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Soft Power and Chinese Cinema

Someone, somewhere in the Beijing higher ups has decided that The Thing that’ll get China onto the world map is making a load of really, really cool movies that show the country in the best possible light.  In the same way that (I’m told) Hollywood and it’s related nonsensical chic is lusted after in the west.  To really complete the PR package, China needs to be seen on the big screen.

While speeches that go on for hours and endless meetings are winners if you want to get ahead in Chinese society, the movers and shakers in China’s recent soft-power drive have realized that promoting China just by putting a few very old things in a museum doesn’t actually resonate with your average foreigner.  To really win the foreign hearts and minds, you need to find something that’s the equivalent of Bruce Willis running around in a dirty vest.

Chinese movies don’t do well overseas – at least when they don’t follow the Zhang Yimou schtick of brightly coloured action sequences filmed at varying speeds.  Recent exports from China have produced nothing more than a whimper at the US box office.  When the low-budget sleeper hit Lost in Thailand debuted in America, it didn’t even come close replicating it’s runaway success that it had in China.  The film, a feel-good comedy about an ambitious executive trying to negotiate and important deal with his boss in Thailand, proved that dealing with contemporary issues in Chinese cinema can be both censor and box-office friendly – the film managed to beat out James Cameron’s Avatar in ticket sales, taking $200 million on it’s $2.2 million budget.  Conversely, proving the adage that comedy never travels well, the film bombed in the US, managing a paltry $88000 upon it’s release.

So alienated are audiences from the Chinese propaganda machine that a recent biopic of idolized revolutionary soldier Lei Feng failed to sell one single ticket in it’s opening weekend.  When a film celebrating the founding of the People’s Republic was released, mandarins put all other releases on hold, and even resorted to faking ticket returns in order to generate buzz.  Needless to say that with all the Iron Mans and Kung Fu Pandas, both of these expensive failures by the Chinese government have sunk without a trace to the bargain DVD bin.

Which is the reason, you may have noticed, that you’ve been finding bits of China in your blockbuster.  Hollywood pap is the quite possibly the best vehicle for promoting Chinese pap, mostly because they don’t do things like contemplate human rights, or civil liberties, and they focus on pleasing as many people as possible in order to extract as much money as possible from people who enjoy watching famous people walking away from big explosions.

The big draw for American movie producers is that while Chinese people have a lot of money, or, at the very least, there’s a lot of Chinese people will little bits of money that add up to one big bit of money.  The problem is that the movie industry is pretty much monopolized by the government, so it’s prudent business sense that no one tries to market a movie that will hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.  Of course, you could argue that Chinese people complaining about how Chinese people always seem to be the bad guys in movies is kind of like Auschwitz prisoners complaining about pickpockets in the shower room, this is soft power we’re talking about here.

Sucking up the Chinese government so that your movie gets approved for distribution is one way of trying to get your hands on the slice of entertainment pie – only 34 foreign movies are approved every year and your movie has to be the suckiest in order to get a screen at the local multiplex.  Another way of getting seen in the mainland would be to do the co-investment thing, whereupon a state-run Chinese film production company gives you money in exchange for positive exposure on the big screen.  This second option has the added benefit of side-stepping the quota, since it’s a co-production, it’s no longer seen as being a foreign import.

Selling out artistic credibility in order to please shareholders is never going to go down well with the libertarian lefties, even when you pull out a Powerpoint presentation and try to explain in simple language that Iron Man 3 isn’t really about artistic credibility, it’s about getting Robert Downey, Jr’s kids through college.  The movie industry has been called out for pandering to the whims of the Chinese government, without grasping the idea that American movies are doing pretty badly in the Chinese marketplace.  On it’s release in China, Mission Impossible 3 held the number one spot for a mighty 23 weeks, yet in the past year, the market share for American movies has dropped 65%, with domestically produced romantic comedies and feel-good buddy flicks trouncing Hollywood efforts at the box office.

In a final testament to the place that cinema holds in the push for soft-power, the Chinese government recently spend $13 million turning swampland outside Tianjin into a square kilometer of housing, office space, state-of-the-art computer facilities for CG animation and special effects and a cavernous complex of film studios.  The rebound in Chinese cinema removes a multitude of headaches for the government.  The stars are less likely to go on human rights crusades, like our dear friend Christian Bale did, fighting his way to see dissident lawyer Chen Guang Chen in his village, and the films are more likely to promote the China and the values that the Chinese government desperately wants promoted.

 

Merkel’s China Gaffe

February 4, 2012 Leave a comment

Things to Do Back Home When…You’re Dead

February 2, 2012 Leave a comment

So we’re almost at the end of my bi-yearly visit to the good old U, of…er…K.  When I was a China newbie there were lots of “you’ve been in China too long when…” lists floating around, so here’s my amusingly compliled counter-culture shock list:

 

A two hour train ride isn’t really something you consider “long distance”

 
You count money twice when you withdraw from the ATM
 
You use “ATM” instead of “cash point” or “cash machine”
 
All dealings with the bank must be done in person – telephone or Internet banking is completely untrustworthy.  
 
Three beers a night is “relaxing” and you’re still good to drive
 
TV is really, really good.
 
Privacy is a long forgotten concept.  
 
Everyone is fat.  Like, really fat.  Really huge-ass-don’t-think-about-buying-that-burger-fat.  You fear that women could crush you with their enormous thighs.  
 
There are less advertisements on TV.  
 
Newspapers have informed, well written op-ed pieces.  In fact, reading the newspaper is an absolute pleasure.
 
The China Daily is a shocking 20rmb (yes, I did find a copy in the Manchester train station WHSmiths)
 
Thrift stores aren’t thrifty enough.
 
Facebook is completely unnavigable.  What the hell happened to that thing?
 
No one seems to believe that you are who you say you are or how old you are.  
 
There’s information on food.  Calories and stuff.  
 
Who’s been sticking these nasty photos on cigarette packets? 
Categories: Uncategorized Tags: , , , ,

China’s Censorship: A Year in Review

January 2, 2012 Leave a comment

William Farris is running a good retrospective on what gets censored in China complete with screenshots from major search engines from throughout the year

Wenzhou Train Crash Round-Up

July 26, 2011 1 comment

By now you have probably heard about the Wenzhou Train Crash, which is China’s worst train crash since the Qingdao derailment in 2008.

The actual accident and the belated, lacklustre response from the government (and you might want to do a wordcloud on how many times “government reponse appears in this post) have been amplified well beyond any level that the CCP would wish for.

The Beijing-Shanghai high speed line was, of course, one of the flagship engineering projects that the government had been trumpeting for the last year or so, and the opening of the line coincided with the 1st July celebrations that were organised to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.  It’s no big secret that things were pretty much rushed through to meet the deadline, and the Kunming Highway Project had already claimed ten lives a mere day and a half after it was opened.  What began as a unifying, rallying celebration of Chineseness has quickly dissolved into a backlash of fear and paranoia fostered on the Chinese internet through Weibo and Youku and has become a platform for scathing attacks from both the national press on the government, and for angry journlists who have begun demanding more that the usual excuses from party officials.

The China Media Project has a comprehensive  rundown of the salient points of the accident, starting with the now infamous claim from Wang Yong Ping that  “The Beijing-Shanghai High-speed Railway and Japan’s Shinkansen can’t even be raised in the same breath, because many of the technologies employed by China’s high-speed rail are far superior to those used in Japan’s Shinkansen,”

ChinaGeeks has been covering the days (Sunday, Monday and Tuesday since the crash, offering translations and reposts of the Chinese reaction to the accident and the government response.

Much has been made of the Chinese Propaganda Department’s media directives that were almost immediately leaked online that show exactly how the Chinese government manipulates the media to stir up feelings of national pride:

The latest directives on reporting the Wenzhou high-speed train crash:

1. Release death toll only according to figures from authorities.

2. Do not report on a frequent basis.

3. More touching stories are to reported instead, i.e. blood donation, free taxi services, etc.

4. Do not investigate the causes of the accident; use information released from authorities as standard.

5. Do not reflect or comment.

Reminder on reporting matters: All reports regarding the Wenzhou high-speed train accident are to be titled “7.23 Yong-Wen line major transportation accident.” Reporting of the accident is to use ‘In the face of great tragedy, there’s great love’ as the major theme. Do not question. Do not elaborate. Do not associate. No re-posting on micro-blogs will be allowed! Related service information may be provided during news reporting. Music is to be carefully selected!”
「温州事故报道的最新要求:1、死伤数字以权威部门发布为准;2、报道频度不要太密;3、要多报道感人事迹,如义务献血和出租车司机不收钱等等;4、对事故原因不要挖掘,以权威部门的发布为准;5、不要做反思和评论。

宣传提示:温州动车脱轨事故报道名称统一使用“7.23甬温线特别重大铁路交通事故”。温州动车事故从现在起以“大灾面前有大爱”为主题报道,不质疑,不展开,不联想,个人微博也不要转发!节目中可提供相应服务信息,音乐注意氛围!」

The Chinese microblog site has been at the centre of much of the outrage, starting with the survey that showed 97% of it’s users were unhappy with the government’s handling of the accident.  Chinese Youku users have been uploading videos to Youku and other sharing sites, including one  that shows a body being recovered from the crash.  Angry journalists demanding answers from the officials in charge of the recovery operation have also been posted online.

The Economist has an overview of how The Party responded in typical fashion – not blaming anyone and firing a few token officials (God forbid that they should resign and say sorry) and there’s blunt response from Stan Abrams over at China Hearsay to Megan MacArdle’s article in The Atlantic.

So Remember…Always Wear a Condom

July 21, 2011 1 comment

China Geek provides an excellent summing-up(I’m pretty sure that’s a word) of the ongoing “official implicated in the rape of a teacher”(original Chinese). A middle school teacher was plied with drinks, whereupon she was raped by the city rural land resources manager, Wang Zhong Gui. Typically, the police weren’t really interested, claiming that “If he wore a condom, it’s not rape.”:

Recently, the topic “official implicated in the rape of a teacher” has been appearing on forums and has attracted a lot of attention. The person who made the post was the Huajuea City Middle School English teacher, 26-year-old Zhou Qin. She says that on May 17, 2011, the school principal ordered her to accompany 8 [government] leaders for drinks. After she was drunk, she was raped by the city rural land resources manager, Wang Zhonggui. What’s even more shocking is that according to what’s being said on the net, when Zhou Qin reported this to her local police station, the police said: “If he wore a condom, it’s not rape.”

The Shangaiist weighs in dryly noting that “when someone is a victim of robbery, do the police let the thief go free because the victim did not have a better lock on their door? If a person is beaten or killed, does the assailant get a weaker sentence because the victim did not defend himself well enough?”

Categories: Law Tags: , , , ,

Don’t Get Angry, Get Embarrassed.

I’ve been to America once, and God love it (which I’m told He does) I do want to live there and would spend many happy days in Maspeth, where I stayed courtesy of my friends Dan and Zoe, and watch the evening sky, at first blood red, then cool through the infrared spectrum to a dark, velvet, Guinness black.  The Manhatten skyline – still something that you can’t quite think “men made that” – of the Chrysler Building, the Empire State and the Brooklyn Bridge would be mere silhouettes that melt into the blackness of the night sky.  All of the Disneyesque poeticism pulls into stark contrast the Stephen King nightmare that is dealing with American airlines and American Homeland Security.

My time in America was a fantastic experience bookended by simply the worst travel experience known to humanity.  An experience that would make cattle on their way to the slaughterhouse feel loved.  Rarely have I been made to feel like a criminal in any airport in the world.  Even at Osaka airport, where I was fingerprinted, photographed, medically examined for fear of carrying H1N1 into the country and subject to intense investigation (I was the only foreigner with the documents that supported a one year work permit in the country), I was made to feel at home, wanted and looked after.  The elderly airport official who said “please” about 30 times in the first 10 minutes was polite, knew his stuff, and stood next to me like the grandfather I barely knew as I jumped through all the necessary hoops to get into the country.  Of course, the whole procedure took longer than any airport that I’ve been to, but it was the politeness, the feeling that someone was taking an interest, and the awareness that both of us where at the mercy of a massive administrative machine that made the whole thing much easier.

And in America, I met Seattle Bill.

Bill was fat.  Bill was big and fat.  In fact, almost everyone in America is big and fat.  I don’t mean that they are all doubly fat, I mean that for their height, they are fat.  Bill towered over me, I was eye to eye with what I imagined would be the arcing red, sweated crease in his skin underneath his last rib bone, where  – if he were shirtless – you would see the clear demarcation line between his ribcage and his unsupported intestinal tract.  He was nineteen feet in height and two  Isuzu People Carriers in width.  BP could’ve drilled for oil in his cleavage.  The unfortunate demography of his lower abdomen had forced him to buckle his trousers around his pubic bone, at roughly the point where pubic hair becomes belly hair.  His stomach muscles had long given up on keeping his gut in check, and I wondered how many steps up a flight of stairs he would need before he fell over backwards clutching his chest.

From his waist upwards, he was a big man.  From below the belthoops of his trousers, he was the stallion of a man that his wife had married thirty years, six million Happy Meals and a four million Cokes  ago.  He also had enough weaponry hanging off his low slung belt that would make Simon Mann think ‘that’s a little too much’.  When asked a perfectly reasonable question by one of the Chinese businessmen behind me – “why are there only two immigration officers?  Why do we have to wait?” – Bill pointed a chubby finger as a thick as a sausage and said through pursed lips with a John Wayne locked jaw “They’ll be ready…when I’m ready”.  He waddled off, the miniature shockwaves of his footsteps sent ripples over his tightly clad buttocks.  He presumably went to get a doughnut.

The flight from Beijing to Seattle dumped me in Seattle at 6:40am.  Thanks to the super high tech Homeland Security I made it through immigration in a mere two hours and fifteen minutes.  I had missed my flight by an hour.  The next flight that I could arrange left Seattle at 5pm, went through a time warp, and dumped me at New York JFK around 11pm.  The flight back from New York to Beijing wasn’t fun either, have been delayed for an entire 27 hours in Seattle airport.  The problem was that in America relies on people that have power but no responsibility.

Chris Rock tells a joke in his stand-up routine that he lives in an area that has house owned by Eddie Murphy, Mary J. Bilge, Jay-Z and a white dentist.  Which is exactly the same as the situation here in China, substituting black folks for Chinese, and er, keeping the white folks.  To be a white man in China, as it is in America, is to have won the lottery of life.

I live in a 68 square meter apartment that I pay 3300rmb per month for (330UKP there abouts).  I come from Manchester, UK, work as an English teacher and earn 14000rmb per month, with about 700rmb tax, I have a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology, have no intention of paying off my minor student loan, and live quite happily with few money worries apart from the dent that my annual trip to see the folks is going to put in my bank account.  I speak a little bit of high school Spanish, have intermediate Chinese  and do a little of everything from writing the occasional article in a little known magazine that nobody reads, to teaching people to speak English.  In the last years, I’ve returned home for 3 weeks, taken a 10 day vacation in New York, took a month off to visit friends in Chengdu, whilst traveling to Kunming and Lijiang, return back to my apartment in downtown Beijing, and continued working my rather dull job.  When I got suspicious about a lump growing on my lip last month I immediately went to the Hong Kong International Hospital at the Swissotel in Dongsishitiao and happily paid 680rmb to be told that I have a “lesion on lower lip” and was duly given a course of B multivitamins.

A very close friend of mine studied for her master’s degree in Manchester, speaks fluent English and Chinese, and has a prestigious position in a growing African-Chinese company.   She lives on the outskirts of town, is always looking for a roommate to help with the rent, and hasn’t been out of the country for pleasure since she graduated 8 years ago.  Over weekend she was sick, and is considering going to a doctor if she her condition doesn’t improve.  Needless to say, she’s Chinese and I’m not.

China has been taken over by the morals and values crowd, with the censorship of the Internet and the purge of pornography to create a “healthy online environment”, the failed implementation of the Green Dam software, the scrubbing of critical posts about the government and the house arrests of “subversives”.  Quite frankly, the government of China’s morals and values would have more resonance if the Chinese government actually knew what morals and values were, which I don’t think they do.  I don’t really mean that as an insult, but the belief that every Chinese person is heterosexual, that people don’t like looking at pornography (they do) and that in China don’t really knows what’s going on, or that people in China believe that an apartment in China can be rented for twelve dollars isn’t a moral or a value.  It’s just stupid.  What they’re really talking about are superstitions, traditions, fears and personality cults.  Real morals are honesty, fairness, kindness and tolerance.  The others are just bullshit issues that the Chinese government uses to justify its legitimacy.

Morals and values are choices that we make about how to treat other people.  And they can be measured.  They can be measured in the way we see people treat other people, and of course, the Chinese government, with its institutionalized torture, abuse, harassment of journalists, bloggers, and other free speech advocates, endless transparent propaganda, victimization and other downright out and out lies have shown that their morals do not include treating people like human beings.  We have found out this week, the exact extent to which the Chinese government values the basic rights that, in most modern countries in the first quarter of the 21st Century, we take for granted.  Western journalists have been openly threatened, investigations have been whitewashed, and censorship has tightened, all in the name of the Chinese Communist Party – the last bastion of rhetoric that last saw the light of day behind closed doors in 1950’s USSR.  When did you last hear a sentence that included “the masses”?  1962?  Khrushchev?  Trotsky?  Well, it was actually last week when Wen Jiao Bao made his speech to the NPC.

Chinese people have it easy.  They don’t really have to think that much.  They aren’t really taught to think that much, and anyone who has ridden any subway and has seen Chinese people bemused by the ticket machines, the thought of giving people the vote in China is a terrifying prospect.  When people offer some such pro-democracy comment thinly disguised as “power to the people”, I often find myself asking the question, “what people?  These assholes?”.  Chinese people are often the first to leap to their country’s defense, citing economic progress, healthcare, literacy, the rise in living standards, confused that they shouldn’t be angry at their country, since they have really only done things that their parents could dream about.  Angry is the wrong emotion.  Chinese people shouldn’t be angry about their country or their leadership.  The Chinese, like American people, shouldn’t hate their country – they should be embarrassed by it.