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.
Lip service to the crucial function of the Fourth Estate is not enough to sustain it.
It’s not that Mark Zuckerberg set out to dismantle the news business when he founded Facebook 13 years ago. Yet news organizations are perhaps the biggest casualty of the world Zuckerberg built.
There’s reason to believe things are going to get worse.
A sprawling new manifesto by Zuckerberg, published to Facebook on Thursday, should set off new alarm bells for journalists, and heighten news organizations’ sense of urgency about how they—and their industry—can survive in a Facebook-dominated world.
Facebook’s existing threat to journalism is well established. It is, at its core, about the flow of the advertising dollars that news organizations once counted on. In this way, Facebook’s role is a continuation of what began in 1995, when Craigslist was founded. Its founder, Craig Newmark, didn’t actively aim to decimate newspapers, but Craigslist still eviscerated a crucial revenue stream for print when people stopped buying newspaper classifieds ads.
On Saturday, the president slipped away from the doubters in Washington to address a Florida crowd filled with loyal supporters.
MELBOURNE, Fla.—After four miserable weeks of being locked up in presidential prison—starved of affection, suffocated by bureaucracy, tormented by the press—Donald Trump made a break for it Saturday.
Touching down just before sunset here in the heart of Trump Country, the president was greeted as he emerged from Air Force One by an adoring crowd of 9,000 super-fans, many of whom had stood in line for hours to see him speak. Trump made no effort at masking his gratitude. “I’m here because I want to be among my friends,” he told them, adding, “I also want to speak to you without the filter of the fake news.”’
The rally was widely trumpeted in the press as a return to the campaign trail, and it’s easy to see why. The event had all the trappings of Trump-style electioneering—he deployed the same slogans, recycled the same stump-speech rhetoric, and walked out on stage to the same soundtrack. What’s more, the White House made clear earlier this week that the rally was being funded not by the federal government but by his campaign, making this perhaps the earliest launch to a reelection bid in history.
When my wife was struck by mysterious, debilitating symptoms, our trip to the ER revealed the sexism inherent in emergency treatment.
Early on a Wednesday morning, I heard an anguished cry—then silence.
I rushed into the bedroom and watched my wife, Rachel, stumble from the bathroom, doubled over, hugging herself in pain.
“Something’s wrong,” she gasped.
This scared me. Rachel’s not the type to sound the alarm over every pinch or twinge. She cut her finger badly once, when we lived in Iowa City, and joked all the way to Mercy Hospital as the rag wrapped around the wound reddened with her blood. Once, hobbled by a training injury in the days before a marathon, she limped across the finish line anyway.
So when I saw Rachel collapse on our bed, her hands grasping and ungrasping like an infant’s, I called the ambulance. I gave the dispatcher our address, then helped my wife to the bathroom to vomit.
Radical longevity may change the way we live—and not necessarily for the better.
“So, you don’t want to die?” I asked Zoltan Istvan, then the Transhumanist candidate for president, as we sat in the lobby of the University of Baltimore one day last fall.
“No,” he said, assuredly. “Never.”
Istvan, an atheist who physically resembles the pure-hearted hero of a Soviet children’s book, explained that his life is awesome. In the future, it will grow awesomer still, and he wants to be the one to decide when it ends. Defying aging was the point of his presidential campaign, the slogan of which could have been “Make Death Optional for Once.” To (literally) drive the point home, he circled the nation in the “Immortality Bus,” a brown bus spray-painted to look like a coffin.
He knew he’d lose, of course, but he wanted his candidacy to promote the cause of transhumanism—the idea that technology will allow humans to break free of their physical and mental limitations. His platform included, in part, declaring aging a disease. He implanted a chip in his hand so he could wave himself through his front door, and he wants to get his kids chipped, too. He’d be surprised, he told me, if soon “we don’t start merging our children with machines.” He’d like to replace his limbs with bionics so he can throw perfectly in water polo. Most of all, he wants to stick around for a couple centuries to see it all happen, perhaps joining a band or becoming a professional surfer, a long white beard trailing in his wake.
The preconditions are present in the U.S. today. Here’s the playbook Donald Trump could use to set the country down a path toward illiberalism.
It’s 2021, and President Donald Trump will shortly be sworn in for his second term. The 45th president has visibly aged over the past four years. He rests heavily on his daughter Ivanka’s arm during his infrequent public appearances.
Fortunately for him, he did not need to campaign hard for reelection. His has been a popular presidency: Big tax cuts, big spending, and big deficits have worked their familiar expansive magic. Wages have grown strongly in the Trump years, especially for men without a college degree, even if rising inflation is beginning to bite into the gains. The president’s supporters credit his restrictive immigration policies and his TrumpWorks infrastructure program.
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During the late 19th century, blacks and whites in the South lived closer together than they do today.
CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Growing up here in the 1940s and 1950s, Sevone Rhynes experienced segregation every day. He couldn’t visit the public library near his house, but instead had to travel to the “colored” library in the historically black area of Brooklyn, a neighborhood that used to be in the center of Charlotte. He attended a school for black children, where he received second-hand books, and where the school day was half the length of that of white schools, because the black school had too many children and not enough funds. Sixty years later, he says, Charlotte is still a segregated city. “People who are white want as little to do with black people as they can get away with,” he told me.
This is, unfortunately, not a surprising account of North Carolina, or of the South more generally. The South of the 1950s was the land of fire hoses aimed at black people who dared protest Jim Crow laws. Today, schools in the South are almost as segregated as they were when Sevone Rhymes was a child. Southern cities including Charlotte are facing racial tensions over the shootings of black men by white policemen, which, in Charlotte’s case, led to massive protests and riots.
A man who will literally have life and death power over much of humanity seems not to understand or care about the difference between truth and lies. Is there any way for democratic institutions to cope? This is our topic in the post-Thanksgiving week.
Being back in China in the U.S.-election aftermath naturally leads to thoughts about how societies function when there is no agreed-on version of “reality,” public knowledge, or news.
We take for granted that this was a challenge for Soviet citizens back in the Cold War days, when they relied on samizdat for non-government-authorized reports and criticisms. Obviously it’s a big issue for China’s public now. But its most consequential effects could be those the United States is undergoing, which have led to the elevation of the least prepared, most temperamentally unfit, least public-spirited person ever to assume the powers of the U.S. presidency.
Moscow grapples with a strange week in Washington.
Well, that didn’t last long. As President Donald Trump wrapped up his fourth week in office, the romance between him and Russian president Vladimir Putin seemed to have cooled suddenly. The week began with the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn amid revelations that he lied about his phone calls to the Russian ambassador. Then came reports that members of the Trump team had been in repeated contact with Russian intelligence agents. It ended with Vice Admiral Bob Harward declining to replace Flynn, and Trump giving a press conference in which he said his administration is “running like a fine-tuned machine;” toyed aloud with the idea of firing on a Russian spy ship in international waters off the East Coast; and dismissed allegations of collusion between his aides and the Russian government by saying, “Russia is fake news.” It was a performance that raised eyebrows in Moscow, with one Kremlin-friendly paper saying Friday that “you need to be drunk to understand the U.S. president’s true position.”
On the Internet, search queries are used to target vulnerable consumers.
Google knows the questions that people wouldn’t dare ask aloud, and it silently offers reams of answers. But it is a mistake to think of a search engine as an oracle for anonymous queries. It isn’t. Not even close.
In some cases, the most intimate questions a person is asking—about health worries, relationship woes, financial hardship—are the ones that set off a chain reaction that can have troubling consequences both online and offline.
All this is because being online increasingly means being put into categories based on a socioeconomic portrait of you that’s built over time by advertisers and search engines collecting your data—a portrait that data brokers buy and sell, but that you cannot control or even see. (Not if you’re in the United States, anyway.)
Presidents are supposed to show empathy for their anxious constituents. But when it comes to anti-Semitism, the only person Trump shows empathy for is himself.
The most bizarre and unsettling moment in President Trump’s bizarre and unsettling press conference this Thursday came near the end. Trump, who had been insulting the journalists questioning him for more than 90 minutes, declared that, “I want to find a friendly reporter.”
Then he spied Jake Turx of the magazine Ami, a bearded man attired in the white shirt and black velvet kippa (skullcap) typical of ultra-Orthodox Jews. “Are you a friendly reporter?” Trump asked. “Watch how friendly he is. Wait. Wait. Watch how friendly he is. Go ahead.”
This is not normal. Presidents don’t usually announce that they want an easy question. It’s possible that Trump saw Turx’s distinctive appearance and guessed that he would be “friendly,” since the ultra-Orthodox supported Trump at substantially higher rates than other Jews.