China Soft-Power Watch: The Yang Rui 'Foreign Bitch' Factor

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[Update: please see this very useful explanatory piece by Brendan O'Kane in China, and a followup by me.]

This story is all over the China-hand blogosphere, and is so strange that at first I was sure it was a joke. But apparently it isn't. It involves the man below, shown in a WSJ screen shot, and here is the background to understand the fuss:

YangRuiWSJ.jpg

- CCTV-9 is the English-language channel of China's state-run TV network, and as such is a fascinating real-time window onto the face the government wants to present to the outside world. It is different from CCTV America, the relatively new network that, especially when covering happenings in any country other than China, has been doing a (surprisingly?) good job of presenting "real" news. When CCTV America switches back to taking feeds and programs from the mother ship in Beijing, the difference is noticeable and very interesting.

- A program called "DIALOGUE" is the high-end prestige jewel in the tiara of the CCTV-9 lineup. Its aspiration is to be seen as a combination of the Charlie Rose Show, the old William F. Buckley Firing Line, and Ted Koppel's Nightline, with perhaps a dash of the author-interview segment of The Daily Show. Each evening's half-hour program is about some worthy top-of-the-news topic, and two guests -- usually one Chinese and one foreign, sometimes with additional commentators -- are matched up to exchange views. If you watch CCTV-America in the US or CCTV-9 in China, you'll see round the clock ads for it, with lofty references to the crucial importance of open exchange of ideas.

- The hosts and moderators of the program, a man named YANG RUI and a woman named Tian Wei, are big fish in the China-hand media world. They run the show in English; they have traveled and (at least in Tian Wei's case) worked in the US and Europe; they pride themselves on their international contacts and views; they have many friends and acquaintances, including me, in the foreign-Sinophile community.

Now, the tricky part. Many foreigners who have been on the show know the experience I had during my few appearances, early in my time in China. When you're on the set before the show begins, there is a lot of light and non-dogmatic chat with the hosts and the other guest(s). But once the show begins, the tone often shifts, with an opening question from the host on the lines of: "To our guest James Fallows, I must ask: do you not agree that the United States is being unfair and unreasonable in the demands it is making of the Chinese government? Especially considering its many failures at home and its relative decline in standing in the world?" Then once the show is over, it's light, easy, non-agitprop chat again.

The first time this happened to me, I was startled. But as soon as I thought about it I realized:  this is the tightrope you walk inside a state-controlled news network. To the show's credit, it allows the foreigners to reply in kind and and to challenge the terms of the question. And often it broadcasts the show live, with limited real-time control on what a guest might say. (On the other hand, since it's in English, the audience inside China is limited.) I was on the show three or four times, usually during US-China meetings or controversies. I found the whole experience educational, as part of my ongoing "this is China" immersion, but eventually I decided this was not a sensible venue for me. I know that many foreigners in China have considered doing anthropological studies, or satiric novels, about the kind of "foreign experts" that CCTV is most comfortable having as frequent return visitors on the show.

This brings us to the recent news. On his Sina Weibo account, Dialogue host Yang Rui let loose with an anti-foreigner rant so extreme that on first reading I was sure it had to be a parody. Only it wasn't. It's as if you heard a Stephen Colbert "in character" riff on his show -- and then suddenly realized he wasn't kidding. To put it further in context, it's as if a well-known figure whose trademark was urbane earnestness -- again let's say Ted Koppel, or Charlie Rose -- let rip with a David Duke-style diatribe and evidently meant it.

The paragraph below was all one tweet from Yang Rui -- you can really say more in 140 Chinese characters than 140 English letters! -- as translated in a dispatch by the WSJ's Josh Chin:

The Public Security Bureau wants to clean out the foreign trash: To arrest foreign thugs and protect innocent girls, they need to concentrate on the disaster zones in [student district] Wudaokou and [drinking district] Sanlitun. Cut off the foreign snake heads. People who can't find jobs in the U.S. and Europe come to China to grab our money, engage in human trafficking and spread deceitful lies to encourage emigration. Foreign spies seek out Chinese girls to mask their espionage and pretend to be tourists while compiling maps and GPS data for Japan, Korea and the West. We kicked out that foreign bitch and closed Al-Jazeera's Beijing bureau. We should shut up those who demonize China and send them packing.

The "foreign bitch" he refers to is Melissa Chan, a U.S. citizen working for Al Jazeera, who did really impressive work from China over the past five years and then was expelled. Again, I thought at first this was an urbane Chinese cosmopolite, mocking nativist Chinese attitudes, Colbert-style. That it was serious is ... worth reflection. Among the reactions worth reading is Charlie Custer's, at China Geeks:

It's interesting that this outburst came from Yang Rui, who is in some ways one of the faces of China's soft power push. Dialogue is an English-language program, which means it is targeted at foreigners in China and abroad by default. The fact that its host (one of them, anyway) is apparently a racist xenophobe is probably indicative of how successful China's soft power push is likely to be.

And in keeping with the reality that China is a big, churning, diverse place, Custer points out that much of the reaction in the Chinese blogosphere has been mockery of Yang Rui for his xenophobia. For instance:

At first I thought that it was just Mr. Yang's English [abilities] that were disappointing, but now I see there are many disappointing things about him....

Isn't your daughter studying in the US?

Haha, so Yang Rui is really this big a dumbass. A dumbass pretending to be cool but actually a Boxer.

So this is the quality of CCTV? Anyway, where did you study your English? Do the people there think about you this way?

I want to ask, can you speak Chinese? How can someone so incoherent become a TV host...

More later. I will be interested to see the next few installments of Dialogue -- and which foreigners agree, now, to appear as guests. Hint: They shouldn't.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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