What’s happened in China within the Communist leadership in the past two weeks has been not only a mystery to Westerners, but to most Chinese as well. Wang Lijun, the aide of the flamboyant Chinese politician Bo Xilai seeking political asylum in the US embassy in Chengdu, followed by Bo removed as the party chief in Chongqing (read how the New York Times interprets the link between Bo’s dismissal and China’s political reform here), and the block of the word “Ferrari” in Chinese search engines. Now, not just the West, but also the majority of Chinese are aware of what’s behind such bizarre incidents thanks to microblogging.
March 8 – rumors on Weibo
It all starts with a whisper on Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter), that “something big has happened” in the early morning of 8 March, by Mao Shoulong, Dean of the School of Public Management at Renmin University, Beijing. Within hours, his post was forwarded over 2,600 times and attracted almost 1,000 comments.
@TangGu2010: I’m outside the wall scouting for everyone. The South China Morning Post reports that Hu denounced Wang. What this means for Tomato is hard to say.
You can read more excerpts of Weibo comments here.
March 15 – Bo disgraced by Wen
Then Bo was officially sacked on March 15, which drew speculations around the world. The Atlantic even asked “Is there a coup in China now?“. However, the Tea Leaf Nation, an e-magazine on China run by mainly Westerners who distil stories reflected on China’s social media debunked this rumor. Unlike such bold inquiries by the Western media, the Chinese Weibo users have to invent phrases to discuss this issue in order to get around the tight censorship. For instance, to avoid publishing sensitive words that might be blocked on Weibo, they use “Great Pacifier of the West” (平西王) as Bo’s nickname because of his crackdown on organized crime as Party Secretary of the southwestern city of Chongqing, and tomato (西红柿 xī hóng shì) to refer to Chongqing because tomato sounds the same in Chinese as “western red city” (西红市) (Bo has been famous for evoking Mao’s revolutionary “red” in Chongqing).
You can read some wistful words of Bo from Weibo in English here.
Read China Digital Times, which offers perspectives from Chinese and foreign experts on China’s recent political conundrum. “Bo Xilai: Down, But Out?”
March 19 – Ferrari crash involving son of top official
The Ferrari crash in the early morning hours of 19 March did not arouse that much attention among most netizens until they woke up to find that the word “Ferrari” was blocked on Weibo. Rumors say that the driver was the illegitimate son of Politburo member Jia Qinglin who is supposed to be in the same league as Bo Xilai.
This series of events somehow linked together has been called the March Madness in China by many media reports. This conundrum is no longer only accessible to those who are able to climb over layers of the “Great Wall” or those outside China, but to the average Chinese Weibo user. 195 million of China’s 1.3 billion population uses Weibo, according to China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC)’s June 2011 report. This huge wave of awareness created by Weibo as the platform of civil society discussion reminds me of the stimulant Twitter during the Arab Spring. However, put aside the question whether China will have a “Arab Spring”, I can be certain that during this period of leadership transition in China, the fact that citizens are better informed of what’s going on in China’s politics, which were so intangible before, is a good sign for China’s future.
Read the translated Chinese official reportage of the story here.
It’s not the first time when I see some foreign coverage on China and sigh how the views are distorted. Unlike the stereotype of Chinese who will locate the writer and revenge with martial arts, I’m going to explain why such bias exists and offer my perspective as a Chinese on Interview Before Execution, where criminals sentenced to death are interviewed with questions on their life and crime right before their execution.
Part of this program, however distasteful it might sound, is going on air on the BBC’s This World series today. What’s being discussed on the British media now, is the reason why this program has been popular in China for five years, China’s enormous yet mysterious number of executions, and the possibility of abolishing death penalty in China.
Source: The Daily Mail
First, regarding its popularity, Interview Before Execution is aired in China on a provincial station, Henan TV, instead of the national station CCTV (China’s Central Television Station). Hence, its viewership is limited to Henan province, which is 40 million out of the 100 million Henan residents. My friends in other parts of China and even my parents who are loyal TV viewers, have never watched it. 40% viewership on Saturday evening prime time of a law-related program instead of any soap opera, does show its popularity in Henan, but not as extensive as the Daily Mail depicts.
I searched it on Weibo (the Chinese Version of Twitter) which offers a pool of public opinions, and unsurprisingly found out the emphasis of the Chinese audience to be quite different. Take one of the most famous interview cases – the gay murderer of his mother – as an example, the response on Weibo is very mixed. Most Chinese do like it, because it reveals the tenderness of human heart even among the most notorious criminals, which corresponds to the fundamental Chinese philosophy that “man’s nature at birth is good”. Besides, the regret expressed by the murderer teaches Chinese not to be irrational and not to commit crimes. Such lessons are coherent with the principles of the Chinese media system, which is to educate the public and elevate public taste. And such principles originate from China’s long history of learning from history and stories of the others as a mirror to oneself.
There are anecdotes on the Internet that some people retreated from such irrational action as murder after watching this program. This culture apparently is not to the knowledge of or appreciated by most westerners, which is the root why bias is prevalent. Though many Chinese admire the hostess’s bravery to expose homosexuality, which remains highly controversial and secretive in Chinese society, criticism, however, does exist and centers on the hostess for being merely curious instead of genuinely concerned about homosexuality. I would rather say that the curiosity exhibited by the hostess was more of the representation of the audience instead of herself.
It is questionable that this program really delivers the message that China executes too many people, and whether these people deserve death penalty, but this notion will certainly spread across China as the number of viewers increase. At present, as the judge interviewed by the BBC says:
“Since the death sentence for criminals is itself a violent act, then we should abolish it. However, I don’t think our country is ready yet.”
The BBC reports that though China’s number of execution each year remains a secret, the number has already dropped 50% after all executions had to be reviewed by the Supreme Court since 2007. Apart from these figures, I believe since Interview Before Execution must have been approved from Chinese elite officials in order to be broadcast in China as the first show featuring to-be-executed criminals and China’s controversial death penalty, and for being broadcast abroad as explanation of China’s legal system, this itself is a signal that China is transitioning.
In Paris, whenever I’m asked where I am from, I have difficulty in giving a short answer. I am a Chinese national, which is apparent from my Asian face, but I’m also on exchange to a French university from an American graduate school. For many, however, the fact that I’m studying public diplomacy (PD) in France, a fancy new subject that is coined by an American is more confusing than my trajectory of school life.
Here I am in Paris, attending a class called “Public diplomacy and international communication”. Unlike in the Elliott School where my classmates were mostly either from Asia or the US, here in my public diplomacy class in Sciences Po (Paris), the classroom is composed of students from all over the world including India, Canada, Columbia, Nigeria, France, Britain, the US, China, etc.
The benefit of a diverse class background is that I can always hear an insider explaining the public diplomacy of his or her country, as well as their views on China. These opinions, which arise in almost every class and form a fierce debate afterwards, however, have shocked me from time to time.
Controversy #1: “PD in a non-democracy never works.”
My first day of the class started with the comment “PD in a non-democracy never works” from an American classmate. I was sitting in the front row, blushed and shocked. I didn’t take it personally, but I was quite disappointed that in later classes, this sentiment was expressed repeatedly among my classmates.
When we covered the practice of nation branding in PD, the Olympics in Beijing was cited as an example. A Canadian classmate then negated China’s Olympics showbiz with reference to China dubbing the voice of the girl who sang a nationally reputed song. I was surprised to realize that for an emerging power like China, whenever it tries hard to prove itself, people in the west will still link its action with the governing ideology. Under such circumstances, they will be most easily impressed with the scandal the smears China’s entire image. Hence, China’s display of its ancient culture is swamped under such mindset.
Controversy #2: China + Syria = China’s failure in PD
Right after China vetoed the UN resolution to request the Syrian president to resign, every time I walked in the 13th quartier in Paris which is full of Arabs, I was afraid I would be kidnapped. This fear converts to the anxiety of being attacked verbally in my PD class. Neither of these happened, but China and Syria was constantly brought up in the class as well as the French media.
Once we had Bernard Kouchner as a guest speaker, who was the former French Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, who is certainty furious at how “our friend China” has obstructed the French active negotiation to pass the resolution on Syria, and under this comparison, China is easily depicted as the irresponsible, self-interested power. I’m not defending China’s stance here, but I have to point out that the fact that the world lacks knowledge about why China is against international action against Syria IS an example of China’s failure in public diplomacy.Comics on China and Russia vetoing UN resolution on Syria France 24, the French international news channel. Retrieved on 03/03/2012.
Though this is quite sad, I have found that people regardless of their nationality have formed their opinions on current affairs based on media coverage. Criticism against China is prevailing in the western media, while China’s voice of defense is usually ignored or given limited coverage. In fact, every non-Chinese I have talked to has a duplicated mindset of what’s on the media, that is, China is letting civilians dying in Syria while holding its vested geopolitical interests. In the United Nations, every country has been acting on behalf of itself, while concerned with the safety of others in the world. Do the western powers like France, which has been trying to reestablish itself internationally and the US have no individual agenda in mind?
I try to explain things in China to my classmates when they express hostile opinions. Their overwhelmingly negative evaluation of China is due to China’s Communist root (usually perceived as contrary to democracy), one-party system, and the lack of a strong, credible international media. As an exchange student studying abroad, I myself is part of the practice of public diplomacy. And at present, I’m enjoying my role that transcends Chinese media such as CCTV (China Central Television) English and the 24-hour English Channel CNC (China Xinhua News Network Corporation) who are perceived to be propagandists among those who have heard of them.