled to demonstrate any cultural competency whatsoever, top political leaders in China desire to be taken seriously by intellectuals and to display to the public at large that they are not only working to protect and strengthen the country but also that they prize the scholarly custodians of the Chinese past. Culture, history and politics are intertwined. So to bind Ji Xianlin to the political leadership in a clear way, the party press went out of its way to identify Ji as a great Chinese patriot, as a figure who dedicated his life to his people and to his country’s improvement. In these ways it was useful for the Communist Party and its official media organs to mark Ji’s passing and to extol his virtues.

Finally, Ji Xianlin happened to pass at the very moment when the sad and murderous recent ethnic violence in Xinjiang was filling the media in China and around the world. As the fractiousness of contemporary Chinese society, at least one part of it, was on display and impossible to deny (even if its causes will long be debated), and as Party leaders scrambled to contain the damage, an orderly period of mourning for a great man, a great Communist with popular appeal, was an attractive possibility.

And here Ji Xianlin’s worldview and unique scholarly contributions proved particularly meaningful, for one of the things that Ji stood for most powerfully was the idea that, to quote Ji himself: “Cultural exchange is the main driv[ing force] for humankind’s progress. Only by learning from each other’s strong points to make up for shortcomings can people constantly progress, the ultimate target of which is to achieve a kind of Great Harmony.” Not only should the Chinese people admire Ji Xianlin for his great scholarly achievements and his integrity, the official obituaries seemed to suggest, they should also realize that he stood for cultural tolerance, for the idea that only by accepting and interacting with one another can all people (the nation) prosper. Harmony as the goal—something Hu Jintao and Ji Xianlin, the great sage, could agree on.

Timothy Weston teaches in the department of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is a participant in the National Committee on US-China Relations’ Public Intellectuals Program and author of The Power of Position: Beijing University, Intellectuals, and Chinese Political Culture, 1898-1929 (UC Press, 2004).

All photos from Xinhua: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5


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