Little Mister Sunshine

For the last couple of weeks, Beijing has been all aflutter with the annual pomp and circumstance of the NPC & CPPCC meetings. (I would argue that, even if you don't speak Chinese, "两会" is a far more manageable mouthful than that clot of "abbreviations"...) Hands were shaken, pictures were taken, and 'sunshine' was...bakin'? (Cringe-worthy, I know.)

The 'sunshine' in question, of course, is the eternally-gestating "Sunshine Bill." (阳光法案) Conceived, by some reports, as early as 1995, the "Declaration of Income for Leading Cadres in Party and Government Agencies at County (Department) Level and Higher" was, in short, designed to increase accountability. If a high-ranking official were forced to report and itemize his sky-high income, perhaps the emergence of a second Chen Liangyu ( 陈良宇) could be prevented.

To an outsider, it seems like a no-brainer: what better way to distance oneself from the well-worn stereotype of the man-purse-carrying, Zhongnanhai-smoking, preternaturally-black-hair-having, corrupt official...than by being the guy who brought to vote the anti-corruption bill?! Let he who [wants to appear to be] without sin cast the first stone!

Not so, it seems, as more than fourteen years on, China's legal code is still experiencing heavy cloud cover.

So when I read, recently, the venerably cunning work of Caijing's Wang Heyan, I thought perhaps I had found the source of the delay: the proposed sunlight is NOT BRIGHT ENOUGH!

At least, that's what one--maybe too-literal--interpretation of his words might indicate (I've translated an excerpt of Wang's article here):

“Chairman X, what is your take on a system to publicly report the personal property of officials?”

He answered, grinning, “Unfortunately, I haven't looked into this question.”

I asked, “In Aletai, Xinjiang and Cixi, Zhejiang they are publicly reporting officials' personal property. Does your province have any intention to try this?”

He said, “I don't know.”

“Has the group discussed this over the last few days?” I asked again.

He walked as he said, “No. Our group as a whole has not discussed this.”

I wasn't quite convinced. “Would you propose this kind of suggestion or motion?”

He asked me, in return, “No. If [officials' property] were reported publicly, why shouldn't the common people report their property? Why shouldn't the enterprise bosses have to report their profits to their workers?”

“Why shouldn't the common people report their property?” I could hardly believe my ears, and quickly asked, “'enterprise bosses'? Do you mean the managers of state-owned enterprises?”

I clearly heard his reply, “No, I mean the bosses of the privately-owned companies.”

Shocked and speechless, I asked no further questions.

Maybe he does mean that, in addition to government officials, private sector officials should also report their earnings. If the hourly wage-earners knew what their bosses were taking home, maybe the gaps would not get so big, or at least increase more slowly.

But more likely, he means Chinese officials should somehow remain above the law.

Either way, this was a shocking moment of candor from a Chinese official: it's almost impossible for journalists to get comments that aren't scripted and vetted, several times over. So brazen were Journalist Wang's tactics--tactics that included publishing a potentially-damning conversation with a high-ranking official--that though Wang most definitely knew the identity and home province of the official with whom he spoke, he dared not publish it.

Fourteen years into unofficial debates, some are still arguing that now is not the right time for a law like this...society is not ready...officials themselves are not ready, the chorus of nay-sayers sings.

Of course the cynical response is, "they're corrupt, and they don't want to be found out." I don't deny that that is certainly a motivating factor for some. But another of the protests lodged against this bill is that, if implemented, there is no official it would not touch; everyone is guilty of some sort of graft, strictly speaking. So if law-breaking is much more pervasive than law-abiding (even though the law is only hypothetical at this point), enforcing the law in a way that is perceived as fair becomes almost impossible. At this stage in Chinese politics, wouldn't this law easily become a tool for political persecution?

As always, I want to know which parts of this issue resonate with you. Is the proposed law the right tool for fighting corruption? Are an official's assets his own business, if he is otherwise law-abiding? In a culture that can bestow gigantic financial reward on the craftiest, if unethical, few (I'm looking at YOU, American financial industry!), how can public service attract a 21st-century
Zhu Geliang* (诸葛亮) without some promise of 灰色收入 (under-the-table, "gray" income)?

*I hate linking to Wikipedia, and I'm sorry.


A 'Grass Mud Horse' from a 'Small Mountain Village'? 来自‘山寨’的‘草泥马’?

In a tonal language, inflection means everything. Students of Chinese as a foreign language are taught to pity the fool who mangles her four tones. (And how easily "frustrated"/郁闷 slides into "with the door"/与门!)

So after years of puzzled looks from native Chinese speakers whenever I spoke a third-tone word with an accidental second-tone flair, I was fully convinced of the immutability of Chinese tones and the words they distinguish. That is, until the raging internet phenomenon that has become the "Grass Mud Horse" -- far better known as 草泥马.

As others have described tactfully, "grass mud horse" sounds an awful lot like one of the most vulgar things you can say to someone in Chinese. It sounds so similar, in fact, that almost as soon as it had appeared, there was no explanation required as to the emotion for which it was a proxy. After the fire near the new CCTV headquarters, images of the grass mud horse started popping up all over the internet, telling CCTV just how the netizens felt about the way it was (not) reported.

So it's a semi-homonym...maybe even a euphemism. But no one would call the grass mud horse polite conversation. Especially not someone like Li Changchun. (See some of his recent thoughts here.)

During Li's tenure as China's senior propaganda official, the nationwide "anti-smut" campaign has gained steam. No less than the likes of Google, Sina, and Sohu risk their very existence in China if they do not rid themselves of anything that could be considered vulgar. And now, as actress and CCTV host Ni Ping has added 山寨文化 (small mountain village culture) to the list of objectionable content, netizens are asking: just what is safe from reprobation?

Without a doubt, Chinese netizens are largely sequestered from the internet content that many around the world find void of any redeeming value--images of violence against women, and various forms of hate speech among it--and therefore offer an attractive model for activists elsewhere who seek to "clean up" the internet.

So where do you come down in the grass mud horse debate? Is it a harmless parody, or an offensive slur? Do the filters keep out more bad than good? Who should draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable, and what should be the basis for the decision?