The story of a deposed senior leader, a movie star, allegations of prostitution, and my camera phone
Zhang Ziyi moves through security at the Hong Kong Airport. (Damien Ma).
A combination of happenstance and a quick finger with my camera phone recently landed me at the surreal nexus of celebrity tabloid and political crisis in China. The incident also gave me a front-row seat to Chinese social media's rumor-mongering capacity as well as its ability to defuse the very same rumors it amplifies.
It began with the latest furor over allegations that now-deposed Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai had paid the equivalent of about one million U.S. dollars to arrange for sexual escapades with Chinese movie star Zhang Ziyi, who is probably known to most Americans as the female starlet of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Reports out of Hong Kong claimed that Zhang was sequestered in China, prohibited from leaving the country as she faced questioning from authorities in connection with the Bo case. The rumor was initially peddled on Boxun, a site that is something like the Chinese version of the Drudge Report and operated by a Chinese national living in North Carolina. From there, it spread to Twitter and Sina Weibo.
I had seen that Boxun first tweeted its supposed scoop on May 28, while I was in Hong Kong as part of a University of Michigan trip. I dismissed the story, which seemed supported by little evidence and a whole lot of celebrity sensationalism. Two days later, at the Hong Kong airport, I noticed several paparazzi-like men snapping photos of a fashionable woman disappearing into the security checkpoint. Curiosity got the better of me and I quickly followed. It was a light passenger traffic day, and I found myself standing behind Zhang Ziyi herself. Decked out in the usual celebrity disguise (hat and large sunglasses), she was nonetheless instantly recognizable. I realized that, because she was in Hong Kong, she was obviously not "sequestered" on the mainland. I had enough time to snap two photos before airport security began yelling at me to delete the photos. Instead, I quickly tweeted the first photo, of Zhang's backside, with the tagline "standing behind Zhang Ziyi at Hong Kong airport." I knew that most of my followers, savvy and astute observers of Chinese politics and Boxun rumors, would understand the implication.
Of the 1,500-plus tweets I have sent so far, that one was by far the most powerful. Within hours, the official Zhang Ziyi weibo picked up my tweet, which was reposted onto the Sina news site, essentially confirming that she was in Hong Kong. Two days later in Shanghai, I happened to pick up a Dongfang Daily paper, only to discover that my tweeted photo made it into the paper, without attribution (Chinese journalistic standards are a topic for another day). It further confirmed that she was in Hong Kong that morning to visit her legal team, possibly preparing a lawsuit against Hong Kong's Apple Daily for spreading allegations. Here's the tweet:
With this empirical evidence that Zhang was clearly free to move in and out of mainland China, Boxun has since walked back its initial claim on sequestration. Although the site was caught red-handed, Boxun continues to push the Zhang story as well as her supposed relations with Xu Ming, a Dalian businessman with deep connections to Bo.
Whatever Boxun's intentions, the site didn't do much to quell skepticism of the accuracy and credibility of its "political scoops." To be fair, Boxun is not the worst offender in putting sensationalism before facts. A rag like the Epoch Times, which seems to get cited often in the Western press, has a clear agenda, as it is backed by Falun Gong practitioners, whose loathing of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin is matched only by Jiang's loathing of them. In a world of rapidly moving social and mainstream media, and in the absence of Beijing's official confirmation or denials, a limited number of sources with questionable veracity can play an outsized role in shaping a narrative.
The broader implications are especially significant now, both the Chinese government and other pseudo-news outlets exploit information-scarcity for their own interests. The rumors of a coup d'tat several months ago in Beijing, supposedly orchestrated by security chief Zhou Yongkang, were likely stirred up by Epoch Times, since Zhou helped to lead the crackdown against Falun Gong under Jiang Zemin. Such misinformation and half-truths can proliferate in a country with a legacy of a rumor culture, an observation smartly analyzed by the Economist. The scarcity of real information empowers rumor-mongers, making it easier for the consumers of this "truthiness," to borrow a word from Stephen Colbert, to jump to false or partial conclusions. Try as we might to interpret and dissect, there is a point where our best course may be to accept the unknown. This is particularly
germane to the current political transition in China, where the Bo
Xilai fallout has been propelled by truths as well as
falsehoods, some deliberate and some outlandish.
To be sure, sometimes the rumors do turn out valid. But it is also impossible to determine the gap between reality and fiction. Putting too much faith in just a couple sources of half-truth peddlers, without understanding the context and motives, is especially risky in the current politicized environment. What I can say for sure is that Zhang seemed taller than I had imagined.
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.
George Will is denouncing a GOP that has been ailing for years, but quitting won’t help—an American political party can only be reformed from within.
This past weekend, George Will revealed that he had formally disaffiliated himself from the Republican Party, switching his Maryland voter registration to independent. On Fox News Sunday, the conservative pundit explained his decision: "After Trump went after the 'Mexican' judge from northern Indiana then [House Speaker] Paul Ryan endorsed him, I decided that in fact this was not my party anymore.” For 40 years, George Will defined and personified what it meant to be a thoughtful conservative. His intellect and authority inspired a generation of readers and viewers, myself very much among them.
His departure represents a powerful image of divorce between intellectual conservatism and the new Trump-led GOP. Above all, it raises a haunting question for the many other Republicans and conservatives repelled by the looming nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for president of the United States: What will you do?
Hillary Clinton wrote something for The Toast today. Are you sobbing yet?
Either you’ll immediately get why this is crazy, or you won’t: Hillary Clinton wrote a thing for The Toast today.
Are you weeping? Did your heart skip a beat? Maybe your reaction was, “What. Whaaaat. WHAT,” or “Aaaaaaahhhhhhh!!!” or “OH MY GOD,” or simply “this is too much goodbye I'm dead now.”
Perhaps your feelings can only be captured in GIF form, as was the case for someone commenting on Clinton’s post under the name Old_Girl:
Reader comments like the ones above are arguably the best part of Clinton’s post, because they highlight just how meaningful hearing directly from Clinton is to The Toast’s community of readers. The Toast is a small but beloved feminist website known for its quirky literary humor. It announced last month it couldn’t afford to continue operating. Friday is its last day of publication.
On Wednesday on CNN, Marco Rubio said the Islamic State, which Turkish officials believe carried out this week’s attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport, had two motivations. First, “they ultimately want them to be a part of the caliphate.” Sure, but “ultimately,” ISIS wants every place on earth to be part of its caliphate. That doesn’t explain why the organization struck Turkey now. Rubio’s second explanation was more convincing: “They’re looking to punish Turkey for allowing U.S. airstrikes to be conducted from an airbase within Turkey. … They’ve made that abundantly clear.”
Yes, they have. ISIS may eventually wish to conquer the entire world. But in the here and now, it generally attacks countries that are attacking it. The Georgetown University terrorism expert Daniel Byman has noted that until the U.S. and its allies began bombing the Islamic State in the summer of 2014, the group “focused first and foremost on its immediate theater of operations” in Iraq and Syria. A study by the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment detected only four ISIS-related plots in the West from January 2011 to May 2014. Then, between July 2014 and June 2015, the number spiked to 26.
“This western-front business couldn’t be done again.”
On this first day of July, exactly 100 years ago, the peoples of the British Empire suffered the greatest military disaster in their history. A century later, “the Somme” remains the most harrowing place-name in the annals not only of Great Britain, but of the many former dependencies that shed their blood on that scenic river. The single regiment contributed to the First World War by the island of Newfoundland, not yet joined to Canada, suffered nearly 100 percent casualties that day: Of 801 engaged, only 68 came out alive and unwounded. Altogether, the British forces suffered more than 19,000 killed and more than 38,000 wounded: almost as many casualties in one day as Britain suffered in the entire disastrous battle for France in May and June 1940, including prisoners. The French army on the British right flank absorbed some 1,600 casualties more.
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.
In a 60-page ruling, a U.S. district-court judge stopped enforcement of a law providing religious exemptions for LGBT discrimination.
Why doesn’t anyone care about Mississippi?
This spring, the state’s legislature passed H.B. 1523, an extensive law written to protect people who believe any of the following: that marriage is between a man and a woman; that sex should only happen in the context of marriage; and that the words “male” and “female” refer to “an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.” The law claim these protections are a form of religious freedom.
It provides that religious organizations can refuse to rent out their social halls for a same-sex wedding, for example, and that clergy can refuse to perform a same-sex marriage ceremony. These groups can also fire a single mother who gets pregnant, or, in the case of religious adoption agencies, decline to place a child with a same-sex couple. Doctors and psychologists can refuse to get involved with gender-reassignment procedures or take cases that would violate their religious beliefs. Schools and other public agencies can create “sex-specific standards” for dress code, bathrooms, and more. State employees can also refuse to sign same-sex-marriage licenses, and they can’t be fired for saying they believe homosexuality is wrong, for example.
Sharing platforms are meant to scale seamlessly throughout the world, but they’ve faced a different knotty set of rules in nearly every city they’ve colonized.
For years now, Airbnb, the popular home-sharing platform, has featured this line of copy at the end of a company mission statement that mostly pledges to promote a sense of adventure and discovery: “And with world-class customer service and a growing community of users, Airbnb is the easiest way for people to monetize their extra space and showcase it to an audience of millions."
It’s a business model condensed into a coda, casually set off with an “And.” The subtext is that the revenue-making potential of the platform is an afterthought, which implies that its appeal lies in its ease of use. Sign up and rent out your apartment or guest room. It’s easy.
Easy, that is, unless you live in Chicago, where regulations passed last week will require hosts to register with the city, impose a tax on each transaction to pay for the city’s homeless services, and limit the number of apartments that can be rented out in a particular building, depending on its size. Or in San Francisco, Airbnb’s hometown, where a law that went into effect in 2015 limits the total number of days an apartment can be rented out per year and similarly requires hosts to register with the city. (This week, the company, which coincidentally helped draft the 2014 law, decided to sue the city over it.) Months after San Francisco imposed those limits, Santa Monica passed regulations requiring hosts to get business licenses and restricted them from renting out entire properties.
For centuries, philosophers and theologians have almost unanimously held that civilization as we know it depends on a widespread belief in free will—and that losing this belief could be calamitous. Our codes of ethics, for example, assume that we can freely choose between right and wrong. In the Christian tradition, this is known as “moral liberty”—the capacity to discern and pursue the good, instead of merely being compelled by appetites and desires. The great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant reaffirmed this link between freedom and goodness. If we are not free to choose, he argued, then it would make no sense to say we ought to choose the path of righteousness.
Today, the assumption of free will runs through every aspect of American politics, from welfare provision to criminal law. It permeates the popular culture and underpins the American dream—the belief that anyone can make something of themselves no matter what their start in life. As Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, American “values are rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will.”
They say religious discrimination against Christians is as big a problem as discrimination against other groups.
Many, many Christians believe they are subject to religious discrimination in the United States. A new report from the Public Religion Research Institute and Brookings offers evidence: Almost half of Americans say discrimination against Christians is as big of a problem as discrimination against other groups, including blacks and minorities. Three-quarters of Republicans and Trump supporters said this, and so did nearly eight out of 10 white evangelical Protestants. Of the latter group, six in 10 believe that although America once was a Christian nation, it is no longer—a huge jump from 2012.
Polling data can be split up in a million different ways. It’s possible to sort by ethnicity, age, political party, and more. The benefit of sorting by religion, though, is that it highlights people’s beliefs: the way their ideological and spiritual convictions shape their self-understanding. This survey suggests that race is not enough to explain the sense of loss some white Americans seem to feel about their country, although it’s part of the story; the same is true of age, education level, and political affiliation. People’s beliefs seem to have a distinctive bearing on how they view changes in American culture, politics, and law—and whether they feel threatened. No group is more likely to express this fear than conservative Christians.
The relationship therapist Esther Perel thinks so—and argues that it’s time to rethink matrimony and, with it, infidelity.
Think of the last wedding you attended. Did the couple’s vows to each other involve promises to be, for the rest of their lives, friends and family and companions and lovers and allies? Did the two people vow to keep exciting each other and soothing each other and listening to each other and challenging each other, to be co-adventurers and co-Netflixers and co-owners of things and possibly co-parents of things and, all in all, pretty much all things to each other?
If so, the couple is very modern. Marriage has spent most of its existence, in the West and elsewhere, as primarily an economic arrangement; as a result, it has also spent most of its existence much less laden with the emotional expectation that we tend to heap upon it today. The current romantic conception of marriage—evident in the culture not just in the guise of hopeful wedding vows, but also in the wedding industrial complex and in pretty much every Hollywood rom-com that defines its “happy ending” according to the satisfactions of long-term commitment—is the result of historical coincidence. It arose, the Belgian relationship therapist Esther Perel argues, from a collision of several forces that collided in the 19th and 20thcenturies: among them capitalism, latent Romanticism, and the political and cultural notion of the primacy of the individual.