Punk video art from China

June 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

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I am so glad Asia is creeping up on New Zealand. Otherwise I might never have discovered the Double Fly Arts Centre (双飞艺术中心) collective. This crazy gang of Shanghai-based artists is a rare find and certainly not the kind of art you’d expect to be sanctioned by China’s Ministry of Culture and I would bet my last dollar that it hasn’t been.

On the other hand, Double Fly (双飞) hasn’t been banned either. For a while, a number of their videos could be seen as part of the Moving on Asia exhibition at Wellington’s City Gallery. The show ended last week and if you missed it, Double Fly video short films can be found online (as are many of the other works from the Moving on Asia exhibition).

Here’s the one where they rob a bank. Watch how baffled the workers are when the Double Fly robbers rob a construction site which will be a bank – once its finished.

Here’s another one where members of the group dress up as businessmen and behave shockingly in an up-scale café. They become such a nuisance that the police are called.

In this one, the Double Fly save the world while parodying global leaders in scenes like Silvio Berlusconi’s infamous Bunga Bunga parties.

The curators say the video art in the Moving on Asia exhibition is designed to raise questions about New Zealand’s geographic and cultural relationship to Asia at a time when the country’s ties to the region are becoming stronger and more nuanced.

The exhibition of 45 works from Indonesia, China, South Korea, India, Philippines and Taiwan were drawn from Gallery LOOP in Seoul and curated for the City Gallery show.  The exhibition’s three parts are New Town Ghosts, Movement No.2 and Who Cares about the Future? A big part of that future is China and the new art has to transmit the electrifying changes that are happening to Chinese society. Rapid progress has benefited millions of Chinese but there’s been an alarming cost as well, like yawning income gaps, environmental degradation, worsening corruption, and the struggle for a moral society.

Since China began opening up in the 1980s, video art started to be made as the equipment became more portable, cheaper and available. Now, it seems video art has blossomed as a medium of choice for many Chinese artists.

While the government, by and large, supports art that subscribes to its narrative of nation building and the legacy of five thousand years of civilisation, many of the new generation of Chinese artists are evidently bucking government orthodoxy while tackling taboo subjects such as censorship, human rights, social injustice and even sex.

While the rebellious artists may not get government support and funding, they cannot be stopped from creating and distributing their works, such as the video shorts in Moving on Asia which gives us a view of a thriving scene that’s off the official map. Viewing these works gives us different perspectives on China and that is helpful to those of us interested in understanding the country better if we can’t be there.

But according to this excellent article by a former Chinese art scene insider, artists still need to carefully navigate a minefield of artistic expression. As Livia Li explains:

But in fact, there isn’t a clear link between Chinese government censorship policy and its impact on contemporary visual arts. As said above, the Government has been applying strict rules on creative content, i.e. TV programmes, theatrical performances, creative writing etc, however, there is not a clear censorship rule around contemporary visual art and this still remains a grey area. On the other hand, the majority of party politicians and government officials don’t fully understand arts and are not good at reading the metaphors behind the art works (and) this inhibited the censorship system working properly.

In recent years for example, cases of art works that have been withdrawn from exhibitions are mostly due to depiction of violence, explicit sexual or abusive material. These themes have been fundamentally banned in all creative industries in China. In addition, political direction is another essential issue that the Chinese government applies strict rules on, and political dissidences would find difficulties in showing their political themed art works in China.

Just ask Ai Weiwei (艾未未) whom the Chinese government categorises as a political activist and a troublemaker. His troubles with Chinese officials are well publicised and can also be seen in the documentary Never Sorry. His latest work includes a music video Dumbass, about his arrest and jailing last year, and more recently, a statement about China’s food safety scandals.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei maps China's demand for baby milk powder.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei maps China’s demand for baby milk powder. Photo via AP.

By coincidence, the Moving on Asia exhibition ended on June 3, the day before June 4 which, most Chinese bloggers will be able to tell you, is a sensitive topic on the Chinese internet. Any mention of June 4 is removed as quickly as it is posted behind the Great Firewall because the crushing of a large student-led protest on that day in 1989 is a taboo subject that China’s leaders want to keep hidden.

There’s a vigil held in Hong Kong each year (something that would not be permitted anywhere else in China) while Chinese activists, using virtual proxy networks and other tools to circumvent the ‘Chinese intranet’, post photos, links and other information about the ‘Tiananmen Incident’ on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

The famous ‘Tank Man’ photo doesn’t last long on the Chinese internet. So sensitive is the topic of June 4 that this photo-shopped Giant Duck version was also taken down on Chinese micro-blogs. Here’s an NPR report on how a giant yellow duck art installation on Hong Kong harbour become an unlikely symbol of the Tiananmen Anniversary.

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This is why discovering Double Fly has been a minor revelation. I think it’s a positive sign that such chaotic and mentalist art is being made in China. It’s a positive sign for China that Double Fly and other punk artists can get their work shown overseas; that some of it makes its way to my city art gallery; and there are curators who are interested in our Asian future and who think art is important to understanding the region.

Who cares about the future? I think these artists do and they give us some idea of what to expect in that future because the hints are there to be found in the weird and challenging world of contemporary video art coming out of China.

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Jeremy Lin is the new face of Asian overachievement

February 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

Harvard economics graduate and basketball star, Jeremy Lin is blazing a new chapter in Asian American achievement. While we in New Zealand are still waiting for the first Asian All Black, Lin has become an almost overnight sensation in the NBA for his electrifying performances for the New York Knicks over the past few weeks.

This Taiwanese Chinese American (Taiwanese because his parents came from Taiwan, Chinese because of his ethnicity and American because the United States is his birthplace) story is one of those against the odds stories that become part of the folklore of any sport. But for millions of Asian Americans, he has even greater value for being, like them, of an ethnic background that breaks the usual tropes of what it takes to be a successful NBA player.

Until Lin appeared to burst on the NBA stage this month, there were no Asian American professionals in the top rank of US professional basketball. Many of us know Yao Ming (now retired) but he was a Chinese national and had the massive advantage of being two metres 29 centimetres tall. That’s seven feet six inches in old money.

Jeremy Lin is a less statuesque one metre 92 centimetres or six foot three inches. To put his recent exploits in perspective, Lin had only played 55 minutes in total for his New York Knicks team’s first 23 games of the current season. He was a virtually forgotten man on the bench until he got his first start. He was even on loan to another team in a lower league when he was recalled by Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni who candidly admitted Lin “got lucky because we were playing so bad”.

But he seized his chance like a glutton at a banquet. Against the Jersey Nets on February 4, Lin scored 25 points, helping his team to 99-92 win. He scored an astonishing 38 points against the Los Angeles Lakers and he made this astonishing play against the Toronto Raptors with seconds on the clock and the scores tied.

It’s been ‘Linsanity’ ever since. After he began starting for the Knicks, Lin led the previously struggling team on a seven match winning streak. He has been unstoppable, scoring freely and been integral to bringing winning NBA excitement to the Knicks home games at Madison Square Garden.

The trick about Jeremy Lin’s stratospheric rise in basketball folklore is very much about how he is absolutely dominating games and has become the team leader. He plays with no fear (something he attributes to his faith as a Christian) and shows incredible composure for a young player who has only just made it onto the NBA stage and is now playing among the NBA elite.

That is not to say he is without a weakness. He can turn the ball over to the opposition too often as he did against the Hornets, a defeat that brought the flying Knicks back down to earth and reminded everyone that Lin is human after all.

An undeniable factor in the appeal of Lin’s story has been his ethnicity as a Chinese American. He has become an iconic figure to the huge East Asian diaspora communities in the United States and Canada and he has also come to ‘represent’ Chinese in Taiwan and in the People’s Republic.

This excellent USA Today article explores the flukey quality of Lin’s emergence in a sport dominated by African Americans and what it means to local Chinese.

“We’re here for Jeremy Lin,” said Samuel Li, 21, a Chinese Canadian from Markham, Ontario, who attended the (Raptors) game. “He is the first of his kind. We’re Yao Ming fans, but he’s seven feet and from China. Jeremy is my size and from America. We can identify with him.”

The excitement translating into Lin’s growing popularity is naturally captured on social media. He has amassed almost 450,000 Twitter followers (he is @JLin7) and on China’s Sina weibo, he has nearly 900,000 followers. Lin was also reportedly the most common searched item on the Baidu search engine in China between February 2 and February 14 and he has become a feature in the Chinese language mainstream media. His number 17 jersey is the top selling shirt at NBAstore.com with Hong Kong and Taiwan being the third and fourth destinations behind the US and Canada.

There’s also been a lot of unintended comedy around the Lin story. ESPN had to apologise for its ‘Chink in the armour’ headline while Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock had to say sorry for his ‘two inches of pain’ tweet – a reference to the smaller than average penis size stereotype of Asian men!

Chinese netizens also ridiculed a Xinhua news agency article that explored the possibility of Lin, who is known by his Chinese name Lin Shuhao (林書豪), giving up his US citizenship so he could play for China at the upcoming Olympics.

This video of Lin’s heavily American accented and fairly elementary level Mandarin has been garnering views on YouTube.

Here’s another clip from the same interview, which won him plenty more admirers in China because he said he was Chinese. It’s a sensitive issue for many mainland Chinese because they resent the way people from Taiwan differentiate themselves by saying they are Taiwanese.

Meanwhile, the Jeremy Lin bandwagon rolls on. The Knicks won again after their loss to the Hornets and Lin was again instrumental.

There are so many arresting elements to this unfolding story.  Lin gets his chance and grabs it. He beats the odds and becomes a winner and a star. He triumphs over racial discrimination and ethnic profiling. He is a role model for Christian fans because he plays for his faith. He embodies the hopes and pride of millions of Asian North Americans. He makes millions more fans in China and Taiwan and inadvertently gets caught up in cross strait rivalry between the two. He becomes a household name to all Americans. Finally, he leads the Knicks to the NBA championship. Well, that bit is yet to come but what an exclamation mark that would be.

It could be a Hollywood movie, except if Hollywood had made it, the leading man would not have been Asian. That’s what, in the case of Jeremy Lin, makes real life better than fiction.

What next in China’s Wukan stand-off?

December 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

A stand-off between a group of determined villagers and local government representatives in China’s southern province of Guangdong is currently adding to the formidable workload of country’s indefatigable army of Internet censors.

The name of Wukan is being ‘scrubbed’ from the Chinese Internet after the plight of the village’s inhabitants became a cause celebre among Chinese netizens for their stubborn protest against land seizures by corrupt local officials.

Simmering since September, the story received international attention when it was revealed that one of the village negotiators, whom the authorities suspected of being a ringleader, died in police custody after being snatched on December 9.

While events are being reported outside China, the country’s censors have put a lid on the story within, shutting a temporary window when videos and photographs of the village protest and the attempted police crackdown were easily shared among China’s Internet users. The village has been sealed off by a police cordon that is preventing food and supplies from crossing to the villagers.

The good news is that negotiators on both sides appear to be reaching a rapprochement of sorts with the authorities trying to calm the situation after a forceful crackdown using hundreds of police failed dismally. Here are the latest developments from Radio Free Asia and the China Media Project.

The story of Wukan is the latest of an estimated 150 thousand protests that occur in China each year. By and large, the causes of the protests are dispossession, exploitation and corruption at the hands of government officials in cahoots with powerful business interests.

The one big difference with Wukan is the sizeable corps of foreign correspondents that embedded themselves among the villagers. Journalists from the Daily Telegraph, McLatchy Newspapers, the New York Times, NPR Radio and others have been reporting from the village and creating an extra headache for the officials who have been trying to cover up the story and resolve it quickly. As this New York Times story says, another critical factor in the heightened level of coverage is the number of Hong Kong news media covering the issue.

Malcolm Moore of The Daily Telegraph is the foreign correspondent who provided the first reportsof the village rebellion in the overseas media although the villagers themselves are keen to avoid the issue being reported as an uprising or rebellion. In what can only be described as a tactical move, they are keen to underline that their dispute is with the local officials and their appeal is to central government for justice.

But while the news about Wukan has been getting out, it is no longer getting in. Wukan has ‘disappeared’ from China’s social web, except when it appears in news items generated by state news media sources.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Wukan is now blocked on search engines and “hot tweets” are being closely monitored.

The BBC reports that users of China’s most popular micro-blogging site, Sina Weibo, can no longer find results for Wukan in searches.

Radio Free Asia says a video showing thousands of villagers gathered in protest was quickly removed after being posted on the Sina and Tencent. Here is a video compilation of events, edited by Charles Custer at China Geeks.

Blocking and censoring the topics that the government considers a threat to its stated aim of maintaining social harmony is one part of the equation. David Bandurski of the China Media Project says the Wukan case is also notable for the government’s more sophisticated approach to “channelling public opinion” – spin, by another name.

The emphasis on “channelling public opinion” so prevalent in media policy these last few years — what we have at CMP termed “Control 2.0″ — essentially comes down to finding more effective ways of spinning these public opinion crises, managing dangerous stories in the era of real-time interactive information.

Bandurski, an American who speaks and writes Chinese, says control of the Wukan story has been ‘robust’. When he posted a Chinese-language summary of a story by Malcolm Moore on Sina Weibo, it was quarantined in less than a minute.

Clearly Wukan is an object lesson in the dangers of runaway corruption at the local level in China. But it is also, unfortunately, shaping up as a test case in how the government is experimenting with new strategies to shape news coverage on sensitive incidents and issues.

The rapid growth of Internet users and mobile communications is deeply concerning for China’s Communist Party rulers and the speed and breadth by which a protest can escalate online presents a clear and present challenge to the Party’s hold on power. The real time multiplier effect that makes the Internet so formidable can give rise to hundreds of Wukans with no end in sight. A localised event can transform into national issue in an Internet blink.

The social marketing agency, Resonance China, says China’s web is a very personal space that allow otherwise economically and politically restricted Chinese a sense of freedom.

The drive to express online is a central motivation for the Chinese. Due to China’s strong censorship and control of traditional media, the internet becomes a major destination to receive balanced views, see how others think and react to events, and share and express one’s individuality.

We all know that personal space and political space mingle inextricably on the web. The balance of power between Chinese netizens and the machinery of censorship shifts constantly as the government attempts to imprint its sense of order on what it sees as a lawless and threatening frontier. But as the aggrieved residents of Wukan have been trying to tell the world, the attempts by the authorities to enforce the law don’t mean anything if there is no justice. That’s a point that seems lost on at least one important actor in the events that led to one village in China losing its faith in the system.

Teaching American slang on the Chinese Internet

December 10, 2011 § 2 Comments

OMG Meiyu

A star is born. It happened virally and unexpectedly in a part of the Internet that is off the regular English speaking end of the web. A young American internet broadcaster has become a surprise hit on the Chinese Internet by teaching American slang to young Chinese.

Jessica Beinecke is a young employee of Voice of America, the US Federal Government broadcaster. She is also the presenter of OMG Meiyu, a daily Internet show that introduces Chinese netizens to American colloquialisms such as muffin top, booger, freezing one’s butt, okey dokey and freaking out, among others.

The OMG Meiyu formula; introduce some inoffensive slang terms, sprinkle with some Lady Gaga or the Black Eyed Peas, take aim at young Chinese internet users and hope for the best which is exactly what happened when one episode called ‘Yucky Gunk’ went viral, turning Jessica Beinecke into a rising star on the Chinese Internet.

Beinecke says Yucky Gunk, about the crusty or sticky sleep in the corner of your eyes and the boogers from your nose, was ‘user-generated’. It had been suggested as a topic by one of the Chinese viewers who chat with her on the Chinese micro-blogging platform, Weibo, where she has over 100,000 followers, or who email the programme.

Here is Yucky Gunk on Youku which is China’s equivalent to YouTube. The number of views is on the top right hand corner – 1,525,878 by my last count.

Here it is on YouTube.

This might not sound like much in the context of the Chinese Internet with its 400 million plus internet users. But it is enough to see why the 24-year-old from Ohio who has been learning Mandarin for five years and speaks it fluently has a growing Chinese fan base and received more than a few long distance marriage proposals.

Here is a look at the OMG Meiyu profile on China’s Weibo micro-blogging service.

My Chinese friends say Beinecke’s Mandarin is ‘awesome’ and that she relates well to young Chinese who are learning English and who are curious about the United States. The subject matter is also not typical of any English language textbook which makes it more appealing and memorable to learners.

“But it’s really intimidating, the thing has gone viral. It took weeks for the show to get to a million total hits, then one week later, we’ve passed two million. Now I have to find ways to keep it fun,” she told The Washington Post recently.

Meanwhile, her employers at the Voice of America must be overjoyed. As a government broadcaster – which is an organisation with a very different mission to a public broadcaster – VOA is a projection of America’s soft power to the rest of the world, particularly towards China, a country that is a key strategic competitor and rising superpower.

Soft power is the term coined by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye to describe how a country can project and amplify its cultural influence to generate offshore goodwill towards it. It is all about the power of attraction while hard power is about using methods that compel other nations to bend to your will, usually by threat of force or economic bullying. Hard power and soft power are complementary sides of any foreign policy equation. One is coercion while the other is seduction.

New Zealand has a small military which rarely gets used aggressively, with the current exception of a small unit of SAS soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. But the enforcement by the New Zealand government of travel sanctions on Fiji’s military is an example of our country’s use of a hard power tactic.

On the other hand, our soft power is seen in aid and development programmes, sports diplomacy, peacekeeping missions and Radio New Zealand International shortwave broadcasts to the South Pacific.

China, like the United States, has a powerful military and formidable economic clout but it too employs soft power to project its culture, language and its own historical perspective towards the rest of the world. China’s aid programme in the developing world, especially in Africa, and the increased resourcing of its state run media outlets (CCTV, China Radio International and Xinhua) are examples of the country’s global charm offensive.

Confucius Institutes are also springing up to teach Chinese culture and language to foreigners and are the same manifestation of soft power as the Alliance Francaise, the Goethe Institute, Japan Information and Culture Centres and others that work to showcase their respective countries’ cultures abroad. There are now Confucius Institutes in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch and they support the teaching of Chinese language and facilitate cultural exchanges.

As you can see, there are many ways of projecting soft power. But it is significant that the digital era is consigning one of the workhorses of soft power into obsolescence. Shortwave radio broadcasts have been used since the 1920s to deliver news and information to ideologically different regimes so that those populations had an alternative source of information. Now all of that is changing.

The Internet is the new highway to the hearts and minds of people in countries where information may not flow as freely. It has become the new channel for projecting soft power as is hinted at in this article about the phasing out of traditional radio and television broadcasts at VOA.

In the meantime, the bubbly host of OMG Meiyu continues to record her short VOA programmes on her Apple computer in her Washington home that are then posted five times a week on popular Chinese websites like Youku and Weibo.

Her unconventional language and preppy style are helping make thousands of young Chinese feel warmer about America and make her a highly effective cultural ambassador and torch bearer of Sino-US relations.

“Working out and breaking up and eating chips, we all do that. Sometimes we don’t always realise how similar we are.” Jessica Beinecke, you are a soft power star.

The information war that rages on the Chinese internet

August 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

There’s an intensifying struggle in China over information and at the heart of it is the internet. As we all know, controlling the internet is virtually impossible. But that doesn’t stop the Chinese government, backed with a very sophisticated system of censorship, from trying.

In a new development, the country’s popular Sina Weibo micro-blogging platform has informed its users that they risk having their accounts suspended if they spread rumours that provoke social unrest.

You may already be aware that Sina Weibo is China’s equivalent of Twitter. It has grown rapidly in a few years to have 200 million users, many of whom rely on it as a way to stay connected to their online communities and also as an alternative source of news and information.  Here’s the China Digital Times story.

This threat of suspension has angered many of Weibo users, many of whom are suspicious that the kinds of rumours that the government refers to could be anything that runs counter to the state’s spin on news and events. There’s a feeling that government pressure is being applied to Weibo to reassert some control over the unruly world of the Chinese social net.

This is the latest turn in a battle over information and expression that is being waged on the Chinese side of the Great Firewall (GFW). The government has been shaken up by some recent scandals that have gone viral among Chinese netizens. As one experienced China watcher observed, one of the most recent cases even felt like a tipping point, as you can read in an earlier post here.

The Chinese state media fosters and promulgates news and the types of stories that are by and large ideologically supportive of the China’s ruling communist party. But increasingly, the Chinese online public is in turn becoming more sophisticated and increasingly sceptical in its interpretation of pro-government rhetoric and spin.

With a thriving independent commercial media scene, social media, soaring numbers of internet users and meteoric numbers of smart phones, Chinese netizens now have unparalleled access to alternative sources of news and information. This mercurial flow of independent information that has not been sanctioned by the government is inflicting a deepening credibility crisis on the authorities and the dutiful state media organisations.

Take this recent embarrassing episode. A hoaxer planted a fake government media release in the state media system and it was reported as fact. This fiasco, claimed many Chinese netizens, was a perfect demonstration of how one of the biggest disseminators of falsehoods was the state itself.

So the battle lines are drawn. On one side is the state which is selling its vision of a China that is making rapid advancements in improving people’s livelihoods and restoring China to its rightful place in the world.

On the other side is the mob – the rapidly growing numbers of connected Chinese who use the internet to share and organise. Among them are activists, dissidents and ordinary people with a grudge against the state. They have the tools to collaborate online to create physical world protests and publicise them before government censors can react, like in this recent protest in the city of Dalian.

From the government’s view, these kinds of incidents threaten to derail its vision for China. China’s leaders biggest fears are social chaos and overthrow. Hence the emphasis on the GFW and the system of net censorship which they argue are necessary to maintain social harmony, protect China’s territorial integrity and promote Communist Party rule.

This is why information in China often vanishes. Here’s a wonderfully illustrative China Geeks post which observes “news has a habit of disappearing; from state media, traditional media, personal blogs, microblogs and Internet forums alike”.

“After an important incident, citizens have roughly a day to opine before the government apparatus catches up. It is then that directives are issued to media outlets, outlining what can and cannot be reported; it is then that posts you swore you wrote vanish; it is then that new “sensitive keywords” are entered into a blackout database.”

For those of us outside China, perhaps the single biggest manifestation of net censorship in China is the GFW. Platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Google+ are blocked in China (but interestingly, LinkedIn is not).

To get around the GFW, many foreigners in China use virtual proxy networks. A Singaporean friend living in Beijing says it is easy to buy a VPN service by paying with a credit card. “Most people find out which service to use through word of mouth. It’s not openly discussed because the services have specifically told us not to write about anything they do in a public forum. The government has recently been clamping down on the VPNs and any extra information that we give them just allows them to shut the services more easily.”

A Shanghai-based New Zealander says censorship policies and directives change all the time. “The internet is just a bit goddamned slow here anyway, due to all the filtering, so sometimes it’ll take a few days before people realise that a site has been added to a blocked list.  An interesting case is with Google+. This wasn’t blocked, but foreign media reported that it was.  But now it is.”

Another New Zealander confirmed Google+ was blocked and that it “also happened to be the platform (the Chinese dissident artist) Ai Wei Wei first contacted netizens through, several weeks after being released from prison”.

But there are thousands of Chinese netizens already using Google+ and they say there are many other techniques for jumping the GFW. According to them, these techniques are not difficult and cost nothing. They include Secure Shell or SSH, Telex, GoAgent and hosts file modification. Here’s an informative video of how to modify the hosts file on a computer to disguise IP addresses. There’s also this useful guide on the myriad ways to access a blocked website.

It seems getting across the GFW is easy, once you know how. China has 485 million internet users and some of them joke that the internet in China is really one big intranet. But for many of China’s internet users, the GFW is not an insurmountable barrier to access that which is banned on the mainland.

The minority of Chinese netizens who cross the GFW on a daily basis are a microcosmic representative of China’s vibrant and restless internet scene. The staggering number of online citizens, exponentially growing quantities of user generated content, evolving mobile technology, improving communications infrastructure and a host of other factors all point in one direction.  The inescapable conclusion is that the booming Chinese internet is increasingly difficult to control and censorship will continue to be subverted because the expectations of millions of Chinese people – many of them young and tech savvy – are changing.

Chinese netizens flex muscles over Wenzhou train disaster

August 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

First there was the train crash, then a clumsy attempt at a cover-up, followed by an outpouring of grief and outrage on the internet. Now there’s an investigation and the search is on to find a scapegoat. The Wenzhou bullet train crash has shocked the Chinese public and rocked the Chinese government.

The authorities are now scrambling to seize control of the message but whatever that message may be, chances are many Chinese internet users won’t be buying it. This is after journalists and citizen journalists posted reports, images and video of the crash scene aftermath, especially the bizarre attempt by the rescue authorities to dig a trench and bury an entire train carriage.

As the heavy machinery moved the carriage, it became evident that not all the bodies had been recovered and there’s been deafening speculation on the Chinese internet that the death toll is actually much higher than the 39 killed, as reported in the state media.

The spectacular collision which happened in Wenzhou city in China’s eastern Zhejiang province last weekend is being called the 7/23 disaster. The China Media Project, and other aggregator websites like the Ministry of Tofu, the China Digital Times, the ShanghaiistChinaSmack have been translating and reporting the bubbling wave of anger on the Chinese internet.

Cue another credibility crisis for the Chinese state media and the government in Beijing. Independent journalists were reporting what they were seeing and the Chinese microblogging platforms like Sina Weibo have been flooded with expressions of rage, grief and scorn at the official response to the accident.

Here’s a telling item on China’s Youku video sharing website, via the China Media Project which has been doing an excellent job reflecting events as they are portrayed on the Chinese internet. There’s extensive coverage of the Wenzhou crash here, including these dramatic images posted on social media in China.

All of a sudden, the authorities were put on the defensive. A Ministry of Rail spokesperson gavethis unsatisfactory account of why the carriage had to be buried. The government has moved to increase financial compensation for the families of the dead and injured. An investigation has been launched to find out what and who was responsible.

A Chinese friend says this is all part of a typical strategy to try and placate inflamed public opinion and to restore the government’s often stated aim of social harmony. Social harmony is how the authorities justify their heavy hand on the internet and the independent news media. To outsiders, the most obvious manifestation of China’s heavily censored media environment is the country’s Great Fire Wall.

But what has become clear is that when the authorities mishandle a catastrophe as publicly as this one, there is no hiding from the internet and the scrutiny of millions of Chinese internet users. The bullet train accident is just the latest example of how two large and often conflicting forces are rubbing against each other and creating a great deal of heat.

The seemingly immovable object is the ruling Chinese Communist Party. The bullet train project is a showcase of China’s modernisation and the spreading network of high speed rail is poster child material for the government’s propaganda machine as to how technologically advanced the country is becoming, thanks to the CCP.

But the recently opened Shanghai-Beijing bullet train route has been plagued with technical problems and much satirised on the Chinese internet. Then the Wenzhou crash happened and all of a sudden, the government is faced with a credibility issue over the safety of its high tech, high speed train network and more questions are being asked about the sustainability and speed of the country’s technological and economic progress.

The unstoppable force is the internet. China’s netizens reached 485 million users by the end of June and internet penetration is 36 percent of the population. There’s a long way to grow yet. Mobile is also a big factor with just under 318 million users. China’s internet users are also, by and large, young – over 57 percent of internet users are under the age of 30.

All of this means millions of Chinese are getting their news and information in ways that cannot possibly be prescribed by government censors. The inescapable conclusion is the Chinese internet is now an increasingly anarchic entity that is sprawling beyond the government’s ability to tightly control the message, especially in times like these.

Where’s all the news, Tantao News?

April 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

You’d think a showdown between India and Pakistan at the Cricket World Cup would be a good scenario for a Twitter war. So I went searching for nationalistic taunting between Twitter users from both countries and surprisingly, found nothing calculated to enrage rival cricket fans. But the searches did throw up one idiosyncratic feature. All the search columns were topped with a promoted tweet for a news organisation called Tantao News.

If you recall, Al Jazeera were probably the first news organisation to use promoted tweets to corner news coverage of the Egyptian chapter of what has come to the called the Arab Spring of discontent and protest. The Wall Street Journal reported the cost of one day of promoting a tweet is something around $US100,000. It isn’t a cheap way to advertise a news product and it helps that Al Jazeera has the deep pockets of the Emir of Qatar to count on.

But who or what are Tantao News (@TantaoNews on Twitter) and its Global News Desk service?

The website tells us that it is an American news organisation, run and administered by CNEWSCO which is a start-up new media company based in Washington DC with operations in Los Angeles and Beijing.

Its operation is focused on “the aggregation, production and distribution of China-themed news and related content”. Tantao, according to the website, is Chinese for discover or to explore.

So far so good, taken at face value, here’s a new US-based news aggregator and producer that specialises in “China themed” news at a time when there is widespread misunderstanding and ignorance of China, particularly in the West. It promises that it is responsible for “our own productions and in selecting the textual news articles and videos that appear on our site from a continuous stream of content available to CNEWSCO from our news partners”.

These news partners are the Xinhua News Agency and the Shanghai Media Group with which Tantao has syndication agreements.  Xinhua is the Chinese government’s official news agency and the SMG is owned by the city of Shanghai and is one of China’s largest broadcasters.

The website also says Tantao maintains absolute editorial independence from its content partners, “meaning we make decisions about the information on our site free of any outside influence”.

“With China assuming a larger role in world affairs, access to this news is critical to understanding the dynamics behind China’s policies, decisions, and directions,” the website says.

As well as stories about China’s economy, politics, financial markets and technology, there are also world stories that include the latest news from hotspots like Libya, Syria, Ivory Coast and Afghanistan.

In the China Focus section, there are stories about radioactive iodine detected in some Chinese provinces, new parking restrictions in Beijing and the doubling of solar energy goals, among others.

But I couldn’t find any news about the so-called ‘Jasmine Revolution’ protest movement that has made many China watchers and bloggers nervously waiting for the Chinese government’s response.

Crucially, there is no content about the current crackdown on human rights and social activists. The recent arrest of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, the designer of the National Stadium in Beijing (known as the Bird’s Nest) is conspicuous by its absence. Also missing is news of the recent detention of Australian Chinese blogger Yang Hengjun.

As China watcher Charles Custer who founded the China Geeks website described it on Twitter; “Seriously, Yang Hengjun, Ran Yunfei, Teng Biao, Sec Zhang, etc. etc….this is a fucking apocalypse of arrests, why doesn’t anyone care?”

If Tantao News wants to be a credible ‘China themed’ news organisation, maybe it should care.

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