Monday, November 30, 2009

The Curious Case of Jay Chou

Jay Chou in The Curse of the Golden Flower

What's curious about Jay Chou (周杰伦), the Taiwanese pop icon, is his potential and actual impact on Chinese youth identity of being Chinese, their knowledge of and interest in traditional Chinese culture, and even his possible contribution to the Taiwan-Mainland tie.

At the first glance, Jay is certainly avant-garde, in a sense that he is very western. He keeps a very hip look, acts cool, sings in a unconventional way, and raps a lot. Deep down, he is more Chinese than many contemporary Chinese pop stars.

Unlike some other Hong Kong and Taiwan pop stars, such as Leehom Wang (王力宏) and Jacky Cheung (
张学友), Jay doesn't really speak English, and talked in Chinese when being interviewed by CNN. Many of his most popular songs are the so-called "China style" (中国风) songs, featuring folk-song style music and lyrics full of ideas and lingo from ancient Chinese poems and classics, written by his pal Fang Wenshan. Jay once sang in a track that China style songs were his favorite. For an artist like Jay, the rich heritage of Chinese culture is simply too fertile to desert.

Ever since he starred in Zhang Yimou's costume movie, "The Curse of the Golden Flower," Jay seemed to be devoted
even more to his China-style music making. He featured his image in the movie as the cover of one of his albums, tried to play Gu Qin in his music video, and picked up Peking Opera in his concerts. During his global tour in 2008, he applied many of these Chinese cultural elements to demonstrate to the world what is Chinese pop.

He seems to have a very strong sense of identity. In his early years as a pop star, the identity issue was mostly about who Jay Chou was. Lately, it has been more about what constitutes the Chineseness of a pop star.

In the Mainland, Jay's extensive use of traditional Chinese cultural symbols in his lyrics, instruments and music videos might revive the younger generations' interest in ancient Chinese culture. In Taiwan, his pop culture creation might help to forge the cultural tie between Taiwan and the Mainland. Jay himself perhaps never thought that one day, he could end up being the best teacher of traditional Chinese culture to millions of young people in the greater China region.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Victor Navasky Surprised by China

The website of CJR Chinese

Victor Navasky, the Director of the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism at Columbia University and chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review, recently talked with me about his trip to China last year.

Navasky went to China to celebrate the launch of the Chinese edition of the CJR, which was his first visit to the country.

While driving into Beijing, Navasky says he got the sense of a modern city filled with glass buildings, which “struck me as more modern than New York City.”

The next day, he discovered that just a couple of blocks away from the very modern city where his hotel was located, was the Forbidden City. Then he got a chance to visit the Great Wall, and saw pictures of poverty on the outskirts of Beijing. “It is the contrast that sums up the society,” Navasky says.

Besides the modernity and sharp contrasts in Beijing, Navasky says he was also surprised by two political phenomena. He had assumed that Chinese people would view America as the enemy. “But what I left with was the impression that Japan was still the enemy,” he says. During last year’s trip, he also visited the Nanjing Massacre Museum. “It is as powerful as the Yad Veshem, the Israeli museum of the Holocaust,” he says. “I would hate to be a Japanese person going through there.”

The second surprise had to do with mainlanders’ attitudes toward Taiwan. “I just assumed that the attitude towards Taiwan would be like the Miami Cubans’ attitude toward Castro’s Cuba, that they want nothing to do with it, that it is an illegal, undesirable society,” Navasky says. Once he was in China, he soon realized that was not the case. Instead, he said he saw a very active exchange, cultural and personal, between Taiwan and mainland China, with political disagreements.

Navasky, 77, is also the publisher emeritus of The Nation, for which he served as an editor and publisher for many years.

See the full article on
China Digital Times.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Propaganda or Collective Memory? Citizens Invited to Help Build National Day Websites

The red banners on the homepage of sohu, sina and xinhua

The celebration of the 60th birthday of the People’s Republic of China has become a phenomenon on the web. Major web portals in China:,,, and major news websites such as, and, all have a banner at the very top of their homepage, which links to a separate website dedicated exclusively to the celebration of the anniversary.

All the banners use red as the background color, and all carry the title: “Celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.” Sohu adds a subtitle of its own: “Seeking a Modern China,” and Sina’s subtitle reads: “Nation/Home.” Not only that these banners are in pretty much the same design, located at exactly the same spot on each website (except, even the width of the banner is also uniformed: about one centimeter. This is not coincidence, but very likely the result of some administrative orders from the top power.

One can sure call it propaganda, but propaganda of a very fine kind, propaganda with a revolution: invitation of contribution from citizens. In other words, these websites are not entirely just a venue of official messages, but a platform for common folks to share their life experiences and memories.

On these websites are state media reports, official documents, as well as memoirs, videos, and photos produced by common netizens. The content is so comprehensive that they record a tremendous amount of experiences of the nation in the past 60 years: from major historical events to individual memories, from red guards to someone’s childhood jelly shoes.

Texts, photos, videos, slide shows, forums, blogs, etc., these sites have them all. The range of information is also very broad: history, current events, politics, economics, culture, arts, literature, music, sports, life style, feelings, opinions, and so on.

The sheer content of these websites may simply be too much for one to absorb. Nevertheless, they very well demonstrate the capability and power of the Internet in the massive media campaign for celebrating the anniversary. And this time, citizens are involved in contributing the content, turning a traditionally state propagandist endeavor into a fabulous show of collective memory.

Special National Day websites by major web portals and news organizations:
China News:

Update: some of the sites changed its outlook on the actual National Day, Oct. 1.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Is China’s Society Really Advancing? Re: Prof. Gregory Chow

Prof. Chow's blog on

The Chinese society has made great process in the past few decades and will sure continue to improve in the future. This is the view Gregory Chow (Zou Zhizhuang), professor emeritus of political economy at Princeton University, wrote in an article published in China Business News and also posted on his blog on This article is listed as the “Opinion Leader” piece on sohu blog homepage on Tuesday.

Seems to me, however, Prof. Chow’s argument is ambiguous at best.

First, he listed the criteria for judging social progress: people should feel that the society is better than the past; the public should obey the law and don’t do things that harm others; the public observes high moral standards, and is willing to help others, etc. Prof. Chow threw the standards out there without making the claim that the current Chinese society has achieved them. Maybe he was actually subtly criticizing the current situation, which perhaps makes more sense.

Indeed, millions of people are feeling that the society is getting worse: people are more selfish, youth don’t respect the elderly, government is nothing but corrupt. The list goes on and on. Also, who is to say that people really obey the law in China? If so, then how come counterfeit and fake goods have become the hallmark of China’s burgeoning market, so prevalent that even baby formula could not be exempt? And what about altruism? Well, people will laugh if someone tries to advocate for this idea. “Are you dumb?” They are going to ask.

Prof. Chow did, however, praise progresses made in the past few decades in the Chinese society, such as education. “I believe, the Chinese society will continue to advance,” he went on to say. Why? “Because the government and the public are making efforts in the aforementioned directions,” he wrote. So again, people are trying to achieve a good society as he depicted, but not quite there yet. His other reasons for being optimistic include China’s economic growth and a “sufficient number of” excellent individuals in China.

I appreciate his insights but not sure about his prescription. For one thing, society-wide corruption—government, business, even academia—is not something that could be resolved by a stronger economy or a few excellent individuals. And don’t forget that if China’s environment continue to deteriorate at the current rate, there is no future for the nation, no matter how much money, how many talents it will possess.

Of course, I may sound just too bleak. What I’m trying to say is that, yes, China’s society may well get better, but certainly more needs to be done.

Prof. Chow’s blog on

Monday, August 31, 2009

Big Production Celebratory Film Shunned by Netizens

Movie-star packed production

Despite the incredible star power of the soon-to-be-released movie, "The Founding of a Republic"—the main celebratory film for the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic, Chinese netizens only sniff at it by announcing “absolutely not going to watch it.”

A recent post on Tianya BBS lists three reasons of not to watch this huge production: no money, no time, no need. This netizen, self-named “I am No. What,” claims that he would rather donate the money to help poor kids than buy the ticket for the movie. Jet Li might have been his idol, he writes, but in this movie Mr. Li is only a decoration. With so many—nearly 100—renowned movie stars, from the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan, all packed in one movie, all the audience could do while watching it is counting the stars, the post states.

This movie, due on Sept. 17, is yet another astonishing production of China Film Group Corporation and its Chairman, Mr. Han Sanping, the company and man behind last year’s blockbuster, "Red Cliff", directed by John Woo. Set at the end of the civil war between the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang in the 1940s, the movie depicts the historical development of China’s political consultative system, in which the communist party governs in “collaboration” with social groups other than those deemed as the proletariat in the Chinese society.

The post of “I am No. What” has attracted over 100 responses, mostly in favor of its motion. Netizens also point out that several big stars featured in this movie, such as Jet Li and Jacky Chan, have renounced their Chinese citizenship and become citizens of other countries. Letting them play a role in a movie about the founding of the People’s Republic is like “slapping on one’s own face,” one comment reads.

For decades, showing celebratory films during the Oct. 1 National Day holiday has become a political, as well as cultural ritual in China. These movies tend to have relatively big budget, comparing with average Chinese production. "The Founding of a Republic" is of no exception, only with even eye-popping collection of big-name movie stars, which could well set the record of Chinese film. It is an indication that the party intends to make some strong public impressions upon the 60th anniversary of its ruling.
Tianya BBS posts
"The Founding of a Republic" Official Website

Monday, July 06, 2009

Chinese Netizens "Tomb Digging" to Comment on Urumqi Riot

Not surprisingly, online comments regarding Sunday's violence in Urumqi, Xinjiang, have been closely watched by China's Internet censors.  As a result, no open public discussion is currently seen on China-based websites., China's No.1 online search provider, has closed down its BBS, or "bar," for Xinjiang and Urumqi. "We're very sorry, based on relevant laws and regulations, this bar is temporarily closed," a note on reads. 

But Chinese netizens have their way of going around the censorship. Numerous posts could still be found in other "bars" on On other popular public discussion websites such as, netizens are using a practise called "tomb digging," in which they dig up posts about Xinjiang or Urumqi originally posted in the past--back to as far as 2006--and add comments about the July 5 incident. 

On, for instance, there are several posts regarding Xinjiang, but their headlines shown on the main list contain no words relating to the latest violence. If one bothers to click on those posts and view the last page of comments, however, one could see newly added comments about the incident on Sunday. These "tomb digging" posts are changing rapidly, as online censors keep deleting them while netizens keep digging up new ones. 

Nonetheless, those who seek truth about the incident might be disappointed by the posts, since most of them, as of the time of this blog post, are comments from outsiders instead of first-hand accounts of what has happened. These comments express concerns, anger and sadness regarding the violence, as well as condemn Internet censorship. 

Some of the comments (in Chinese) could be found at: 

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Some thoughts on China's Environment

The greenish water in Dianchi Lake

I ran into a friend on Facebook the other day and chatted with him online. He is from Texas and his family of 7 (the couple with 5 children) moved to Kunming, Yunnan last year as he was hired as a teacher at an international school in Kunming. He told me during the short chat that he and his wife went to see the “green paint” in Dianchi Lake, which was its greenish water. It was pollution, I told him. It was terrible and very sad, he wrote, the lake was a beautiful place. I swam in that lake when I was a little girl, but today nobody dares to touch the water. Huge amount of money has been spent to clean the lake up, but the damage is probably irreversible. The lake, once dubbed as the “pearl of the plateau” (Yunnan resides on a major plateau in China), is now but a stinky sore on the plateau.

Dianchi is just one of the many, many heart-breaking stories of China’s environment. A few days ago, another American friend posted on Facebook that “Mongolia was amazing” and that he was heading to Beijing. My first impulse was that he was talking about Inner Mongolia in China, and I was blissful to hear him calling it “amazing,” because that would mean that (Inner) Mongolia was still a beautiful place despite the fact that the grasslands there had been overgrazed. So maybe things are not that bad? I thought. But I was still suspicious, because, honestly, I have little confidence in China’s environment situation. So I left a comment: “Inner Mongolia or the Republic of Mongolia?” “The republic of…” he replied. Of course…I doubt that had my friend visited Inner Mongolia, he would still call it "amazing."

It is just sad that Chinese people are seeing their lands, lakes, forests—that is, the physical body of the country—being destroyed piece by piece due to relentless industrial development, lack of environmental regulation and blind pursuit of profits at the price of long term significance of environmental protection.

And it’s not just about environment or even people’s life quality or health. I remember reading in my middle school textbooks many articles appraising the beauty of the motherland--the spectacular Three Gorges on the Yangtze River, the roaring Yellow River, the endless, green grasslands in Inner Mongolia, to name just a few--which was the stronghold for teaching students to love the country. I don’t know how teachers in today’s China are going to teach kids. The breath-taking scenery of the Three Gorges is gone for good. Yellow River has suffered water deficit for years and sometimes simply dries out for miles. And the massive grasslands in northern China are gradually turning into massive desserts…

People around the world praise the beauty of their motherland as the common reason for themselves, and others, to love their country. Sadly, it seems that Chinese people are running out of beautiful places to boast and appreciate.

I once talked with a Chinese scholar who taught in the US. He told me that he loved going back to China to visit but would not live there. “Everything is great back in the country, only that the environment is too bad,” he said. I’m sure he is not the only overseas-educated and successful Chinese who would rather stay overseas to stay away from the dirty air, water and landscape in the homeland. On the other hand, had the environment been well preserved and cleaned up in China, the country could have attracted more talents to live and work there. Not to mention that, after all, the country needs rich lands, clean water and air, as well as its natural beauty, simply to sustain as the habitat for a billion people.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Less People are Taking the College Entrance Exam in China

job hunting of college graduates

The news that attracted most viewer comments on on Friday was the one about the impact of the dire job market for college graduates. The China Youth Daily story reported that the number of people registered for the 2009 College Entrance Exam decreased in most provinces in China. Many places, such as Hebei Province, saw registered exam takers decrease for the first time in decades. The overall number of registered exam takers will still remain at a high level of about 10 million, according to the China Youth Daily.

The College Entrance Exam is the harshest competition for generations of young Chinese since the late 1970s. Every year, millions of teenagers taking the same exam on the same days to get into a relatively small number of higher education institutions has become a prominent and rather unique social phenomenon in China. The exam has been fervently condemned as well as defended. It is seen as the culprit for the test-oriented education approach in China that is blamed for suffocating the creativity and independent thinking of tens of millions of Chinese students. But at the same time, the system stands tall over the years as important means for providing fair opportunities for the poor and powerless, especially young adults from rural area.

The number of registered exam takers generally kept increasing in previous years, and doubled from 2002 to 2008. It is surprising for many to see the number decreas nation wide. China Youth Daily pointed at the difficulty for college graduates to find a job in recent years as the main reason for the decrease. Another reason the newspaper discusses was the increasing trend of high school graduates attending college abroad. Nearly 7000 comments posted by viewers, however, reveal some other reasons for less people wanting to pursue a college degree, which used to be regarded as the best choice for young people to have a better future.

Some complain that college education is not necessary, either because knowing someone is more helpful in finding a job, or because employers start to look at the actual capability, rather than diploma when hiring. But many people seem to be displeased by the fact that social connections, or guanxi, still play a bigger role in personal development than education or talents in Chinese society. Some criticize that college education in China is like a joke, neither faculty nor students taking it seriously, and students can learn little from college. Another reason indicated is the high cost of college education. “It is better to start to work and make money early than going to college, ” one comment says. Some also say that less people are taking the exam simply because the population is decreasing because of the one-child policy.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Beijing’s New Health Care Reform Blueprint: Offering both Hope and Doubt

In setting up the new health care reform guideline, the Chinese government did the right thing by putting public interests before profit-making, and by striving for equality between rural and urban areas. 

Millions of Chinese people who have suffered in various ways from a twisted and corrupt health care system would probably feel relieved upon reading the news: at least on the paper, the government clearly stated that it is on our side. China’s vast group of farmers would probably hail the new reform plan as well, since it set the tone for setting up a health care system that will provide equal care to both urban and rural residents, limit drug prices and build more health care facilities in rural area, according to a story in the South China Morning Post

But a lot of people would not jump up and down on the new plan just yet. As Chinese people have learned over so many years and so many things, a good plan does not guarantee a good result. 

Yes, the government is now saying that public hospitals should no longer pursue profits as their priority and treat patients based on their ability to pay. But how to maintain or improve the quality of health care? 

The current plan is issued by the central government and serves as a guideline, while the local governments get to set up specific rules and regulations for hospitals to follow. Will local governments faithfully adhere to the line set by the government? Many people would doubt that because in many places, the local authorities no longer treat directions from the state government seriously. 

Even if good rules and regulations will be in place, no one can be sure that they will be well followed. Can the good rules get over bad officials who have their hands in all fields that could bring them extra cash and a bureaucratic system that is so corrupt? Will China’s medical education system produce enough practitioners with not only deft hands but also good hearts, who can therefore sustain a health care system that truly serves the public? 

On the surface, it sounds like a good thing that the government finally decided to intervene and do its part in fixing a corrupt health care system. At the same time, however, the reform nevertheless falls into the old circle of relaxing and tightening control, whereby the government relaxes rules to encourage reform in a certain area, only to rush to get the control back after market-oriented behaviors went awry and hurt the public. 

China’s health care system is now a big mess but can’t afford of being unfixed. In a society that is already threatened by all kinds of social conflicts, a sick health care system could only aggravate public grievance. Fixing it is a big challenge and it waits to be seen whether the Chinese government can meet the challenge.  

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Shanghai Disneyland Project still up in the Air

Shanghai government officials told Xinhua on Wednesday that there was still no final decision regarding building a Disneyland in Shanghai. However, Shanghai mayor Han Zheng told the press earlier that his government and Disney had being “dating” for more than a decade, but there was no timeline for “getting  married.” 

It is said that the planned Disneyland in Shanghai will be eight times as big as the one in Hong Kong. 

The Chinese public has debated about the pros and cons of building a Shanghai Disneyland, including its economic, cultural and environmental impact. More than a year ago, online comments regarding the issue mostly supported the project. But now, given the harsh economic situation, people start to doubt the wisdom of spending a huge amount of money on an amusement park.


Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Street Talk: US Economic Recession Hit Chinese Village

Millions of migrant workers in China lost their jobs as a result of the US economic recession and had to return home

One thing that truly surprised me during my recent trip back to China was the big impact of the ongoing financial crisis, originated in the US and soon spread globally, on Chinese people’s life. As one local official in Henan told me, the financial crisis “affected even a brick plant in a village.”

How so? I couldn’t help but ask. “Well,” the official said, “because of the financial crisis, Americans are buying fewer goods from China, and therefore many Chinese plants closed. Many migrant workers lost their jobs and had no money to build new houses in their home village, and thus the decline of sales of bricks.”

Just by looking around, I couldn’t tell that the economic recession in the US had hit China hard. Restaurants in Beijing were full of eaters like always, while supermarkets were crowded and stuffed with plenty of products, so many that some of them piled up along the stairway. On the surface, Chinese people were living a happy and prosperous life and enjoying ever growing purchasing power. What I didn’t see, however, were the huge flow, usually in millions, of job-less migrant workers, from coastal and eastern area to their inner-land hometowns, which had become the No.1 headache for many local governments in the past couple of months.

One of my friends from Guangdong told me that one town there was practically lawless as unemployed migrant workers were robbing everyone they can in the streets. Such robberies were so common that local police no longer bother to launch any investigation or law enforcement effort. “They now only do something when people are murdered,” my friend said. In other places, local governments were trying everything they can to make sure that returning migrant workers can get a job or at least do not make trouble, people told me.

Hearing these stories made me wonder: is the US the only country in the world that had been buying products from China? Or is most stuff made in China actually made for American consumers? Maybe. The current economic crisis has been a strong testimony of the far-reaching impact of globalization, so much so that what happened in Wall Street would end up being reflected in a brick plant in a remote village half the world away.