Ordos 鄂尔多斯

The Kangbashi New District of Ordos in Inner Mongolia has for the last decade been known as the world’s largest ghost town. I was really curious to see and explore this place after I heard stories about walking through completely empty office buildings and apartment blocks and shopping malls where all the elevators and lights work, yet there are no people around. It’s an overnight train ride from where I live and when I got there, I found that it could no longer be called a ghost town. Though the vast majority of buildings and streets in the New District are still empty (the nearby Dongsheng district of Ordos has never, to my knowledge, been empty), it seems people are slowly moving in to Kangbashi.


ordos kangbashi sign 2

ordos kangbashi sign

GenhisKahnflagGenghis Khan in Genghis Khan Square – the center of Kangbashi, Ordos.

mongol statueGenghis Khan Square

tourists under statueTourists in GK Square.

people near statues

twohorsesMongolian war horse statue in GK Square.

Animal statues


apartments across riverStill building…

Big river pieceMostly empty, but not completely unoccupied.

tourists by cup

Cup closeup


boys and flagKids playing at the top of Genghis Khan Square – massive government complex in the back.

boysplayingbballBoys playing basketball in the library court.



people at museum

umbrella man library

umbrella women library

woman at library

women at museum

Wulanmulun lake circlesMan-made Wulanmulun Lake at the bottom of Genghis Khan Square. Most events and nightlife happen around here.

Couple by fountainsDaily and nightly fountain shows at the lake.

Fountains day

Man by horse and fountain

man and horses

people by fountains

fountains day 2


Buddha and building

Buddha tele

buddha tele2

buddha at night

fountains at night 3

fountains at night 2

fountains at night

fountain close up

boy and dad at fountain

lakefrontThere were a couple thousand people here at Wulanmulun Lake on a Monday night.


pool hall

vendorsDoes this look like a ghost town?

boys in golf cart

boys at restoWe stopped for ice cream in this “Italian Ice Cream” shop. These boys were about to walk in but when they saw us they stopped. They huddled outside the door discussing what to do. They walked through the shop to the other side and asked the waitress where we were from. She told them she didn’t know. They finally asked us. They were stoked.


Girls walking up

Ordos FDOrdos Fire Department doing drills.

zheng yi bushy sidewalkWhile there was a decent flow of cars on the street, there were virtually no pedestrians. Per capita GDP in Ordos is said to be the highest in China and it seems most people have cars.

street heat waves

mass line sidewalk“Stay on the Mass Line, be intimate with the masses.”

city worker empty street

minzu road

police sign reject dirty

sign4If you lived in Ordos, you could be home by now!



shehuizhuyijiazhiguan“Socialist Core Value System – Wealth and Power, Democracy, Civilization, Harmony, Freedom, Equality, Fairness, Rule of Law, Patriotism, Dedication, Honesty, Friendliness.”

sign3“Conscientiously study and implement the spirit of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important speech on his observations on Inner Mongolia and the spirit of the 18th 3rd Plenum.” Say that 3 times fast.

trust us

woman child and man big sign“I love my hometown’s civilized ways. Hand in hand collectively build a civilized city.”

minhe roadsign

bike and sign

china dream liquor adsAds for Ordos liquor everywhere.

double messageOne of the confounding things about Ordos/China in one bus stop. On the left you have a poster with a hammer and sickle saying “persist in carrying out the Party’s mass line. Serve the people with all your heart and mind.” Communism is a philosophy that operates on the collective ownership of land and the means of production. On the right you have a poster from the local government saying “strive to make a livable, workable, travel friendly city. Maintain property with the city. With property, the city prospers.”

busstop propaganda

bridge and buildings

crosswalk man ordos sign

crane ordos sign

Man bike ordos sign

man working high

man working up high 2

man working up high 3

river view 2Check out the huge murals along the riverbanks…

River view



women sitting by bridge


laughing fountain

horses on bridge

fu windowThis red 富fu character seemed to be in almost every occupied window.

giant fu

Good fortune

empty flatsMany building sites are still open enough to walk through.

empty flats 2

empty flats3

empty flat inside

guard dogGuard dog. He was small but loud. Too loud.

civilized neighborhoodOther neighborhoods such as “Civilized Neighborhood” here (文明小区) were bustling.

grafitti bridge

food court parkingThis food court was very busy…

mall…this mall next door was empty.

red band school“Red Neckscarf Street” – worn by the Young Pioneers. There’s a big primary/middle school to the right.

waiting for school 2Waiting for the bell…

waiting for school

kindergartenPrimary school.

kindergarten playground

help wanted signsHelp wanted, locksmith, for rent and for sale signs. Business is happenin’.

ordos museumOrdos Museum. Gunny’s remarks come to mind – “you’re so ugly you could be a modern art masterpiece.”

ordos theaterThe Great Theater of Ordos.

ordos theatre

happy and sad face

happy face

带路光荣 – To Lead The Way Is Glorious


“If China was invaded by America, you would lead the way!” So goes the insult that came about in Chinese internet debates over US-South Korea naval exercises in the YellowSea in 2010.  It was directed at any Chinese who defended the annual exercises, which took place in an especially tense environment that year.  In response to the Cheonan incident, the US sent the aircraft carrier USS George Washington into international waters in the Yellow Sea to join the drills.  For Beijing, it was too close for comfort and many in China viewed it as a veiled belligerent signal directed at them. US officials maintained it was directed at North Korea as a signal of South Korea-US resolve.

America did not end up invading China, but the the title dailudang, or “Lead the Way Party,” stuck to the sector of Chinese internet commentators and intellectuals deemed insufficiently indignant at the close proximity of the US military to the Chinese mainland.  It has since come to mean anyone seen as too pro-American or pro-West in general.  The name is similar to and somewhat interchangeable with the slightly older meifendang, or “Penny Party” – a reference to American currency and a play on the infamous “50 Cent Party.”

In a country with only one political party but a vast and active online civil society of widely differing views, the need for intellectual diversity finds an outlet in the creation of satirical, digital quasi-political “parties.”  There is no formal organization or online gathering place for the Penny Party or the Lead the Way Party; they are simply humorous euphemisms for a liberal “traitor” or “sellout.”

If the Lead the Way Party was an actual political party, Yang Rongjia might be one of its Congressmen – the Representative from Hebei, if you will.  Doctor Yang, 39, is an associate physics professor at Hebei University in Baoding, about an hour and a half southwest of Beijing by train.  He denies that he is a member of the Penny Party or Lead the Way Party, while at the same time acknowledging that he is – it is a de facto rather than de jure membership.  This is a matter of course.  No one calls oneself a member of the Penny Party or the Lead the Way Party, the title is given to you by your opponents.

“I believe the separation of government powers into three branches and democratic values are universal.  They are the highest development of the political civilization of mankind, and they are adaptable to every country,” Yang told me when I visited him in his campus office in Baoding. “I think China will realize democracy one day.  But I believe in peaceful reform, because violent revolutions are not the right way for China.  That would be too damaging to the country.  China cannot suffer a disaster like that. Countries all over the world are now in a period of peaceful competition and turmoil would only make China fall far behind.”

In a 2003 Southern Weekend piece, Lin Chufang and Zhao Ling wrote “the real turning point in the emergence of the Internet as a platform for the expression of public opinion in China was May 9, 1999, when the People’s Daily Online opened a forum in which netizens could rally opposition against the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by NATO forces. This was the first current-affairs news forum opened by a website of a traditional media outlet.”  It’s in that very forum where Yang says he is most active.  “I post many things on this blog,” he said as he turned to his computer and opened his most recent post, “look at this, it’s about the Constitution (and how the Communist Party doesn’t follow it), but it hasn’t been deleted.”  Yang also keeps an active Sina Weibo account and says “the People’s Daily posters are mainly the 50 Cent Party because it’s state-run. But Sina Weibo is privately run, so there is greater freedom of speech there.”

Professor Yang has stopped getting into flame wars with the 50 Cent Party and just posts his articles with minimal commenting.  “Some of them believe in socialism and are anti-Western, but most don’t have beliefs.  They are unenlightened.  They’re just tools for the government.”  He says he has only been threatened once, when someone said they would report an article he posted to the police.  “But what I published was true, so it was useless for them to do that,” he said.

Others, like lawyer and scholar Xu Zhiyong, have been arrested, and it can be hard to tell where the line is.  The general rule, Yang explained, is if you don’t organize people into concrete action, or report on a demonstration that took place, you probably won’t face any trouble.  The Democracy Party of China did take concrete action by attempting to formally register the Party, and they were swiftly imprisoned and later exiled.  Rules introduced last year state that any rumor or piece of false information that is shared over 500 times on social media will result in punishment for the original poster.  “I won’t go to the street to demonstrate to criticize someone,” Yang says.  “I won’t do that.”  Yang reckons the turning point for the rules becoming stricter was after the trial of Bo Xilai in 2012.

Writing the things online that Yang does, he has become something of a bad boy on campus.  He describes his colleagues’ attitude as “mingzhe baoshen,” an expression meaning to play it safe, to shirk principle to protect one’s personal interests and to stay out of trouble.  He doesn’t proselytize or evangelize, “[my colleagues] don’t say they support the government or democratic reform. We don’t talk about it.  I just live my life, and I want to keep my job.”

The general public’s view is similar, according to Yang.  People are generally respectful of other peoples’ right to express ideas critical of the government, but public opinion becomes wrathful if you are found to be spreading rumors or false information – which suggests the public is well capable of regulating speech by itself.  “In order to promote the concepts of democracy, freedom and equality, you must first have a sincere heart,” said Yang.  “You must really believe in these values and practice them in real life for people to listen to you.”

What turned Professor Yang into such a traitor willing to lead the way in an invasion of China? “I’m from a small village,” he explained in the heavy accent of his native Hunan Province.  “I’m from the bottom of society.  I’ve suffered many setbacks.  I know the suffering that the farmers who come from the bottom of society experience and the unfairness of society.  Based on what I’ve learned and experienced, I realized that Western values, such as human rights and democracy, are based on respect for man, the individual and people’s basic rights.”  Paradoxically, you can catch a faint Marxist echo in Yang’s estimation of democracy’s historical destiny.  But some of his reading material might land him in a different camp: “I often read the public speeches of American presidents, especially George W. Bush.”

The labels “Penny Party,” “Lead the Way Party” and particularly “50 Cent Party” have become so abused in Chinese comment boards and discussion forums that they have all but lost their effectiveness.  The far Left and Right use them to simply shout each other down.  Professor Hu Yong calls this “Godwin’s Law with Chinese Characteristics.”  In the Chinese version, associating your opponents with the Red Guards is to reach the end of the argument; to summon the ultimate embodiment of political insanity in China, as the Nazis have come to symbolize in the West.  To be called a member of the Penny Party or Lead the Way Party signals that the argument is nearly done, you are well on your way down the spectrum to “American running dog,” or “Red Guard.”

“Most Chinese don’t care about the left-wing or right-wing,” said professor Yang. “They just care about themselves and getting on with their own lives.”  So, what about the independents or those with opinions on both sides of the spectrum? How are they labeled?

Tian, 24, a credit union consultant who asked to use only his surname, used to carry the banner of the Penny Party proudly and openly.  If Yang Rongjia is a Congressman, Tian was a member of the Party’s grass roots coalition.  But now he considers himself a ziganwu – a “50 Center who brings his own food.”  The ziganwu are the cynical and ambivalent center-Left.  “I’d say I’m neither in the Penny Party or 50 Cent Party, but I deviate towards the latter now,” Tian told me.

These reluctant 50 Centers are said to “bring their own food” because unlike the real 50 Cent Party, they are not paid in any way for their nationalist online comments.  That makes them real dupes in the eyes of the Penny Party. “Before, I used to think things like, you know, democracy and freedom and those kinds of things were so cool,” Tian explained.  “But later I started to think that people who advocated these things were too unreasonable.  I think they only have the ability to tear down, they don’t have any concrete blueprints to put into effect for the future.  It’s more constructive to be a rational 50 Center. But of course, I’m also not in the 50 Cent Party.

If the Penny Party and Lead the Way Party have a founding document, a constitution, it’s Charter 08 – a document calling for complete structural reform of China’s government and one with many similarities to the American Constitution.  It’s most famous drafter and signer, Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, remains imprisoned for putting his John Hancock on it.  It’s a source of disillusionment for Tian, “(The Charter) is too out of touch with current reality, it’s not rooted in anything that can be implemented.  In fact, it seems like it’s just cooked up to purposefully enrage those in power.  It seems awe inspiring because it righteously upholds justice, but actually it’s unacceptable.  And it has some ulterior motives.  It wants to make those in power look foolish.  They can only be engaged in these little movements, putting it into effect is too unfeasible.  After all, in reality anyone of any ability is ultimately under control of the Communist Party.”

The government has shown some support for the ziganwu.  Perhaps in an effort to say, “See, we don’t actually need to pay people to write this stuff!” the Communist Party-run newspaper Guangming Daily published a brief nod to them titled “The Ziganwu: Staunch Practitioners of Core Socialist Values.”  In the article, Harbin Normal University history professor Zhao Shibing writes “see the ziganwu, they are law-abiding and patriotically dedicated; they hope for the motherland’s wealth and prosperity, social justice and integrity.  They promote freedom and democracy, the unity of knowledge and civilized debate.  They consciously observe and practice the socialist core values; their behavior is undoubtedly full of positive energy.”  He notes that internet debate in China is getting increasingly “lively,” and concludes, “For the Chinese internet space to brighten and liven up, there needs to be more ziganwu standing up to guide people to conscientiously be builders of good morality; to be promoters of social civilization and the progress that’s been made.”

A common lament heard from young Chinese tuned in to politics is a resigned feeling of powerlessness, or wuligan.  Some are taken with Western idealism, but when they discover how messy and imperfect it can be, they get discouraged and nationalism is often what’s waiting in the wings with wide open arms and a warm, cozy flag to wrap up in.  So, it would probably be better if establishment figures didn’t try to co-opt the ziganwu phenomenon if there’s one way to kill it for young people it is to dress it in stuffy official language like Professor Zhao does.

Tian says he has given up on political debates online, “I’m mostly an observer now, whatever I wouldn’t say, I won’t write.  The majority of people online today don’t listen to what other people say, whenever some event happens they just use their ideology to interpret it and explain it.  It’s insane, and I don’t want to get stuck in those confines.  Now I just want to focus on my own affairs, I can’t control or influence anyone else.”  However, he does acknowledge that conversations are becoming more nuanced and mature.

Our understanding of China’s ideological spectrum is also becoming more nuanced.  A recent paper published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Political Science Department attempted to map that spectrum.  One of the findings of the paper is that ideology seems to be unidimensional – that the Left and Right are pretty clear-cut and consistent.  (For quick reference, a Chinese liberal on the Chinese right would line up more with an American conservative or libertarian on the American right.  A Chinese conservative on the Chinese left would align more with progressives on the American left – with caveats of course.)  The Lead the Way Party is an approximate catch-all for the liberal right.  However, the ziganwu are not so easily placed.  They are that kind of person one often comes across in China’s big cities who is generally happy with China’s development and liberalization, and enjoys the personal liberty that brings.  But what makes them center-left conservative is their strong nationalist reactions on questions of China’s territorial sovereignty or interpretations of history.  For example, said person may love getting around their city with Uber, and they might also support forcefully incorporating Taiwan into the People’s Republic.

boxer soldiers japanese

Although the name is new, the idea of the Lead the Way Party has firm roots in the past, and the insult, used properly, can cut deeper than is readily apparent.  In 1900, in response to the Boxer Rebellion, an alliance of eight nations invaded China to protect their interests and citizens in the recently opened nation’s capital.  The Boxers were defeated, Beijing was occupied and looted by several of the foreign armies, and the Qing government was forced to pay a huge indemnity.  This was a key chapter in the “Century of Humiliation” narrative which still looms large in the psyche of the Chinese intelligentsia and officialdom.

Part of the “humiliation” is the stories of the early Lead the Way Party from those days.  Wang Kangnian, a Chinese journalism pioneer of the late Qing/early republican era, wrote in the reform-minded journal Current Affairs,

“I am told that this year, the Allied Forces have already entered China. That here are remaining evil elements of Boxer bandits concealed in the blue mountain mists, many are residing in Yanguang Temple, and a few are in Lingguang Temple. These Boxer bandits have no means of sustaining themselves, so they went into a nearby village and took a man named Han, and demanded a large sum from him. Han begged them to lower the price. They refused, and finally killed him. Han’s wife devised to sue the Boxer bandits through the local government, but knew she could not depend on them. Someone said it would be better for her to go directly into the city and petition the foreigners with her case. So she did, and she brought the troops to the temple, unbeknownst to the bandits who were resting easy and relaxed. At the sound of a gunshot, the bandits started in surprise. In a rush of panic they went to defend themselves, and they were all killed.”

There are accounts of Chinese Christians who were regularly attacked by the Boxers and who looked to the foreign forces for defense.  Some dissatisfied and poorly paid Chinese servicemen were even hired by the Allies to help transport supplies from Tianjin to Beijing for the occupation.  Russian war correspondent Dmitri Yanchevetsky of New Frontier was embedded with the Allied Forces and also wrote of ordinary Chinese who helped make the invasion successful,

“In a hamlet along the way some farmers told us that the east gate was closed, a day earlier Chinese government troops had fled Tongzhou and stationed in the south of Beijing in a place called the southern floodgate. The capital only had Manchurian soldiers and Dong Fuxiang’s troops. Other villagers told us the capital was completely emptied of Chinese soldiers. The Chinese villagers, who were engaged in peaceful labor, grumbled and complained about the encounters with their own country’s soldiers who came to plunder and pillage. They gave us water to drink; they were utterly respectful and submissive toward us…A reconnaissance team that was coming back after gathering this intelligence encountered an extraordinarily friendly villager on the way back. They treated us to hot water, and even wanted us to give them some Russian flags.”

(Speaking of Russian flags, the Lead the Way Party has spread beyond China’s borders and found its way to Crimea.  A March 2014 story ran in QQ News with the headline “Russian Army Enters Crimea, Ukraine – Guy Holds Up Russian Flag As The Lead The Way Party.”  Afghan and Iraqi advisers to US forces have also been given the name.  And on the dark humor side there’s this short comic called “The Lead the Way Party” which depicts some overjoyed Chinese who can’t wait to help a group of invading US soldiers, only to get blown away because they “can’t English.”)

These and other betrayals did not go unnoticed by the Qing government.  The clear military and technological supremacy of the Allies in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion and the need to shore up public opinion in the face of the government’s failures forced a round of reforms in Beijing.  Not least of which was education reform.  There was a rising intellectual class, among which was a growing dissatisfaction with the Manchu Qing rulers. People like Sun Yatsen were part of that generation, and as they watched these events they felt a desire to further incorporate Western approaches into Chinese institutions.  (Sun of course went on to help lead the overthrow of the Qing dynasty and establish a republic.  Would he be labeled as the Lead the Way Party today?)

But even prominent reformers were not in favor of total adoption.  Zhang Zhidong, an establishment reformer who wanted to strike a balance between traditional Chinese and Western education, and who was tasked with creating new scholastic regulations in 1902, wrote “as for the aim of establishing schools, do not ask what kind of schools.  Without exception we will use ‘filial piety as the root, and study of China’s classics and history as the foundation’ so that all students’ intentions will remain unadulterated. Then, we may reward their knowledge and intellect with Western learning.”

Echoes of this approach can be heard right up through the present.  These days the Chinese government is probably not worried about an armed invasion, but they do seem worried about an ideological invasion of sorts.   Likewise, China’s nationalist netizens don’t berate the Lead the Way Party so much for planning any actual invasion, but for not upholding socialist values, or Chinese values, and for trying to remake China in the image of the West through its institutions and mindset – for letting Western values invade the Chinese mind.

I asked professor Yang if there was any common ground between the nationalists and the Lead the Way Party.  He said there is indeed one thing all Chinese agree on: The Diaoyu Islands belong to China.


Painting at the top: “I’ll Try Sir!” by H. Charles McBarron

The Chinese Embassy at 1 Liu Xiaobo Plaza, Washington, D.C.

Now that the heavyweight armchair analysts of the world have finished hardy-har-haring that 55 Anjialou Road – the address of the U.S. embassy in Beijing – should be renamed “1 Snowden Street” or “1 Bin Laden Road,” let’s try to see what’s going on here. Last Tuesday in D.C. the House Appropriations Committee approved an amendment to the State/Foreign Operations Bill which stated:

“Not later than 45 days after the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of State shall officially rename the section of International Place, Northwest, Washington, District of Columbia, which runs directly in front of the the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China, Liu Xiaobo Plaza and shall produce accompanying street signs to reflect this change. For the purposes of the United States Postal code, hereafter the proper address for the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Washington, District of Columbia shall be No. 1 Liu Xiaobo Plaza.”

The bipartisan group first intended the renaming to coincide with the 25th anniversary of liusi by appealing to D.C. mayor Vincent Gray to make the change. But since the street is federal property, President Obama would ultimately have to sign off on the name change, not the D.C. city council, so the plan was delayed.

In response to the original proposal, China Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Qin Gang said “a few members of the U.S. Congress doing this, first, is to look down upon and disrespect Chinese law. Secondly, this is very provocative and ignorant behavior.” Qin added, “Liu Xiaobo is a man who has violated Chinese laws, he has been convicted in accordance with the law,” and “what kind of person is Liu Xiaobo? He is someone who violated Chinese law and he has been sentenced according to law by China’s judicial bodies.” A Chinese embassy spokesman said, “we believe that the U.S. people will not like to see a U.S. street be named after a criminal.” The court system in China is the Communist Party’s court, not an independent national court system – one of the things Liu Xiaobo sought. It would be as if the US had the Republican Party Court or the Democrat Party Court and they ruled according to party needs rather than according to the Constitution.

In short, Qin is saying might makes right – because the Party has ruled what is has on Liu, that’s the end of it. Qin says to rename the street after Liu is “to look down upon and disrespect Chinese law,” and this ignores crucial distinctions that the CCP refuses to make. They insist that the Party = China, that their interests are one in the same, and that to question the CCP is to question China. To pressure the CCP and “disrespect” it = disrespecting China and it’s people. If other countries meant to disrespect and look down on China, why would they support Chinese people working to improve their government and country? The CCP also forgets that the law and what’s right are not always the same.

Many netizens have echoed Qin’s sentiment that Congress is displaying “provocative” and “ignorant” behavior, some adding that it’s a juvenile and childish move. I admit I don’t understand the “childish” charge, but from reading the comments my guess is they come from people who pass too much time on the internet and view things in terms of “trolling” and “not trolling.” In any case let’s look at China’s actions towards Norway and Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia, after the Nobel Committee awarded Xiaobo the Peace Prize.

When Beijing decided to start a 72-hour visa-free visit option, every country in Europe and Scandinavia was included…except Norway. As The Financial Times reported, “when asked why Norway was left off the list, Wang Qin, a senior official at the Beijing government travel administration, did not respond directly but said that some countries were not eligible because their citizens or government were of ‘low quality’ and ‘badly behaved.'” Anyone who has had even passing experience with the Chinese government, and unfortunately many Chinese tourists, knows that Mr. Wang here is, oh what’s the Chinese expression…confusing black for white.

Norway also saw what could be called randomly onerous complications imposed on its salmon exports to China. The Chinese government stopped all high level contact with Norway and eventually the Norwegians had to attempt to remedy this by cancelling a meeting with the Dalai Lama.

Liu Xia has been under house arrest in Beijing for 4 years despite having committed no crime. Police officers stay outside her apartment to make sure no one visits her. She has no internet and limited phone access. As one of Liu Xiaobo’s counsels wrote, this has contributed to her deteriorating physical and mental health.


As for the suggestion that Beijing should reciprocate by renaming the street where the US embassy sits, why would the CCP rename the street after Edward Snowden? Snowden is working in the name of goals that are in line with American ideals and which would certainly land him a long prison sentence in China (maybe America too, but that’s another discussion) – limited, accountable government and the primacy of individual liberty. To rename the street after Snowden would be to affirm the universal values that Liu Xiaobo, among others, has fought for and that the CCP rejects.

So where’s Congress coming from with this? The cynical answer might be that the US government doesn’t really care about human rights issues but just wants to poke China in the eye (or at least they 30% care and 70% want to poke China in the eye). Or that this is simply a move by House Republicans to put Obama – with his weak geopolitical standing – on the spot (though it’s unlikely given that Nancy Pelosi and other House Democrats are involved). A pragmatic answer might be that the US is countering recent assertive moves by Beijing such as the recent publishing of a vertical map that significantly augments China’s territorial claims – a move consistent with the Justice Department’s recent indictment of 5 PLA officers for cyber espionage. Maybe this group of lawmakers from the House knows this probably won’t happen, but they want to send the signal out that some in Congress still have some balls and integrity when it comes to China and geopolitics generally.

The idealistic answer can be found in Nancy Pelosi’s speech in front of Congress earlier this month, “twenty-five years ago, Tiananmen became synonymous with the battle for human rights in China – again, an iconic sight for an iconic struggle for justice and democracy. Twenty-five years later, the spirit of Tiananmen endures in the hearts and minds of those continuing to struggle, both in China and around the world.  What moral authority do we have to say to a small country: ‘You cannot violate the human rights of your people,’ but we’ll take anything the Chinese have to dish out, because we have a commercial interest there?”

The reality probably includes all of these answers. (And the solution may be to get naked and run in the street.)

Pelosi continued, “and again, the Chinese government likes to say to prisoners: ‘Nobody knows you’re here. They don’t remember who you are. They don’t remember why you came here.’”

The National Post reported, “Xia Yeliang, a Chinese academic, said Liu Xia, the dissident’s wife who herself has been under house arrest since 2010, had shown enthusiasm after he told her of the vote by telephone. He added that he had asked her to pass the message on to Liu Xiaobo, but that the telephone line had gone dead.”

“’She immediately laughed, a very loud laugh, a joyful laugh,’ Prof. Xia said.”

Even if the proposal doesn’t make it to the President’s desk, I hope that laugh, bringing this bit of news, rings its way into a certain prison cell in Liaoning.

The Bubbling Ink Well: Animation and Censorship – Part I

Arthur Han is a 23 year old journalism student at Cardiff University. Originally from Jiangsu province, he’s in Beijing working on a dissertation which looks at animation in China and how it has been affected by censorship. I sat down with him over some Xinjiang jiachang banmianyangrou chuan’r and the semi-alcoholic water known as Yanjing to talk about his project. Arthur had a lot to say, so the conversation jumped around a bit. It has been edited for clarity. 


What was going abroad like for you?

I have been living in China for 21 years, and all I’ve seen, all I’ve heard, all I have been implanted with was, you know, Communism is good, we are all happy, something like that. But to some extent, the Chinese government is really selfish. They care about their own economics. They like to show that they (can do something like provide) humanitarian aid, but I think they are really selfish.

When I went to Britain I saw all these British guys who cared about world peace and the starving children in Africa and the cure for cancer. I thought, you know, I went to the best high school, best university, I thought that I was…not elite, but much more open minded. But it’s not like that. When I went abroad I found I wasn’t open minded at all. So I just want to see more. Experience more.

Did you know before you went abroad that you wanted to study journalism?

I struggled a little bit in choosing subjects when it came to my final year of my graduate studies because I didn’t want to study a language anymore and I just didn’t want to be an interpreter, even though it has a high salary. But, I just don’t want to be a speaker of someone else’s ideas. Maybe I can lead or report the ideas to help people forge their own ideas. What journalism does, my teacher says, is give the voiceless a voice. I think that’s what I want.

Journalism is a sensitive field in China, were your parents happy about your career choice?

Well, every family has its own story. In my family, my parents don’t really force me to do what they want me to do. Because firstly they have little knowledge about education, about what I’m studying. But I’m pretty happy. They encourage me to do what I want. Even though they would give me some advice like “I don’t think it’s really good but if you want it you can have a try.” They don’t know about my idea about being a world journalist but I don’t think they will object. Even though they will worry about me I will prepare myself for it so I think it will be fine. No pain, no gain right? You see the worst, you see the real, you know…many happy things are taking place, many miserable things are taking place, so there should be a tunnel between the two to let them know each other.

Most people don’t think of China when they think of animation. But it wasn’t always like that. What was the high point of Chinese animation and when and why did the form change?

I think it started during the foundation of the Chinese government (1949) with the Shanghai Film Studio, which was a really really famous film and animation producer. They had produced so many very beautiful, very delicate animations with Chinese characters – shuimo, water colors and clay. But at that time, interestingly, the government did not recognize their productions at all. They thought it celebrated feudalism. Before that, animators didn’t worry about money because the government (pre-CCP) was funding them. They didn’t make it for profit or any certain interests.

Then, something happened. First, the Cultural Revolution. The Shanghai Film Studio closed down for several years. After it was re-established it started to do well again and continues to produce good films. Then, there was Reform and Opening. That’s when Japanese animation flooded into the Chinese market, even though Chinese animation actually has a longer history than Japanese animation.

Early Japanese animation was quite bad. It was only used for ideological education during the Second World War. You can see this in how they used Momotarō (Peach Boy). When the characters invade the mountain in the story, it’s actually a metaphor for the Japanese wanting to invade Asia and taking control of the world. There was also Momotarō: Umi no Shinpei, which also indicates that the Japanese wanted to take control of the sea. But it turned out to be a really bad decision.

So, after 1945, what I find really amazing is that a lot of Japanese were really dedicated to improving themselves. I’ll give you one example. The director of Umi no Shinpei, who was quite nationalistic, created another short animation after the war called Sakura. It’s pure Japanese style without any ideology. So you can see some decisiveness to get better, to get rid of the nationalism and militarism.

But it was not until the 1960s that there was the very first…who they call in Japanese the god of animation, Osamu Tezuka. He went to animation school and along with his classmates he saw the failures of the war, the turbulence. In the post war years and after the ningen-sengen a lot of Japanese were lost, they didn’t know where to go. The childhood of people like Osamu was filled with war and they weren’t able to enjoy it. So they wanted to create a very enjoyable and very colorful childhood for the next generation. That was one big motivation for the Japanese animator.

Early on it was hard for them. They lacked funds so they reached out to many different places. Places like Disney and Hollywood and also Hong Kong. In the 1970s Hong Kong’s film industry was really rich because of their kung fu movies. The first big Japanese-Hong Kong co-production was Princess Iron Fan. However, this co-operation came to a halt because they disagreed on the target audience. The Chinese thought animation was for children. But the Japanese thought it wasn’t only for children, but for everybody. Eventually the Japanese idea that the animation market should be open to all age groups won out.

Animation had this cross generational appeal in Japan because the Japanese are so introverted. At this time people were experiencing intense personal crises inside themselves and animation was a release for them. Also during this time, the 1970s, the Japanese were learning a lot from American and European film studios. At first they were only doing low value added things like drawing simple characters and making them move. Eventually, the founders of Studio Ghibli decided to create something bigger. Something with Japanese spirit, with Japanese values.

While all this was taking off in Japan, China was in the middle of the Cultural Revolution and there is virtually no animation being produced. My grandparents have told me a lot about this period. People say the Chinese are rude, petty, untrustworthy and will take advantage of you. My grandparents say this all happened because of the Cultural Revolution. General trust in society was completely destroyed.

Fast forward to today, Japanese animation is really popular in China. First because it’s really close, second because we share the same written characters. The first really big hits I can think of were Doraemon and Dragonball. Also Sasae-san, which you can’t say was for kids only. It reflects so much about pre and post-war Japanese life.

Who watched these animations in China? Adults? Children?

Everybody liked it actually.

Did the Chinese audience appreciate the subtleties of Japanese animation? Did they relate to it in a comparable way to the Japanese?

There are many themes in Japanese animation. There’s the mitsugetsu stuff, the really inspiring, courage-and-action filled stuff. When it comes to that kind of animation there may be no relation to real life but it can inspire you anyway and people in China like that stuff. But I think the problem in China now is that there is a disconnection between life and animation unlike in Japan where it reflected real things happening in real people’s lives. Adults in China look at their animation and say “why would I watch that? It’s crap.” They can’t find anything there.

Does censorship have something to do with that?

Exactly. When I was in contact with a professor at the Peking University Institute for Cultural Industries she told me, “come on, I can’t talk about this on camera. I’m not just a researcher, I’ve been involved in the animation industry for over 25 years. We have been suffering censorship for quite a long time. The problem is the system.” You always hear a lot about the system. “I know we work under this system, but I can’t talk about it on camera. Because it jeopardizes my future, my career.” With her long experience, she says it’s definitely censorship that has hindered any development of Chinese animation.

Let’s look at the government film and animation censorship rules. There are 10 rules, each one sentence long. They have to do with not damaging traditional Chinese values and not spreading sexual or violent content to children. But it’s pretty vague. It’s open to interpretation. Actually it’s rubbish. How do you define “traditional Chinese values?” How do you define excessive sexuality or violence? Some animations that have lots of violence will pass censorship, but for some reason others, like Deathnote, are officially banned in China.

Well, if we look at Deathnote, there were stories of Japanese school kids writing down other kids’ deaths and there’s the potential of someone acting on that. In the US some people blame video games for violent behavior. So, is the Chinese government on to something?

Well, these things influence people, but not in a really important way. Some psychologists have suggested that violent video games are actually a good thing because they channel violent behavior into a virtual world rather than have it act out in the real world.

What’s the trend now? Will there be more “serious” animation produced in China in the near future?

I really don’t think so. If you look at the big animation studios, their productions are so…boring! There’s an invisible chain on the production. It can’t do too much. However, if you look at the work of individual freelancers, you can see many creative ideas and people doing what they want.

Also, the Chinese market for animation is still opening. The government can start to see animation as an industry. So, knowing that there is more demand for more creative animation, more entrepreneurial firms may start taking risks in producing something more sensitive, something that may cross the line a little bit. They may try to get around censorship laws simply because the laws are open to interpretation. They can just explain their actions in a way that will follow the law. The Chinese government is realizing the potential of the animation market because it’s so profitable. They’re being more indulgent and investing lots of money in many studios.

What’s the future then?

As long as the Communist Party is in China, as long as animation is regarded as ideological promotion, it can’t just be a free market where ideas that are anti-socialist or that may undermine state interests are allowed. Such productions will never happen in Chinese animation.

What about Frozen? That movie is immensely popular here and kids here, just as I presume everywhere, are singing “Let It Go.” That song is about individualism and going your own way. Why can a movie with a song like that be allowed? Is it because the movie is too childish? Is the message not obvious enough?

Well, the content of this movie is not the main concern. It’s profit. If the Chinese government can make a lot of money from this thing, why not just introduce it? Also, it’s a Hollywood thing. People buy Hollywood. It’s a win-win. Hollywood makes money and the Chinese government makes money. We can twist the interpretation of the laws and explain away any messages we like and we can make more money. That’s it. That individualist message in the song is not the main point of the animation so it can be looked over.

Stay tuned for the rest of the story…

All Quiet On The Square

Updated June 5, 2014.

IMG_5568Not so undercover officer.

Today is the 25th anniversary of the “June 4th Incident.” Given all the arrests of lawyers and activists in the last few weeks, and knowing that security would be extra high, I don’t think anyone was expecting anything big today. But with what I saw last year in mind, I wanted to go anyway….

An edited version of this has been posted in Vice Magazine. Read the rest here.

DSC_0030The queue to the queue to get in. 

IMG_5561Tourists near the big screens – Fortune and Power, Democracy, Civilization, Harmony, Freedom, Equality, Fairness, Rule of Law, Patriotism, Dedication (to one’s work), Honesty, Friendliness.