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2 China battens down the
An entertaining ruckus over
anti-foreign comments by state-run China Central
Television (CCTV) talk-show host Yang Rui obscures
a rather significant trend in Chinese government
It appears that the Chinese
Communist Party (CCP) is winding down its
five-year charm offensive meant to bolster its
international legitimacy and standing, and is
turning inward to focus on pressing domestic
social, economic, and political concerns.
Disturbingly, China has a
limited number of effective policy levers to deal
with these issues. The few they have are ugly in
conception and in application resemble xenophobia.
China's economic miracle,
typified by the spectacle of the 2008
Beijing Olympics and the
titanic stimulus program of 2009-2010 (which is
credited with forestalling a prolonged global
recession), never elicited the Western respect
that the Chinese leadership felt was its due.
the election of President Barack Obama, the West
rediscovered the impeccable moral self-regard it
had forfeited during the George W Bush years and,
instead of acknowledging Chinese regional
suzerainty, cobbled together an alliance to
"pivot" back into Asia and contain China.
International policy towards
China is inseparable from criticism of China's
human-rights record, its neo-mercantilist economic
policies, its heightened security profile in East
Asia, and the hope and expectation that China will
fall on its behind before the West (excluding
Greece, probably Spain, and perhaps Italy) does.
"Soft power", in other words,
hasn't won China much breathing space. As the CCP
turns its attention to a fraught leadership
transition later this year complicated by
smoldering inflation, simmering public discontent,
slowing economic growth thanks to the
dysfunctional eurozone, and a spate of
opportunistic bitching over uninhabited island
groups by its maritime neighbors, perhaps
xenophobia is the most effective way for the party
to seize the initiative in the public sphere.
recent weeks, public opinion has been entertained
and inflamed by such diverse exhibition of foreign
misbehavior as 1) an arrogant Russian cellist
putting his feet where they didn't belong on a
Chinese train; 2) a brain-melted foreign tourist
trying to undress a hapless Chinese woman on a
busy Beijing street; 3) North Korean "pirates"
holding Chinese fishermen for ransom.
There was a lot of palaver
about what the kidnapping said about the North
Koreans and their possible unhappiness with
Chinese criticism of their weapons testing.
Remarkably, there was very little discussion of
why the Chinese media chose to give this event
(which, quite possibly, was simply the most recent
of many shakedowns by North Korea's
cash-hungry/smuggling-happy coastal security
forces) front-page treatment.
xenophobic piece de
resistance, however, was a May 16 mini-rant on
the Weibo microblogging site by CCTV's Yang Rui,
sneering at "foreign trash".
can safely assume that Yang was supporting the
party line on pesky foreigners. It also appears
that Yang put a lot of himself, too much, in fact,
into his 140-character invective, including
accusations that foreigners were shacking up with
Chinese women in order to make maps and send out
GPS coordinates to overseas intelligence services
(coordinates of what, Yang failed to enlighten his
What caused Yang's
anti-foreign assault to backfire, however, was his
use of the term "po
fu" to describe Al-Jazeera Beijing
correspondent Melissa Chan.
Chan, a well-regarded
reporter who had aired pieces on black prisons and
illegal land grabs that the Chinese government
certainly found uncomfortable, was expelled
(technically, her request for a visa extension was
refused) in early May.
lumped her together with the foreign trash,
We kicked out
the foreign po fu,
closed down Al Jazeera's Beijing office, so
those who demonize China shut their mouths and
Global Times translated "po fu" as "crazy", which
is pretty far from the mark. The Wall Street
Journal translated "po
fu" as bitch, which is closer to the truth, if
not quite accurate, and helped feed the
expressions of quivering outrage by expats in
China who tweet.
Yang tried to explain that
his insulting characterization actually means
"shrew" in English, and he does have a point. "Po fu" started out as a
literary term coined by the Qian Long emperor.
During one of his southern tours he saw two women
fighting and said something along the lines of
(adjusting for the dense meaning of individual
characters in classical Chinese), "when you're
talking about fierce, unreasonable, and incapable
of engaging in elevated moral discourse, that's
In essence, therefore, Yang
appears not be saying that Ms Chan was a bitch (a
bad woman). Instead, he was saying that an
unfortunate but entirely predictable manifestation
of female shrewishness in her reporting prevented
her from scaling the highest peaks of respectable
journalism (already occupied, perhaps, by certain
smugly condescending male CCTV presenters).
Sometimes, when you're in a
hole, it's time to stop digging.
furor over "po fu"
also distracts attention from the more interesting
question of why Chan's visa was not renewed.
conclusion of Yang's Weibo blast ("so those who
demonize China shut their mouths and beat it")
implies that the Chinese government made an
example of a free-wheeling reporter at a
second-tier news outlet in order to pass a message
to top-line media outlets: nettlesome reporting
will have consequences for individual reporters
and, perhaps, entire news operations. (In addition
to not renewing Chan's visa, the Chinese
government has so far refused to accept a
replacement and the Al-Jazeera Beijing bureau is,
at least for the time being, defunct).
impression of Chinese xenophobia was also
accentuated by the announcement of a three-month
drive to crack down on foreigners residing or
working in China without proper documentation.
Needless to say, it is an
unpleasant experience to be regarded as potential
"foreign trash" and go through the degrading
transaction of presenting one's papers to the
local police on demand. It is also an indication
that the security system's relatively kid-glove
treatment of foreigners is the latest victim of
China's growing political and economic
Chinese policies toward
improperly documented aliens bear a remarkable
resemblance to laws in Arizona and Georgia that
have integrated immigration policy into police
operations largely in response to xenophobic
sentiment and political unease in a deteriorated
The real issue may not be the
outraged feelings of foreigners today; it may be
making the scapegoating of foreign troublemakers,
journalists and otherwise, an available option
against the day when the political climate inside
China worsens for the CCP.
and when bad times come, the CCP seems to have a
decreasing number of tools available to deal with
the situation. In particular, there are sticks
available, but not a lot of carrots. This
restricted toolkit apparently applies to dealing
with domestic dissatisfaction as well as pesky
A remarkable object lesson in
the financial and systemic hazards of contemporary
Chinese authoritarianism is illustrated by the
remarkable extra-legal detention of Chen
Guangcheng and other dissidents.