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.
It happened gradually—and until the U.S. figures out how to treat the problem, it will only get worse.
It’s 2020, four years from now. The campaign is under way to succeed the president, who is retiring after a single wretched term. Voters are angrier than ever—at politicians, at compromisers, at the establishment. Congress and the White House seem incapable of working together on anything, even when their interests align. With lawmaking at a standstill, the president’s use of executive orders and regulatory discretion has reached a level that Congress views as dictatorial—not that Congress can do anything about it, except file lawsuits that the divided Supreme Court, its three vacancies unfilled, has been unable to resolve.
On Capitol Hill, Speaker Paul Ryan resigned after proving unable to pass a budget, or much else. The House burned through two more speakers and one “acting” speaker, a job invented following four speakerless months. The Senate, meanwhile, is tied in knots by wannabe presidents and aspiring talk-show hosts, who use the chamber as a social-media platform to build their brands by obstructing—well, everything. The Defense Department is among hundreds of agencies that have not been reauthorized, the government has shut down three times, and, yes, it finally happened: The United States briefly defaulted on the national debt, precipitating a market collapse and an economic downturn. No one wanted that outcome, but no one was able to prevent it.
The results of the referendum are, in theory, not legally binding.
Lest we think the Euroskepticism displayed this week by British voters is new, let me present a scene from the BBC’s Yes, Minister, a comedy about the U.K. civil service’s relationship with a minister. The series ran from 1980 to ’84 (and, yes, it was funny), at a time when the European Union was a mere glint in its founders’ eyes.
The Europe being referred to in the scene is the European Economic Community (EEC), an eventually 12-member bloc established in the mid-1950s, to bring about greater economic integration among its members.
In many ways, the seeds of the U.K.’s Thursday referendum on its membership in the European Union were sown soon after the country joined the now-defunct EEC in 1973. Then, as now, the ruling Conservative Party and opposition Labour, along with the rest of the country, were deeply divided over the issue. In the run-up to the general election the following year, Labour promised in its manifesto to put the U.K.’s EEC membership to a public referendum. Labour eventually came to power and Parliament passed the Referendum Act in 1975, fulfilling that campaign promise. The vote was held on June 5, 1975, and the result was what the political establishment had hoped for: an overwhelming 67 percent of voters supported the country’s EEC membership.
The June 23 vote represents a huge popular rebellion against a future in which British people feel increasingly crowded within—and even crowded out of—their own country.
I said goodnight to a gloomy party of Leave-minded Londoners a few minutes after midnight. The paper ballots were still being counted by hand. Only the British overseas territory of Gibraltar had reported final results. Yet the assumption of a Remain victory filled the room—and depressed my hosts. One important journalist had received a detailed briefing earlier that evening of the results of the government’s exit polling: 57 percent for Remain.
The polling industry will be one victim of the Brexit vote. A few days before the vote, I met with a pollster who had departed from the cheap and dirty methods of his peers to perform a much more costly survey for a major financial firm. His results showed a comfortable margin for Remain. Ten days later, anyone who heeded his expensive advice suffered the biggest percentage losses since the 2008 financial crisis.
American society increasingly mistakes intelligence for human worth.
As recently as the 1950s, possessing only middling intelligence was not likely to severely limit your life’s trajectory. IQ wasn’t a big factor in whom you married, where you lived, or what others thought of you. The qualifications for a good job, whether on an assembly line or behind a desk, mostly revolved around integrity, work ethic, and a knack for getting along—bosses didn’t routinely expect college degrees, much less ask to see SAT scores. As one account of the era put it, hiring decisions were “based on a candidate having a critical skill or two and on soft factors such as eagerness, appearance, family background, and physical characteristics.”
The 2010s, in contrast, are a terrible time to not be brainy. Those who consider themselves bright openly mock others for being less so. Even in this age of rampant concern over microaggressions and victimization, we maintain open season on the nonsmart. People who’d swerve off a cliff rather than use a pejorative for race, religion, physical appearance, or disability are all too happy to drop the s‑bomb: Indeed, degrading others for being “stupid” has become nearly automatic in all forms of disagreement.
More than a decade ago, Daniel Suelo closed his bank account and moved into a desert cave. Here's how he eats, sleeps, and evades the law.
More than a decade ago, Daniel Suelo closed his bank account and moved into a desert cave. Here's how he eats, sleeps, and evades the law.
society is designed so that you have to have money," Daniel Suelo says. "You have to
be a part of the capitalist system. It's illegal to live outside of it."
defied these laws. His primary residence is the canyons near Arches National Park,
where he has lived in a dozen caves tucked into sandstone nooks. In the fall of
2002, two years after quitting money, he homesteaded a majestic alcove high on a
cliff, two hundred feet across and fifty feet tall. Sitting inside and gazing
into the gorge below felt like heralding himself to the world from inside the
bell of a trumpet.
The city is riding high after the NBA final. But with the GOP convention looming, residents are bracing for disappointment.
Cleveland’s in a weird mood.
My son and I attended the Indians game on Father’s Day, the afternoon before game seven of the NBA Finals—which, in retrospect, now seems like it should be blockbustered simply as The Afternoon Before—when the Cavaliers would take on the Golden State Warriors and bring the city its first major-league sports championship in 52 years.
I am 52 years old. I’ve lived in Northeast Ohio all my life. I know what Cleveland feels like. And it’s not this.
In the ballpark that day, 25,269 of us sat watching a pitcher’s duel, and the place was palpably subdued. The announcer and digitized big-screen signage made no acknowledgement of the city’s excitement over the Cavaliers. There were no chants of “Let’s Go Cavs,” no special seventh-inning-stretch cheer for the Indians’ basketball brothers, who play next door in the Quicken Loans Arena, which in a few weeks will host the Republican National Convention.
Patrick Griffin, his chief congressional affairs lobbyist, recalls the lead up to the bill’s passage in 1994—and the steep political price that followed.
For those who question whether anything will ever be done to curb the use of military grade weaponry for mass shootings in the United States, history provides some good news—and some bad. The good news is that there is, within the recent past, an example of a president—namely Bill Clinton—who successfully wielded the powers of the White House to institute a partial ban of assault weapons from the nation’s streets. The bad news, however, is that Clinton’s victory proved to be so costly to him and to his party that it stands as an enduring cautionary tale in Washington about the political dangers of taking on the issue of gun control.
In 1994, Clinton signed into law the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, placing restrictions on the number of military features a gun could have and banning large capacity magazines for consumer use. Given the potent dynamics of Second Amendment politics, it was a signal accomplishment. Yet the story behind the ban has been largely forgotten since it expired in 2004 and, in part, because the provision was embedded in the larger crime bill.
A hotly contested, supposedly ancient manuscript suggests Christ was married. But believing its origin story—a real-life Da Vinci Code, involving a Harvard professor, a onetime Florida pornographer, and an escape from East Germany—requires a big leap of faith.
On a humid afternoon this past November, I pulled off Interstate 75 into a stretch of Florida pine forest tangled with runaway vines. My GPS was homing in on the house of a man I thought might hold the master key to one of the strangest scholarly mysteries in recent decades: a 1,300-year-old scrap of papyrus that bore the phrase “Jesus said to them, My wife.” The fragment, written in the ancient language of Coptic, had set off shock waves when an eminent Harvard historian of early Christianity, Karen L. King, presented it in September 2012 at a conference in Rome.
Never before had an ancient manuscript alluded to Jesus’s being married. The papyrus’s lines were incomplete, but they seemed to describe a dialogue between Jesus and the apostles over whether his “wife”—possibly Mary Magdalene—was “worthy” of discipleship. Its main point, King argued, was that “women who are wives and mothers can be Jesus’s disciples.” She thought the passage likely figured into ancient debates over whether “marriage or celibacy [was] the ideal mode of Christian life” and, ultimately, whether a person could be both sexual and holy.