Jiamei Feng and Tammy Cho look at China’s latest celebrity divorce and investigate what the surrounding gossip tells us about Chinese society.
Posts, privacy and prejudice: The social media frenzy behind a celebrity divorce
Racism in Beijing megaclubs
For foreigners new to Beijing, the allure of the Sanlitun megaclubs is irresistible. There are few cosmopolitan capitals where shabbily dressed foreigners can experience the over-the-top decadence of Maserati-filled carparks, tuxedo-clad bouncers and free-flowing Moët that has come to epitomise the nocturnal stomping ground of Beijing’s super rich youth.
On these roaring marble dance floors a grand bargain has been struck. Foreigners get in and drink for free in exchange for being, well, foreign. To many this seems like their long-awaited international acclaim has finally arrived. What is not to love about VIP treatment? However, behind the opulence of these glistening dance floors lie a few uncomfortable questions. What sort of business model can sustain giving away unlimited free alcohol to thirsty foreigners? And what of those non-Caucasian foreigners who just aren’t ‘foreign’ enough to make it through the door, let alone partake in the liquid benefits of white privilege?
Monsoon subeditor Mark Rowe spoke to Vlad* a Sanlitun club promoter originally from Kazakhstan about his three years being what he calls a ‘professional foreigner herder’ for some of Beijing’s largest nightclubs.
[caption id="attachment_4365" align="aligncenter" width="671"] A hedonistic playground for foreigners or a zoo for super-rich locals? (Photo source: Wikimedia)[/caption]
M: How did you end up in Beijing, and what made you want to stay?
V: I moved to Beijing in 2013 with my girlfriend who got some work here as a nightclub model. I did not have much to keep me back in Kazakhstan, so I thought why not! The relationship with my girlfriend didn’t last, but my love for Beijing and its nightlife has. Where else in the world can you get paid to go out and dance on a Monday night?
M: How can a club afford to give free alcohol to foreigners? Surely someone must be paying for it?
V: There are two important points to note in terms of the free alcohol given to foreigners. Firstly, I would not bet any money that the vodka red bull you order with your foreigner arm band contains vodka or red bull. It is likely to contain cheap grain alcohol substitutes and something that tastes a bit like red bull but is far from it. I would not be too worried that it is going to be methanol or something like that, but, I mean, I wouldn’t want to drink it every night of the week. The hangovers from that stuff are the worst!
M: So in this type of club you get what you pay for?
V: Exactly. The basic business model is to use the foreigners to give the club status, in line with this Chinese idea of ‘face’. The rich young elites are willing to pay exorbitant prices for bottle service at tables if the club has a more cosmopolitan sophisticated feel to it. On one level there is this sort of logic that if foreigners are in the club it is more sophisticated and international and must be good.
M: How much would a table cost for a night?
V: In some places you can pay the equivalent of $500USD. But these kids are so rich they don’t even care. A lot of them will spend money just to show off and get girls. It is by getting these sort of rich kids into the clubs that the clubs make their money. That is why the alcohol they give for free is often so cheap.
M: So are foreigners just the dancing bears for the people spending up big at the tables?
V: I actually think it’s a win-win. The foreigners get to party for free, the rich kids get to feel important and I get paid OK money to make it all happen.
M: I have heard of promoters being paid per foreigner they get into the door?
V: Yes, depending on the club, the promoters do get a small commission per invitee they get into the club.
M: Are the reports of racism in the clubs true? Are white foreigners worth more than foreign born Chinese or people of African heritage?
V: Look, the short answer is somewhat, but I mean, it is more complicated than how it has been portrayed. The clubs I work for are trying to create a certain vibe, just like any club around the world—I am sure also in Australia. As a promoter it is my job to bring in the most good-looking blonde girls possible. A lot of the clubs pay models to come to the clubs again to bring a certain status with them. The people at the tables are paying for that vibe. Anyway in my years as a promoter I have never seen someone be refused entry because of the colour of their skin. Some have had to pay for their own drinks or a cover charge, for sure, but not flat-out refused.
M: Isn’t that basically the definition of racism?
V: You don’t see the white Westerners complaining about their drinks being free do you? Even though the locals have to pay for entry and drinks.
Beijing’s nightclub scene is relatively young by international standards, only really emerging in the early 1980s in large cities. Nevertheless, for a place full of inebriated sweat-soaked people dancing to sub-par music, Beijing clubs are a microcosm of a Chinese society coming to grips with growing income inequality, racism and ever more encounters with the West.
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Bear in the big blue dispute
Russia's policy of non-involvement in the South China Sea (SCS) is now uncertain after Moscow announced that it will participate in exercises with China in those hotly contested waters this September.
Taking place this September in a yet to be disclosed location, any joint exercises have the potential to alienate ASEAN for questionable gain, and undo Russia's fruitful Asian policy.
How ASEAN will interpret these exercises will depend on where they take place. If the exercises occur near Hainan or another part of the sea that is internationally recognised as Chinese, there should be no real risk. The exercises would simply be a bilateral affair occurring in Chinese territory.
If they were to occur in an area that is only claimed however, such as the Paracel Islands, ASEAN could interpret the exercises as an expression of Chinese claims, with Russian involvement getting them into hot water.
Until now Russia has avoided making firm statements on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, maintaining neutrality while other states have been drawn in. In the wake of the 12 July Hague Ruling on overlapping claims in the SCS between China and the Philippines, Russian Director of the Information and Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Maria Zakharova, explicitly stated that Russia was not and had no desire to be involved in the dispute.
Russia has pursued good relations with both ASEAN and China. Russia and ASEAN recently signed the Sohi Deceleration in hopes of greatly increasing trade and other sorts of cooperation. Wide ranging in nature, the extent to which it will succeed is debatable but nevertheless represents an intention to build on present ties.
More concretely Russia also maintains a strong arms relationship with Vietnam despite the recent American intrusion. It is currently contracted to supply a number of vessels to the Vietnamese Navy, including the Kilo-class diesel-electric submarine, vessels which incidentally would be ideal for operations in the SCS.
Russo-Chinese relations are even stronger. The two have engaged in several major military and counter-terrorism exercises, in the Mediterranean, East China Seas, the Sea of Japan, and in the Arctic. They also have ongoing arms deals and joint development programs, such as in the development of 4+ and fifth generation fighter jets.
Most significant is their trade relationship, valued at several tens of billions (USD) is Russia's largest with a single country, and for China is a major source of raw materials including energy. The vast expanse of Siberia to the north of China is increasingly significant in their long-term resource security, and has seen rising Chinese investment in recent years.
The pursuit of good relations with both sides is only possible while Russia is on neither. It is possible that Russia has accepted this and chosen China over ASEAN.
Russia's material relationship with China far exceeds that with ASEAN, and China is fundamentally more important than ASEAN in strategic terms. If Russia needed to pay for greater Chinese support, ASEAN would be an affordable price.
However Russia has nothing to gain from siding with China on this issue. While the two nations often cooperate as a loose bloc, such as through the growing Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, this should not be confused with some NATO-style alliance, even putatively.
Russia has also so far managed to enjoy its relationship with China without needing to pay a high geopolitical price. Perhaps most importantly, Russia in recent years has had considerable success without support from any major power. The reacquisition of Crimea and the operations in Syria were entirely Russian successes. Why does Moscow suddenly need support from Beijing?
If Russia is allowing itself to be drawn onto one side of this dispute, implicitly or otherwise, it is sacrificing much for little gain. Russo-Chinese relations have been beneficial for both countries at little cost; the cost of sacrificing Russo-ASEAN relations will not be commensurate with the gain from China.
The exercises this September will reveal the extent of rationality in Russia's foreign policy in Asia, and whether in this Asian Century the Russian bear will sink or swim.
4 minute readRead more
Media Control in China: Zhao Wei and Weibo
Often when it comes to film all the drama plays out on the silver screen. Not so in China.
A recent controversy played out on Sina Weibo, regarding a romance directed by one of China’s most famous actresses Zhao Wei. It is a revealing and cautionary tale about how much control the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) still has over the media.
Zhao has been forced to replace Taiwanese actor Leon Dai, and Japanese actress Mizuhara Kiko after finishing her new movie “No Other Love”, due to intense pressure on microblog site Weibo from both the public and Beijing.
Dai has a history of supporting Taiwan independence, while Kiko once visited Yasukuni shrine. Dedicated to dead Japanese soldiers, including those who fell in the Second Sino-Japanese War, the shrine has been condemned by the Chinese.
[gallery type="rectangular" ids="4199,4200"]
Weibo is a Chinese Twitter-like social media site, and the hottest microblogging service currently is Sina Weibo– the original inventor of the platform. It has various powerful functions, allowing users to insert rich media. The word limit for a basic microblog is 140 words, but users can edit and post “Long Microblogs” with lengthy text and multiple pictures.
[caption id="attachment_4218" align="alignnone" width="1346"] A screenshot of a microblog, otherwise known as Weibo[/caption]
Netizens can speak relatively freely on Weibo. Besides memes, commercials, news and harmless personal daily records, people use it to call out immorality, crime, and to criticise the political system – exposing injustice, corruption and the abuse of power.
Of course, this freedom is not entirely without limitation. Sina can delete posts and comments if they contain illegal content, or “sensitive words/information” unwelcome to Beijing, or the company itself.
For years, microblogs have served as a highly-valued justice tool. In 2016, however, things have started to change. Although netizens often criticize the CCP’s strict media control, they have paid more attention to Sina since the Zhou Ziyu Event.
The Taiwanese female singer insisted that Taiwan be an independent nation during her appearances on Chinese television. Angered, the public took to Weibo to ask her to apologise for the remarks.
Throughout the incident, a popular view emerged that Sina’s executives, in fact, support Taiwan independence, as the system deleted countless posts and comments in which furious netizens urged Zhou to apologise. Mistrust was bred.
The Zhao Wei Event is a replica of Zhou’s, but more serious and complicated. The movie was partly-financed by Alibaba, the country’s e-commerce giant as well as a major shareholder of Sina.
Three months ago when Zhao announced the cast on Weibo, her fans immediately realised that such choices would be a hidden danger to both Zhao’s movie and reputation. They kept reminding or questioning her about this on her posts, only resulting in deletion by the actress and her company.
The situation was inflamed on 25 June when she posted a joint photo with Dai to celebrate the movie’s completion. More protests appeared, while Zhao’s company threatened to sue, and Sina prevented users searching for the ongoing drama by blocking keywords.
[caption id="attachment_4229" align="alignnone" width="690"] The joint photo of Dai and Zhao that led to great controversy[/caption]
On 6 July, there was an even more surprising plot twist – the Party began to interfere. The official account of the Communist Youth League, a key element of the CCP, posted a long detailed microblog about the incident.
Although it used the word “alleged” when presenting Dai’s history of supporting Taiwan independence, the end of the article “kindly” reminded the public of three other movies which he stars in and will be soon on screen, and directly mentioned Zhao.
“Everyone makes mistakes – what is crucial is that you should be aware of and correct them,” it wrote.
[caption id="attachment_4263" align="aligncenter" width="604"] The screenshot of the article posted by the Communist Youth League on Weibo[/caption]
Making matters worse, Sina deleted the post after only 10 minutes, which led to unprecedented fury. As more political accounts got involved in the incident, Zhao finally threw in the towel and now the movie is in post-production.
Territorial unity is China’s most important political topic and nationalism is a mainstream ideology. The country is particularly sensitive to Taiwan. It may be seen as self-ruling from an international point of view, but in China it is considered an inalienable part of the territory. Any remark about independence can be a serious political mistake – as highlighted in both the Zhou and Zhao events.
And such control will continue to be stricter in the visible future. In February, President Xi Jinping stressed in a national speech the necessity of media’s subordination to the Party’s will.
Outside forces like business and the market might make some change in China, but they will never win the fight for dominance. Big Brother rules, as always.
4 minute readRead more
Inside the Dragon’s drug den
Paper cats and uncivilised swimmers
Bulldozer battles: Transformers defeated in China
In case you missed it, last week Decepticons and Autobots came back to Earth to fight a mighty street battle in Hebei Province, China. Taking the formidable form of screeching forklift trucks, the rival sides fought for dominance in a thunderous display of vehicular sumo wrestling. Traffic was interrupted during the melee, which saw two trucks felled and four others damaged. Reports say one human was injured by the toppling bulldozer, while another suffered a gunshot wound in the course of the battle.
Okay so there were no Transformers involved. But everything else about that paragraph is true. Check out some footage of it here:
According to Chinese news sources, the forklift battle was caused by a dispute between two rival cement mixing companies, both of which believed they had the rights to supply concrete to a county construction project. Two drivers were injured, one by a gunshot (somehow), but both are in a stable condition. While police are undertaking an investigation into the incident, the key question at the fingertips of derisive Chinese netizens seems to be: were the forklift drivers graduates of Lanxiang Vocational School?
Most people following Chinese-language news over the last few years will know of Lanxiang in Shandong province as China’s favourite scandal-plagued school. Lanxiang has been embedded in controversies ranging from cyber-espionage to public love affairs to Communist Party politicking. In 2010, the New York Times published an article claiming the school could be linked to several recent cyber-attacks launched against Google and other American corporations, with the purpose of stealing data and trade secrets. In 2014, a massive brawl broke out at the school involving dozens of people, including the 70 year-old founder of the school Rong Lanxiang, who allegedly injured his hands during the fight. Rong was already no stranger to media controversy, that year having been accused of tax evasion and violating China’s birth limit laws, as well as being involved in a messy public divorce with his wife over an alleged mistress. This was not a good look for someone who also happened to be a member of China’s National People’s Congress.
These controversies aside, the school has also been lampooned on Chinese social media for its overly dramatic advertisements, which come across more like a trailer for a Hollywood blockbuster than for a technical college which trains chefs and bulldozer operators. One of Lanxiang’s slogans has become particularly famous online: “When it comes to excavator technology, who is strongest? China’s Shandong Lanxiang!” In the wake of the 2014 brawl incident, Chinese netizens have delighted at misquoting the slogan as “When it comes to a punch-up, who is strongest? China’s Shandong Lanxiang!”
So it is no surprise, when a video of acrimonious forklift drivers engaged in a dramatic public brawl goes viral, that jokes about Lanxiang Vocational School come in thick and fast on social media. “In a struggle between Lanxiang elites, us mortals can only look on from the sidelines” declares one netizen. Another suggests that the bulldozer display was merely Lanxiang students practicing for the school’s rendition of War and Peace. But my favourite was the commentator who found the script to the next installment of the Transformers franchise:
“Optimus Prime: Megatron, you are truly contemptible. You speak of a duel, but then get your Decepticons to attack me by surprise!
Megatron: Wake up Optimus! You fool, it was Shandong Lanxiang who defeated us both!”
3 minute readRead more