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Soft Power and Chinese Cinema

July 28, 2013 Leave a comment

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.

 

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Don’t Get Angry, Get Embarrassed.

March 7, 2011 Leave a comment

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.

China’s Revolution Needs Supersizing

March 1, 2011 Leave a comment

move along, nothing to protest about here

Chinese citizens were told to shout “We want food, we want work, we want housing, we want fairness, referencing rising food and housing prices, the overqualified and underpaid ant-tribe, and massive government corruption and cronyism that has dogged the Chinese government since its inception.

While the protests in Egypt, Libya and Bahrain were gathering momentum, I found myself hoping that the same wouldn’t happen in China.  If it did, I explain on Facebook, the government crackdown would make Gadhafi’s violent response look like a paintballing outing for extremely nervous insurance salesmen.  The choice of venues (KFC and McDonalds) neatly illustrates the pampered nature of the Angry Young Men of China – we can have a protest, but we really need to go somewhere where we can get some food later on, possibly with a the local neighborhood American diplomat.

Suffice to say that the Chinese didn’t really grasp the nettle and give an all-out protest on the same scale as their Egyptian and Libyan counterparts.   A number of factors conspired against them a) they publicized the whole thing on Twitter which is banned in China, b) the Chinese authorities are stupid, but they’re not too stupid not to use Twitter to keep tabs on troublemakers c) they used Google Maps to pinpoint exactly were the protests were being held.  It was, to borrow one of Hannibal Lecter’s lines, a fledging protestor’s first attempt at a transformation, and not that great a success.  That said, at least the members of one of the world’s largest standing armies had something to other than stand.

The authorities didn’t really do themselves any favors either.  Fearing massive negative publicity, they duly phoned up every reporter in the city and told them not to go anywhere near Wangfujing or Tiananmen Square without special permission – which is a little like telling a two year old not to press, under any circumstances, the big red button with “danger – do not press” written in yellow and red letters above it.  If anyone should be arrested for subverting state power, it’s the Chinese idiots who spread news to the people who didn’t even know there was news in the first place to be spread.  It’s also given officials, as the 9/11 terror attacks in American gave the American officials, more wiggle room to collect in one place all the troublemakers, and any excuse to tighten the rules is a good excuse.

While their tactics have been quite simple, they have been quite effective – no one can argue that spraying water from a street cleaning van is a more acceptable than an M1 tank rumbling down the Wang Fu Jing.  If the dissidents get the idea that the most they have to deal with is getting a little bit wet (which, admittedly for Chinese people is on the same level as contracting leprosy) every weekend, they may get that little bit bolder.  It’s a shame that the Chinese police didn’t deal with the foreign news media.  Nothing makes a western report moist with anticipation more than a protest in China, but nothing eats up column inches like reports of Chinese police beating the living daylights out of foreign reporters and illegally detaining those covering a protest in China.

Kunming to Lijiang

February 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Travelling is, to misquote Douglas Adams, unpleasantly like being drunk. What could possibly be so unpleasant about being drunk? Just ask a glass of water.

For the last two days I’ve been lying on my bunk in the hostel suffering from a mild bout of food poisoning – the prime suspect is thought to be a dodgy egg on an otherwise perfectly legitimate vegetable sandwich. Being sick in China is one of those things that every Chinese person you come across will have an opinion about, everyone will make a comment about, but no one will actually sympathize with your or offer any constructive advice about. Most of the home remedies revolve around imbibing large amounts of tea, staying away from goats on the Sabbath and, in extreme cases, for example, losing a limb, or being shot or being hit full in the face by a bus, smearing yourself with camel’s milk and diving into a holy lake. On no account should you ever see a doctor in a hospital.

Afflicted with what I could only describe as “epic” diarrhea – I was filled with dread at the thought of sneezing, or doing something even more fatal, like coughing or being surprised by something on the way to the chemist – I made my way to the nearest chemist to make what I thought would be an easy purchase – something that would stop the biological warfare in my lower gut, and give me enough time to drink a bottle of water without dashing to the nearest toilet screaming “fire in the hold!”.

The helpful chemist offered me several Traditional Chinese Medical remedies, almost all of them came with an attached caveat that they would start working in three or four days. Since I was fairly confident that in three or four days I would be lucky to have any teeth left, I forced myself to make a number of trips to and from the hostel in the hope that between the them, the so-called chemist and the receptionist would be able to figure out what the Chinese name for Loperamide (a chemical with which anyone living in China for any length of time should and will become intimately familiar with) was. A couple of hours, and several startled children later I was armed with a simple medication that almost cured me.

While the experience may be a minor tale of a couple of days of discomfort caused by nothing more than traveller’s stomach, it highlights the appalling state of public health. Despite being illegal, spitting (of the Premier League variety) borders on becoming a Chinese custom. Public toilets have little in the way of soap. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen people who in restaurants and coffeeshops enter a cubicle in a public convenience, and exit a few minutes later without washing their hands. Grown men pick their noses, waitresses pick their feet in street restaurants and there is, what has been termed by the group of expats that I hang out with, a certain “brown smell” that lingers in the hutongs over the summer months.

Moving on to happier matters, I’m off to Lijiang at the weekend. Michael Palin visited Lijiang for his documentary travelogue “Himalaya”, and he had this to say about the place:

“Lijiang is a tale of two cities: one a modern concoction of business district office blocks and shopping malls, the other an immaculately kept old town, with clay-tiled roofs, cobbled streets and a canal system that evokes Venice, Amsterdam or Bruges. Lijiang became rich and famous because of its key position the Tea-Horse Route from Tibet into China, but its idyllic situation, set comfortably in a shallow bowl of hills, is deceptive. A fault line at the edge of the Tibetan plateau runs below and the ripple effect of the tectonic collision that created the Himalaya has been responsible for over 50 strong earthquakes here in the last 130 years. The most recent, which registered over seven on the Richter scale, hit Lijiang in 1996, killing 300 and injuring 16,000. Many buildings were damaged or destroyed. The majority of them were in the new city.

The wood and stone houses of old Lijiang were built by people who knew about earthquakes and how to withstand them. They remain, thanks to UNESCO money, as an example of how to create harmony, line and proportion on a human scale. The result is a labyrinth of cobbled streets and squares, car free, perfect for walking, but also a victim of their own success. Large-scale preservation of the past is so rare in China that Lijiang has become a big draw, pulling upwards of 3 million tourists a year into an old town of 25,000 people.”

Which is slightly better than the way that he described Wanxian on the Yangtze River:

“…a hellish looking place where countless smokestacks and factory chimneys feed every shade of smoke from deep black to rust brown into a sky already turgid with low, pus-yellow clouds…”

Either way, with the one hour flight touching a little over 30UKP, it’s a deal that’s not to be missed.

Chinese Internet to Be Turned Off?

January 2, 2011 Leave a comment
Image representing Skype as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

Bao Zhong, top scientist, economist and China’s foremost Internet expert said at the opening ceremony that was held in a MacDonalds on Beijing’s famous Wang Fu Jing shopping street, “There comes a time when you’ve got to start thinking about saying ‘let’s just turn the bastard thing off it’s more trouble than it’s worth’. There’s no evidence to suggest that the Chinese people are any good at doing stuff on the ‘net – just look at Youku, Yupoo, Kaixin and all the other websites that we’ve ripped off from the US. We can’t sustain this level blatant plagiarism for much longer.”

The committee was convened after Skype was deemed illegal in China, forcing users to subscribe to only state owned companies for telecommunication services.

When pressed for comment, a Conservative party spokesman from the British Ministry of Facebook and Twittering said “we’re already making money from paying Chinese workers a pittance an hour to assemble a wide range of goods used by British companies. Why do they need to use Skype anyway? I can’t understand a bloody word anyone says over there, can you?”