Survey Says… “Oops”

Max Fisher at The Washington Post ran a blog post last week featuring a world map of “racial tolerance” based on data from the World Values Survey (WVS), and it didn’t take long before the collective peer review power of Tufts University and Reddit found at least two examples of “fat fingers” where a “no, I don’t mind living next to other races” was mistakenly swapped with a “yes, I’m totally racist when it comes to choosing neighbors” for Bangladesh and Hong Kong, thanks to mistranslation and poor survey design. Others have pointed out the inherent flaw in assuming that the construct of “race” is universal and that news organizations’ need to feed the content beast creates a game of telephone where complex data is oversimplified and misinterpreted without real scrutiny.

I first encountered the WVS last year in my coursework on International Librarianship, where Geert Hofstede’s book Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind was used as a primary text and it served as solid jumping-off point for discussion. Hofstede is the granddaddy of cross-cultural studies quants, building a cross-cultural theory and corporate consulting brand out of data he developed as head of HR for IBM Europe in the 1960s, the same time Robert McNamara was using IBM mainframes to plot effective firebombing raids of Japan. Those were the salad days for punchcards. Like the WVS, Hofstede has survey datasets from dozens of countries over decades from which he and others glean tantalizing correlations (which so easily slip towards causation) between conceptual frameworks that “emerge” from the data (individualism vs. collectivism, for example) and GDP, economic growth, war, etc. At first, the book was fascinating as an American living in China – “wow, this validates so many things I anecdotally observe with hard data!” By the end of the book, however, I was completely disenthralled. The assumptions, generalizations, and seeming contradictions piled up in a doomed effort to render “national culture,” if such a thing is quantifiable, legible (yes, I’m finally reading Scott’s Seeing Like a State), looking like nothing more than the psychologist and sociologist equivalent to the old hack joke “White people drive like this, but black people drive like that!” Unless you’re a committed professional like Michael Harris Bond (who developed the original Chinese Values Survey) who will spend years wrestling with the data and appreciating its limitations, you’re better off watching Russell Peters.

Happy China Internet Maintenance Day!

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中国网站维护日快乐!

Truly, my new favorite Chinese holiday. The traditional way of celebrating offline involves umbrellas. It’s as if they’ve been watching Simpsons reruns in ZNH. And they’ve probably seen it in the dorms of Beida, or the equivalent, but it just doesn’t pack that same wallop it does for the overseas chattering dissident class, it seems.

Still, taking away Twitter?Curtailing my ability, as one friend described, to find out instantaneously how many loads of laundry a former high school classmate just successfully washed? Fuck. That. Shit.

CIRC 2009

I’ll be speaking, listening and blogging the 7th Annual Chinese Internet Research Conference in Philadelphia this Wednesday and Thursday (evenings in Beijing) over at the nested domains of http://2009.circ.asia/, which resolves to http://www.global.asc.upenn.edu/circ, where the blog is a wrapper around http://www.lokman.org/. In other words, you’ll find me, Lokman, Weiyu, Anne and Bill via any of those domains. Twitter tag is #circ09, and a live webcast will stream from http://www.ustream.tv/channel/circ2009.

It’ll be interesting to see panels that sit Peking University researchers alongside Freedom House, and Human Rights in China with Google Director of Corporate and Policy Communication Bob Boorstin. And that’s just Wednesday morning. Ethan Zuckerman, Isaac Mao, Rebecca MacKinnon, Yang Guobin, Jack Qiu, Jiang Min, Michael Anti and more will be there too.

Chinese Al Jazeera? No Chance.

Reading David Bandurski’s ever keen observations over at China Media Project in “As China shout its line on Tibet, is anybody listening?”, I got struck by deja vu all over again. Three times.

First, there’s the endless drumbeat of the official line in Chinese media Bandurski illustrates thusly:

In People’s Daily: “Treasuring the fruits of democratic reform: celebrating the 50th anniversary of the liberation of millions of Tibetan serfs”
In Guangming Daily: “Treasuring the fruits of democratic reform: celebrating the 50th anniversary of the liberation of millions of Tibetan serfs”
In Economic Daily: “Treasuring the fruits of democratic reform: celebrating the 50th anniversary of the liberation of millions of Tibetan serfs”
At Xinhua, etc. etc. etc.

And so on. Which, of course, is echoed repeatedly in English as Tibet to set “Serf Liberation Day”, or minor variations thereof. You can even read about it in Esperanto, along with full coverage of the two conferences last month. Which reminds me of my all time favorite bit of heavy handedness from Chinese English media, the special report page Xinhua produced titled “Condemn Falun Gong”, in which the headlines report all sorts of groups doing just that: a forum, overseas Chinese, the students of Chongqing, “people of all circles”, and then, so as not to leave out people without circles, simply “people” condemn it, in case you weren’t sure if you were invited to join in the festivities.

Bandurski then reminded me of the news that China is investing 45 billion RMB in CCTV, Xinhua and People’s Daily to “accelerate “going out”” and go global with its news operations to set media agendas. The maximum any one of them can get is 15 billion, which is alot more than CCTV-9 has ever seen, but wait a minute. I’ve heard most of this before. Li Changchun has been saying more or less the same things about “going out” since 2003, albeit I’m guessing he’s not referring to the Three Represents as often. The same goes for soft power – just because America finally has a president who likes Joseph Nye doesn’t mean the Chinese just discovered him too. It’s been a perennial favorite for years, and been applied to everything from CNN to Korean soap operas, and always boils down to “China doesn’t have enough”.

First of all, one bit going around is that China is inspired to start its own Al Jazeera. That was something heard in 2004 and repeatedly thereafter from Li Xiguang, Tsinghua professor and at that time newly appointed director of CCTV International. Li was behind the relatively tame revamp of CCTV-9 at the time, when they hired Edwin Maher, and launched Spanish and French language channels (and five years later, how many people watch those?).* Now, CCTV is on the verge of launching Russian and Arabic channels, and plans to have seven different languages on 11 channels by 2012. I count six including Mandarin. Is there a Cantonese CCTV, or are they going to launch the world’s first global 24 hour esperanto network? Point being, that 15 billion RMB gets sliced 11 ways. Most importantly, what kind of strategy is this? Al Jazeera made its mark primarily through exclusive journalism in one language – it’s own – and then expanded into English. At this rate, the Big Underpants building in Beijing is going to be the Tower of Babel, or worse resemble the EU’s translation center.

Besides this lack of focus, there are other reasons China can’t have an Al Jazeera:

  1. Size matters: Al Jazeera is based in Qatar, which is about 11,000 square kilometers (4,400 square miles). To put this in perspective, all of Beijing is 16,807 kilometers. But their primary Arabic business covers the entire Arab world. Al Jazeera offices have been closed or raided because of negative reporting in the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Kuwait, Jordan and Bahrain. It’s not beholden to the governments of 99% of its regional viewers. That’s one of the reasons Al Jazeera was so successful.
  2. Nobody wants to hear about Qatar: Qatar has about 350,000 citizens according to Wikipedia, and around another 700,000+ expats. There is news to be reported, and Al Jazeera has been criticized for not looking in its own backyard too closely, but the country is just too small to be a generator of globally significant events (except about Al Jazeera itself). By contrast, China sneezes about the dollar and markets turn.
  3. Al Jazeera’s main mission is not boosterism: China is flatly stating they want a Chinese network to boost their reputation. The Emir of Qatar, by contrast, has allowed editorial independence and Qatar doesn’t really need it anyway thanks to size and oil. Not to mention perhaps the Emir understands that it doesn’t work. Soft power does not seem the Emir’s main interest, at least not in the way Chinese officials and scholars tend to think of it.
  4. They made their bones with regional Johnny-on-the-spots and call-in shows: Al Jazeera’s primary success was in Arabic, not English, with bureaus reporting live on the scene, even if it is only horrifying images of bodies (not typical fare for Chinese media). How often has Chinese language television been breaking news for their domestic audience with investigative interviews or live reports? Not so much. Al Jazeera’s popular live call-in shows, meanwhile, have often involved shouting matchs and free debate.

Finally, Bandurski also points out that China shipped a happy Tibetan monk all the way to Canada to say how not mad he is about anything. Well, three years ago China was building the largest embassy in the U.S., designed by I.M. Pei, and their ambassador had started gladhanding people in diners in Iowa. That didn’t pay off huge either.

China may have a respectable global news franchise yet, but throwing money around and talking about copying models that don’t fit isn’t going to make one.

*Li Xiguang’s speech on World Press Freedom Day in 2004 about coverage of the Iraq War by Chinese jounalists is fascinating. He basically savages CNN and Fox for spewing U.S. propaganda, but also savages the Chinese government for essentially “turning over” state TV to Rupert Murdoch.

UPDATE: SARFT said today that CCTV International’s four existing stations now reach 100 million households. I’ll just point out two things: first, reach is not the same as viewers or trust, and second, if that’s the case it wouldn’t make much sense to spend the 45 billion on a new network, but rather in integrating Xinhua’s overseas bureaus with CCTV International. Will turf wars and red tape make this difficult? Who knows.

Teacup Feet

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Attribution License by otisarchives3

World War I era photo of Chinese woman’s feet from the Otis Historical Archives at the National Museum of Health & Medicine in Washington, D.C.

China Strange Maps: Cannibals, Frenchmen & Mu

Cleaning out the aggregator. Here are several China-related maps from the Strange Maps blog.

MAPS OF CHINA

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Populations of China Compared to Countries

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Mapping the Herdict on YouTube (Update #3)

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With conflicting reports about YouTube access in China tonight, here’s the breakdown from reports to the unfortunately named Herdict (Herd + Verdict, get it? neither did I…) censorship reporting tool:

156 reports from China in the past 26 1/2 hours (March 5 11:30 PM Beijing Time)

125 report YouTube inaccessible

31 report YouTube accessible

Herdict doesn’t yet generate country maps, but the ISP providers usually name the province, and so its not hard to color in a map like the one above. Green means all reports (in every case, only one) said YouTube was accessible, Red means all reports were for inaccessible, and Orange means there are reports of both.

Little Nemo Dreams of China (1912)

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From ComicStripLibrary.org, two Little Nemo strips from consecutive Sundays in December 1912, in which regular characters Flip, Dr. Pill, and The Imp visit China, and Flip attempts to kidnap Emperor Puyi.

Special bonus: Krazy Kat draws a Kue.

It’s All Chinese to the Greeks

Language Log has created a map of what languages are considered by other languages to represent “incomprehensibility”, as in “it’s Greek to me.” Predominantly referring to European languages, Chinese is hands down the big winner. I’d point out, though, that Chinese not only refers to it as “Heavenly Script” for the written word, but as “bird speak” for the spoken word.

Will the Dalai Lama Twitter in Chinese? Apparently Not. #2

UPDATE: Turns out that it was a Twitter impersonator. My optimism was misplaced.

The Dalai Lama (or his office, at any rate) has opened a Twitter account @OHHDL. Last March, I argued that according to his own stated beliefs the Dalai Lama and his supporters ought to be using technology like Twitter and Fanfou to engage Chinese Internet users. Now three more steps:

1) Follow some Chinese people

2) Tweet in Chinese

3) Get a funkier Twitter avatar. Baby pictures can be good:

Photo of the Dalai Lama when he was 3, courtesy of The Tibet Album: British Photography in Central Tibet 1920-1950