Rednecks, Red Guards & Trolls: Kaiser Kuo on US-China Online(2010-04-23 21:00:01)
by Elliott Ng, posted in News & Issues
For those of us involved in the
development of new internet media and technology, there is almost a
faith-based view that what we are doing has an inexorable, positive
force toward ushering in the world we want to live in.
I’ll first summarize Kaiser’s comments, and then share my own
reactions and feelings below.
Meanwhile, in the real world, we continue to live apart (in geography and in mindset) as the dynamics of global capitalism increasingly tie us together.
Introduction: Kaiser Kuo
Kuo (Twitter) moved
to China in 1996 and is a rock musician in a band Chunqiu, writer,
journalist, and speaker.
Will online relationships boil down to Red Guards vs. Rednecks?
Kaiser spoke on the growing awareness of the chasm between
Chinese and Westerners thanks to increasing interconnectedness on
Earthquakes happen when pressure builds up under the surface
By and large, US-China relations at a government to government
level have been as healthy as it ever has been.
But under the surface, according to Kaiser, at a
people-to-people level, “a real crisis exists, and relations
between Chinese and Anglophone Westerners are at a real low.”
In the past, contact between Chinese and Americans “took place
at small scale and with intermediation” often in “painfully polite
“For most of the 30 years since China’s reforms began, Chinese and American civilians rarely met face-to-face in significant numbers,” Kuo says. “When encounters did take place, they were typically stage-managed events among civil, often painfully polite participants in sister city arrangements, trade delegations and cultural exchanges.
“In March 2008, in the run-up to the Olympic Games, Chinese people were curious about what the world would say about them…. But they were blindsided by negative English-language reporting. While hundreds of millions of Chinese had risen out of poverty, while the Chinese economy had grown by 10 percent annually for nearly three continuous decades, while China’s biggest cities had become forests of skyscrapers with vibrant cultural scenes, none of this was deemed newsworthy by Western news media….
“Instead, Chinese and Americans went after each other in the comment sections of news stories, blog posts, YouTube, forums and boards in an escalating people-to-people brawl that continues to this day. They fight over a litany of issues: Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen, trade, Internet censorship, religious freedom, Myanmar, Darfur, sanctions on Iran, carbon emissions, and so on. The first real people-to-people encounter between the world’s reigning and rising superpowers did not bode well.
In this new media landscape, government-to-government relations
are on the surface, while a hot, turbulent sub-surface of popular
opinion continues a hidden techtonic shift.
Welcome to the Internet:
your one-sided beliefs are reinforced by others just like
Even within the West, with its tradition of free press and free
speech, we see how the Internet has caused us to self-segregate
into communities of similar interest and political leaning.
But this is the Internet we’re talking about, which many of us believed would bring down barriers and usher in the death of distance, the good times of a global village. Instead, it has made us more fractured and tribal…. It’s also true within America, where nowadays you only read the political blogs and viewpoints of those who happen to be on your side of the political aisle.
We read what we want to read, according to Kaiser.
kumbaya” factor of the Internet is, in fact, more dead than alive.
In China, the internet “has historically been dismissed as
greasy kids stuff” (e.g. internet games, internet cafes,
entertainment) but is “also the emerging public sphere in Chinese
I do not think it helps for me to facilitate this kind of exchange between “Red Guards versus Rednecks” (or “Chinese Fenqing (angry youth) PK Foreign Fenqing (angry youth)”).
I may want to communicate some information to people, but I am likely to encounter the kind of situation as described by Leung Man-tao (梁文道) in Southern Weekend:
In a 10,000 word essay, I came across one sentence that displeased me.
I forgot about the rest of that essay and I wrote a 20,000 word essay to criticize it. Why should I bother to read the whole essay? Why should I bother to delve into it or try to comprehend its true meaning? It is merely an excuse and opportunity for me to express myself.
Indeed, I have come across someone who wrote: “I am not interested in the facts about what happened in Tibet, because I already know how to define the event.”
What is the point for providing information to people like that? They are not interested in any information. My own utility to them would be to provide the excuse and/or platform to rave and rant about their pre-established and immovable positions.
Spiraling toward bipolar disorder?
Toward a more
resilient system of US-China relations
Unfortunately, the diagnosis of our condition is more painfully
clear than the remedy.
- Cultivate personal knowledge – From Roland
Soong’s post: “Knowledge is the first step. You
can[not] talk about something unless you are knowledgeable about
it. Why do you want to talk about that something? Because you think
that the knowledge has changed your position. And that knowledge
may also change your readers, especially those who form the subject
of the discussion.”
Blogs are a great place to start. For English-language readers, Kaiser mentioned several sources including Alltop China, CN Reviews, ChinaGeeks, Danwei(Danwei China mirror site) and ESWN. CNReviews had highlighted blogs that translate Chinese netizen comments and other blogs to watch in 2009.
- Understand Chinese History – Accept the need
to understand Chinese history.
Chinese current events are framed by a view of history held by elites. Understand that view as best you can. According to Kaiser, a place to start would be The Search for Modern China by Jonathan Spence.
- Learn what Chinese people actually think
when their defenses are down. The conversations
taking place when it’s not believed ‘whitey’ is around are
decidedly more nuanced.
Blogs that translate Chinese content (listed above) can be a starting point.
Rebecca MacKinnon wrote an
open letter to Barack Obama advocating a people-to-people
approach toward building relationships between Americans and
Just as you have used new technology to engage with the American electorate, your China policy can be greatly strengthened if you conduct a real conversation with the Chinese people. Listen as much as you talk; provide a much-needed platform for open discussion. The U.S. embassy in Beijing should build a Chinese-language website modeled afterchange.gov, focused not just on U.S.-China relations, but on the range of concerns and interests – from environment, to food safety, to factory safety standards, to education and real estate law — shared by ordinary Chinese and Americans. Some linguistically talented State Department employees should start blogging in Chinese. Open up the comments sections, see how the Chinese blogosphere responds, then respond to them in turn. Translate some of the Chinese conversation into English for Americans to read and react, then translate it back.
Perhaps the idea of open comments will just draw out “those
shouting loudest on both sides…Red Guards and rednecks,” as Kaiser
Kuo characterizes the internet. I believe that more
person-to-person efforts are complementary to and more important
than an online approach.
Aimee Barnes comes up with a 5 point approach:
- Including youth leaders and business influencers into the dialogue now hosted by academic and governmental elites
- More support for business leaders in both countries to build bilateral relationships
- More study of Mandarin among US kids and adults
- Deeper understanding of China’s history and government among Western media
- New “equal access” research institutions/think tanks that include more Chinese-born specialists
In my opinion, based on 2 years of following English-language
Chinese blogs, mainstream media, and actively blogging on CN
Reviews, I am more and more convinced that actual
person-to-person contact, as opposed to online blogging and
conversation, is the most important ingredient to building
trust, relationships and increased understanding
and mutual respect.
From written content, to community organizing
For people like Kaiser and Rebecca MacKinnon who are working on
writing books, I feel a key metric of success is not just the
number of books sold and the number of online references, but the
number of influential people on both sides that engage in a deeper
and more informed dialogue with the other side as a result of the
Business partners, motivated by self-interest properly understood
In an article entitled “New Friction and Vast Agenda Awaits Obama on China Trip” in the Wall Street Journal, Ian Johnson highlights that the issues that require US-China coordination have exploded:
A decade ago, most issues discussed at China-U.S. summits were limited to three issues: human rights, nuclear nonproliferation and trade. Now, the list of topics has grown to include almost every problem facing the world, from clean energy and the war in Afghanistan to African development and fixing the world economy — all of which are expected to have a place in talks between Mr. Obama and his Chinese counterpart, President Hu Jintao.
“For the first time in the history of our relationship, global issues are at the top of the agenda,” says Kenneth Lieberthal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington who was a special assistant on Asian affairs to former President Bill Clinton. “This is new territory for us.”
It is a change that analysts on both sides see as potentially problematic. Chinese officials and analysts note that the U.S. still has an arms and high-tech embargo on China — hardly something one does with a true partner, they say. “Obama wants us to become strategic partners or friends but we aren’t either of those,” says Yan Xuetong, a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University. “We are business partners who share material interests rather than common values.”
It is this last comment from Yan Xuetong that gives me hope and
Lest you think that Kaiser is too distraught about our future,
he claims to be optimistic about our future, and we recently
had a great time on Oahu.
I’m interested in your comments.