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.
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.
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.
Every time you shrug, you don’t need to Google, then copy, then paste.
Updated, 2:20 p.m.
All hail ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
In its 11 strokes, the symbol encapsulates what it’s like to be an individual on the Internet. With raised arms and a half-turned smile, it exudes the melancholia, the malaise, the acceptance, and (finally) the embrace of knowing that something’s wrong on the Internet and you can’t do anything about it.
As Kyle Chayka writes in a new history of the symbol at The Awl, the meaning of the “the shruggie” is always two, if not three- or four-, fold. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ represents nihilism, “bemused resignation,” and “a Zen-like tool to accept the chaos of universe.” It is Sisyphus in unicode. I use it at least 10 times a day.
For a long time, however, I used it with some difficulty. Unlike better-known emoticons like :) or ;), ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ borrows characters from the Japanese syllabary called katakana. That makes it a kaomoji, a Japanese emoticon; it also makes it, on Western alphabetical keyboards at least, very hard to type. But then I found a solution, and it saves me having to google “smiley sideways shrug” every time I want to quickly rail at the world’s inherent lack of meaning.
A hawkish senator doesn't apply the lessons of Iraq
Earlier this week, Senator Lindsey Graham, a hawkish Republican from South Carolina, used a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing to stage a theatrical display of his disdain for the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran.
The most telling part of his time in the spotlight came when he pressed Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to declare who would win if the United States and Iran fought a war:
Here’s a transcript of the relevant part:
Graham: Could we win a war with Iran? Who wins the war between us and Iran? Who wins? Do you have any doubt who wins?
Carter: No. The United States.
Graham: We. Win.
Little more than a decade ago, when Senator Graham urged the invasion of Iraq, he may well have asked a general, “Could we win a war against Saddam Hussein? Who wins?” The answer would’ve been the same: “The United States.” And the U.S. did rout Hussein’s army. It drove the dictator into a hole, and he was executed by the government that the United States installed. And yet, the fact that the Iraqi government of 2002 lost the Iraq War didn’t turn out to mean that the U.S. won it. It incurred trillions in costs; thousands of dead Americans; thousands more with missing limbs and post-traumatic stress disorder and years of deployments away from spouses and children; and in the end, a broken Iraq with large swaths of its territory controlled by ISIS, a force the Iraqis cannot seem to defeat. That’s what happened last time a Lindsey Graham-backed war was waged.
Who can devise the most convoluted way to wipe out the Islamic State?
Everyone with a stake in Middle Eastern geopolitics publicly declares that ISIS must be defeated. Yet opinions range widely on how this should be achieved.
Saudi Arabia, for example, believes ISIS cannot be defeated unless Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is removed from power. Turkey has just convinced NATO nations that the war against ISIS can only be won if Turkey’s traditional Kurdish opponents are neutralized first. Israel sees only one way to defeat ISIS: destroy Iran’s nuclear program and clip its wings regionally.
So what explains these apparently contradictory aims? The cynical view would be that all these parties are less interested in defeating ISIS than in achieving their own regional goals, and that they’re only pretending to be concerned about wiping out the group. Clearly, however, there is no place for cynicism in Middle Eastern politics. Everyone involved in the region is known to be sincere, albeit in radically different ways.
The IOC’s selection of Beijing as the host of its 2022 games is met with a lukewarm response.
When the International Olympic Committee selected Beijing on Friday as the host for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, the Chinese capital became the first city to have hosted both the Summer and Winter games. This, most likely, isn’t coincidental: Beijing’s hosting of the Summer games in 2008 was generally considered a success, and Almaty, the Kazakh city whose bid placed second, lacks comparable experience.
A closer examination of Beijing’s 2022 bid, though, reveals the selection is far more peculiar than it seems at first glance. One reason: It barely snows in Beijing. China’s northern plain is extremely dry, and what precipitation that falls in the capital tends to occur during the summer. Beijing’s Olympic planners have assured the IOC this won’t be a problem—the country will simply use artificial snow to accommodate events, such as skiing, that require it.
Jim Gilmore joins the race, and the Republican field jockeys for spots in the August 6 debate in Cleveland.
After decades as the butt of countless jokes, it’s Cleveland’s turn to laugh: Seldom have so many powerful people been so desperate to get to the Forest City. There’s one week until the Republican Party’s first primary debate of the cycle on August 6, and now there’s a mad dash to get into the top 10 and qualify for the main event.
With former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore filing papers to run for president on July 29, there are now 17 “major” candidates vying for the GOP nomination, though that’s an awfully imprecise descriptor. It takes in candidates with lengthy experience and a good chance at the White House, like Scott Walker and Jeb Bush; at least one person who is polling well but is manifestly unserious, namely Donald Trump; and people with long experience but no chance at the White House, like Gilmore. Yet it also excludes other people with long experience but no chance at the White House, such as former IRS Commissioner Mark Everson.
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.
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.”