Fans, netizens and publics

We hear a lot about Chinese “netizens” in the media. Whether it is journalists marvelling at the huge size of the internet population, reporting the latest online vox pop, or discussing whether we should actually be using the term “netizen”, Chinese internet users are a frequently referenced demographic. For all the popular interest in them, there is little systematic research on how Chinese netizens behave, what their attitudes are, how they come together and what the implications are for Chinese society, both online and IRL (“in real life”). Focusing on netizens and their online communities, The internet and new social formation in China is a welcome addition to Chinese internet studies. Furthermore, in focusing largely on “fans”, it contributes a promising angle to the growing field of Chinese celebrity studies.

The underlying argument is that online fan communities have the potential to evolve into meaningful new “social collectivities” through the “transformation of fans to publics”. Drawing on some well-grounded theoretical antecedents (Castells, Bourdieu), the book employs a network approach to understanding how online communities form, expand and mutate. A major finding is that cyberspace does not merely replicate physical world forms of fandom, rather technological affordances influence how atomistic fans can become collective publics through a combination online and offline networking. A number of case studies are presented, all fascinating.

The most fully developed case study is that of Rear Window, which started as an online discussion board for movie fans in 1998. Zhang interviewed contributors in 2003 and spent years as a participant observer before carrying out follow up interviews a decade later. Although this earlier period in the development of the Chinese internet has taken on an innocent and nostalgic hue, the profile of Zhang’s sample in 2003—99% of her respondents were aged 18-35 and 97% had a college degree—is a reminder of how unequal access was before cheap smartphones and the popularization of the mobile internet.

Rear Window’s amateur enthusiasts contributed to innumerable forum discussions on the merits of individual movies, filmmaking and the industry, contributing to a “counter discourse” distinct from state and commercial preoccupations. The film buffs also mobilized their resources to organize “Private Movie Watchings”, networking with universities, malls and bars to secure space and equipment for collective viewings of art house, classic and foreign language films on DVD. This was community building in a physical space that cemented the links made online. Growing in scale, Rear Window came to the attention of the mass media which publicised the site, repurposed their content, reported on their activities (and wrote op-eds about the legalities of Private Movie Watchings). According to Zhang, it was this networking-led entry into the public consciousness that “turned the movie fans into a subaltern public” (p. 46), an idea she has developed in several prior publications.

When Zhang revisited the Rear Window contributors ten years on, many had leveraged their knowledge and enthusiasm for film, and the relationships (should we say guanxi?) established in the community, to become critics, playwrights, movie makers and directors. The internet had undergone major changes in this time too, and these changes were also partly responsible. The popularization of blogging—symbolized by the launch of Sina’s blog platform in 2005—precipitated a shift away from unheralded contributions on discussion boards to seeking substantial audiences, perhaps even becoming a famous blogger. The connection between blogging (and later, microblogging) and fame was explicit from the start: Sina’s blog platform was built on the popularity of celebrities like Xu Jinglei, Ai Weiwei and Han Han.

Nearly all the Rear Window alumni had their own blogs (as did a third of Chinese internet users at one point in time) and some of them became minor blog stars. Blogs, and then microblogging, spelt the end of the BBS golden age, but they were instrumental in propelling many individuals into the public consciousness. In the case of Rear Window, a network that was initiated in cyberspace and concretized through the accumulation of social capital via online and offline connections, Zhang argues that they helped transform a “subaltern public” into a “regular public.” One might logically ask what the implications of this transformation might be. The answer to that question awaits further study, but Zhang is convinced that “the politics of fandom publics is not democracy” (p. 134).

One further discussion, though embryonic, looks at how new technological affordances have reduced the distance between audiences and celebrities, making it possible for Chinese fans to experience (the illusion of) personal and reciprocal “relationships” with stars, via services like Weibo, Weixin or Fenda, the “ask-a-celebrity” mobile app that was recently banned. Zhang draws the tentative inference that people are no longer just “onlookers,” but members of a network or community drawn to the same “fan object.” This requires further investigation, but how fans and celebrities use the internet to interact is a fascinating question that Chinese celebrity studies is just starting to grapple with.

How China and Russia are reshaping the world

Just as I was settling down to read Power Politics: How China and Russia Reshape the World, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the UN-appointed tribunal that passes judgement on international maritime disputes, released its report on a case brought by the Philippines against Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. In a meticulous adjudication under the aegis of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (to which China is a signatory), the Hague ruling effectively found no historical or legal basis for Chinese claims to maritime territories within its own “nine-dash line”.

China has been busily reclaiming land and building up reefs to support its claims and install docking and landing facilities that could be used for military purposes. Immediately following the unequivocal ruling handed down by the international tribunal, which Beijing refused to participate in, Chinese President Xi Jinping dismissed its legitimacy and pledged that China and the Chinese people would not accept it. In more dramatic terms, Chinese media and Chinese netizens fulminated against the latest example of western mistreatment. China’s reaction to the Hague ruling came too recently to be included in the book, but its author would not be surprised by it. China, along with Russia, are singled out as two major threats to the existing “western way” of managing global affairs.

An accessible primer from the Realist perspective on international relations, the book is explicitly a study in power: rising power, declining power, power vacuums, power politics. The spectre of tragic great power politics looms large, while western “soft power”, it is argued, has run out of steam. Wijk argues that the west needs to face up to some uncomfortable truths. Among them, the realization that the “western way” is no longer as attractive or “powerful” as it once was; that “a diminished west will no longer be able to shape the world order in line with its own preferences” (p. 185). For the past 50 years that order has been defined by ostensibly global institutions like the UN, IMF and ICJ and the promotion of “universal values” like human rights and democracy. Financial crises, the failure of democracies to address long-term problems like climate change, and the loss of the moral high ground through military interventions have dented the west’s ability to co-opt, just as economic power has shifted to Asia.

Powers like Russia and China feel that they have been left out and marginalised by the “western way” and are questioning their place in it. In some cases they are actively challenging western norms and institutions—most obviously Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but also manifest in China’s AIIB, internet sovereignty, territorial claims in the East and South China Seas and the exertion of influence through economic engagement across the globe. Wijk argues that China and Russia are different from the west, with their notions of exceptionalism, memories of historical wrongs and the psychological need to restore injured national pride and status—to rediscover great power lost. Drawing, not always convincingly on Samuel Huntington (“in the East, the east Asian, Japanese and western civilizations are clashing” p. 37), Wijk argues that the use of power is conditioned by political and strategic cultures, and that Russian and Chinese strategic cultures are dangerous, manifest in a worrying combination of “assertiveness” and nationalism. If you fear these developments will lead to conflict, Wijk would concur: Conflict occurs along geopolitical “fault lines”, where, it is implied, ‘cultures clash’, and the fault lines between the EU, NATO and Russia, and between the US, its allies and China in the South China Sea are among the most dangerous.

The relationship between China and Russia is not much interrogated, and readers are left wondering whether it is collaborative or conflictual. Sino-Russian relations are complicated by historical legacies and mutual suspicion, and it may only be, in Bobo Lo’s memorable phrase, an “axis of convenience”, but surely the relationship between two powers each described as challenging the “western way” is of interest? Is Central Asia, where the former Soviet states are rapidly been drawn into China’s economic orbit, a fault line? Or should China and Russia be conceived as partners in their shared insistence on non-interference, apparent rejection of some “universal values” and shared sense of western ambivalence if not hostility towards them?

This book is nominally about Russia and China, but its message is squarely aimed at a western readership. Westerners, it is implied, have grown complacent with the dominance of the “western way”. But, as good Realists know, power politics may lie dormant, but it is always there. With the relative decline of western power creating a vacuum filled by the rising power of nations that do not necessarily buy into the “western way”, the conditions are ripe for a return to 19th Century behaviours to come back to the fore. Where others, certainly China, see a more equitable world resulting from a diversity of nations participating more energetically in global affairs, for Realists multi-polarity means instability. With this in mind, Wijk has some sensible, albeit common, recommendations for western governments. The west needs a more pragmatic and less normative foreign policy, and to seek appropriate compromises and overlapping interests when dealing with China and Russia. Ultimately, however, the message is a predictably Realist one: the west must not stint on compiling hard power as a bulwark against challenges to the “western way”.

As a contemporary, introductory text on the Realist world view, this is a brief and breezy read, with the pros and cons that entails. Chapters on the sources and uses of national power are straightforward where other texts get bogged down in theoretical expositions. There is some interesting speculation about space, the polar regions and cyberspace, fields where power politics may soon start to play out. It is, however, a partial and pessimistic world view. The “western way” has a huge reservoir of “soft power”, and the potential for outright conflict in the South China Sea is, in my view, exaggerated. Despite troubling signs, China has not withdrawn from global institutions or world trade, it is integrated in regional fora and involved in tackling major global issues like climate change. In the Chinese case, “assertiveness” is not the precursor to the outright rejection or challenge to the world order. However, its “national rejuvenation” has changed the calculus for its neighbours and other countries that must acknowledge (even if they don’t like them) China’s interests and formulate a sensible response.

“Leftover” and less empowered women

Back in April, a documentary-style cosmetics advertisement centred on China’s “leftover women” went viral, inspiring a fierce online debate around single women and gender equality. The video, titled Marriage Market Makeover, highlighted the social pressures faced by so-called leftover women, or shengnu 剩女, a disparaging term widely used to describe women who remain unmarried in their late 20s.

Produced by P&G-owned Japanese cosmetics company SK-II, the four-minute film, which concludes with the hashtag for the brand’s “change destiny” global campaign, is an emotional appeal to young women stigmatized for being single.

While the issue of leftover women has generated much public debate in China, it has also enjoyed a high profile in the West, primarily due to the pioneering research of Leta Hong Fincher, a visiting sociology professor at Columbia University.

The “leftover” discourse is designed to pressure women into marrying to mitigate the effects of an ageing population and gender imbalance – there were 116 boys born for every 100 girls in China in 2014. Unmarried men are often viewed as a potentially destabilizing force in Chinese society.

China’s quest for modernity is increasingly tied to the development of a middle class society and much is expected of the middle classes as a force for stability and the engine for upgrading the Chinese economic model.

The family unit is an integral part of this narrative, as the ubiquity of happy middle class families in television shows and advertising demonstrates. Single women who choose not to marry are a challenge to this norm, transgressing traditional Confucian-derived ideas about continuing the family line and contemporary narratives about family life as the binding agent of aspirational modernity and national progress.

The impassioned reaction to the SK-II advert showed the real value in highlighting what is an increasingly pernicious narrative in contemporary society, even if it does come wrapped up in an attempt to sell more beauty products.

However, we need to recognize that this is just one of many ways in which the lives of many Chinese women continue to be conditioned by traditional values.

Indeed, deplorable as the “leftover” description is, the urban, educated, independent women that it refers to are relatively empowered. Many such women are professional, networked and confident in their life choices, and have used these qualities to reclaim or subvert the label.

Many women wear their single status with pride and positive representations of single life are slowly beginning to appear in commercial media and online. Ultimately, the reason a purveyor of beauty products that a small proportion of China’s population can actually afford is targeting “leftover women” is because they have disposable income. But for all the buzz around issues of gender equality the SK-II advert created, it is important to acknowledge that it centres on a subset of women, primarily urban, middle class, heterosexual and Han.

Less amenable for appropriation into feel-good marketing campaigns, well intentioned or not, is the female suicide rate in the countryside, endemic domestic violence or the unprecedented gender imbalance caused by many instances of decades-long female infanticide and sex-selective abortions.

Lacking disposable income and chastised for being “uncivilized”, female migrant workers face precarious working conditions and widespread abuse. The disabled, lesbian and transwomen, and the large number of women living with HIV, face discrimination and extreme vulnerabilities.

The most marginal women in Chinese society are virtually invisible in mainstream online debates and media representations. Their stories tend not to go viral on social media. More amenable to viral success is the recent proliferation of “body challenges” focusing on the female form as an object of desire and aesthetic pleasure and supporting a culture of body policing and body shaming.

This year has seen Chinese women posing online for the “A4 challenge”, in which they prove their waists are narrower than the width of a sheet of A4 paper. This was quickly followed by the “iPhone 6 knee challenge”, in which young women had to hide their legs behind the six-inch screen and then by the “100 yuan challenge”, for which women photographed themselves wrapping the note around their wrist.

The preoccupation with female looks focuses attention on women’s bodies as an object for male consumption, pleasure and control. It is no coincidence that SK-II is a beauty product. Good intentions aside, what is it really saying? “It’s OK to be single, but you should look good while you’re at it?”

Another, deeply cynical and misogynist view that is pervasive in Chinese society sees women’s physical attractiveness as an economic instrument – for work, sexual or otherwise, finding a husband or becoming a mistress.

While market forces in the form of media and advertising play a crucial role in propagating ideal types that women are expected to adhere to, this “soft control” is less physically cruel than controls imposed on women’s reproductive rights.

The pressure to continue the male family line, a pervasive obligation in the countryside, falls to women who must give birth to a male heir, and are ostracized by their in-laws if they don’t, or have to endure successive pregnancies and terminations until a boy is born.

The recent relaxation of population controls is a welcome development for gender equality. It is one of a number of recent steps forward for women’s rights.

A law on domestic violence has been strengthened; women have thrived as entrepreneurs; and feminist social media, blogs and reporting have led to growing awareness of gender inequality and discrimination, with champions from blogger Han Han to comedian and internet sensation Papi Jiang.

Women’s rights activists are tackling gender discrimination in employment recruitment as well as gender-based admission policies across universities in China. These groups have also initiated campaigns against sexual harassment in public places, with slogans like: “What I wear has nothing to do with you.”

Chinese women are not passive victims whose lives are a succession of unspeakable horrors visited upon them. Millions of Chinese women have seized educational, economic and social opportunities and are thriving in different ways, including many “leftover women”.

However, it will take more than a hashtag to “change the destiny” of women deprived of equality, fair treatment and dignity. The feel-good narrative is incomplete without the women who are striving to achieve these goals rather than sell more beauty products.

UK-China relations after Brexit

Brexit is a mixed blessing for China. On one hand it loses the UK as a relatively China-friendly influencer within the EU and a weakened EU is less of an effective balance against the US and Russia (the Chinese-Russian friendship is one of convenience and riven with suspicion). On the other hand, China’s leverage over the UK is likely to increase, as the latter is forced to step up its economic relationships with non-EU nations, (notably, or optimistically, the US, China and India). In terms of trade, the UK will have to negotiate a new deal with China, and given the UK’s weaker position, it is likely to be an improvement for China. With the significantly falling value of sterling, there will be attractive opportunities for Chinese investors; in addition to importers, students and tourists. The medium to long term (5-10 years) outlook for the UK economy is not as dire as short term instability suggests, and thus there is good value for investors. While it may find Brexit a perplexing act of self-harm, China continues to value its economic relationship with UK; but it will be able to demand a better deal.

The Brexit nightmare bolsters the CCP narrative about democracy’s flaws and “the people” cannot be trusted to make decisions that serve the nation’s best interest. There isn’t much sympathy for the U.K. government on that score. However, China has benefitted from global stability and it does not welcome the uncertainties brought by Brexit, not for the UK but the Eurozone and global markets. Nor is Beijing a fan of “secession” movements and the potential break-up of the UK, hitherto a strong Union, reminds China of its own would-be breakaway regions. As a “close friend in the west” China does not want to see the UK marginalised. The leaders who oversaw the nascence of a “golden relationship” (former Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne) are no longer driving UK policy (Osborne’s status in a Theresa May government remains in question) and it remains to be seen whether the new government’s position on China will be as enthusiastic.

In sum, the UK Government is hastily re-assembling behind a new leader, and is preoccupied with how to handle Brexit. It is in no position to formulate major strategic plans, and it is hard to say what UK-China relations will look like in the future. However, the relationship with China is very important to the UK and will probably become even more so, if more asymmetrical than previously planned.

 

China suspends comms with Taiwan

The Taiwan Affairs Office, the body nominally responsible for orchestrating and executing China’s Taiwan policy, recently announced the suspension of the cross-strait communication mechanism. It was established during President Ma’s tenure to help manage increasingly complex and multifaceted interactions between the two sides. A TAO spokesperson linked the suspension to Tsai’s failure to signal her recognition of the “1992 Consensus”.

Tsai’s acceptance of the “1992 Consensus” as a historical fact (without agreeing to its contents) and pledge to uphold the status quo in accordance with the ROC Constitution, has been insufficient to meet Beijing’s demands for her to demonstrate “sincerity”. Yet, while Tsai does not accept the “1992 Consensus”, neither does Beijing: It has never agreed to the “respective interpretations” qualifier to “one China”. However, Taiwanese leaders’, specifically President Ma, propensity to acknowledge “1992” has become Beijing’s bottom line proxy for acknowledging “One China”.

I would not go so far to say that Beijing has hereby declared a refusal to work with Taiwan under a DPP government, but it shows what Beijing’s tactic is going to be: A gradual turning of the screw, making it more difficult for Taiwan to manage the complex interactions between the two sides and perform its obligations of state. In recent days and months this has been exemplified by suspected Taiwanese criminals being deported to China from Kenya and most recently Cambodia, when the representations of the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs were simply ignored.

The timing of the decision is not accidental, coming during Tsai Ing-wen’s first overseas trip as President. While her visit to Central American allies is not out of the ordinary, she has been granted stopovers in the US on both outward and return journeys. And having previously made a good impression in the US, she has been granted a warm (though not ostentatious) welcome. It is typical of tit-for-tat Chinese tactics that a (moderate) opportunity for Tsai to appear on the international stage as a stateswoman would be accompanied by some kind of sanction.

This is not about “escalating tensions”; it is a tactical punishment and part of a drip by drip approach to circumscribing and complicating Tsai’s capacity to manage practical interactions between Taiwan and China. It is an inconvenience, but more symbolic than coup de grace at this point. But it is also a sign of things to come.

I have also commented on this issue for the NYT.

Some additional thoughts on Ma’s nixed HK trip

Former President Ma Ying-jeou’s application to travel to Hong Kong for a brief speaking engagement has been turned down by the new Tsai administration. It was a decision based on consultation with government security agencies and wasn’t Tsai’s unilateral decision. Technically Ma’s application did not meet the rules regarding the 20 day advance notice for former presidents within 3 years of leaving office. Lee Teng-hui was allowed to travel to the UK one month after stepping down in 2000 (by a DPP government); but the UK does not have the symbolism that HK does (it was where the meeting between KMT-CCP took place in 1992 that gives its name to the ‘1992 consensus’), and after all, HK is quasi governed by China. Ma is in possession of huge amounts of “classified knowledge” and the potential for either purposeful or accidental disclosure of information is much higher in HK than almost anywhere else in the world. This is not to imply that Ma has or had any intention whatsoever of disclosing classified information, but given that for 8 years Ma has espoused pro-China preferences it is no surprise that most Taiwanese are suspicious of a visit so soon after he stepped down to a location that has been used as a (often clandestine) meeting place for ROC/KMT PRC/CCP officials.

A further aspect is that the KMT has demonstrated before that it is happy to bypass the duly elected government to conduct “diplomacy” with China. Then KMT Honorary Chairman Lien Chan’s “peace mission” to China in 2005, completely bypassing the DPP government, is something that the DPP wants to avoid repeating. At a time when Tsai’s government has yet to really establish its modus operandi for cross-Strait relations, it is not tactically wise to let Ma visit HK and potentially take a step in that direction. I don’t think the decision is retribution for Ma’s treatment of Chen. There may be an element of throwing a bone to deep green supporters who have already been somewhat disappointed by Tsai’s conservative, centrist manoeuvres. But overall, there are genuine security issues and particular sensitivities with Hong Kong–and Ma would presumably have been aware of this when putting in his application. I have commented on this issue for the NYT here.

Celebrity in China

A visit to a Chinese city of any size—looking up at downtown billboards, flicking through a magazine, riding public transport, shopping at a mall, or even a convenience store—is to be in the presence of a Chinese celebrity endorsing a product, lifestyle or other symbols of “the good life”. In contemporary urban China, the image of a Chinese actor, singer, athlete or TV personality is never far away. Celebrity in China is big business, feeding off and nourishing the advertising-led business model that underpins the commercialized media system and large sections of the internet. It is also a powerful instrument in the Party-State’s discursive and symbolic repertoire, used to promote regime goals and solidify new governmentalities through signalling accepted modes of behaviour for mass emulation (Jeffreys, 2009). The instrumentalization of celebrity by Party, state and business actors is strategic, motivated and sustained by the “spiritual vacuum” created by the transition to a market socialist system and its associated societal dislocations and aspirations (Kipnis, 2001). Despite its ubiquity, there is an aura of frivolousness around celebrity culture that perhaps explains why “Chinese stars and stardom rarely receive sustained academic attention” (Farquhar and Zhang, 2010: 2). While the professional milieux that celebrities inhabit have long been recognized as sites of political and cultural power, negotiation and contestation, the contours and implications of celebrity in contemporary China have received little recognition within the broader China Studies field. However, as demonstrated by recent pioneering work, on which this article aims to build (Edmonds and Jeffreys, 2010; Farquhar and Zhang, 2010; Hood, 2016), in combination with related studies on popular culture and the media (Berry and Farquhar, 2006; Chow 2007; Curtin, 2007; Keane 2013; Latham, 2007; Link et al., 2002; Wang, 2008; Zhang, 2004; Zhu and Berry, 2009), celebrity in China plays an important signalling role with implications for regime stability, social integration and the pursuit of the “Chinese Dream” of national strength and prosperity.

China has a long history of literary, musical and folk celebrity in the Imperial and Modern eras (McDermott, 2006), in addition to concerted efforts at creating “socialist stars” during the Mao era (Cheek, 1997). But the contemporary celebrity scene is a product of processes associated with the emergence of “market socialism”. Economic reforms and urbanization, increasingly widespread prosperity and the associated rise of consumerism, commercialization of the media and technological change, the growth of individualism and decline of collectivist ways of life have all contributed to the emergence of a celebrity culture that has imbued individuals with great wealth, visibility and influence within large fan bases. In addition to advancing a range of commercial interests, notably via advertising and endorsements (Hung, 2014; Wang, 2008), celebrities are increasingly involved in supporting social causes through philanthropy (Hood, 2015; Jeffreys, 2015a), advocacy and representation in formal political institutions (Jeffreys, 2015b), as activists and social critics (Strafella and Berg, 2015a; 2015b) and as leaders of online public opinion (Fu et al., 2015). With increasing internet penetration and the popularization of social media, celebrities have the capacity to connect directly, unfiltered and unmediated, with substantial audiences; the hundred or so entertainers we identify in this article as “major celebrities” (a sub sample of the celebrity population) have a combined following of around 2.5 billion people on Sina Weibo (新浪微博) alone. The ability to step outside their respective professional milieux is one factor that distinguishes celebrities from simply being well known figures such as members of the Politburo. Celebrity is a multidimensional quality, the sum of an individual’s product and packaging, personal attributes and life beyond the professional realm. We understand celebrity as analogous with the concepts of “brand identity” or “brand image” employed in marketing studies. A further feature that separates celebrity from well-knowness is the celebrity persona, i.e. “a crafted and consolidated public projection of the real person, built in part out of film roles and other public appearances” (Shingler 2012: 125). A review of the literature on “stars”, the sub-group at the apex of the celebrity hierarchy, highlights numerous attributes associated with this persona including glamour, beauty, sexuality, theatricality, charm, confidence, wealth and sophistication. The closest China has come to a celebrity politician to date was Bo Xilai, the former Chongqing Party Secretary now in jail.  The multi-dimensional celebrity persona, and the public interest it stimulates in off-stage lives, requires an academic focus on the workings of celebrity itself as a supplement to analysing the products (zuopin 作品) that celebrities create in their professional roles. The potential to connect with large numbers of ordinary people also marks the special status that celebrities have within China’s constrained socio-political ecology. The motivation for this paper is to further scholarly understanding of how celebrity operates in China and to bring this expression of popular culture into the broader conversation about contemporary Chinese politics and society. Full paper here.