A charm offensive from the U.S. ambassador and a few fumbles from the Chinese government were amplified this year through the growing power of microblogging
U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke, second left, shakes hands with bystanders outside Shuibu kindergarten in Taishan, Guangdong province, southern China. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
Authoritarian regimes' days were supposed to be numbered in a web 2.0 world. Indeed, it has long been hypothesized that the proliferation of communication technology would lead to the demise of illiberal and strong-handed autocrats. It seemed impossible for any cabal of powerbrokers to remain immune to a public fitted with new tools of protest and collective action. The instantaneity and velocity of truths, pictures, and videos speeding across vast transnational networks made life very difficult for governments not accustomed to responding to the demands of the people. This year, it seemed that the cyber and technology utopians were proved prescient.
In the fertile crescent, a war concluded just as a revolution spread, toppling regimes more effectively in several months than the bloody and misplaced military adventure that lasted nearly a decade. From London to Athens, discontent sprung from unnecessary brutality and necessary austerity. From DC to San Francisco, occupiers and 99 percenters became disillusioned by how all men may be created equal, but grow into inequality. In Moscow, a popular indictment on crony capitalism proved that Putin's seeming invincibility is a canard. A unifying force is present in these uprisings and protests: the penetration of social media. Yet in China, apart from the current "contained" protests in Wukan, the state appears to be the exception to the political paroxysms afflicting numerous corners of the globe.
But it would be a mistake to believe that the Chinese government is not shaken by the unpredictable anti-incumbent contagion that has infected regions as diverse as Tunisia and the United States. Although the Chinese political establishment remains intact, it is facing popular pressures unprecedented in the regime's recent history, precisely because of the rapid adoption of new media that undermine its traditional information monopoly. In fact, 2011 was arguably the year in which the Chinese Twitterati found a voice and flashed its teeth, not to overtly challenge the state's legitimacy, but to hold it more accountable than it prefers. In the absence of a robust legal system, the government is now being forced to answer itself in the court of public opinion.
Several issues stand out for me in the past year:
1. The high-speed rail crash: It became a sensation in the Chinese microblog universe, triggering a tsunami of criticism at government handling of the incident and the larger issue of crony capitalism that is all too common in today's China. The episode prompted the government to undertake a comprehensive safety evaluation, sack the rail minister, and pledge more transparency.
2. The controversy over air quality measurements: The horrendous pollution in Beijing in recent months lit up on Sina Weibo, the Chinese microblog, where many inveighed against a government withholding crucial air-quality information from its citizens. The story even contained a minor wrinkle in U.S.-China relations. As the U.S. embassy's own twitter feed tracked the PM2.5 pollution particle, it earned the trust of the Chinese public, embarrassing a Chinese government that tried, but failed, to convince the public that it is yet another American ploy to destabilize China. Under intense pressure, officials had to concede that it must make more information public.
3. Gary Locke's unintended charm offensive: A rock star before he even boarded a plane for Beijing, Ambassador Locke became an overnight celebrity among the Chinese Twitterati. Photos of him purchasing Starbucks coffee with a coupon and carrying his own luggage drew wide approval among the Chinese public. As I have noted, trumpeting an US official's "average-ness" is a reflection of the Chinese public's own displeasure at the braggadocio, elitist attitude, and unchecked authority of its own officials.
Just as it is apparently en vogue these days to use "China" as a mirror for our own considerable dysfunctions (I'm looking at you Tom Friedman), we often forget that the Chinese public, too, deploys "America" as an instrument to reflect on their own shortcomings. And in each of the above cases, the unspoken but obvious deficiency is that the Chinese regime is facing a growing credibility gap in governance, in large part because it can no longer construct a singular reality, for it is being coopted by individuals weibo-ing, blogging, and YouKu-ing. At its most elemental, it is evolving into a contestation of truth between the state and society.
So far, the power of social media in China primarily resides in its seeming capacity to hold the government accountable, incrementally influencing its behavior. It has not been a regime-wide destabilizing force, not least because the state has overwhelming capacity to control the system. At the same time, however, social media has a disproportionate impact in the Chinese context because it is perceived as one of the only unfiltered channels of information. Its exponential growth clearly unnerves the Chinese government, which is already taking action by requiring real name registration on weibo. Yet weibo is almost "too big to fail"—shutting it down would exact too high of a cost. To give a sense of the size of the internet and social media penetration, I found this series from "We are Social" mind-boggling (h/t to China Hush):
Scale matters. These numbers are dizzyingly large, and they certainly look frightening to the Chinese government. To be sure, the regime has been particularly adept at preventing sparks from setting the prairie on fire. The Great Firewall was supposed to be the all-enveloping fire-proof net, though it was never without leaks. And can it contain 350 million+ sparks, or how about half a billion? The key question, then, is whether the Communist Party, wading into the uncharted waters of controlling social media, double down on its current approach of ham-fisted repression or adapt to the inevitable reality by becoming more open and publicly accountable.
To that question we anxiously await the answers. And so are the villagers in Wukan.
Damien Ma is a fellow at the Paulson Institute, where he focuses on investment and policy programs, and on the Institute's research and think-tank activities. Previously, he was a lead China analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk research and advisory firm.
Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.
And if thy brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty: thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing today.
— Deuteronomy 15: 12–15
Besides the crime which consists in violating the law, and varying from the right rule of reason, whereby a man so far becomes degenerate, and declares himself to quit the principles of human nature, and to be a noxious creature, there is commonly injury done to some person or other, and some other man receives damage by his transgression: in which case he who hath received any damage, has, besides the right of punishment common to him with other men, a particular right to seek reparation.
Bernie Sanders and Jeb Bush look abroad for inspiration, heralding the end of American exceptionalism.
This election cycle, two candidates have dared to touch a third rail in American politics.
Not Social Security reform. Not Medicare. Not ethanol subsidies. The shibboleth that politicians are suddenly willing to discuss is the idea that America might have something to learn from other countries.
The most notable example is Bernie Sanders, who renewed his praise for Western Europe in a recent interview with Ezra Klein. “Where is the UK? Where is France? Germany is the economic powerhouse in Europe,” Sanders said. “They provide health care to all of their people, they provide free college education to their kids.”
On ABC’s This Week in May, George Stephanopoulos asked Sanders about this sort of rhetoric. “I can hear the Republican attack ad right now: ‘He wants American to look more like Scandinavia,’” the host said. Sanders didn’t flinch:
Even when a dentist kills an adored lion, and everyone is furious, there’s loftier righteousness to be had.
Now is the point in the story of Cecil the lion—amid non-stop news coverage and passionate social-media advocacy—when people get tired of hearing about Cecil the lion. Even if they hesitate to say it.
But Cecil fatigue is only going to get worse. On Friday morning, Zimbabwe’s environment minister, Oppah Muchinguri, called for the extradition of the man who killed him, the Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer. Muchinguri would like Palmer to be “held accountable for his illegal action”—paying a reported $50,000 to kill Cecil with an arrow after luring him away from protected land. And she’s far from alone in demanding accountability. This week, the Internet has served as a bastion of judgment and vigilante justice—just like usual, except that this was a perfect storm directed at a single person. It might be called an outrage singularity.
Writing used to be a solitary profession. How did it become so interminably social?
Whether we’re behind the podium or awaiting our turn, numbing our bottoms on the chill of metal foldout chairs or trying to work some life into our terror-stricken tongues, we introverts feel the pain of the public performance. This is because there are requirements to being a writer. Other than being a writer, I mean. Firstly, there’s the need to become part of the writing “community”, which compels every writer who craves self respect and success to attend community events, help to organize them, buzz over them, and—despite blitzed nerves and staggering bowels—present and perform at them. We get through it. We bully ourselves into it. We dose ourselves with beta blockers. We drink. We become our own worst enemies for a night of validation and participation.
Forget credit hours—in a quest to cut costs, universities are simply asking students to prove their mastery of a subject.
MANCHESTER, Mich.—Had Daniella Kippnick followed in the footsteps of the hundreds of millions of students who have earned university degrees in the past millennium, she might be slumping in a lecture hall somewhere while a professor droned. But Kippnick has no course lectures. She has no courses to attend at all. No classroom, no college quad, no grades. Her university has no deadlines or tenure-track professors.
Instead, Kippnick makes her way through different subject matters on the way to a bachelor’s in accounting. When she feels she’s mastered a certain subject, she takes a test at home, where a proctor watches her from afar by monitoring her computer and watching her over a video feed. If she proves she’s competent—by getting the equivalent of a B—she passes and moves on to the next subject.
The Wall Street Journal’s eyebrow-raising story of how the presidential candidate and her husband accepted cash from UBS without any regard for the appearance of impropriety that it created.
The Swiss bank UBS is one of the biggest, most powerful financial institutions in the world. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton intervened to help it out with the IRS. And after that, the Swiss bank paid Bill Clinton $1.5 million for speaking gigs. TheWall Street Journal reported all that and more Thursday in an article that highlights huge conflicts of interest that the Clintons have created in the recent past.
The piece begins by detailing how Clinton helped the global bank.
“A few weeks after Hillary Clinton was sworn in as secretary of state in early 2009, she was summoned to Geneva by her Swiss counterpart to discuss an urgent matter. The Internal Revenue Service was suing UBS AG to get the identities of Americans with secret accounts,” the newspaper reports. “If the case proceeded, Switzerland’s largest bank would face an impossible choice: Violate Swiss secrecy laws by handing over the names, or refuse and face criminal charges in U.S. federal court. Within months, Mrs. Clinton announced a tentative legal settlement—an unusual intervention by the top U.S. diplomat. UBS ultimately turned over information on 4,450 accounts, a fraction of the 52,000 sought by the IRS.”
During the multi-country press tour for Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, not even Jon Stewart has dared ask Tom Cruise about Scientology.
During the media blitz for Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation over the past two weeks, Tom Cruise has seemingly been everywhere. In London, he participated in a live interview at the British Film Institute with the presenter Alex Zane, the movie’s director, Christopher McQuarrie, and a handful of his fellow cast members. In New York, he faced off with Jimmy Fallon in a lip-sync battle on The Tonight Show and attended the Monday night premiere in Times Square. And, on Tuesday afternoon, the actor recorded an appearance on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, where he discussed his exercise regimen, the importance of a healthy diet, and how he still has all his own hair at 53.
Stewart, who during his career has won two Peabody Awards for public service and the Orwell Award for “distinguished contribution to honesty and clarity in public language,” represented the most challenging interviewer Cruise has faced on the tour, during a challenging year for the actor. In April, HBO broadcast Alex Gibney’s documentary Going Clear, a film based on the book of the same title by Lawrence Wright exploring the Church of Scientology, of which Cruise is a high-profile member. The movie alleges, among other things, that the actor personally profited from slave labor (church members who were paid 40 cents an hour to outfit the star’s airplane hangar and motorcycle), and that his former girlfriend, the actress Nazanin Boniadi, was punished by the Church by being forced to do menial work after telling a friend about her relationship troubles with Cruise. For Cruise “not to address the allegations of abuse,” Gibney said in January, “seems to me palpably irresponsible.” But in The Daily Show interview, as with all of Cruise’s other appearances, Scientology wasn’t mentioned.
Most of the big names in futurism are men. What does that mean for the direction we’re all headed?
In the future, everyone’s going to have a robot assistant. That’s the story, at least. And as part of that long-running narrative, Facebook just launched its virtual assistant. They’re calling it Moneypenny—the secretary from the James Bond Films. Which means the symbol of our march forward, once again, ends up being a nod back. In this case, Moneypenny is a send-up to an age when Bond’s womanizing was a symbol of manliness and many women were, no matter what they wanted to be doing, secretaries.
Why can’t people imagine a future without falling into the sexist past? Why does the road ahead keep leading us back to a place that looks like the Tomorrowland of the 1950s? Well, when it comes to Moneypenny, here’s a relevant datapoint: More than two thirds of Facebook employees are men. That’s a ratio reflected among another key group: futurists.
Some say the so-called sharing economy has gotten away from its central premise—sharing.
This past March, in an up-and-coming neighborhood of Portland, Maine, a group of residents rented a warehouse and opened a tool-lending library. The idea was to give locals access to everyday but expensive garage, kitchen, and landscaping tools—such as chainsaws, lawnmowers, wheelbarrows, a giant cider press, and soap molds—to save unnecessary expense as well as clutter in closets and tool sheds.
The residents had been inspired by similar tool-lending libraries across the country—in Columbus, Ohio; in Seattle, Washington; in Portland, Oregon. The ethos made sense to the Mainers. “We all have day jobs working to make a more sustainable world,” says Hazel Onsrud, one of the Maine Tool Library’s founders, who works in renewable energy. “I do not want to buy all of that stuff.”
An attack on an American-funded military group epitomizes the Obama Administration’s logistical and strategic failures in the war-torn country.
Last week, the U.S. finally received some good news in Syria: After months of prevarication, Turkey announced that the American military could launch airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Syria from its base in Incirlik. The development signaled that Turkey, a regional power, had at last agreed to join the fight against ISIS.
The announcement provided a dose of optimism in a conflict that has, in the last four years, killed over 200,000 and displaced millions more. Days later, however, the positive momentum screeched to a halt. Earlier this week, fighters from the al-Nusra Front, an Islamist group aligned with al-Qaeda, reportedly captured the commander of Division 30, a Syrian militia that receives U.S. funding and logistical support, in the countryside north of Aleppo. On Friday, the offensive escalated: Al-Nusra fighters attacked Division 30 headquarters, killing five and capturing others. According to Agence France Presse, the purpose of the attack was to obtain sophisticated weapons provided by the Americans.