gentle reminder from the folks at tencent

Like many population questions in China, the actual population of We Chat users is guestimated but unconfirmed. According to its app page, We Chat boasts over 300 million users or the population of the United States and growing. In news reports, the population has been posted at 200 million users.

Throughout this trip to the US, I have maintained my links with Shenzhen friends via We Chat. This makes me one of a fast growing — what? — group? Community? Chinese speaking chatty Kathies? If it were a country, the We Chat app population would be the 6th most populous country in the world (population clock). The app would have 2/3 the population of the United States, 1/6 the population of India, and 1/7 the population of China. And here’s the rub: the We Chat population is mediated by one company in Shenzhen.

All this information came to a head because yesterday the We Chat Product Team at Tencent gently reminded me and over  that:

Recently, the message that “We Chat will charge its users” has circulated on weibo. This is malicious gossip. We ask everyone not to believe these rumors. The We Chat Product Team states that it will not charge users, more we are currently developing new functions, hoping that We Chat will be more user-friendly and more fun.

近期在微博上流传的“微信要对用户收费”,纯属有人恶意造谣,请大家不要相信谣言。微信产品团队表示,微信绝不会对用户收费,并称正在开发下一版本的新功能,希望可以让微信更好用,也更好玩。

The team sent the message to me via the We Chat app. I also receive news casts via We Chat. Each message includes a main article with a large image, and three small articles with a thumbnail. Headlines du moment are:

  1. A Bali Plane with 101 passengers sinks into the sea;
  2. Xi Jinping will see American Secretary of State, John Kerry, the Americans call the North Korean question the key issue;
  3. The husband of a Shanghai woman with Avian flu catches it, however its still not clear if people can transmit the disease to each other;
  4. Geng Yanbo was selected Mayor of Taiyuan City, Shandong, he was once known unofficially as “the Mayor who builds cities”.

Now We Chat has a smaller population than Microsoftlandia, which has boasted 750 million users worldwide. However, unlike Mircrosoft, We Chat as actual access to every user through their phones. Mine chimes and I know I have received a message. Moreover, this app is being used to feed me information and news. Thus, today, I’m wondering what it means that (a) I received this message while traveling in the States — indeed, these few weeks We Chat has my primary form of communication with Chinese friends, and (b) given the number of users, the message is itself news — in other words, We Chat has a “private” line to its 300 million users that sidesteps Government oversight.

situated knowledge, strategic investments, and avian flu [again]

More evidence that China and the United States really are the same country; my husband wants to invest in the US, while my father wants to invest in China because [drum roll, please] both believe that the local economy may be alright for short-term investments, but long-term it would be best to have one’s money elsewhere. My Chinese husband sees stability in the US. My US American father sees potential in China’s emerging market; neither sees their country strong and vibrant and leading the international pack twenty years down the road. That said, when I noted that my husband wasn’t confident about keeping money in China, my father suggested that perhaps I should consider moving my money to India.

On the face of it, my father and my husband have different approaches to life. When playing cards, for example, my father tends to play the odds, while my husband tests his luck. When reading, my father enjoys detective novels, while my husband appreciates literary experimentation. When keeping fit, my father keeps a strict schedule, while my husband takes the occasional stroll after dinner. My father is a stock broker; my husband is a playwright. Here’s the thing, though. Both men are savvy, concerned and engaged citizens.  And this past week, both have looked out their respective windows (in small town North Carolina and boomtown Shenzhen) only to see chaos and insecurity.

In my parents’ hometown, I was warned about certain parts of town — in a suburb near Ft. Bragg, home to the Airborne and Special Operations Forces. So it seems, we’re not only flaying about with misguided visions of keeping peace through military means, but also in need of peace keeping at home.  Visiting friends in Georgia, I was informed that it was easy to order common rape drugs (GHB, rohypnol and ketamine) online, while teen alcohol abuse has become even more prevalent than it was when I could drive to the lake and party with high school friends. Indeed, I had a disturbing that was then moment just yesterday. I watched Julie Brown’s “Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun” video. In 1984, when the song came out, I found it a funny parody; thirty years later it seems  both macabre and cruel to profit from the violence in our schools. My mother succinctly summed up the situation with the comment, “I’m happy to be an old hen because today’s chicks have it tough.”

Meanwhile, back in China, avian flu has reappeared in the unsettling wake of pig and bird die-offs. Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang have made such a fanfare of calling for prompt and effective response that the opposite has happened: many are worried precisely because they don’t trust the government. Indeed, navigating Chinese news reports seems almost like navigating around icebergs. There is a sense that the Center only ever shows “10%”of the danger. Consequently, when high-ranking leaders express concern, savvy netizens see flashing warning lights: Xi Jinping has asked vice premier Liu Yanzhong (刘延东) to take charge of this latest public health campaign戴旭 has weibo-ed that too much coverage will cause panic and help the US propaganda machine, and; my husband has warned me — take precautions when returning to China and, if necessary, delay your trip until we have more reliable information.

And at that moment, I realized just how similar US American and Chinese citizens have become in our belief that the insecurity is escalating. Moreover, trepidation has become common sense. In the States, we’re hunkering down because partying leads to rape and schools have become kill zones. In China, we’re hunkering down because eating causes illness and political privilege excuses murder. Sigh du jour: how safe can Indian investments be if they’re also writing off inequality, violence, and eco-cide as the cost of doing business?

xi jinping rocks shenzhen

On his first trip out of Beijing, Xi Jinping visited Shenzhen and none of the streets or areas were cordoned off. And he walked the unguarded walk with Wang Yang, proponent of ongoing neoliberal reforms (transparency and ending corruption). Weibo went wild. As the two toured, Shenzhen residents swarmed taking pictures and uploading them to weibo, taking the trip as a sign that Guangdong may be the first Chinese provence to actually take on corruption.

“Anti-corruption” is, of course, the new content of political “reform”. Hence Xi Jinping’s explicit and repeated references to Deng Xiaoping. The trip itself inscribed the cartography of neoliberal reforms that are glossed as the Shenzhen Model, visiting the Qianhai Cooperation Zone and Tengxun’s corporate headquarters — both symbolize Shenzhen’s role emergence as a leader in new forms of international investment and high technology. In addition, Xi Jinping’s southern tour not only celebrated the 20th anniversary of Deng’s 1992 southern tour, but also included a visit to Luohu’s Yumin Village, the village that became famous during Deng’s 1984 tour. And in case anyone missed the point — Deng Xiaoping reformed Maoism, Xi Jinping will reform corrupt practices — Xi Jinping laid a wreath of flowers at Deng’s statue in Lianhua Park.

It is in this context that “no cordons” between the Party Secretary and the Shenzhen People resonated so strongly. One of my friends commented on the weibo posts saying, “If the biggest (老大) is willing to go out unprotected, the rest of them won’t dare to set up cordons!”

Another replied, “Well Comrade Jiang keeps himself safe.”

“Bah,” was the immediate reply, “He’s an old man, so we’ll give him face. That’s just a question of respect.”

This brief conversation hints at the cultural context of anti-corruption / political reform in China. Both friends were correct. On the face of it, Xi Jinping and new best friend Wang Yang are anti-corruption. Yet, they confront an entrenched power structure that doesn’t retire. All this conjecture matters because many of us are hopeful that Guangdong will be the first province to require corporations and public officials to release financial records to public scrutiny. This is being called “the clean government storm (廉政风暴)”, another reference to the Shekou Model, the Shekou Storm of 1988, when Yuan Geng protected students from investigation by visiting Beijing officials.

just what is china studies anyway?

These past few days I have been reading essays on the social organization of power in the PRC. Most of these essays were written by political scientists and economists, but the odd anthropologist makes an appearance as does the occasional historian.

Here’s the rub: I can’t really tell the difference between this kind of scholarship and everyday gossip in Shenzhen.

Our gossip tends to be about people we know, but importantly also about people with power to make decisions that directly affect our well-being. We see someone do something and then speculate about how and why it happened. We try to anticipate what they will do and how we might get them on our side. But this data gathering and analysis is all tenuous and shaky, and often leaves me feeling both convinced I know what’s happening (vaguely), but also unwilling to make definitive statements because I don’t actually know. Instead, I have a residual belief that someone somewhere can explain what is happening; there is, we maintain, a position of knowing, just not with me, here.

Now it’s not as if this tendency to conflate gossipy analysis with research has gone unnoticed within scholarly circles. Consider, for example, the following 1995 quote from Frederick C Teiwes (Paradoxical Post-Mao Transition: From Obeying the Leader to Normal Politics):

Despite the unprecedented openness of the 1980s and a surfeit of purported inside information, in crucial respects we know less about politics at the top today than we do for the Maoist era. Given the secretive nature of the top leadership, it is hardly surprising that participants in the system often express the view that ‘nobody knows’ what goes on ‘up there’. … Even highly placed figures, including those with personal knowledge of the very top leaders, feel limited in what they know, and their assessments sometimes are at variance in significant ways with those of younger, more middle-level officials either in China or living in exile. Given these limitations, scholarship has unfortunately relied extensively and often indiscriminately on suspect Hong Kong sources to fill the gap. As Lyman Miller has observed, the Hong Kong press has recorded ‘a flood of reports, stories, rumors, and sometimes speculations and fantasies about political events in China’.

My speculative sense du jour is that 15 years after Teiwes cautioned us about how much could actually be known and methodologies for securing some kind of confidence in what we think we have learned about China’s highest ranking leaders, weibo may have allowed this unstable situation to perfect itself. The yearning to know, the speculation and furtive analysis. The 140 character limit, the anonymity, the instant forwarding of unconfirmed posts has blossomed in China not only because its fun, but also because it is parasitic upon and supplements the extant situation — what we know, we glean and extrapolate from conversations, incomplete news articles, and our experience of acting within and against everyday life, whether in China or abroad. Thus, I read caveats about how information and conclusions about China’s ruling elite might be and think, yup that tallies. Not just with my experience of unbridgeable distance between moi and the Center, but also with my experience trying to navigate office politics in Shenzhen unreliable and listening to my friends talk about their experiences trying to navigate even more complicated office politics.

So what?

I’m thinking that there’s a kind of cross-cultural overdetermination in the popularity of weibo and its increasing importance as a subject and source of academic knowledge about Chinese political culture. Chinese people use weibo to create public spaces and then scholars speculate on what it means about Chinese society because in large states, like China but also like the United States for that matter, none of us, even those of us in power actually know what’s happening. We live by creating networks of trust and when public trust falters, we turn elsewhere. Recently, Professor Zhao Dingxin (joint appointments at Chicago and Fudan) gave a talk on”Weibo, Political Public Space and Chinese Development” and Owen Lam has translated portions of the transcript and netizen responses to the talk. Zhao Dingxin asserted provocatively:

Weibo is an absolutely democratic but highly manipulative mode of communication. It is democratic in the sense that the user only need to write a few sentences. Once a person knows how to login, s/he can start writing regardless of the quality. It is manipulative in the sense that each voice does not register the character of an equal vote… If a person controls a lot of money or certain technology, s/he can hire an online army to magnify their voice and create fake public opinion. The space for manipulation is huge.

And my immediate response is, well, yes because within any human relationship the space for manipulation grows with levels of distrust and competing desires. But that space is within each of us and not simply the product of technology. Clearly, the kind of speculative practice that thrives on weibo pre-dated the invention of social technologies. Perhaps instead of an exclusive focus on technology, it might be helpful to ask what about human nature makes weibo so attractive? What fears and desires leave us open to manipulation by digital phrases? The Chinese government is trying to contain the effects of rampant rumors and gossip-mongering by instituting the real name registration system (实名制). I wonder if it wouldn’t be more useful to think creatively about how to rebuild public trust, knowing that this is itself the work of a lifetime.

the 5.12 beichuan incident, nuclear war games, and why the party fears religious organizations

The Party’s refusal to either share power or make political decision making transparent and open to public debate creates mistrust: just what have they got to hide anyway, inquiring minds want to know. In addition, through its control of cultural resources, including the arts and the right to convene, the Party has demonstrated a refusal to acknowledge any viewpoints other than those that shore up the influence of high-ranking officials.

Neitizens and western journalists have responded to Party control over and access to information with reports that (more often than not) conflate conspiracy theories with the “truth”. Not unexpectedly, citizens spend an inordinate of time trying to piece together a big picture out of rumors, veiled allusions and gut feelings. Sadly, the more the Party doesn’t say about Beichuan or Bo Xilai or Chen Guangchen, for example, the more accusatory rumors circulate via the net, weibo, and text messages and with them the festering anxiety that no one can be trusted to speak truthfully. Thus, in today’s China, common sense has it that Party members don’t tell the truth because the truth would harm them politically, while the rest of us are incapable of telling the truth because we don’t know it.

Keywords of the day – trust (信任), good faith (诚意), and loyalty (忠诚) – pivot on the relationship between a healthy society and how good our word might be. The characters for person (人) and word (言), for example constitute 信, the first character in the compound for trust. The character word (言) also appears in sincerity (诚, literally “word” “is realized”), which is an element of the expression good faith (literally “sincere meaning”) and loyalty (faithful sincerity). Moreover, the question of belief (信仰, literally a person who trusted and admired) resonates throughout all levels of society and the most trusted forms of organized alternative to Party disinformation and rumor mongering tend to be religious – Tibetan Buddhism, Xinjiang Islam, and popular Buddhism, Falungong, Christianity in Han communities.

“A Report on and Lessons from the 5.12 Underground Nuclear Explosion at Longmen Mountain, Beichuan,” a recent Epoch Times (大纪元) article illustrates the co-dependent relationship between belief, opposition, and efforts to figure out the truth. The Epoch Times, of course, is the official Falungong news outlet and the article author Lu Deng is the spokesperson for the Chinese Christian Democratic Party. The gist of the article is that the Party used the 5.12 Wenchuan earthquake to cover-up the fact that on the same day, it detonated a nuclear devise at Beichuan, destroying an entire region. Based on a few facts, knowledge of how the Party operates, and deductive reasoning, the argument is compelling and compellingly legal:

The article reconstructs the events of May 12, 2008 by giving a quote from Feng Xiang’s decidedly poetic and vague blog and then re-interpreting it in terms of a nuclear blast. For example, in February 6, 2009 post, Feng Xiang wrote, “In 80 seconds, the mountain collapsed, the ground split open, the mountains shook and the earth moved, the river changed its course. The green mountain lost its color, and all I see is disaster. This was Beichuan’s most devastating moment. A level 8 earthquake, with level 11 destruction”. According to Lu Dong, the phrase “the green mountain lost its color” refers to the fact that all the mountain foliage was burned. Lu Deng also analyzes sections where he asserts that Feng Xiang’s original text, including references to a Chief Pan of the Anti-Chemical Corps of the Second Artillery (二炮防防化部隊隊長番号) have been changed.

As an opening witness, Feng Xiang  (冯翔) is a compelling figure because his position within the Party hierarchy placed in a position to learn the truth, while his loss as a father and a teacher gave him moral authority. Feng Xiang was a teacher and then a vice minister in the Qiang Minority Autonomous County, Beichuan Ministry of Information (北川羌族自治县宣传部). His eight-year old daughter died in the Wenchuan earthquake. Subsequently, his efforts to uncover the truth about her death led to charges that an underground nuclear explosion rather than the Wenchuan earthquake caused the Beichuan disaster. The truth of his position was confirmed through allegations that Feng Xiang was harassed into committing suicide when he attempted to bring this story to the public.

Lu Dong then moves on to analyze corroborating evidence from other sources; it is an “open secret (公开秘密)” that the damage at Wenchuan was minimal and the strength of the quake insufficient to have destroyed Beichuan. In his book “The Epicenter was in Human Hearts (震中在人心)” Mainland author, Li Ming claimed that the Wenchuan quake gave Party officials an excuse to cover-up the real disaster at Beichuan. Web reports suggest the same pattern of information: Wenchuan was serious, but not a disaster and certainly not enough to have decimated Beichuan. Moreover, web posts included reports that indeed anti-chemical corps had gone into the Longmen Mountain Nuclear facility. In addition, local eyewitnesses said that the heat from the blast burned off the skin of water buffalo. Blogger Xiong Furong said, “The geologists may have different explanations for what happened here, but for us ordinary people, we know it was a detonation (熊芙蓉說,“地質專家對此可能有各種不同說法,但對我們普遍人來講,這就是爆炸。)”

Examples from media reports are brought in: a video on youtube; reports from 21st Century Economic Report (21世紀經濟報導) that the mountain continued to reverberate through the night; Southern Weekend (南方週末) reported that the tremors were so strong that villagers clung to each other to keep themselves from falling into the sinkholes; Western China News (華西都市報) reported that in the Green tablets river basin, there were nearly 10 kilometers of cracks in the mountain, some of which were 42 centimeters deep; and even Party media acknowledged the extent and scale of Beichuan exceeded that of Wenchuan. Beichuan TV broadcast, “The entire 2869 km2 County Area was destroyed, 10s of thousands of buildings were destroyed in mudslides. Over one million square meters collapsed and over 100 areas effected by mud. (北川電 「全縣境內2869平方公里受災,出現了數萬處塌方,泥不流和大滑坡。垮塌百萬立方的特大滑坡達100多處.)” A quote from an elderly gentlemen summarizes and ends this section, “The earthquake had the force of the nuclear explosion at Hiroshima (能量相當干400顆廣島原子彈.)”

Lu Dong is relentless in his case. He notes differences between the pattern of damage at Wenchuan, which fell away from an epicenter and Beichuan, which fell in a different pattern, away from Longmen Mountain. Evidence from the Tangshan earthquake is brought in. Even at Tangshan, after the quake subsided there were some buildings and trees standing. In contrast, at Beichuan everything collapsed: 498 kilometers of highway, 6066 kilometers of ordinary roads, 1503 bridges, 131 power stations, 8,944 kilometers of electrical transmission lines, 26,000 kilometers of fiber optic cables, 597 water reservoirs, 9,416 kilometers of channels, 282 broadcast stations, and 2,432 different sites of geological disaster.

Even more disturbingly, after the 5.12 Beichuan disaster, doctors from Sichuan Medical University, the University of Illinois, and Imperial College released studies documenting that many people and animals in the disaster area suffered from radiation poisoning. In addition, specialists suggested that iodine 131 is a radioactive isotope that could have caused spontaneous abortions similar to those seen at Beichuan. However, the Sichuan Party Secretary ordered a blackout on all reports on over 100 fetuses that had died in utero.

If all this wasn’t enough, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency reported that an earthquake did not adequately explain the yellow color and condition of vegetation in Beichuan. Lu Dong ominously concludes, however, that these conditions were consistent with the effects of a nuclear blast. And yes, ongoing Party inspection tours and scientific reports from Beichuan seem consistent with the after effects of a nuclear blast and not an area healing from a natural earthquake.

Clearly, Lu Dong believes that there were underground nuclear experiments at the Longmen Mountain Facility and that an accident occurred. He is a compelling rhetorician, concluding his argument with the reminder that Hawkish General Zhu Chenghu (朱成虎) has threatened to use nuclear weapons to destroy the United States if the country should ever help Taiwan and calling for the Party to meet face these accusations in court.

And there it is. The reason that the Party fears religious organizations.  The unstable situation of chronic Party secrecy and corrosive public suspicions has created an environment in which many people “don’t feel safe (没有安全感)”. However, religious groups continue to investigate and make public charges (if even from abroad), rather than hiding behind anonymous weibos and innuendo. The Chinese Christian Democratic Party has thrown down a political gauntlet in a Falungong newspaper, which also publishes pieces that support the Dalai Lama, forcing those of us living in murky half-truths and deliberate cover-ups: when all is said and done, who do you believe?

early edition vs weibo: who are you reading on the way to work?

Successful monopolies not only dominate an industry sector, but also provide enough diversity within their fiefdom to create the illusion of choice and competing views. Take, for example, the Shenzhen News Publishing Group, Ltd. (深圳报业集团发行有限公司), which was formed in 2002 through the merger of Shenzhen Special Zone News Group and the Shenzhen Commercial News Society. Today, the Group publishes ten newspapers and five journals, owns a book publishing house, and operates the city’s largest news website (深圳新闻网).

The Group has identified four primary news audiences. Shenzhen Daily (深圳日报) offers a Party-centric take on news of the city, country, and world and its audience is self-identified through their (actual or aspired) level of integration into the Municipal apparatus. Shenzhen Commercial News (深圳商报) provides daily reportage on the economy and investors, businessmen, and white collar workers constitute its intended audience. Shenzhen Nightly News (深圳晚报) is a comprehensive newspaper aimed at blue collar workers and ordinary people, who are interested in gossip, local happenings, and a concise reiteration of who’s in charge. Jing Bao (晶报) seems aimed at Generation 80, who are interested in hip takes on the news, more arts reportage, and have slightly “new social movement” impulses, including interests in environmentalism, social justice, and healthy yoga lifestyles.

What happens when new social media challenge that monopoly? Insight comes from how the Shenzhen News Publishing Group has targeted morning commuters on the Shenzhen subway.

During the Shenzhen morning commute, subway riders read Subway 8 a.m., read weibo, or space out; few actually talk to each other or watch the incessant advertising broadcasts on the LED screens (four to a car so that everyone can watch). Shenzhen News Publishing prints Subway 8 a.m. (地铁早8点) under its Shenzhen Metropolitan (深圳都市报) brand and distributes it to commuters on their way to work. The free newspaper unabashedly rehashes news in the most provocative ways, foregoing either analysis or background, reproducing in paper form the weibo experience. In yesterday’s edition, for example, the drought in Lijiang is covered in 91 characters, with a picture three times the size of the text area. Likewise, a 131 character report on Shenzhen’s heatwave was sensationalized with an over-saturated image of a human silhouette against an azure sky and white cloud. In a more explicit weibo reference, a story about a drunken subway rider who used a fire extinguisher to smash a window and then attacked the subway worker who tried to stop him included four surveillance coverage photos, a brief description of what had happened, and a report of weibo cries for human flesh. What’s more, Subway 8 a.m. does not include political news; this isn’t a newspaper, but a collection of sensationalist stories, sports coverage, and gossip.

The differences between Subway 8 a.m. and weibo are also instructive because they remind us that although the weibo and Subway 8 a.m. provide the same content, nevertheless the form of reporting is critical both to a reader’s experience and  (as yet) to capitalist experience, indicating why the Shenzhen Publishing Group has decided to publish a free gossip rag. On the one hand, from a reader’s perspective, Subway 8 a.m. comes in paper form with all the advantages thereof: bigger characters for easy reading, space for somewhat longer stories so that readers can choose between weibo-shorts and more detailed reports on why your child is always coughing or services for wishing neidi mothers, “Happy Mother’s Day!” Consequently, Subway 8 a.m. appeals to those of us who are tired of backlit spaces or enjoy the feel of newsprint or may even want to read an article that will occupy our imaginations for longer than it takes to ride from the Window of the World to the OCT station. On the other hand, from a business perspective, Subway 8 a.m. includes space for advertising. The early edition’s front page includes the masthead, one headline, and two half-page advertisements. Consequently, in between the front-page and the back-page gossip (“We no longer believe in love” was the title of the article on Zhang Yimou’s decision to sign with CCA and split with Zhang Weiping’s Beijing New Pictures (北京新画面影业公司) and yes it was a report on a weibo report!) are 22 pages filled with advertisements that look suspiciously like weibo stories — compelling pictures and seductive blurbs, such as: luxurious homes on the subway line.

Point du jour: the Shenzhen News Publishing Group has met the weibo challenge to its monopoly over local news (and sports and entertainment and society) coverage by becoming a print edition of weibo plus. Like weibo, Subway 8 a.m. is free-of-charge and content-lite, plus easy to read characters, plus slightly longer stories, and plus plus: advertising and info-stories.

rant on the state of shenzhen news

A journalist approached me for an interview on the topic, “送你一个好男人 (We’ll give you a good man)”. His newspaper is currently preparing special articles for International Women’s Day, next Thursday, March 8. I replied that my ideal man would have been a better topic for Valentine’s Day, when fantasy is given free reign and chocolate assumes its rightful place in the food chain. He responded that the newspaper was aiming for a “light” approach to women’s issues by collecting and retelling love stories. I’m presuming that the editorial moment will be to abstract those characteristics shared by good men the world over; my love story would be cross-culturally inspirational. So to speak.

The fact that newspapers are generating content for International Women’s Day isn’t surprising. In fact, making the ideal man the subject of Women’s Day reportage is an accurate reflection of the status of women and the terms of gender debate in Shenzhen. What’s more, I’m not even surprised that their story is gossip — the semiotic daisy chain that strings women and love and sex and gossip is so overdetermined that I’m moderating a roundtable on the relationship between gossip and architecture as part of my Women’s Day celebration. But here’s what I don’t get — why call me? Continue reading