Chinese Media: The Bad and the ... Puzzling

黄皮白心”的香蕉人" and other great moments in international understanding. Bonus: the person Megyn Kelly should meet on her next trip to Beijing.
Gary Locke on the job in China. ( AP photo, via NPR )

1) Banana Man. Based on everything I have heard and observed, Gary Locke has done an excellent job as U.S. ambassador to China these past two and a half years. He managed the Chen Guangcheng episode with aplomb; he streamlined the visa-application process for Chinese visitors, which had been a chronic source of unnecessary friction; he was a tough advocate for U.S. commercial and technical interests; especially in his early days he was lionized by the Chinese public for his non-big-shot style of life, in sharp contrast to that of many Chinese grandees.

Banana Man character from Adventure Time

And of course as the first Chinese-American to head the embassy in Beijing, he personified something valuable about the United States and about U.S.-Chinese ties.

It was this last point that occasioned an unbelievably ugly parting shot at Locke last week in the state-controlled media. As you've read in the press, and as you can see discussed in enlightening detail through a series of exchanges on ChinaFile, the government-run China State News called Locke "banana man." It helpfully explained that this meant someone who was yellow on the outside but white on the inside.  (黄皮白心”的香蕉人", or "a yellow-skin, white-heart 'banana man'"). Of course this was a fair term for Locke because he served white masters in Washington rather than being loyal to "his" people, fellow Chinese.

Lots of good reading at the ChinaFile site, including this in the kickoff post by Kaiser Kuo:

In the context of this regrettable editorial, which was as subtle as a barking doberman, “banana man” was meant with unmistakable malice—that Locke is a “race traitor” who lacks the political loyalty to the Chinese nation that his blood should somehow confer. This is of course naive nonsense, and the patent ridiculousness of that phrase should have been obvious even to a writer totally unfamiliar with the complexities of the American discourse on race.

But while there will be many Chinese—indeed, already have been many—who will object to the editorial’s broadsides against Ambassador Locke, I suspect they’ll focus much more on the irony that state media would call out Gary Locke for living well but projecting everyman simplicity rather than on the “banana” comment, as many American commentators have. The expectation that anyone with a Chinese phenotype will have a “Chinese heart” to match, even at multiple generations of remove, is widespread in Chinese society. The plasticity of identity in multiethnic societies—that what you “owe” the race or the old country as, say, an American is entirely up to you—is still a fairly alien concept for most Chinese. We see this at work in the way Chinese law enforcement treats naturalized Chinese with U.S., Canadian, or Australian citizenship. It reminds us of the truth in what the late Lucian Pye said about China’s fundamentally civilizational notion of itself.

I mention this partly to point you to the interesting back-and-forth about "race treason" etc. at ChinaFile but mainly to seize the occasion to note the good use that Gary Locke has made of his time in Beijing. We are used to public figures falling short of potential, and the Obama-era ambassadorial corps in general has come in for its share of ridicule. On the principle that you should miss no opportunity to give a deserved compliment, I wanted to say that Gary Locke has represented his country very well and will be missed.

2) What can this mean? Let's hope it means something good. In politics, we will long remember the spectacle of Karl Rove marching with Megyn Kelly to see the "real" results from Ohio in 2012. Everything Rove had heard told him that Romney was going to win. So why wasn't reality conforming to the selective version of it he'd cocooned himself in?

This is the problem generally known as "epistemic closure"—walling yourself off from facts that don't fit your world view—and for a while after 2012 the GOP debated what to do about it. We can all think of other domestic illustrations. An international one is the role of the Chinese state media, who have viewed part of their mission as squelching complaints about whatever the government has decided to do.

Thus it is intriguing to see this item by writer Shan Renping in the state-controlled, tough-toned Global Times arguing that China was putting itself at a disadvantage by declaring certain topics undiscussable. Whoa! Here is the headline... 

... and a specimen quote. (It refers to the "two sessions," an annual big legislative fandango now underway in Beijing that gets extensive coverage.) Emphasis added:

There will be public  press conferences every day during the two sessions. Mainland reporters [from China itself] may restrain themselves, but their overseas counterparts will ask taboo questions. The wonderful nature of the two sessions' press conferences lies in the bold questioning by non-mainland reporters, which exposes the disadvantage of mainland media and demonstrates the aggressiveness of their outside counterparts. 

This is a predicament for China's soft power. There is a reason for the country to keep its current practices when dealing with sensitive issues. However, at the same time it damages the credibility of the mainstream media.  

When Megyn Kelly goes to China, I hope she meets Shan Renping. 

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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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