Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

In psychology, there’s something known as an “availability cascade” where something complex and not easily explainable is elucidated in a very simple and insightful way; never mind that it’s wrong. But because of the explanation’s simplicity and plausibility, everyone including political leaders and journalists latch on, creating a self-reinforcing cycle of false credibility. Few issues are as susceptible to availability cascades as “suicide spates.”

In China, we first saw this with the Taiwanese factory Foxconn in 2010, when 14 workers committed suicide allegedly due to “harsh working conditions” (the story was dusted off again last year). That year media started ticking off suicides and hundreds of reports questioned whether people could in good conscience buy Apple products. Never mind that, given the factory’s 1 million-plus employees in Mainland China, you were 16 times more likely to kill yourself if you were a typical American living in Montana that year.

Then a few weeks ago some journalists noted that four Chinese media executives had killed themselves over the previous few months. This prompted “speculation that these tragic incidents may be linked to Beijing’s ongoing anti-graft campaign,” according to one outlet. Never mind that there are more than 300,000 Chinese journalists in state-media agencies alone (not including the hundreds of private outlets), and China’s annual suicide rate is 22 9.8 per 100,000 people (compared to 12 in the United States).

Now it appears there’s another availability cascade brewing; this one suggesting that Chinese officials might be committing suicide en masse because of pressure from Xi Jinping’s corruption crackdown. There’s not an agreed upon number of suicides in this demographic. Wall Street Journal said it was 23 last year. Then this week New York Times said it was “at least 15” over the past 18 months. Either way, these are pretty paltry numbers when you consider that China has over 7 million civil servants.

Caixin actually appeared to draw the most compelling evidence that something was amiss when it said that official suicides more than doubled from 21 in 2012 to 48 in 2013. But then you notice a big flaw in the reasoning. Those numbers are based on media reports of suicides, not any actual empirical data. The article said, “An increasing number of officials are committing suicide, if media reports on the topic are any indication.” They are not.

This is the great flaw in all these supposed “suicide spates,” because it’s really only once a spate narrative has been established that people start paying attention, counting suicides and reporting them. We know for instance that there were at least 14 suicides at Foxconn in 2010 because people perked up and plugged each new death into the established storyline. But we have no idea how many there were in 2008 because this narrative didn’t yet exist to prompt reporting. This is the case with officials now. We don’t really know how many cadre suicides there were five years ago, but if anyone kills themselves now, you better believe they’re about to become a narrative-reinforcing statistic. It’s very easy to find “suicide spates” almost anywhere when you’re looking for them.

The ironic thing is that all this coverage of suicides might play a greater role in causing them than whatever supposed causal factor is being explored. It’s been well-documented that wide publicity of suicides encourages copy-cats (known as the “Werther Effect”). David Phillips, one of the most prominent sociologists to study this trend, told New York Times in 1987 that “Hearing about a suicide seems to make those who are vulnerable feel they have permission to do it.” One famous illustration was when Marilyn Monroe’s 1962 death was followed by a 12 percent nationwide spike in suicides.

This effect has been documented in China too. After the 2010 Foxconn suicides, researchers from Hong Kong and Australia found that there was actually a brief period with a slightly abnormal rapid-fire succession of suicides. This wasn’t because of harsh working conditions, but because coverage by Beijing-based media and rapid news dissemination within Foxconn influenced copycats.

Still, whether it’s factory workers, journalists or cadres, we’ll have to see dozens, if not hundreds more suicides in these groups before we can entertain the notion that something is seriously abnormal. When we’re able to pluck out several suicides with a common denominator, it’s tempting to assume a trend, grasp for convenient answers and then blow it all out of proportion. Perhaps work stress is a factor in some factory worker suicides, or anti-graft campaign pressure with some officials and journalists. But to suggest that suicides in these groups have skyrocketed in a short period due to a single factor is patently silly. Last year I spoke with Michael Phillips, a Canadian psychologist and executive director of the World Health Organization’s Suicide Prevention Center in Beijing. “[There’s an] idea that there are unique stressors that cause suicide,” he told me. “But suicide is always the result of a variety of factors – social, genetic and psychological. The press loves simple answers for complicated problems.”

[Correction: A more recent University of Hong Kong study found that China’s current suicide rate is 9.8 per 100,000 people, rather than the older 22/100,000 figure]

China Hang-up Relaunch

Posted: January 9, 2014 in Uncategorized
Tags: ,

For those of you who didn’t know I co-host a podcast, hey there, I co-host a podcast. It’s called China Hang-up and it focuses on a lot of the same Chinese sociopolitical and economic themes I cover on this blog. Just wanted to announce that we’ve moved to a new home at Project Pengyou.

Since I first announced the podcast here in 2012, it’s morphed into more of a round-table discussion on issues of interest to young China watchers. Our inaugural episode with Project Pengyou looks at one of my favorite topics: the political mindset of Chinese youth today. I’ve said before that it would be a fool’s errand to try and gauge something like this among such a large diverse population, so naturally we’ve stepped up to take on that errand. Helping us do so is someone far less foolish than ourselves: Beijing-based post-80s journalist Helen Gao. We look at how the political education system has changed since Tiananmen and whether an apparent uptick in youth-led demonstrations in recent years indicates the stirrings of a political re-awakening.

For anyone in Beijing, we’re having a re-launch party to celebrate the new partnership this coming Sunday evening at 4corners. We’re hoping it’ll be a good chance for China hands – young and old – from around the city to rub elbows over drinks. Hope to see some of you there.

China Hangup Party Flyer Link (if the picture doesn’t show up)

On separate note, I’m knee-deep in the later stages of a project I’ve been working on for the past year-and-a-half, which is why updates here have been (and will likely continue to be) sparse. But we still plan to put out a podcast every two weeks, so I hope you’ll check that out instead.

On Xia Yeliang…

Posted: November 26, 2013 in Uncategorized

Note: This post is in regards to an article I published in The Atlantic on October 22 about dismissed Peking University Professor Xia Yeliang. After receiving excessive scorn, I wrote this post a few days later, but ultimately decided it was too long-winded and canned it after I was invited on Sinica to discuss the issue. However, even more than a month later, people continue to misrepresent what I actually wrote and said. Given the gravity of the case, I decided to go ahead and publish it (with a few tweaks). Apologies for the long-windedness…

One thing I’ve learned over the years I’ve been writing about China is that people love simple narratives. In fact, they often demand them. Things are black vs. white, good vs. evil or a brave freedom-fighting David taking on a wholly-despicable Goliath. So if you introduce a little gray, the white camp sees you as representing everything they hate about the black, and vice-versa.

Several years ago at the university I taught at in Nanjing, there was an English professor (a Chinese woman) who would constantly use her classes to aggressively proselytize Christianity to the point that she’d sometimes stand at the podium and tell students they were hell-bound if they didn’t embrace Jesus. Over the years, there were floods of student complaints about her. The school warned her repeatedly, whereupon she’d cool down for a bit, and then quickly return to her old habits. Eventually, she was fired.

But why? This teacher had some fans (many of whom were Christian themselves). There was another, better-connected teacher in the department who did more-or-less the same thing, but she kept her job; whereas the teacher who was fired wasn’t well-liked by her colleagues. And if she’d just as aggressively preached atheism in class, I find it highly unlikely she would have been dismissed in the end. So what did her in? Was it the student complaints, her Christian faith, national politics, office politics, or more likely, some combination of all these things?

I can’t say for sure, but I think it would be a gross over-simplification to yell “religious persecution!” and call it a day. However, that’s exactly what some people on campus did.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen a similar thing play out with the case of Xia Yeliang – the Peking University (PKU) economics professor and political dissident who was recently dismissed from his post.

Most people (myself included) initially assumed this was a clear case of political persecution. Given all the very real political persecution happening throughout this country, it wasn’t an unreasonable assumption. A few weeks before the dismissal, I had even asked the head of a Sino-foreign joint venture college in Shanghai how foreign schools could justify “making a deal with the devil” when there are cases like Xia’s.

But then a few days before Xia was officially terminated, I was chatting with a friend studying at PKU. When I mentioned Xia, she said, “Actually, a lot of students at the school are upset with the way the media’s been covering that story.” She said that he was exceptionally unpopular because of his terrible teaching.

Intrigued, I thought I’d follow up on the story and see if it led anywhere. I figured I’d find some fans and some critics, and then pit them against each other in an article. Unfortunately, that’s not what I found.

When I was seeking out students of Xia’s, there were a few types of people I wanted to avoid. Obviously, I didn’t want anyone arranged through Xia himself or PKU. I also didn’t want to cherry-pick commenters on Weibo who, for whatever reason, had self-selected themselves to speak out on the issue. I tend to avoid Weibo and online forums like the plague when reporting – too many people with disingenuous motives. For the same reason, I sure as hell wasn’t going to quote anything or anyone dredged up online where I couldn’t verify that the person was actually a PKU student who had taken Xia’s class. I also didn’t really want to spend time trying to find current students. Xia had known since the beginning of summer that his job was in danger and his dismissal vote was coming up. If it were me, I’d dramatically alter my teaching methods this semester.

I wanted to choose random people who hadn’t yet expressed an opinion and contact them out of the blue. So starting with some contacts I had from PKU (none of whom were employees, Communist Youth League members or anyone with a vested interest or political axe to grind) I started making some calls and sending out queries to try and track down Xia’s students. The secondhand sources I muddled through were relating similar accounts that Xia was widely disliked. Eventually, I landed on four students who had actually taken his classes across several years.

I contacted them out of the blue and separately from one another. Had they started listing the exact same bullet points and buzzwords, I would have been suspicious. However, that wasn’t the case. They all had their own complaints, but there were some consistent themes: that Xia was boastful, dogmatic and preachy in his political beliefs (which he argued incoherently), that he was awful at teaching the subject matter, and that he would spend huge tracts of class time on completely irrelevant topics.

As I was wrapping up the story, PKU came out with a statement (here’s a later English translation) which more-or-less seemed in line with what the students had already told me (in terms of the specific complaints; nobody’s quite sure what’s up with the procedures used to oust Xia).

Had I found a single student that said a positive (or even neutral) word, I would have quoted them in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, I didn’t find this, and I wasn’t about to “balance” out the students I’d methodically sought out in order to avoid bias by quoting an unverifiable and easily manipulated source found through far less methodical means.

I don’t doubt Xia has fans out there though. I can’t think of anyone in history who’s had a 100 percent disapproval rating. But since I didn’t find any of them, I decided I would still present the segment of the student population that felt their voices were being ignored (a segment that seemed pretty large) and then give plenty of room for Xia to respond (but it seems a lot of people missed the half of the article where I laid out Xia’s side of the story).

In the end, I was only able to convince one of the students to use her (English) name in the article. This is something I wrestled with. No journalist likes to use anonymous sources – especially in a situation where they’re criticizing someone else. But having interviewed scores of Chinese students before, I knew that – even on completely benign stories – insistence on anonymity isn’t unusual. Whereas in the West, people are instinctively excited by the prospect of seeing their name in the paper, in China it’s often the opposite – especially among educated people who are well-aware of the country they’re living in (Helen Gao recently did a great piece exploring this). I considered myself lucky that the students even proceeded to talk to me when I said I was a reporter.

This case was extremely politically charged, but the students were more worried about being indicted by the greater public outside of PKU, which was firmly in Xia’s favor. They worried about being labeled wumaodang “50-centers” or CCP-stooges (labels I’ve unsurprisingly been given several times since). So I weighed the gravity of the case, the students’ reasons for wanting anonymity, Xia’s stature as a public figure and the fact that numerous people independently told me similar things. After weighing these things, I decided the story was much better off being told than shelved.

Some have dismissed what I found, saying it was “just a handful of students” and can’t be representative. I agree that it’s not at all on par with a comprehensive scientific survey, but I don’t think it’s negligible either. When two people corroborate the same things, maybe it’s a coincidence; three, a big coincidence. But when you have four people contacted randomly and separately without forewarning corroborating the same things, then that’s enough to make me comfortable that they represent a fairly sizeable group.

This is not the type of article a journalist gets excited about publishing. David vs. Goliath stories are straight-forward and a slam dunk in terms of public reactions. When you report that David might be flawed, however, many people don’t take very kindly to it. I knew I’d get backlash, and that publishing this story would bring me nothing but headaches. But when you find a story like this, you do a great disservice by sitting on it. I knew it would be a lonely few days, but I was more than confident in my reporting. I expected that eventually others would come out and confirm the same things I did, which is indeed what ended up happening (and here and here).

Still, even weeks later, the backlash continues to trickle in – some fair, some absolutely absurd.

The most frequent criticism I’ve gotten goes along the lines of “How can you rule out politics with all the other political repression going on in the country and all the other terrible teachers who are never fired?!” As it turns out, I never did rule out politics. But again, people like latching on to black and white views.

The debate after my article was framed as “Xia Yeliang: bad teacher or victim of politics?” Of course, that’s a false contradiction. There are plenty of possible scenarios involving varying degrees of both of those things. There are indeed countless terrible teachers that are never fired in China, but there are also outspoken dissidents that aren’t fired. Nobody knows for sure why Xia was dismissed though except for his superiors. You can’t rule out politics as a factor or definitively say it was the only factor.

You also shouldn’t ignore aspects of this case just because they complicate the nice neat David vs. Goliath narrative. Academic freedom is an important cause– one that I’ve written on many times – but letting an incomplete narrative prevail doesn’t help that cause; quite the opposite in fact.

Another criticism that I’ve received goes along the lines of “Yes, students are saying these things, but this is China. They’re either brainwashed or being instructed on what to say.” Another variation of this criticism involves the fact that I used to write for Global Times (a newspaper I quit writing for in disgust over two years ago and have written critically of many times since).

According to a group of surprisingly influential professors in the U.S., this is all some conspiracy wherein students were instructed on what to say and, being the government stooge that I am, I gleefully went along with the ruse (never mind that the majority of what I’ve written in the past is critical of the Chinese government – in Global Times, this blog, several Western media outlets and the newspaper I worked at for 18 months that’s nearly been shut down by the government several times).

If it’s easier for you to believe in a massive conspiracy than it is to believe in the possibility that there are real complaints about Xia’s teaching, then fine. I learned long ago not to waste time trying to sway conspiracy theorists.

Were the students told what to say though? Given the way I contacted them (and the other reports that have come out since mine) that would have to involve the university sending out unique instructions to thousands of different students going back seven years – many of whom aren’t even at the school anymore – without the instructions being leaked. If you think that’s a possibility, I suggest you read what happened when this obscure Chinese high school tried that route.

Are the students just brainwashed nationalists taught to hate people like Xia? I suppose I can’t definitively rule that out except to say I bore this possibility in mind while interviewing, and the students I spoke to certainly came off as very open-minded and intelligent.

The students all told me they’re happy (or at least tolerant) to see liberal politics discussed in the classroom in general. Two of them said they were huge fans of He Weifang, a PKU law professor and signatory to Charter 08 who’s been aggressively critical of the government in the classroom.

I appreciate all the people who emailed to inform me that China is under a Communist dictatorship (who knew?), to tell me what Chinese universities are REALLY like, and to explain that I was duped into writing this piece. But to anyone who’s spent even a cursory amount of time in a Chinese university over the past few years, the idea that Chinese college students are all programmed conformist robots that would unanimously fall in line when pushed to do so should be patently absurd.

While plenty do ride the herd mentality, there are A LOT of independent individualists out there today that wouldn’t think twice about speaking out against injustice if they saw it. Again, see what happened at this much lesser school when administrators pushed students to fall in line. And let’s not forget about the college students across the country that uploaded pictures of themselves with their faces shown to support Southern Weekend in the name of free speech and democracy last January.

Also, if you’re going to believe the “brainwashed” angle, you have to believe that Valentina Luo, a former researcher for The Telegraph and AFP, is also brainwashed (or in on the massive conspiracy with me).

Some have said since Xia has been branded a political pariah, students who support him wouldn’t dare speak out now; so it’s useless to try and get balanced comment on his teaching from student interviews. This seems like a big cop out to me – one that conveniently allows people to dismiss information that challenges their views. Why not try to randomly contact multiple students out of the blue and see what they say? I know that in the internet era, which allows people to simply quote from Weibo and “report” in their pajamas, actually speaking to people has become a novel concept. But catching them off guard is the best way to get their true feelings. So if they really loved Xia, perhaps they’d say so. See if they’ll even say something supportive anonymously. Heck, even if they hang up the phone, that would tell you something.

Tracking these people down takes effort though – a lot more effort than it takes to track down Xia Yeliang. But if people wanted to challenge what I and other reporters have found, this seems like the best way to do so.

Still, the debate goes on…which it should. There are many unanswered questions. There are ideological politics, office politics, and at Chinese state-run institutions, often a very blurry line between the two. I don’t doubt for one second that there are political components to Xia’s story. As I addressed in my article, Xia sees some big irregularities in the university’s position and the dismissal procedures, which need to be clarified.

Skepticism is good. I absolutely welcome RATIONAL skepticism of my piece and my work in general. But in the absence of any concrete evidence, skepticism should be divvied out to all sides. People who are skeptical of my piece should ask themselves honestly if they applied that same skepticism to earlier reports that sourced nobody other than Xia himself.

People (especially those not actually in China) should also remember that even though the country has scarcely changed politically in the past few years, it’s changed by leaps and bounds socially.Things can get more complicated than we’re able to fully comprehend. This government does indeed give us plenty of clear cut black and white, good vs. evil stories. So it makes it all the easier to miss the complications when things aren’t so simple. The story I did is certainly a complication I would have missed had it not been for a random conversation I had with a PKU student.

That conversation allowed me to realize that my initial knee-jerk bias meant I wasn’t as critical of the prevailing narrative as I should have been. When a fair number of people who had firsthand experience with Xia challenged my assumptions, I REPORTED what they said (which is quite different than ENDORSING what they said). You can make your own judgments about why they said it or if it warrants a dismissal. I expected to get quite a bit of heat for this piece, but at the end of the day, self-respecting reporters can’t sit on stories just because they don’t like their implications. I believe I did this story fairly and as thoroughly as the circumstances allowed, so I stand by it without regrets.

I assume that most readers of this blog also follow ChinaGeeks and its founder Charlie Custer, but in case there are any of you who don’t, you need to watch the documentary he just released online about the tens of thousands of children that get kidnapped and trafficked in China each year:

[Link if the embed doesn’t work]

The film follows three families, each of which lost their children to very different kinds of traffickers. Many might be familiar with the situation of the first family depicted, whose male toddler was stolen and presumably sold to a new family. But the second and third families in the film, who lost an adolescent girl and boy respectively, will send a chill down your spine. In all likelihood, the girl was sold into a life of forced begging or prostitution and the boy into slave labor. At best the authorities in these stories are lazy and incompetent. At worst they actively protect and profit from the trafficking rings.

The film’s title “Living with Dead Hearts” – which was coined by the mother of the adolescent girl – perfectly captures what the families go through. Having no idea what became of their children, and lacking even the closure that learning of their death might provide, the families have no choice but to spend every waking moment and every penny they have on the search for their child – a search that will almost certainly yield nothing but financial and emotional ruin.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of people in China will never be able to see this film, which is part of what makes this tragedy so pervasive. But this is also why it’s so important for the rest of the world to see it. It isn’t easy to watch and there’s no happy ending. The dark reality of the issue doesn’t warrant a happy ending. But I hope everyone will force themselves to watch and share it with others.