thinking about the possibility of non-state communities

For the third year, Group+ has ranked its top-30 online communities, which is interesting as it is part of a model of disseminating information about not-for-profit, non-governmental organizing. Over 1,500 groups use Group+, a Shenzhen-based online platform to organize real time “community” events. Fat Bird ranked 3rd, even above the Shenzhen Reading Federation (#5) and Green Mango (#13), which have much broader audiences than does experimental theater. What do these rankings tell us about the possibilities of imagining outside the state in Shenzhen specifically and China more generally? Continue reading

handshake 302: WeChat connections

Handshake 302 has been we-chatting in Chinese for half a year now. We are now starting to offer updates in English as well. If you scan our barcode (above), you will receive updates in English and Chinese about one of Shenzhen’s most vibrant public arts projects. The updates also include information about upcoming events and instructions about how to join our events. Welcome to the conversation!

model minority with chinese characteristics

As China recovers from what General Secretary Xi Jinping has called a terrorist attack in Kunming, just a note on the weixin posts that have been forwarded within my circle. Much fear of Muslims and people from Xinjiang, even as stories of happy Tibetans also circulate. The discourse is distressing not only for its stereotypes, but also for its identification of China with Han people. There is no place for China’s ethnic minorities within the Han nation, but there is no place outside either. The have been included in the state so as to be more effectively excluded from the nation. Sigh.

weixin etiquette

Who knew? It’s possible to not view someone’s general weixin posts and to block them from seeing your posts. This way one can accept friend requests, engage in one-to-one texts, and keep a definite distance. This discovery led to a discussion of all the kindly people who are spending too much time forwarding “must reads” and cluttering up virtual space. The conclusion? Don’t become one of those people who get passively blocked by limiting the number of cat photos you upload.

who else has insomnia?

I aspire to a life of early to bed and early to rise. When I do rise early, I find my cellphone blinking with weixin alerts — throughout the night, friends have been pinging bursts of characters at each other, usually concluding with some clear indication that they are going to sleep. Weixin goes quiet until someone asks, “Who else has insomnia?”

According to Wikipedia, there are there kinds of insomnia — transient, acute, and chronic, which are defined in temporal terms. Transient insomnia lasts less than a week, acute lasts longer than a week but less than a month; chronic insomnia stretches beyond the limits of monthly endurance — “maybe I’ll go to work in a bit,” another blurts, “who wants to sleep anyway?”

I have read literary insomniacs most of my life and enjoyed the hardboiled insomnia of noir films — will there ever be a morning? But I have understood Emily Dickinson’s lament as metaphor for a more general human condition, rather than an explicit 3:24 a.m. call for help. Even Sylvia Plath seems — on printed page — to have come to a tentative understanding with sleeplessness:

She married the prince
and all went well
except for the fear —
the fear of sleep.

Briar Rose
was an insomniac…
She could not nap
or lie in sleep
without the court chemist
mixing her some knock-out drops
and never in the prince’s presence.

Nevertheless, weixin insomnia haunts me because I am unsure of the etiquette surrounding these direct glimpses into someone else’s pain. Do I acknowledge the call when I wake up? Do I ask how they’ve been sleeping next time we meet? Or do I just ignore the messages, as if I never saw them, and let the sarcasm and loneliness linger?

as chongqing turns: the trial of bo xilai (abridged)

Bo Xilai. Gu Kailai. Wang Lijun. These are the main characters in China’s ongoing soap opera As Chongqing Turns or “The Bo Drama (薄剧)” as it is known in Mandarin. Bo Xilai, of course is the disgraced former Party Secretary of Chongqing. Gu Kailai is his lawyer possibly crazy wife, who confessed to killing businessman, Niel Heywood and is now in prison after her death sentence was suspended. Wang Lijun was his head of security, who was in charge of Chongqing’s anti-mafia campaign and convicted of all sorts of corruption charges.

The main event trial of Bo ended yesterday. The best part? Bo Xilai was his own lawyer and so interjected throughout the prosecution’s presentation of its case. Below, a translation of the Abridged Bo Trial (审薄精简版) and yes, although fictionalized, the account rings so true. Also, I’ve tried to find online links to the Chinese text, but they seem to have been blocked:

Day 1
Prosecution: Your wife accepted money.
Defendant grunts.
Prosecution: The person who gave the money is known to you.
Defendant: Known but not really close.
Prosecution: Did you give favors to this person?
Defendant: Business is business (公事公办 literally: business done according to business principles).
Prosecution: Did you know your wife and son took people’s money?
Defendant: No.
Prosecution: She never mentioned it?
Defendant: People with taste like ours would get together and talk about money?
Prosecution: Xu Ming, Did you give the Party Secretary’s wife and son money?
Xu Ming: Yes.
Prosecution: Did he know?
Xu Ming: No.
Defendant (interrupts and says to prosecution): What did I tell you?
Prosecution: You mother-fu… Court recess!

Day 2
Prosecution: This is the evidence… (closing testimony of 10,000 characters).
Defendant: Have you closed your arguments?
Prosecution: Yes.
Defendant: Where’s the evidence?
Prosecution: Mother fucker, this isn’t evidence?!
Defendant: This is just testimony. This is what they said. Is there actual proof that I knew about the villa in France? That my son was playing around?
Prosecution: … Legal testimony that has been confirmed and supported!!! This is not enough?
Defendant: Is it? Enough? (Defendant laughs).

Day 3, morning
Prosecution to Wang: Wang, you tell us. Did he incite you to give money to his wife.
Wang: It seems that maybe…yes!
Defendant: Did I ever call my wife while you were there?
Prosecution: Yes.
Defendant: Did I ever try to find out if anyone else knew?
Wang: No.
Defendant: Mother fucker, am I a stupid cunt? Would I really not know who knew I was on the take? Who are you? Are we so intimate that I would call my wife while you were there and tell her to take a bribe?
Prosecution: If you hadn’t told your wife to take the money, how did it end up in her account? You definitely told her to do so! You said so!
Defendant: You think this investor is so poor? That the investor’s wife isn’t talented and rich? That we actually need your 5 million?
Prosecution: You definitely took bribes!
Judge: Prosecution, please remember your role…

Judge: Please continue.
Prosecution: Your wife already testified that you knew. And now you’re denying it!
Defendant: My wife… (sighs) I’ll admit to you all that… well, I stepped out of line once, so you understand that my wife took our son and went to England. what happened after that, how could I know? What’s more, my wife committed murder, if she had economic troubles, of course she’d be up shit creek. So her saying that I incited corruption is a normal response (很正常). We still care about each other and I don’t blame her for any of this…
Prosecution: What the fuck does that mean? Earlier you testified that your wife was mentally unstable. Now this?!
Defendant: I don’t mean anything by it. I’m just speaking the truth for the judge’s consideration.
Judge: (speechless)

Day 3, afternoon
Prosecution: We call General Wang Lijun.
Prosecution: General Wang, what do you have to say?
General Wang: I have so much to say! How could I not? How many years were we sworn buddies? I protected his son when he went abroad. When his wife committed murder, I was the first to tell him. I gave my life and bled for him. Him. Him. Him. And then he actually hit me on behalf of his wife! He slugged me! I bled! I’m broken hearted!
Prosecution: See! Do you see?
Defendant: You’re talking out your ass. Mother fucker, I thought you were a bosom buddy, and if my wife wanted to kill someone, you should have either stopped her or helped her. But you did nothing and let her royally fuck up. And then, you let the investigation go forward, only telling me two weeks later, “I’m a Police Chief and I have to investigate crime, your wife murdered someone. Leader, you must face reality… Sheesh… You tell me, do you deserve a beating or not?!
General Wang: I took responsibility for you!
Defendant: Your character is questionable. You’re two-faced! You directed your subordinates to go after her and then you come to me and pretend to be a loyal official!
General Wang: You! (10,000 characters deleted).
Defendant: I have nothing more to say to you. Judge, I have only one statement, everything he said is bullshit. I hit him and he hates me, so then he muddies the water. You do what you have to.
Judge: Court recessed.

how chinese is weixin?

This past year, I have noticed that the age of text messages seems already over. Instead, the sarcastic couplets and stories that used to come by text, now come by weixin groups. On the face of it, it seems a case of new technology beating out a less convenient model. Afterall, weixin groups allow senders to conveniently send out targeted mass mailings.

Interestingly, Tricia Wang has suggested that their are cultural reasons for the popularity of weixin. Specifically, the “shake” and “nearby” functions, which allow young people to meet strangers through a virtual introduction. Indeed, Tricia has also translated rules for using weixin to set up a one-night stand. Tricia makes the point that

One of the most important things to understand about Chinese apps is that the successful ones make serendipitous communication with strangers really easy.

I’m wondering, however, if the cultural gap is as much generational than cultural? After all, young people who spend a great deal of time online are already habituated to virtual introductions. Moreover, I’ve seen groups of teenagers in both the United States and China, hanging out together while they chat and go through messages received on their smartphones. That said, I highly recommend visiting Tricia’s blog, Bytes of China to explore the ways in which social media and new technologies are shaping and being shaped by China.

national shame…

egyptApparently a Chinese tourist wrote the characters ” 丁锦昊到此一游 (Ding Jinhao arrived here)” on one of the bas-relief sculptures at the Luxor Temple in Amun, Egypt. In turn, another Chinese tourist discovered the defacement and uploaded a picture to weibo, where it was picked up by the weixin and other news outlets. Today, Epoch Times has reported that the parents of Ding Jinhao have appologized for their son’s behavior.

Unfortunately, a few clicks around the web suggest that vandalism of cultural heritage and sacred sites is common. What seems notable in this case has been the outrage of the Chinese netizens and the consensus around “national shame”. Moreover, the use of social media to bring about this public shaming reminds us of the ongoing debate about the public face of Chinese tourists. It may also be that this vandalism shocked my friends because they believe that no matter how much Chinese people disregard the law at home, once abroad they become law-abiding citizens.

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.


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.

what kind of pig are you?

This is one of those unscientific “he said, she said” illustrations of just how difficult it is to know what’s happening in China, or anywhere for that matter. The story also indicates that the US and Chinese social media are not as autonomous as we might think. Indeed, anonymous sourced information that circulates in either the US or Chinese social media seems to increasingly show up in other networks, much like pig carcasses that wash up on unexpected shores. More to the point, the chronology through which we experience the overlaps between US and Chinese social media networks creates stories that read as magic realism in which you, gentle reader, must ask yourself, “what kind of a pig am I?”

Here is the timeline through which I have experienced the pig story.

Two weeks ago, several hundred dead pigs were found floating in the Jiaxing River, a tributary of Shanghai’s Huangpu River.

Last week, an American friend uploaded this photo Pigs Swimming in Mud Cake to Facebook.pigs swimming in mudcake

Yesterday, a friend in Hong Kong, uploaded the same picture and what followed were a series of jokes about not eating pigs and pork products. The apparent prompt for forwarding the picture was another message that was also circulating:

 I don’t know if this is true or false, but it must be forwarded: eat less pork! Shanghai has claimed that over 8,000 pigs froze to death! In the middle of a bright South China Spring! I’m begging the relevant ministries – can’t you exert your brains and come up with a more believable reason? Don’t treat the people as if we were three year olds. One dead pig is a random occurrence. Two dead pigs is a random occurrence. But over 8,000 pigs dead is random? There must be a reason! Today, the truth has finally been revealed! – Where is the future of the Chinese People? We’re digging our own graves and anhilating our people! [Forwarded message: according to a pig farmer, there’s a chemical called 机砷. In ordinary language that’s 砒霜 or arsenic! This chemical is used in pig feed like “四月肥” [literally “Fat in April”- MA] that accelerate the maturation of pig and make their skin shiny, increasing profits from selling pigs. The downside to the process is that the arsenic accumulates in the pigs’ bodies, which have no way of breaking down the poison. The poison causes the pigs’ internal organs to rot, and after four or five months eating this pig feed, most pigs die. Consequently, farmers only use this pig feed three or four months before bringing their pigs to market. As long as the pigs are slaughtered immediately, there’s no problem. But this Chinese New Year’s season, it was mandated that there could be no more government feasting and banqueting. Suddenly, the bottom dropped out of the pork market. Pig farmers were forced to continue raising pigs that had already been eating contaminated pig feed for four months. A month or two later, a massive die-off of the pigs that had been prepared to sell during the New Year’s season started. This story couldn’t be revealed. However, no one dared to bring already dead pig meat to market [instead of living pigs that would be slaughtered onsite to guarantee freshness – MA]. Consequently, the pig carcasses were tossed into tributaries of the Huangpu River. Clearly, the problem was caused because on the one hand, too many pig farmers are using pig feed to accelerate maturation and on the other hand, the banquet ban was too effective. The floating carcasses were discovered by the media. So maybe a thousand, maybe more pig carcasses are drifting silently in the Huangpu River. This is the horrific story that they are telling.

In contrast, yesterday The Guardian posted an article that mentioned that the pig carcass total had breached 16,000, and attributed the reason to a crackdown on selling dead pig meat in markets. In turn, The Guardian was citing (circulating?) a story from Southern Weekly (of the China Dream censorship fiasco):

The state-controlled Southern Weekly newspaper, citing court documents, said three men were sentenced to life in prison in Jiaxing last November for procuring dead pigs to sell their meat. It says the men and their group bought 77,000 dead pigs in a period of more than two years.

So, reflective moment du jour: Who are you? A pig happily swimming in a mud cake, anticipating sugar highs? Or a pig drifiting in dark waters, fearful about what the Chinese government might be hiding and how this silence kills? Of course, it’s all evidence that China and the US are the same country. After all, processed white sugar may also be toxic.

Text of the Chinese weixin that I received:

不知是真是假,但是不得不转: 少吃猪肉吧】上海8千多头死猪死因公布了一一居然是冻死的! 在春花灿烂的江南三月! 拜托了有关部门,能否多动动脑子找个更可信点的理由,不要把民众当三岁小孩哄。一头死了是偶然,二头死了是偶然,8千多头是偶然事件?一定有其必然的原 因! 现在,真相终于大白天下了! 一一一中国人的未来在哪里??我们在自掘坟墓,灭绝民族! 【转:据猪农说,有种制剂叫有机砷,砷就是砒霜啦,用在四月肥之类的猪饲料添加剂里,可以促进猪性腺发育和毛皮红亮,改进卖相有利于卖个好价钱。 但副作用是有 机砷蓄积在猪体内会部分分解为无机砷,喂食四五个月后会大幅增加猪的内脏腐蚀、大批死亡的概率。所以一般是在预备出栏前三四个月开始用,反正负作用还没出 来猪就宰了出栏,规避了有机砷的风险。 然而熹兴年底眼看通胀要升腾,赶紧猛刹车大力禁绝国企和机关摆酒席过年,导致大量酒席突然被取消,相应 地酒席用肉也大幅低于预期。猪农已经喂好四月肥准备出栏宰杀的猪也被迫继续在栏里养着。可是有机砷已经用了,本来马上宰杀负作用还不会出来,现在拖了一两 个月还没卖出去,有机砷的副作用 上来了,猪们纷纷内脏腐烂而死。这死因见不得光,又不敢拿去市场上卖这样的死猪肉,养殖户只好打落牙往肚里咽,抛到河里了 事。孰料这么投有机砷的养猪户太多,年末禁酒席的影响又太普遍,大家都往河里一丢,猪尸们就在黄浦江大游行了,被媒体发现了。 成千上万的猪尸在阴冷的黄浦江上默默地飘荡,它们在讲述着这样一个可怕的故事。