Joho the Blog » china

December 4, 2016

Trump, Taiwan, and peace through fiction

I have a friend whom I cherish who loathes Donald Trump, but who thinks that Trump’s missteps with Taiwan were actually a good thing. My friend’s sole hope for Trump is that he will follow through with some of his campaign rhetoric and address China’s predatory trade practices. For my friend, Trump’s blunder — and he calls it that — has burst the bubble of “disingenuous and silly” lies that the Chinese have taken advantage of for thirty years.

I don’t know nearly enough about our economic relationship with China to be entitled to have an opinion about it, but even if it was good to pierce the mutual fiction about the relationship of the two Chinas (I’d put scare quotes around one of those two words, but I can’t figure out which), it’s not good to do so with no plan or strategy. Trump sent a strong, consequential signal to China that is only de-stabilizing. In fact, Trump then denied that it was a signal at all when, in the face of criticism, he tweeted that Taiwan “called ME!”. So, the phone call was merely ignorant, pointless destabilization that Trump then destabilized.

My friend likes the idea that the phone call destroyed a fictitious international relationship. But blowing up a relationship simply because it is disingenuous and silly is not necessarily a good thing in itself. The world’s constituencies are so different in their interests and understandings that we often can only maintain a difficult peace by finding language structurally ambiguous enough — each side knows that the other means something different by it — that we are not forced to bring an irresolvable disagreement to an unambiguous resolution.

None of this touches my friend’s larger and more important point about the possibility that Trump could address China’s predatory economic practices. Even Cheeto Hitler might get something right. But not this time or in this way.

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March 23, 2014

[wef] Web Tourism

I’m at the first Web Economy Forum, in Cesena, Italy. It is, unfortunately, terribly under-attended, which is a shame since the first session I’ve gone to was quite good. But it’s being webcast, so we can hope that there are people listening who are not in the room.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Note that because of the translation, these notes are especially rough and choppy.

The first speaker is Prof Dr. Wolfgang Georg Arlt from the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute in Germany. Chinese travel is increasing: 1 out of ten world travelers are from China. The Net and online media are highly significant to travelers figuring out where to go. Some celebrities who blog when they travel have 50M followers. The biggest online travel agency has recently changed its characterization from online to mobile travel agency. It’s social media, not Web sites, that get people interested; people want to hear from their social group. China already has twice as many people online as the US does.

He takes the local area as an example. He suggests that for a town like Cesena, the customers are not the busloads of travelers but those who have been around Italy, and are looking to move from sightseeing to experience. A single tourist who discovers a local shop can drive more visitors, but a new deal (about which he cannot yet speak) lets a visitor set up an online shop in China through which the Chinese can buy from the Italian shop. [Nice combination of the social, personal, and mercantile.] He gives an example of a Chinese film star driving lots of traffic to a Tasmanian stuffed bear.

The next speaker, Aurkene Alzua-Sorzabal, says that international markets have grown remarkably, but how much has that benefited local regions? We need new anaytics “to support the intelligent monitoring of visitors, in order to anticipate and improve their performance,” so that we can get new insights in complex industries such as the “hospitality field.” Behind all this is Big Data, but that’s just the raw material. How can we use this data for our businesses?

She talks about some tools her group has developed. First they use Big Data to explore pricing. Every 24 hours, they crawl the data on accommodation prices — 12,000 hotels in Spain, 14K in France, etc. They can then ask question such as what is the average rate for 3 star hotels in Bilbao on a given day, or what is the most economical hotel in Paris for Easter. They can forecast pricing for special events in a locality and its surroundings. They can see the weekend effect in Ireland and across countries. They can see the effect of availability on price. She gives more examples and asks how we can better use the digital world to understand the physical world?

Q: People only trust user-generated content that comes from other travelers.

Q: Italy is the 8th destination for travel in the world. Tourism accounts for 10% of the Italian GDP. We need to find the next big way that tourists book their travel. TripAdvisor is an example of how tourism is changing. Tourism is not just about finding a hotel. And Air Bnb, too.

Wolfgang: When the Chinese come to Venice, they’re looking for Marco Polo. Aside from the airport, there’s nothing there. So, they’ve learned through social media that there’s nothing there about Marco Polo, so they stay away. The Chinese are proud that their culture came to Italy. You should be catering to this need.

Q: We have a great UNESCO heritage in this country. What shoud we do?


Q: Maybe cultural goods aren’t the way to sell tourism in emerging countries. In China, Marco Polo is unknown. Young people in America know Rome only because they’ve played Assassin’s Creed. They know our cars and clothes, not our culture. Culture works in a few countries.


A: Wolfgang: That’s not entirely true. It depends on the segments. Marco Polo is taught as part of Chinese history as bringing Chinese culture to Europe. When we surveyed younger Chinese people, Italy is seen as the home of beautiful men, maybe from the statue of David and soccer players. For travel to Europe the main attraction is blue skies, no pollution.


A: Aurkene: People go somewhere because they have a narrative, perhaps from history of movies. But now they lack narratives. These narratives tell them what they’re looking for in a place. It’s not about places but about narratives.


A: Wolfgang: Yes. Cesena has been the home of three Popes. It’s not about history but about power. This is an image you can build on. This place has inspired people to become powerful.


Q: We can’t sell our homes as a product or as an experience. The relation between the people who come and the people who host are the real opportunity and the next big thing: peer to peer. If you get too many people, you lose the relationships.

Q: We should be demanding open data about tourism.

Q: Are we still welcoming?

A: Wolfgang: It’s not enough to say the customer is king without knowing that you have to greet the Japanese man first and the woman all the way at the end, whereas in China it’s a matter of hierarchy, not gender. So you can’t be welcoming without training.

Wolfgang: The broadest segment isn’t nation but language. If you want peer to peer, you have to share a language. And it’s probably going to turn out to be English.

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July 23, 2009

Putting the Mao back into ROFLMAO

TheOnion has been bought by a Chinese fish company. Hilarious. (Be sure to click on the op-ed titled “The Internet Allows for a Free Exchange of Unmitigated Information.”)

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March 22, 2009

New blog by old China hand

My old college housemate and good friend Hank Levine has started a blog. He’s was a Foreign Service Office for a long time, and has spent a lot of his life in China, so it’s no surprise that his blog focuseson US-China relations. It’s a bit wonky, but it’s great to hear Hank’s voice.

Hank was the funny one in a pretty funny group. (Funny haha, not so much funny peculiar.) We fell out of touch for about 25 years, but a few weeks ago we video-skyped. He looks distressingly the same. And he’s still funny, although not so much in his blog. Howdy, Hank!

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March 3, 2009

[berkman] Rebecca MacKinnon on the Chinese Internet and democracy

Rebecca MacKinnon isgiving a Berkman talk on the Chinese Internet. [Note: Live-blogging, hence full of errors and omissions and typos and misspellings and inadequate paraphrases.] [For a better report, see Ethan Zuckerman‘s]

She begins by pointing to Lao Tze’s saying that directly grasping something is often the worst way of controlling it. Then she shows a video of Chinese kids lipsyncing to the Backstreet Boys. They’re now famous in China as the “Back Dorm Boys.” The Chinese government has lost control of the culture, she says. Novelists and artists are routing around the control structure. For 66% of Chinese young people, the Web is the primary source of video entertainment. Most of it is found through social networking.

Premier Wen Jiabao gave a two hour chat online with Netizens. Questions came in from the Web, moderated by a journalist. It showed a human side of the Chinese leaders. “This is being greeted by many in China with euphoria.” The Premier said that he spends 30-60 mins on line everyday and considers it an important way to hear what people are thinking. There’s an egov site, including chat rooms and forums, as well as providing online services.

The National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference meets for two weeks every year, primarily to rubber stamp decisions. The Premier gives a live press conference once a year. Now he’s on the Web responding to questions directly. The meeting has a site (run by a Chinese newspaper) where people can comment, make suggestions, etc. Someone posted that the one child policy should be ended, with a lively open discussion among Chinese citizens.

So, asks Rebecca, is this “Chinese cyber-glasnost”? Chinese government Web sites are celebrating this as “Internet democracy.” But …

… Blogger Wang Xiaofeng blogged yesterday that people are getting too emotional about this. “Without a proper political structure, all Premiere Wen can do is interact with people on an emotional level…” He posted that yesterday. Today is blog is “closed temporarily.” He was told to close his blog. Other blogs talking about this have to insert spaces between words that otherwise would trigger inspection.

Dissidents are still in jail, Rebecca says. Bloggers, opposition party folks, lawyers… Yongnian Zheng talks about “authoritarian deliberation.” (His book: Technological Empowerment). Authoritarian regimes allow different degrees of deliberation. China is more deliberative because of the Internet, says Rebecca, but institutionally it hasn’t changed.

Our common Western paradigm makes it hard for us to understand Chinese Internet control, Rebecca says. We tend to think of it like the Great Wall: A barrier blocks people from accessing outside information. It is, as Lokman Tsui calls it, the “Iron Curtain 2.0.” Internet filtering is only one small part of censorship in China. It only affects sites hosted outside of China. For those hosted inside, the “Net nanny” metaphor is more accurate: A paternalistic state that protects people from themselves and maintains order. Google China does not show gory photos when you search for “Tianamen Massacre.” Baidu, the largest search service in China, returns zero results. If you try to post a post that contains trigger words, it goes into a moderation queue from which it never emerges. Eight out of 15 blog hosting services removed “objectionable” political content. The censoring is done by the hosting companies.

We could also use the metaphor of hydroelectric engineering. Most of the Chinese leaders have engineering backgrounds. When the storm comes, you put up the dam, then you let water out. New technique: The official news agencies quickly break stories that are bad news for the government (e.g., riots in Weng’an county in 7/08), and then they censor the unofficial versions. The official version “flooded” the Web.

People routed around this censorship. Youc ouldn’t talk about Weng’an, but you can talk about pushups, because the official story behind a murder was that a man was doing pushups on the bridge. Bloggers used pushups as a way of talking about the forbidden content. Or:” the government used “Harmonious Society” as a slogan. People had started using “harmonized” to mean “censored,” but then “harmonized” got censored, so people started using “rivercrab,” which is very close to “harmonious.” Then people started posting rivercrabs wearing three watches because that’s close to another slogan.

Another example. There was an anti-porn crackdown in January. Political discussions were removed along with smut. So, a video showed up, a happy children’s chorus about alpaca sheep, because “alpaca sheep” and “fuck your mother” are very similar; it’s a protest against censorship. It went viral. Now it’s spawned academic research.

“This is why keyword censorship is bound to fail. There’s so much discussion on the Web right now about rivercrabs and alpaca sheep.”

Cybernationalism is big in China, i.e., people on the Net who are very proud of their nation. There’s an anti-CNN site created by Chinese journalism students, to critique CNN’s errors in coverage. People resent foreigners criticizing their Internet. There are now Red Guard-like cyber-vigilantes. There are also paid informants on the Web. Cyber-police. Cyber-bonapartism, i.e., a strong centralized state using democratic means to make people feel more involved? Cyber-confucianism? Cyber-ocracy? She points to Isaac Mao who says we can’t have free speech until we have thinking, and thus he talks about “share-ism.”

Ultimately, we should be talking about off line institutions. Fair mechanisms, transparency, legal protection of free speech. Until you have that, Rebecca says, nothing much changes.

What does this mean for the global Internet? David Post, in Jefferson’s Moose, talks about the balance between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians (free speech vs. control). This debates rages in China now. The debate is “hampered by censorship and complicated by nationalism.” How do we support that debate, Rebecca asks. Between governments and citizens there’s now global layer of Web and IT services. How do we use this layer, in China and globally? Authoritarian governments may not be moved to democracy and freedom. If we don’t talk about this, we might all end up in the middle.

Q: This echoes the traditional Chinese leadership pattern of going out among the people. And different people in China use the Internet for different purposes. Elites vs, working class, etc.
A: Yes. The Net right now is an echo chamber for elites. If you want to know what the peasantry are thinking, the Internet is not the way to find out. But if you want know about the people who might be future leaders, the Internet is a good tool.

Q: Are there country-to-country discussion forums? And are they using The Onion Router?
A: Some do. Not a critical mass. And there are good-hearted attempts to “save” the Chinese. It’d be better not to be so paternalistic.

Q: Why don’t controversial bloggers post on hosts outside their country?
A: Because their audience would be too small. One guy I know posts the same posts to ten blogs and hope that not all of them are taken down. And the problem with circumvention tools is that you have to know what you want to know. It can be hard to know how much censorship there is if you’re within the system.

Q: Do the Chinese people want to be free? Russians tell you that freedom leads to conflict and misery.
A: What is freedom? There isn’t consensus in China about how much freedom vs. control. But how can you get consensus if you can’t have an uncensored debate about it? [Tags: ]

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January 12, 2009

Chinese circumvention sites selling user data

Hal Roberts, at the Berkman Center, blogs that he’s found that three suppliers of tools that allow those in China to circumvent the government’s restrictions on the Internet — DynaWeb FreeGate, GPass, and FirePhoenix — are selling information about the behavior of their users.

The sites freely publish anonymized data for people doing research on Net trends, but they will also sell you identifiable information … if you pass their smell test. Hal points to one company’s faq:

Q: I am interested in more detailed and in-depth visit data. Are they available?

A: Yes, we can generate custom reports that cover different levels of details for your purposes, based on a fee. But data that can be used to identify a specific user are considered confidential and not shared with third parties unless you pass our strict screening test. Please contact us if you have such a need.

From hands considered safe to the hands of totalitarians with a grudge is a distressingly short distance.

Hal concludes:

This sort of thing demonstrates that there is no way to eliminate points of control from a network. You can only move them around so that you trust different people. In this case, Chinese users are replacing some of the trust in their local Chinese ISPs with trust in the circumvention projects through which they are proxying their traffic. But those tools are acting as virtual ISPs themselves and so have all the potential for control (and abuse) that the local ISPs have. They can snoop on user activity; they can filter and otherwise tamper with connections; they can block P2P traffic.

So, yes, the Net routes around restrictions. But those routes themselves are subject to all the weaknesses to which we are heir. [Tags: ]

[January 15: Rebecca MacKinnon spoke with some of the principles and blogs their explanations.]

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November 27, 2008

Control doesn’t scale

I sometimes put up a Powerpoint (well, Keynote) slide that says “Control doesn’t scale.”The assumption that large projects only succeed if they’re centrally controls led and managed turns out to have been true because we limited the scope of what we we considered realistic. You can build a Britannica using a centrally controlled system, but you could not build a Wikipedia that way.

But I know that there are some important counter-examples, so I’ll frequently add, “Except at an huge cost in expense and freedom,” for we know all too well that some regimes have managed to maintain intense control over massive populations for generations.

Today there’s an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald with Isaac Mao, pioneering Chinese blogger and Berkman fellow, in which he says the Chinese authorities are unable to keep up with increasing volume of social communications the 108M bloggers, millions in social networks, and people texting and twittering away.

So, maybe control doesn’t scale after all.

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November 25, 2008

Googling for tanks in China

Here’s an odd thing.

I was sure that when Google China first started cleansing its results, a search for “tiananmen” at Google Images did not return the famous photo of the man standing in front of the line of tanks, or other photos of the Tiananmen demonstrations.

Today it does.

Even odder, I was talking with Lokman Tsui of the Berkman Center about this, and he discovered that if you search for “tiananmen” using the Chinese characters (天安门), you don’t get back photos of the demonstrations but sanitized, post-card-ish touristy photos.

On purpose? Fluke? A crack in the structure of control?

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November 24, 2008

Chinese won’t let blogger travel

Rebecca MacKinnon reports that the Chinese government has refused to let citizen journalist blogger Zhou Shuguang (known as Zola) travel outside the country. This is not the first time he’s faced the Chinese authorities. This time, he twittered it as it was happening.

Rebecca posts: “I just communicated with Zola online. I asked him how he’s feeling – he said he’s tired but he feels ok, isn’t stressed.” She is concerned, however, as we all should be.

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November 22, 2008

Our strange new home

I’ve published a new issue of my free newsletter

Our strange new home: A talk to the people in the Chinese government designing ways to use the Net to deliver government services.

Has the Internet been saved?: Obama’s appointments to head the FCC transition team fill me with joy.

The main article is the text of a talk I gave a few weeks ago in Beijing at a one-day seminar/conference for the people in the Chinese government who are putting together sites — portals, usually — to provide government services. These were, I was told, the government people most excited about the opportunities brought by an open Internet. I gave the closing keynote. The previous speakers, from China, S. Korea and Denmark, had expanded the audience’s practical imaginations. I would’ve if I could’ve. Instead, I tried to resolve the seeming contradiction and doubtless cross-cultural meaninglessness that the Internet is weird and the Internet feels homey. It occurred to me afterward that that is the theme of Small Pieces Loosely Joined.

You can read it here.

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