Archive

Archive for March, 2012

Microwaves Make Headline News

March 22, 2012 Leave a comment

When Attaturk wanted to modernize Turkey, he wanted to ban the use of the veil by women. He didn’t ban the veil outright, as a boring, conventional thinker might have – he made the veil compulsory for prostitutes. Since China can’t really avoid the encroachment of the Internet and social media, some lateral thinking will be needed if the CCP wants it’s citizens to toe the line online.

China has embraced capitalism in all it’s glory, unfortunately, in their scramble to get their hands on as much money as possible as soon as possible, they tend to clone what they deem to be successful in another country (usually America) and set it loose on an unsuspecting population. A false sense of “if you build it they will come” is the chronic mindset, Chinese English school owners despair that people aren’t falling over themselves to throw buckets of cash at them and shameless clones of western websites get themselves into endless amounts of trouble with their user bases because they delete messages and search results from their databases.

There’s a reluctance to embrace new ideas here. The people have a strange way of making one feel that they’ve made an important contribution to a discussion, or proposed an effective solution to a problem, but at the same time, there’s a lurking sense the idea has been pretty much instantly dismissed in favor of what you might term an old school solution. The closed-shop boys club of the government departments doesn’t really help, and the yes-man mentality compounds matters, all you can really do is sit back and watch them fail, hoping against hoping that someone somewhere learns their lesson.

The Chinese people have figured out one pretty safe rule in life: if it gets blocked on the Internet, it’s probably worth gossiping about. This week, quite a few things, despite the hugely popular microblog service instituting it’s real-name registration, have been blocked: A mysterious crashed Ferrari, the fate of politician Bo Xi Lai, and now, images of tanks rolling down Chang’an Avenue as an alleged military coup gets underway.

Of course there was no such thing as a coup d’tat in Beijing – surely a Beijing correspondents wet dream – and the whole thing started with a single tweet.

Pan Shi Yi, a property magnate with 9.2 million followers has garnered a reputation for posting cryptic messages on his Weibo account. On Monday night, he posted “This evening Weibo was strange indeed, there were some words that could not be sent out on Weibo. I saw a line of commentary dropped several times from Weibo, but what I saw made my scalp tingle; was it gremlins? Better to turn off the computer and go to sleep.”. Over 3,000 users commented on the post, some trying to figure out what exactly Pan was getting at, and others simply advising him to get some sleep.

On Tuesday morning, someone posted a message claiming that “According to reports, Beijing people said that last night the 38th Army was seen on Chang’an Avenue [which runs in front of Zhongnanhai] and an accumulation of police and military vehicles were in front of the Diayoutai State Guesthouse, signaling there will be big changes soon in our government.”. The Epoch Times, a Chinese news portal with Falun Gong (a banned Chinese spiritual movement) published a photo that supposedly showed that there was indeed military action taking place in the capital. Research by Chinese netizens finally debunked the photos, showing them to be nothing more than night rehersals for the 2010 National Day celebrations.

Of course all this rational thinking didn’t do much to stop the single tweet snowballing, turning it from a paranoid delusion limited to a small number of online freaks into stuff that people were gossiping about around the water cooler. One SMS message that I received about the strange case of the black Ferrari suddenly had two naked girls in it. Aside from the fact that the night the accident happened was so cold that snow fell in Beijing, the only details given to the press about the two female passengers were about their injuries and their ages, and since the crash happened at 4am in the morning in the northern part of Beijing, it’s unlikely that there were many eyewitnesses. But we never let the facts – or lack thereof- get in the way of a good story

Rumors, gossip and unhelpful stories fanned by text messaging and microblogging are pretty much part and parcel of life in a country where government departments and spokesmen live in a walled garden sheilded from the people that they’re actually supposed to be interacting with, and simply blocking out stuff that you don’t want people to talk about isn’t the best way to enforce any kind of rumor control, transparency and accessibility is the best way to go because even if you pull the wool over the eyes of the Chinese people, western audiences are much more sophisticated and cynical enough to flatly reject the “because we say so” attitude towards governace.

It’s Been a Funny Old National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference

March 21, 2012 Leave a comment

The Internet is almost inaccessible, dissidents, writers, bloggers and activists are “disappeared” – bundled off to black jails to be tortured, and an apparently unending stream of armed troops descend on restive regions of the country.  No, it’s not a dystopian vision of the future, it just means that the NPC/CPPCC is in town.  Referred to as The Two Meetings, this the place were Five Year Plans are approved, the Beijing Police do their best to outwit foreigners and prevent them from getting up to anything subversive, like filming and taking photos.  And of course, there was the Bo Xi Lai Thing.

The drama that has been playing out since February starring Bo Xi Lai and Wng Li Jun was never really going to end happily.  Something of a mix between Nero and Warren G. Harding, Bo managed to economically cripple Chongqing, spending huge amounts of money importing ginkgo trees, and supporting the local satellite TV station.  Subsidizing the TV shows took at least 50% of the budget, and importing the ginkgoes (and watching them promptly die off in the unsuitable soil and climate) cost something in the region of 10% of the annual government budget.  Things came to boil when the head of the local PSB, Wang Li Jun spent the night at the local US Embassy, sparking rumours that he was ready to defect, and had amassed a documents that proved the connection between Bo and his dodgy deals with a local property tycoon Weng Zhenjie.

About a month later, The Two Meetings hit full tilt boogie, but Bo Xi Lai was the only member of the 25-strong ruling Politburo not to attend one of the first high-level sit-downs.  Later, towards the end of the gathering, Wen Jia Bao roundly rejected Bo Maoist efforts to force people to sing “Red Songs”, saying that “Reform has reached a critical stage. Without successful political structural reform, it is impossible for us to fully institute economic structural reform and the gains we have made in this area may be lost.  The new problems that have cropped up in China’s society will not be fundamentally resolved, and such historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution may happen again.”

The day after, news broke that Bo Xi Lai has been removed of his government post.  But it didn’t end there.  The week after his removal from the Politburo, unconfirmed reports now suggest that Bo has been placed under house arrest, and that he attempt to block a criminal investigation centered on his wife.

Little more than a rubber stamp parliament, the 2012 NPC saw several new toothless laws were passed, including one that addressed the problem of illegal detentions by the police.  Reforms to the Criminal Procedure Law were, at least on paper, intended to give citizens more protection and reduce the powers of the police.  That was the theory anyway, closer inspection reveals that while the law requires the police to notify the detainee’s relatives, it doesn’t require them to tell the relatives where the detainee is being held, as well as giving the police powers to deny the suspect access to a lawyer, and if the police deem that informing relatives of the arrest could impede the investigation, then they don’t need to do it.

It was only 50 years ago that the first few National People’s Congress was performed to a select few, and behind closed doors.  In 2012, enterprising young Weibo members are combing through hi-res images taken in the conference hall to find out who’s sleeping, texting and gaming their way through the proceedings. This year’s NPC/CPPCC has been particularly entertaining, if not for the fact the while The Two Meetings were going on, air quality improved as clampdowns on car usage and making sure that while the politicians were in town, the factories toed the pollution line. This year we’ve had Tibetan representatives fleeing in terror at the sight of a foreign correspondent, the ongoing, epic saga charting the eventual downfall of Bo Xi Lai and Wang Li Jun that made Dr. Zhivago pale in comparison.

The Mystery of the Black Ferrari

March 20, 2012 Leave a comment

For some reason best know unto themselves (or until CDT publishes a new version of it’s Ministry of Truth Directives) all references to a car crash that killed it’s driver and injured two female passengers are being scrubbed from Chinese language Internet sites.

Netease, Sohu, and Tencent have removed references to “black Ferrari” from their databases and the usual “in accordance with local laws” message is being displayed instead of search results.  According to the Global Times, the police “received the call around 4:24 Sunday morning. One injured woman, 31 years old, sustained a head injury and a fractured right leg, and she was sent to the [nearby] 306th Hospital of PLA for treatment.”  And that’s about all we know.  The PSB is refusing to comment on the case or on any progress that might be being made in the investigation, and thus online speculation is even more rampant, with many jumping to the right conclusion that the identity of the car’s owner is the reason for the information clean-up.

The latest rumor is that  Jia Qing Lin‘s illigitimate son may have been in control of the car at the time of the crash.

Daisey, Daisey…

March 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Fargo, the Coen brothers admit is not based on a true story, despite opening with”This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”  If you change the date and the place to China, and 2010, the same could be said for Mike Daisey’s monologue, and his subsequent report that was subsequently retracted on This American Life. 

He’s never actually seen one on, this thing that took his hand. I turn it on, unlock the screen, and pass it to him. He takes it. The icons flare into view, and he strokes the screen with his ruined hand, and the icons slide back and forth. And he says something to Cathy, and Cathy says, “he says it’s a kind of magic.”

According to those in the know, this was apparently one of the more emotional points in Mike Daisey’s stage monologue, The Agony and the Ecstacy of Steve Jobs.   Emotional, dramatic, the performance formed the basis of an NPR report, Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.  There was only one thing wrong with it – what Mike told NPR  wasn’t entirely true.  Actually not true at all.  In fact it was so not true that This American Life not only retracted the story, but made a story about the retraction of the story.

I think that one takeaway from this particular China story is how American “news” broadcasters leapt on the monlogue and presented Daisey as a journalist rather than a performer who used dramatic license to tell a story.  About things that didn’t happen.  NPR is guilty as hell, and they managed to take their own gullibility into a very well deconstruction of how they were duped.  Statistician guru Hans Rosling once commented that the worldview of his students at the Karolinska Institute corresponded with the reality of the year that their teachers were born, and it’s that ignorance that Americans have of modern China that Daisey exploited with his stage show.  The story he concocted had almost everything you needed – illegal unions banned by the state, workers that made machines they could never afford to buy, child laborers, guns and mysterious Chinese woman called Cathy.  Or Anna.  Probably Cathy.  No wonder NPR smelled fresh meat.

Lots of other bloggers have pointed out that if it wasn’t for Mike Daisey, then America wouldn’t have taken notice of what was going on at Foxconn – the apparently endless suicides that plagued the company for a good long while, and the fact they did in fact hire around 91 underage workers in 2010 – then things wouldn’t have improved at the factories.  The sad thing is that now the story isn’t about factory conditions in China, it’s about Mike Daisey, despite his protestations that we are losing sight of the bigger picture.  Daisey has returned to the stage with a modified version of his monologue, adding a disclaimer that the performance is only based on a true story, and actually isn’t.  The odd thing is that by becoming the story, Daisey is just as guilty as Apple in terms of exploiting anonymous Chinese workers for his own gain.

Nailing Jello to the Wall: What’s Weibo Up To?

March 18, 2012 Leave a comment

The much vaunted Weibo real name registration kicked in today, leaving pretty much everyone confused as to what the bloody hell people at Sina.com are playing at.

This morning, many users were reporting that even though they hadn’t actually filled out their info – giving their state issued ID number and real name – were greeted with a thank you message informing them that they had indeed given their state issued ID number and real name.

Since I hadn’t registered my ID number (I’m not Chinese, and don’t have an ID card) I was pretty much locked out of the web interface.  I’d bought my phone pre-pay SIM card from an anonymous vendor in Dazhalan (which causes its own problems because the SIM card is tied to Hebei province and not Beijing) and Weibo steadfastly refused to send a confirmation SMS to my phone.   Whenever I tried to post a message, an alert box popped up over the text box informing me that I had to register to post.

Fortunately, both the Android client and my iPad client were working fine, and I could quite easily reply to threads started on Weibo, I just couldn’t start any of my own.  For all its security theatre, the real-name registration hasn’t actually prevented those who want to post subversive stuff anonymously.  In fact, they’ve probably compounded the issue, since mobile devices and tablets that are much easier to carry around and photograph Chinese policemen beating the hell out of a disabled beggar on the street than a laptop.

It’s difficult to figure what’s going on.  Most of the whistleblowers, commentators and dissenters who currently use Weibo  are usually the relatively well off middle class, most of whom can quite easily afford a smartphone or even an iPad, which currently allows you to circumvent the registration process. The other group of users are those who are reliant on using smokey Internet cafes that are routinely checked by the police, and you need to present your ID card in order to buy time on the computers anyway.

And how did I eventually register?  I used a false name and corresponding number that I found on an MMORPG forum.

Quote/Unquote

March 15, 2012 Leave a comment

“Micro-blogging can spread information rapidly and have a big influence. It covers a wide population and can mobilise people.” – Wang Chen on the need for Weibo’s real name registration.

Categories: Quote/Unuquote