An Endless Supply of Free Movies

Coming to China I knew there would be a lot of fake goods available for purchase.  I remember coming to Beijing when I was little and always returning with a stash of DVDs that had recently come out.  When most people think of China, they naturally think of inferior products and goods.


But it turns out it is not just physical goods that can be consumed so cheaply here.  The other day, I was thinking about watching a movie with my language partner.  As I tried to find a suitable movie on my computer, she suggested we find a movie online.  All she had to do was go to Baidu (essentially the Chinese version of Google) and search for a Chinese movie.  Essentially any Chinese movie you could think of appeared on this website.  I was amazed by how easily accessible these movies were.  All it took was a few clicks on one of the country’s largest search engines and suddenly thousands of movies were available for me to watch.  I was even able to find some American movies (like Lion King and Mulan).  This really emphasized to me how little intellectual property rights are held up here in China.

As we saw in The River Runs Black, this could be a problem in the future for China’s economy.  While it definitely brings up problems of copyright infringement, it also acts as a deterrent for multi-national corporations considering entering the country.  If a high-tech company wants to enter China, they must worry about their new and innovative technologies and ideas being leaked out or stolen by competitors in their field. (Loc 3892).


I believe that this issue of intellectual property rights is becoming much more of a factor in our world now that essentially everything is going digital now.  If China wants to be taken seriously as a world power, they must bring up their standards and begin to crack down on this issue.  I am not sure if this is something that would need to be done by the central government in Beijing or individual local governments.  But I think it’s something that should be fixed.  Doing business in China shouldn’t be about getting an inferior product for as cheap as you can.  We’ll see how things change in the near future.

Starbucks: Am I “Cheating?”

I felt odd this morning for some reason when DJ called me and asked where I was, because I was at Starbucks. (I have made it a conscious effort to avoid American restaurant chains most of the time while in Shanghai, but the past two Sundays I have found myself camped out at Wujiaochang with a cappuccino and my MacBook.) I suppose I felt like I was “cheating” in some way, that I was bypassing the uniquely foreign experiences that are the reason for which I came abroad. But as I looked around the whole store, I saw only Chinese customers. This made me think about what it means for something to be “American,” and furthermore, whether or not I am in fact “cheating” by dining at these type of establishments.

Starbucks is unique in that it can be considered a higher-end restaurant chain, on a similar level as the Häagen-Daz restaurants in Shanghai. It’s clientele is primarily middle to upper-middle class people who have the disposable income to spend on high priced coffee, a luxury good with relatively elastic demand. Many of the people I saw in the store had iPhones, MacBooks, or other expensive electronic devices, providing further evidence of their healthy economic standing. This reminded me a great deal of the United States in terms of Starbuck’s typical demographic.

But the store was full of Chinese customers, and I was the only foreign person there. The menu had a wide selection of teas, and baked goods included red bean scones. Yet when I approached the counter the cashier greeted my in English and took my English order with a nod of her head (I didn’t exactly know how to translate “venti cafe mocha”). And on my cup she wrote “Sir,” so that when my drink was ready the worker said, “Here you go sir, please enjoy.” I felt like my hand was being held by the Starbucks employees in a way that was sterilizing any type of genuine interaction with the Chinese. This made me think a great deal about the concept of space. When I enter a Starbucks in Shanghai, I am in both an American and Chinese space. The company is, of course, and American-based entity. But the store itself also begs to assume the identity of the physical location and surrounding language. What I concluded was that it is the identity of the subject, in this case customer, that defines the space. If a Chinese person walks into Starbucks, he can consider that a Chinese space. But as soon as I walk in a Starbucks door, I feel like I am in a (predominately) culturally American space. And I think this phenomenon is completely intentional by the Starbucks corporation. In expanding to new markets, it is a significant challenge to strike the balance between adapting to foreign cultural practices while maintaining the fundamental elements of your products or services. Starbucks has done this in a way that, as I can see, has garnered massive success. I was able to got to their store and feel like I could have been in the middle of Manhattan, while I believe the Chinese people there thought of their experience as nothing more than getting some coffee at Wujiaochang.

So am I cheating on the Chinese experience by going to Starbucks? Yes and no. Yes because the company was made in America and my intention is usually to use it as an easy, familiar alternative to traditional Chinese options. But no because, as I saw, a sizable portion of the Chinese populace is choosing to eat and drink there just as I am. But really, I should probably just stop going there in general. It’s 太贵了, anyway.


Satire Style, or Evan Osnos needs to watch some TV

In the wake of the astronomical global success of Korean pop singer PSY’s hit song “Gangnam Style” – which now has over 450 million views on YouTube alone – a debate has arisen over “how Korea did it” and whether or not China can “do it too.” In last week’s New Yorker, Evan Osnos argued that China lacks Gangnam Style:

In China, the Gangnam phenomenon carries a special pique. It has left people asking, Why couldn’t we come up with that? China, after all, dwarfs Korea in political clout, money, and market power, and it cranks out more singers and dancers in a single city than Korea does nationwide. Chinese political leaders are constantly talking about the need for “soft power”—they have dotted the globe with Confucius Institutes to rival the Alliance Française, and they have expanded radio and television stations in smaller countries that might be tired of American-dominated news. Last year, the Communist Party even declared culture a national priority and vowed to produce its own share of global cultural brands.

So, should we expect a Chinese Gangnam soon? Don’t count on it. “PSY is a satirist, making fun, and having fun,” said John Delury, an expert on China and Korea who teaches international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul. “Korea tends to have more irony and satire in its comedy than China, and there aren’t the impediments to exporting things that question or poke fun of Korean society, politics, etc. And I think somehow people all over the world feel invited to join in, despite a huge cultural difference, when someone from a foreign place is making a bit of fun of themselves. That’s inviting. But China, especially acting in its official, soft-power capacity, is only comfortable exporting things that show off the greatness of its ancient civilization or economic development. That’s not terribly inviting.”

In other words, China could not currently produce Gangnam Style because its culture does not value satire and is so insecure with itself that it is only willing to produce cultural products displaying its own greatness.

Osnos points out that, at the same time as it mocks itself (see the lyrics in English here), Gangnam Style has all the characteristics of “earnest K-pop: highly engineered dance routines, over-the-top styling, and the Technicolor production values honed by Seoul’s hit-making industry.” What made Gangnam Style internationally successful, he claims, was not these factors, however, which are shared with the dozens of other K-pop groups that have failed to gain any traction outside of East Asia, but the fact that it’s clearly a self-critical joke.

This certainly is a large part of Gangnam Style’s success, but it clearly isn’t everything. As I’ll discuss in a moment, China has its own share of self-mocking cultural products, despite what Osnos seems to believe about the lack of a Chinese sense of irony and satire. What, then, are the reasons for Gangnam Style’s incredible success?

I believe there are several:

  • It’s amusing (ironic, self-mocking, or otherwise)
  • The dance is easily replicable
Yes, it’s a catchy tune; yes, the production is very flashy; yes, the chorus (“Oppan Gangnam Style”) is easy to remember and simple for non-Korean speakers to pronounce. These factors, however, are present in hundreds of other K-pop videos that were nowhere near as successful overseas (the nearest any video has gotten is probably SNSD’s Gee, which has only 88 million views, and I’m willing to bet an amount of money equal to the cost of Taeyeon’s plastic surgery that the vast majority of those views are intra-East Asian). I’d also argue that Gangnam Style’s success was also boosted by PSY’s supposed similarity to the American group LMFAO, the sex appeal of Hyuna (who appears in the video), and (some might also argue) PSY’s overall non-threatening nature, but these are not the point of this post.

Chinese culture is certainly not lacking in satire or unable to mock itself, however. Anyone claiming so hasn’t read their Lu Xun, at the very least. Official (government-produced or -funded) cultural products are certainly censored, and probably take themselves too seriously, as Osnos points out, but there is a whole world of cultural products created in China every day, over which the government exerts very little influence.The Chinese Internet is a large source of unofficial cultural products, but many are still produced for more traditional media such as television. A prime example of this is the popular television program 非诚勿扰 (If You Are the One, pronounced Feichengwurao).

Fei Cheng Wu Rao, which translates literally as “if not sincere, don’t bother,” is a dating show in which a male, normally between the age of 20 and 35, is brought on stage with 24 women of a similar age, each of which has a light that she can turn off at any point if she is not interested in the male. The show’s host, Meng Fei (who is commonly referred to as “Teacher Meng” by participants), facilitate’s the young man’s introduction of himself through a series of videos about his personality and interests, his work, his past romantic engagements, and his friends, occasionally interrupting with questions or allowing questions from the young women. Ultimately, if he lasts until the end of the introduction and questions and there are still women with their lights on, the young man gets to choose one to go on a date with, expenses paid by the television show.

If you think this sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. Check out part of an episode (with English subtitles) here. My observations of this show lead me to the conclusion that the people on the show are very materialistic and concerned with appearances. I’m not alone in drawing this conclusion; the majority of people I speak to about the show who have also seen it, both foreigners and Chinese, agree. And yet, the show remains as one of the most popular programs in the country and the highest rated program on its station. Why could this be?

Watch a few episodes and pay particular attention to Meng Fei, to the questions he asks and the comments he makes, and you’ll realize that Fei Cheng Wu Rao is really satire. I believe the contestants on the show are very sincere about being on the show, for the most part, but I don’t think the producers of the show are serious about hosting them. Ultimately, Fei Cheng Wu Rao is mocking the materialism and moral degradation that many Chinese feel has crept into their society in the last thirty years.

I believe Fei Cheng Wu Rao proves that it’s not fair to say that Chinese culture is unwilling to critique and mock itself. Why is it not as popular as Gangnam Style, then? There are dozens of reasons, most of them similar to the reasons why, say, The Goonies was popular in the United States but was not a large international success. Linguistic and cultural barriers can be difficult to overcome, and a catchy beat, easily replicable dance moves, and some goofy acting can go a long way in tearing those barriers down.

Is China going to have a “Gangnam Style moment” in the near future? I don’t know the answer to that question. Will it have one in the future? I can confidently say, yes, it will.

Update 16/10/2012: For more proof that China is capable of satire, check out these two articles by the Global Times (which is a subsidiary of People’s Daily, and nominally state-run): Why We’re Staying In China and Ask Alessandro

Good, Old-Fashioned Nostalgia

When I’m feeling blue, there’s nothing as bittersweet as remembering (and recreating) my rosy, perfect childhood. In my memories, life is never so sweet and perfect as it was then. A similar dose of nostalgia seems to permeate throughout Chinese culture. Although the future is embraced, the past is lived in many ways. A past that is idealized and glorified. Beyond a simple Confucian ancestral reverence, there is a living appreciation and regeneration of China’s long history.

Since the Cultural Revolution’s end, values on history have shifted. There is a return to traditional beliefs and morality, albeit often with a twist or relabeling. Chinese historical-esque knickknacks are commodified and sold to tourists. Traditional Chinese philosophies are back on the rise. One prime example of a shift in perception is Kongzi. The Chinese Communist Party now hails Confucian principles as eternally valuable, even though Confucius was previously condemned as an obstacle to the Marxist ideas of equity. History is cool again. The concept of ancient China is still very much present in modern Chinese culture.

The generalization of China’s long history is problematic, though. As Jeff Wasserstrom describes in his book China in the 21st Century: What You Need to Know, the presentation of a continuous 5000-year Chinese civilization is a myth. Chinese culture has frequently changed and adapted throughout history, but performances and attractions simply play on a basic nostalgia for old China.

The distinct dress of these opera characters is a tribute to the past. Even the  Tongli boats serve to romanticize an older, simpler time.

Parks imbue the environment with the same sense of longing for the past. Visitors are drawn to remember the days before urbanization when China’s air was cleaner and unpolluted water was plentiful. There’s a strong feeling of finiteness. The rose-colored past is gone. The environment is fleeting, but the park is a preservation of the precious past. During Golden Week at Park, preservation of nature mixes with preservation of Chinese culture.

Of course, preservation and nostalgia is performed throughout the U.S., too. I live an hour from Williamsburg, so I’m no stranger to the historical myths we generate and believe. Still, there’s something unique about Chinese preservation. China is very much on the fence between the past and the present. China is both futuristic and nostalgic, often even at the same time, and it’ll be interesting to see which wins out as the country grows.


Music Festivals and Rule of Law

To the best of my knowledge, a concert has never been cancelled in the United States due to a “sensitive political climate” (I may be wrong about this – post in the comments if you know otherwise!)

The idea seems ridiculous; the Constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and assembly ensure that people can get together and enjoy some good music. In China, however (which has similar freedoms in name but not in practice), cancellation of music festivals and concerts is an all too common occurrence.

This October, Shanghai was to be host to to the Black Rabbit Music Festival, a multi-day gathering of musicians representing a variety of genres from all around the world. Last year, the Black Rabbit festival was the largest of its kind in Shanghai, and this year’s festival promised to be even bigger and better.

The festival was abruptly cancelled, however. Its organizers cited “doubts raised over what will happen during the politically sensitive September/October period” as a primary reason for their decision to call off the festival. Sadly, situations like this are all too common in China, where a local government can decide on a whim that a band’s music is politically insensitive, refuse to approve the necessary permits, and just like that, months of planning go up in smoke.

A similar fate was met by a festival that my favorite Chinese band, Omnipotent Youth Society, was to play at (check out their song “Non-Omnipotent Comedy” here, and if you like that, you can find a recording of them performing in Taiwan here). On September 27th, the organizers of the Play Stone Music Festival announced that “due to numerous factors outside of our control,” the festival would be postponed and moved to a different location, not yet determined.

Luckily for me, the organizers of the Black Rabbit Music Festival worked quickly to organize a new, smaller event, with a slightly less prominent line-up. The Rabbit’s Foot Mini-Festival was an attempt to bring together local Chinese bands and international musicians to provide a quality experience to Shanghai music lovers, in spite of the cancellation of Black Rabbit. Yet Rabbit’s Foot, too, was hindered by the “sensitive political climate,” and Norwegian post-rock group Caves of Steel had to be pulled from the roster. In their place, the alternative rock group Tree (树) of Hangzhou, China was brought on board.

The concert was great, when I went – Tree turned out to be quite a good band, and the other band playing that night, a band from the UK called Third Cortez, was solid as well. While I enjoyed the concert, however, I couldn’t help but think about the issue of musical performances being cancelled in China.

“Rule of law” is discussed a lot by China experts. Rule of law is the idea that there are certain laws on the books, and that they are consistently, fairly, and equally enforced; thus, by knowing the rules, individuals can follow them and expect to not be accused of breaking them. In today’s China, it often seems that rule of law is lacking: social status, economic background, connections to elites, country of origin, etc. can all influence how an individual or corporation is treated under the law. The expulsion of Al Jazeera reporter Melissa Chan and the Bo Xilai/Gu Kailai/Wang Lijun/Neil Heywood scandal highlighted the problems with rule of law in China today. With less and less rule of law, China becomes more and more unstable and unreliable for doing business (or holding a music festival). Eventually, it’s not going to be worth the effort; why put in hundreds (or thousands) of manhours of work only to have them all go to waste because a government official didn’t take a liking to you? Perhaps Confucius put it best when he said “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.”1 (名不正,則言不順;言不順,則事不成 - Which, by the way, is the tagline of the excellent blog Rectified.Name, linked to earlier in this post – check it out!)

For some pictures of Tree performing at the Rabbit’s Foot Mini-Festival, click here.

1. James Legge (1971). Confucian analects: The great learning, and The doctrine of the meanDover Publications. pp. 263–264.