Monthly Archives: April 2010

Internet in China: “1984″ or “Brave New World”?

In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.  This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”

Neil Postman’s book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” was written in 1985 in response the rise of show business on TV.  In the above comparison of Orwell’s novel “1984” and Huxley’s “Brave New World”, Postman was trying to argue that the more dangerous form of enslavement is not the enslavement by others through means of repression and control, but enslavement to our own primitive desires for sensory satisfactions.  Internet has definitely moved the sophistication of our entertainment industry to the next level: not only is the access to the unprecedented variety of material instant and 24-7, the distinction between the production and consumption of those materials has been blurred as well.   Yet the context of Postman’s writing was Western liberal democracy and free markets.  How does his theory apply to an authoritarian regime with market economy with “Chinese characteristics”?

Immediately after Google’s exit from China, I was doing my routine browse of and was shocked by a comment found under one of the hyped discussion topics then ( I don’t quite remember what it was, but it is possible that it was about this).  The comment said that it is so pathetic that this what the netizens in a country without Google do – to entertain themselves in such trivial and meaningless matters.   Few days ago, I encountered another blog post voiced a similar concern, and suggested that most China’s netizens opt to be enslaved and blinded by their own desires since otherwise they would be literally enslaved by the state if they are too honest and conscious.

Are China’s netizens really as powerless as these worries suggest?  On one hand, they have some legitimate concerns.   In the end, like many news reports on Google’s exit from China pointed out, the most popular features on Chinese websites are social networking and life style service.  And it was the news of a Japanese AV star’s signing up with Twitter that caused 15,000 China’s netizens to scale the GFW and to follow her tweets, not any petition about the democratic movement in China.    And to have a sense about the frequency of sex-related topics on China’s web, you can glimpse through this glossary prepared by Chinasmack staffs on the most popular jargons and abbreviations in discussion forums, and you will see that 21 out of  the total 84 are about sex, and many of them are so technical as to include “Swallowing semen” and threesome.    One Night Stand and extra-marital sex story sharing, homosexual experiences, prostitutes’ (both male and female) confessions, are so prevalent in all major discussion forums and their popularity is usually highly correlated with the level of explicitness of sex description.   Is it really the case that, the desire to engage in public discourse of the Chinese people are so repressed that they have to unleash all their energy in those lower desires?  Perhaps the Chinese government, in their alliance with corporate interest of the technological companies, employs the Huxleyan means to achieve their totalitarian ends?  In the end, who would care about politics and corruption if they have sexual scandals to watch everyday?

Conspiracy theories usually sound amazingly attractive and exciting, but they also tend to ignore common sense and facts.  In the end, the fact that “Every second – 28,258 internet users are viewing pornography” is not a joking matter.  It seems that it is just human nature to consume sex-related products, and it is hard to argue to what degree the authoritarian regime has contributed to its thriving phenomenon in China.  Second, it is simply not true that China’s netizens solely immerse themselves in those “trivial” matters.  They also help create national concerns over social grievances, and by posting, sharing and commenting online, they are turning the traditional form of protest on the street to that online.  Though the lack of people’s physical presence in those activities make them sound much less sensational and interesting, the rapid and instant dissemination of ideas and the varied form of creative expression make their effect no less significant than the traditional form of protest.  In fact, since the Chinese government does not recognize the online mobilizing as a form of protest yet, they are much more receptive to concerns expressed online.  While it’s true many political discourse online takes the form of satire, spoof and prank, as to evade outright censorship, it doesn’t seem to be problematic to me that people can have some fun while advance identities and political opinions.  You might argue that forms of expression are limited as a result of speech control, and that people are forced to engage in political discourse  in such light-hearted manner, yet I think the sole existence of these discourses is already an adequate verification of the agencies of the netizens.   As Yang Guobin argues in his brilliant new book, the Power of Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online, the state control shapes the form of contention, but it cannot prevent it from happening.  Finally, if you look closer to some of the seemingly “trivial” matters, they are not simply base talks.   For one thing,  internet opens the first public platform for homosexual people to seek  their identity and recognition when such discussions in traditional media are absolute taboos.  Their postings on popular forums usually attract large readership for their disclosure of alternative ways of life, and from what I have seen so far most netizens are generally curious and supportive of those sharing, making a possible positive contribution to the feeling of security, recognition and acceptance of homosexual group in China.

Indeed, you usually see a recommended post on Tianya’s front page that says ” I have to share with you about what happened on that wonderful night….” side by side to a post that says ” Let’s support the victims of Yushu Earthquake by Replying to this thread!” ,  jarred by the huge disparity of interests of China’s netizens and wonder what on earth those two things are related.  Yet if you really think about it, doesn’t it actually make the perfect sense?  At the end of the day, people are multifaceted and have complicated layers of desires, and the internet just simultaneously brings out all of them.  The heterogeneity of popular topics online makes China’s internet hardly a case for Huxley’s “Brave New World”, and “1984” is a tale that certainly underestimates the creativity of contention forces.   Next time, I will try to examine the complex relationship between corporate interest, market force and government intervention behind the scene.  But to be sure, no force single-handedly decides or knows what happens next.  It’s a much interactive process that the negotiation and coincidence of interests lead the way.


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Where is Han Han Going?

Han Han's magazine " A Chorus of Solos" has been delayed by censorship bereaus for publication

It seems that China’s young netizens are not the only ones who are so hyped by Han Han’s nomination for the Time 100 Most Influential People.  Traditional medias in China, both the propoganda machines and the more independent ones, have rushed to offer their two cents on the phenomenon.   Some of them are sober and objective, while the others are ridiculous.  When you read pieces like this(English )and that (Chinese),  you wonder whether the critical thinking abilities of those authors never passed the level of Chinese primary school education, during which time they were probably taught to moralize every thing and that anything not of ideological significance is garbage.  That is why they never seem to understand a word like “influential” can be neutral, and does not have to have any connotation of heroism or the embodiment of truth.   And of course the even more dangerous line of reasoning in those articles is that Han is being a running dog for American imperialism,  and they are just using him to spread American values that are not suitable for China.  The sources of these two articles are both state-run medias.  Thus you start wondering, is Han Han in  the danger of being officially labelled that way soon?

Last year, when  Time Magazine first profiled Han Han, and seriously mistook him “as generally stays away from sensitive issues such as democracy and human rights”, and “a willing participant in a process that channels the disaffected energy of youth into consumerism”, Raymond Zhou of China Daily wrote a very interesting response to Time’s misrepresentation of Han Han.   Using a sarcastic tone that is similar to Han’s style, Zhou recommend to Han that the only way for the Western media to respect him is to become an “activist or dissident”, and that to put himself into the jail would  surely do the best job.   Being a journalist himself, Zhou ‘s main point is not to dishonor any political dissents by questioning their intentions , but rather to ridicule the stereotypical expectations of Western media for martyrdom when reporting about authoritarian regimes like China where “human rights abuse” occurs everyday.  But Han Han is not.  Like argued in my last post about him, he is an independent thinker who stays true to his conscience and his sensitivity to the evils and ills of the society as a writer.  He is reluctant to subscribe to ideologies.

Thus I do not know what happened to make medias like Time suddenly think  so highly of him.  Well, perhaps still not very high.  If you look at Time’s description of his nomination, you notice that their predominant impression of him is a rebellious writer who in his adolescence has challenged the education system in China, while there is a “btw” note in the end saying that he “pokes fun” at social ills.  Thus what earns him a place in the nomination is his influence – exactly what the poll suppose to be about – not  his identification to “Western Values” or his activist work.   Time is not seeing him on their side yet.   Yet that is also why the language of the propoganda machines quoted above are particularly alarming.   It seems that people at the top are trying to set Han Han up by labelling him as what he is not.

On the other hand, the “fifty-cents party” has long tried to conjure up stories of Han Han’s ultimate fate in the cybersphere. ( The “fitfy cents party” are those who are extremely pro-government and try to spread around ideological comments online.  Some of them are voluntary, while others are said to be paid by the CCP to wedge propoganda war against people like Han Han.  Rumor has it that their rate is fifty cents per comment, and hence the origin of their name).  They usually suspect that he would either migrate to Western “imperial” countries once he runs out of his course in China, or he would be “harmonized” like other dissents when his true cause is revealed.   Yet given his immense popularity, and the vows of many his fans that if he is harmonized, they would start a revolution, it’s highly unlikely the CCP would bluntly  use the charge of “threaning social stability” to jail Han Han.   But  there are still many other ways  for them to sabotage his influence… And this post on has offered the most comprehensive list I have found so far about other possibilities, and the most plausible ones to me include: 1. To put pressure on his race car team to make him less outspoken, otherwise to find an excuse to bar him from competing. 2. To see if he has any tax evasion problem. 3. To label his not-yet-published magazine as engaging in “unfair competition”, because it offers a much higher rate to attract writers.  4. To hire gangsters to beat him up, or worse, to set up a car accident for him.

While I think any of the mentioned possibilities might occur, perhaps we can be assured, at least for now, for two things.  First is that there are only two major Party machines, the two links we provided above, which are extremely antagonistic to Han Han.  One of them is a local paper, Shanghai Daily, and the other is the website for People’s Daily.  Thus, it can be argued that Shanghaidaily is being extremely harsh to Han Han only because it does not want people from the national level to accuse them as incompetent.  The other one though runs on the national level, takes place only in the cyberspace.  Thus, criticisms at the national level is not formalised yet, as the choice of platform for discussion is website, not the newpapers themselves.  Furthermore, Party-run English newspapers like China Daily and Global Times both have given a somewhat neutral report on Han Han,  showing that they are not preparing a full scale attack on him yet.

The second reassuring factor, and perhaps the more important one, is Han Han’s sober awareness of  the untouchable part of the Party’s nerve and the limit of his influence.  His first comment upon hearing his nomination was that “Time is just a magazine!”, and asked people not to take the Poll too seriously.  Later, he gave an official response to his nomination in his blog,  the last paragraph of which is particularly moving: ( courtesy of CDT’s translation)

At last, let me return to the point of so-called influence. I often feel very ashamed. I am just a person with a pen. Maybe my writings make people feel like they are releasing some of their anger or resentment. But other than that what’s the real use? The so-called influence is illusory. In China, those who have influence are those who have power. Those who can make rain from clouds, those who can decide if you live or die, or keep you somewhere in between life and death. They are the people who really have influence. However, I am not sure it is just because they are afraid of search engines or they are too fragile to be searched; we often cannot find them by using search engines. We are just a small role on the stage, under the spotlight. But they own the theater. They can at any time bring the curtain down, turn off the lights, close the door and let the dogs out. Later the dogs all disappear and the sky is blue again; there is no trace of what has happened. I just wish those people could really put their influence into good use. And those of us on this stage, even those who built this theater in the past, should make efforts to gradually take down those high walls and light bulbs. Let the sunshine in. That kind of light, no one can extinguish it again.

Han Han is only going to do what he is capable of and what is the realistic.  He’s not going to be your martyr or his hero.   He is just a writer, who tries to stay true to his conscience and humanity.   Let us just hope he can keep on being who he is and only doing the things he wants to do.  If  someday, he really can no longer keep a balance between his conscience and the Party’s nerve , well, it might just mean that it is time to get rid of that nerve…

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Tentative Censorship Awareness Questions for Chinese Youth (updated)

It’s almost two weeks since Google’s exit from China, and it seems to me that nobody is talking about it anymore inside China.  I’m not sure if it’s because all the “noise” out there has been censored, or that really, China’s netizens are so resilient as Han Han claimed, and they just move on in the post-google world.  Rebecca Mackinnon suggested in her blog that Google’s exit might make more Chinese netizens aware of the censorship issues at home and seek circumvention tools to bypass the GFW.   But really, how optimistic we should be?

Through friends in China, I plan to give this survey to young people who have been abroad and experienced internet without censorship, and see their awareness and tolerance of the internet censorship in China.  Since they have experience the non “tunnel view”,  I think their response would be the most optimistic estimation of the general awaress and tolerance among netizens about censorship.  This is the first time I design a survey so welcome professional advices and any kinds of comments!

1. Before you live abroad, are you aware of the censorship issue in China?

a.)     Knows how it works and how to get around it;

b.)    have experienced it, but don’t know how does it work;

c.)    have heard of it but never experienced it;

d.)    never heard of it;

2.   How much you value a free internet when you first live abroad?

a.)     enjoy it so much, can’t imagine live without it;

b.)    enjoy it very much, but can live without it;

c.)   no difference than at home;

d.)    worse than at home for slower access to Chinese websites and music downloading

3.  When returning home, how much difficulties you had to re-adjust to the censorship?

a.)  Unbearable so I use tools to bypass censorship;

b.)  not very happy about it but doesn’t know/too much trouble to find a sustainable tool;

c.)   not happy about it but got used to it after a while;

d.)   doesn’t experience much difficulty;

4.  If having difficulties re-adjusting, which part you have most difficulties with?

a.)  not being able to use popular sites like Youtube and Facebook;

b.)  too slow when trying to access foreign websites;

c.)  not convenient to do cross-reference reading of current events or to do research about sensitive topics;

d.)  not being able to post anything I like to the internet.

5.   If using circumvention tools, how often you use it?

a.) whenever I go online;

b.) only when I need to go on certain websites;

c.) rarely use it, because having many difficulties finding a stable one;

d.) almost never use it;

6.   What kind of circumvention tools you use?

7.   How convenient you think those tools are?

8. How bad it is for Google to exit from mainland China?

a.) significant regress of internet freedom in China;

b.) too bad that baidu has no more strong competitor, welfare of netizens suffered;

c.) it’s sad news, but people will get use to post-google China;

d.) it won’t have much lasting influence on internet in China;

9.  Do you think Google’s exit would make more people aware of censorship issues?

a.) yes, much more;

b.) yes, to some extent.

c.) those who are concerned with the exit are mostly those who already know. so it doesn’t make more people aware of it;

d.) people are generally apathetic about the event.


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Weiwei and Hanhan: China’s most famous living artist VS. China’s literary bad boy?

Who is Han Han, and who is Ai Weiwei?

The former is:

  • A mega-popular Chinese blogger, who uses sarcasm and parody to lampoon incompetent governance, China’s One Party system, and ridiculous contemporary social phenemenon  in his blog, which has recieved more than 344 million hits by far;
  • A best-seller in China who has published since he was 13, yet a badboy who publicly belittled quite a few modern and contemporary Chinese writers who are usually regarded as the best of their times;
  • A professional race car driver,  who was the champion  for the most two important Chinese professional car racing contests last year;
  • A new topic of interest for mainstream America media.  The NYTIMES: Heartthrob’s blog challenges China’s Leaders. The Time Magazine, which the name of this post is paying tribute to: Han Han: China’s Literary Bad Boy.  ( But I highly recommend the first article, not the second one).  Now he is also nominated for Time Magazine’s Yearly 100 Most Influential People, and his fans quickly are spreading this news around on Chinese social networking sites in hope to vote him higher than Obama!

The Later is:

  • A mega-popular tweeter who has 31,524 followers on twitter thus far;
  • A passionate and expressive artist who likes to challenge bureaucracies, power abuse, and the evils of modernity in his art work, by  using symbolisms like giving his middle finger to the White House.  But his biggest hate is  the Chinese government.
  • An engaging activist whose causes include investigating the identities of the school children who were buried to death during the Wenchuan Earthquake in 2008.   Yet the intention behind some of his activism is under controversy, for example his attempt to politicize and publicise the demolition of art districts in Beijing by leading demonstrations in the Tian’anmen Square has been labeled by other fellow artists as  being an opportunist and a fame-grabber in the international art community.
  • the son of the a famous Chinese poet, Ai Qing, who was a victim in the Culture Revolution when Weiwei was still a schoolboy.

Why putting them side-by-side?

Because both of them have great personal styles, and they are both immensely important in China’s cyberspace.  Yet while Han Han is more popular and an opinion leader in domestic cyberspace and has just begun to receive international attention, Weiwei has been a favorite for the Western Art  community and Human Rights watchers  for a while, but his main influence inside mainland China is can be said to be limited to those who are able to use circumvention tools to scale the censorship, the Great Fire Wall in China to follow his twitter account.( twitter was blocked in China in 2009)

Despite their shared popularities, their strategies and personalities vary to a great extent as well.  Han Han does not want to set him up to be an opposition to the CCP, although he is constantly criticising it.  He wants to remain an independent voice, which means that he does not subscribe to any kind of ideologies, including those of democracy and human rights.  What drives him is his instinctual sympathy in human sufferings and immediate repulse for anything that is against the better side of humanities as a writer.  As much as he sees the ills of the current One Party system, he thinks that there is more to be said about it: the weakness of Chinese people as a race makes them especially vulnerable to dictatorship.  In one of his latest posts on the influence of Google’s exit from China, he used his usual sarcasm to poke fun at both Google and China’s netizens.   For him, Google has totally overestimated the desire for information in China’s netizens, whose “tolerance is higher than you can imagine. Their needs are lower than you can imagine” ( Courtesy to Danwei’s translation)  While many supporters of CCP would argue that material benefits should be the priority for now and the Party is justified in repressing other kinds of freedom in exchange of economic growth,  Han here,  sees Chinese people’s preference for safety and tangible benefits over spiritual life something inherent in the culture legacy.

Han’s popularity as a novelist helps him to sustain his independence financially, and thus keeping a distance from Western patronage.  He reportedly refused the invitation from the U.S. Embassy, along with a group of young bloggers to meet with President Obama when he visited China.  His excuse was that he needed to compete in a car race.  Yet his true reason of refusal of that invitation can be said to be his skepticism in diplomatic power and oversea Human Rights politics to help China to improve.   He believes in the power of thoughts and of gradual changes of conscience in the Chinese people. And in order to maintain his presence and influence in the development of such progress, he had to stay in the system, dance with it and maintain a thin line of compromise with the authority.

Weiwei on the other hand, speaks a language that is much more familiar to the Western audience.  He is usually very expressive and outspoken in his art work and media productions about the evils of one-party authoritarianism, and unlike Han Han, who tried to preserve a middle ground and independence, Weiwei is uncompromising in his pursuit of the ideal he believes in.   And he is not afraid to seek alliance in the Western community when they are sympathizing to his cause.  He speaks a very decent English and thus has been invited to a growing amount of public discussions about  his work and internet activism in China.  Yet his obstinateness in his cause can sometimes becomes a total disregard for other’s opinion and arguments in public space.  During his recent conversation with Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter, he started out calling Dorsey a God for China’s netizens, yet was growing more and more impatient at Dorsey’s explanation of the logistical difficulty and timelines for twitter to set up a Chinese interface by the end of the conversation.  If his artistic passion has led him to regard Dorsey as a God, perhaps  that same passion has also led him to quickly dismiss Dorsey as another bureaucratic hypocrite.   Another interesting twist in that conversation was during the Q&A session, when a middle-aged America-born-Chinese business woman, after spending quite a few minutes explaining why economic development should still be the priority for China’s leader now, and the somewhat implausibility to have all kinds of freedom at once, asked Weiwei what would be a reasonable timeline for China to achieve the freedom he aspires to.  Weiwei  was immediately irratated by her argument, saw her as yet another profit-driven evil business men who are the natural allies of the corrupted  government, and even made an attempt to intimidate her by asking her to reveal her name and her company.   His moral pressuring style almost reminds me of the Culture Revolution, during which his father had suffered.

Whose approach is better?

They both have their critics.  Those who are skeptical of Han Han dislike his casual flings in the fashion, music and entertainment industries, and the fact that he is too handsome, all of which for them, took away the seriousness in his influence.   Yet isn’t the fact that he is so capable of multi-tasking has earned him unparallel popularity?  While its true that perhaps half of his fans are female and adore him for his looks and sports achievements, the fact that they are constantly exposed to his writing and thoughts that might change the way they look at the society they live in is exactly Han’s goal.   Some others criticize him of only destructing the system by picking up the ills, but who does not do ground-level activism to push for a new system.   Yet as we mentioned before, Han is no subscriber to ideologies, and no passionate advocate of democracy.  As much he is criticising the current system, like Lu Xun, the famous modern Chinese writer, he believes in the change of people’s mindset, instead of advocating any political systems. His faith of change is coming from the inside and lies in the Chinese people.  And to maintain his influence, he had to stay inside the system, which means he has to keep a delicate relationship with the authorities.

Weiwei on the other hand, has done many ground-level activism that has brought out measurable benefits to some specific individuals.  But due to his public break-up from the authority, his blog is censored in China and his influence is thus much more limited than Han Han.  But perhaps because of the nature of his work and the language he uses, his message was  not appreciated by many ordinary Chinese to begin with, and they certainly also does not appreciate all the media sensation and attention he is  causing by expressing anger.   They prefer Han’s humours style in which you can take it either to be just for fun, or extremely serious.

But who is better?  Hard to say.  I personally like Han Han more, for all his brilliant yet subtle satire of China, its people and government.   And I hope he would be able to maintain the thin line of tolerance with the authority to continue his work.   And as much as I distaste Weiwei’s irritable temper and linear way of thinking, I appreciate what he is trying to do for the school children of Wenchuan.  Perhaps China needs both.  It needs consciencious gentlemen like Han Han, who can articulate,  reason and lead the public opinion, but it also needs tough guys like Weiwei who just go out, get things done, and never compromise.


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