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.
How the election looks to backers of the Republican nominee
Perhaps the hardest thing to do in contemporary American politics is to imagine how the world looks from the other side. I’ve made no secret of why, as a Republican, I oppose Donald Trump and what he stands for. But I’ve also been talking to his supporters and advisors, trying to understand how they see and hear the same things that I do, and draw such very different conclusions. What follows isn’t a transcription—it’s a synthesis of the conversations I’ve had, and the insights I’ve gleaned, presented in the voice of an imagined Trump supporter.
“You people in the Acela corridor aren’t getting it. Again. You think Donald Trump is screwing up because he keeps saying things that you find offensive or off-the-wall. But he’s not talking to you. You’re not his audience, you never were, and you never will be. He’s playing this game in a different way from anybody you’ve ever seen. And he’s winning too, in a different way from anybody you’ve ever seen.
The most personally moving, and most fundamentally patriotic, moment of the Democratic National Convention was the appearance by the bereaved parents of Army Captain Humayun Khan, and the statement about the meaning of their son’s life and death, and about the Constitution, by Mr. Khizr Khan.
After Khizr Khan spoke, politicians and commentators on most networks said they were moved, humbled, inspired, choked up. (Commentators on Fox did not say these things, because their coverage cut away from the Khans for Brit Hume and Megyn Kelly, plus a Benghazi ad.)
Not the people—the term. How generational divisions have driven down voter turnout over the last century of American politics.
Throughout the 2016 U.S. presidential election, pundits and activists have debated how to get more Millennials involved in politics, always stressing their distinctive character. But it was actually this tendency to slice up the electorate into unique generations that drove young people from politics in the first place.
In the 19th century, children, youths, and adults “mingled freely together” at rowdy campaign rallies, lured by the holy trinity of booze, barbecue, and bonfire. Older citizens introduced young people to politics, helping to drive voter turnouts to their highest levels in U.S. history. “It’s the ‘big fellow,’” observed the Republicans canvassing in pool halls and saloons in the 1880s, who does the best job getting “the ‘little fellow”’ into politics.
Narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity—a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency.
In 2006, Donald Trump made plans to purchase the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, Scotland, aiming to convert the dunes and grassland into a luxury golf resort. He and the estate’s owner, Tom Griffin, sat down to discuss the transaction at the Cock & Bull restaurant. Griffin recalls that Trump was a hard-nosed negotiator, reluctant to give in on even the tiniest details. But, as Michael D’Antonio writes in his recent biography of Trump, Never Enough, Griffin’s most vivid recollection of the evening pertains to the theatrics. It was as if the golden-haired guest sitting across the table were an actor playing a part on the London stage.
“It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” Griffin observed. There was something unreal about it.
Last night, in her overall very successful acceptance speech, Hillary Clinton said with ruthless precision about her opponent:
Ask yourself: Does Donald Trump have the temperament to be Commander-in-Chief?
Donald Trump can't even handle the rough-and-tumble of a presidential campaign.
He loses his cool at the slightest provocation. When he's gotten a tough question from a reporter. When he's challenged in a debate. When he sees a protestor at a rally.
Emphasis added, as it was in her delivery:
Imagine—if you dare, imagine—imagine him in the Oval Office facing a real crisis. A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.
I can’t put it any better than Jackie Kennedy did after the Cuban Missile Crisis. She said that what worried President Kennedy during that very dangerous time was that a war might be started—not by big men with self-control and restraint, but by little men—the ones moved by fear and pride.
A church facing setbacks elsewhere finds an unlikely foothold.
At the end of 2013, in the low-slung, industrial Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung, a bevy of officials came to attend the ribbon cutting of a huge former hotel that had undergone a top-to-bottom, multimillion-dollar renovation. Speaking before the throngs of celebrants who blocked the flow of traffic, Taiwan’s deputy director of the Ministry of the Interior praised the group that funded the renovation and presented them, for the 10th year straight, with the national “Excellent Religious Group” award.
“For years you have dedicated your time and lives to anti-drug work and human- rights dissemination,” said the director, echoing praise offered by the mayor’s office and the president’s national-policy adviser.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Last month, my wife and I found ourselves in a disagreement about whether or not our apartment was clean enough for guests—the type of medium-sized disagreement that likely plagues all close relationships. In the midst of it, there was a lull and, feeling exhausted all of a sudden, I got up and left the living room. In the bedroom, I immediately fell face down into the sheets. The next thing I knew it was 20 minutes later and my wife was shaking me awake. I hadn’t meant to fall asleep; I just felt so fatigued in that moment that there was nothing else I could do.
This wasn’t new for me. A few weeks earlier, I had come into conflict with an acquaintance over some money. We were exchanging tense emails while I was at my office, and I began to feel the slow oozing onset of sleep, the same tiredness that came on when, as a child, I rode in the backseat of the car on the way home from some undesired trip. A sleepiness that overtakes the body slowly but surely and feels entirely outside of your control.
A collection of books recommended by The Atlantic’s editors and writers
The Atlantic’s editors and writers share their recommendations for summer reading—new titles, old favorites, and others in between.
By Yaa Gyasi
In her first novel, Yaa Gyasi cleverly weaves the intergenerational tale of a family through a series of short, but interrelated stories set in what’s now Ghana during the mid-18th century. The two women at the center of the novel, Effia and Esi, are half-sisters who wind up on vastly different paths. One is captured during a battle between tribes, sold, and winds up on a slave ship bound for the U.S. The other—separated from her village and married off to a British slaver—ends up living on top of the dungeons that hold her own kin and hundreds of others who would also become slaves. The novel traces the lineage of these women through the tales of their children, and their children’s children, and so on—up until the present day.
The World Well-Being Project uses Facebook updates to correlate language with personality traits.
Do our Facebook posts reflect our true personalities? Incrementally, probably not. But in aggregate, the things we say on social media paint a fairly accurate portrait of our inner selves. A team of University of Pennsylvania scientists is using Facebook status updates to find commonalities in the words used by different ages, genders, and even psyches.
“Governments have an increased interest in measuring not just economic outcomes but other aspects of well-being,” said Andrew Schwartz, a UPenn computer scientist who works on the project. “But it's very difficult to study well-being at a large scale. It costs a lot of money to administer surveys to see how people are doing in certain areas. Social media can help with that.”