ONTD Political

China Soft-Power Watch: The Yang Rui 'Foreign Bitch' Factor

8:50 am - 05/23/2012
China Soft-Power Watch: The Yang Rui 'Foreign Bitch' Factor

Update: please see this very useful explanatory piece by Brendan O'Kane in China, and a followup by me.
This story is all over the China-hand blogosphere, and is so strange that at first I was sure it was a joke. But apparently it isn't. It involves the man below, shown in a WSJ screen shot, and here is the background to understand the fuss:

- CCTV-9 is the English-language channel of China's state-run TV network, and as such is a fascinating real-time window onto the face the government wants to present to the outside world. It is different from CCTV America, the relatively new network that, especially when covering happenings in any country other than China, has been doing a (surprisingly?) good job of presenting "real" news. When CCTV America switches back to taking feeds and programs from the mother ship in Beijing, the difference is noticeable and very interesting.

- A program called "DIALOGUE" is the high-end prestige jewel in the tiara of the CCTV-9 lineup. Its aspiration is to be seen as a combination of the Charlie Rose Show, the old William F. Buckley Firing Line, and Ted Koppel's Nightline, with perhaps a dash of the author-interview segment of The Daily Show. Each evening's half-hour program is about some worthy top-of-the-news topic, and two guests -- usually one Chinese and one foreign, sometimes with additional commentators -- are matched up to exchange views. If you watch CCTV-America in the US or CCTV-9 in China, you'll see round the clock ads for it, with lofty references to the crucial importance of open exchange of ideas.

- The hosts and moderators of the program, a man named YANG RUI and a woman named Tian Wei, are big fish in the China-hand media world. They run the show in English; they have traveled and (at least in Tian Wei's case) worked in the US and Europe; they pride themselves on their international contacts and views; they have many friends and acquaintances, including me, in the foreign-Sinophile community.

Now, the tricky part. Many foreigners who have been on the show know the experience I had during my few appearances, early in my time in China. When you're on the set before the show begins, there is a lot of light and non-dogmatic chat with the hosts and the other guest(s). But once the show begins, the tone often shifts, with an opening question from the host on the lines of: "To our guest James Fallows, I must ask: do you not agree that the United States is being unfair and unreasonable in the demands it is making of the Chinese government? Especially considering its many failures at home and its relative decline in standing in the world?" Then once the show is over, it's light, easy, non-agitprop chat again.

The first time this happened to me, I was startled. But as soon as I thought about it I realized: this is the tightrope you walk inside a state-controlled news network. To the show's credit, it allows the foreigners to reply in kind and and to challenge the terms of the question. And often it broadcasts the show live, with limited real-time control on what a guest might say. (On the other hand, since it's in English, the audience inside China is limited.) I was on the show three or four times, usually during US-China meetings or controversies. I found the whole experience educational, as part of my ongoing "this is China" immersion, but eventually I decided this was not a sensible venue for me. I know that many foreigners in China have considered doing anthropological studies, or satiric novels, about the kind of "foreign experts" that CCTV is most comfortable having as frequent return visitors on the show.

This brings us to the recent news. On his Sina Weibo account, Dialogue host Yang Rui let loose with an anti-foreigner rant so extreme that on first reading I was sure it had to be a parody. Only it wasn't. It's as if you heard a Stephen Colbert "in character" riff on his show -- and then suddenly realized he wasn't kidding. To put it further in context, it's as if a well-known figure whose trademark was urbane earnestness -- again let's say Ted Koppel, or Charlie Rose -- let rip with a David Duke-style diatribe and evidently meant it.

The paragraph below was all one tweet from Yang Rui -- you can really say more in 140 Chinese characters than 140 English letters! -- as translated in a dispatch by the WSJ's Josh Chin:

The Public Security Bureau wants to clean out the foreign trash: To arrest foreign thugs and protect innocent girls, they need to concentrate on the disaster zones in [student district] Wudaokou and [drinking district] Sanlitun. Cut off the foreign snake heads. People who can't find jobs in the U.S. and Europe come to China to grab our money, engage in human trafficking and spread deceitful lies to encourage emigration. Foreign spies seek out Chinese girls to mask their espionage and pretend to be tourists while compiling maps and GPS data for Japan, Korea and the West. We kicked out that foreign bitch and closed Al-Jazeera's Beijing bureau. We should shut up those who demonize China and send them packing.

The "foreign bitch" he refers to is Melissa Chan, a U.S. citizen working for Al Jazeera, who did really impressive work from China over the past five years and then was expelled. Again, I thought at first this was an urbane Chinese cosmopolite, mocking nativist Chinese attitudes, Colbert-style. That it was serious is ... worth reflection. Among the reactions worth reading is Charlie Custer's, at China Geeks:

It's interesting that this outburst came from Yang Rui, who is in some ways one of the faces of China's soft power push. Dialogue is an English-language program, which means it is targeted at foreigners in China and abroad by default. The fact that its host (one of them, anyway) is apparently a racist xenophobe is probably indicative of how successful China's soft power push is likely to be.

And in keeping with the reality that China is a big, churning, diverse place, Custer points out that much of the reaction in the Chinese blogosphere has been mockery of Yang Rui for his xenophobia. For instance:

At first I thought that it was just Mr. Yang's English [abilities] that were disappointing, but now I see there are many disappointing things about him....

Isn't your daughter studying in the US?

Haha, so Yang Rui is really this big a dumbass. A dumbass pretending to be cool but actually a Boxer.

So this is the quality of CCTV? Anyway, where did you study your English? Do the people there think about you this way?

I want to ask, can you speak Chinese? How can someone so incoherent become a TV host...

More later. I will be interested to see the next few installments of Dialogue -- and which foreigners agree, now, to appear as guests. Hint: They shouldn't.


The levels of xenophobia and anti-foreigner sentiment have really had a sharp upswing in the last few weeks, thanks to an idiot Briton sexually assaulting a Chinese woman on the streets of Beijing (then getting the crap beaten out of him by bunch of Chinese men), a Russian cellist (later fired from the Beijing Orchestra for it) cursing out a Chinese woman on a train, and a "crackdown" on people in the country illegally where the police are calling for people to report "suspicious" foreigners to them. That's the backdrop for Yang Rui spewing his bile. I definitely recommend reading the articles linked to in this one for more background.
ms_maree 23rd-May-2012 12:22 am (UTC)
We kicked out that foreign bitch and closed Al-Jazeera's Beijing bureau.

I know things are lost in translation, I wonder if the word they used in China is also a nasty sexist slur.

I find it a bit amusing (in a dark way) cut and paste this, replace the country and you get the same exact anti-foreigner spiel on right wing radio in the West.
makemerun 23rd-May-2012 12:24 am (UTC)
All of this.
homasse 23rd-May-2012 12:27 am (UTC)
Yang Rui's tried to say he was mistranslated, but the translations he offered - "shrew" or "harridan" - are also sexist, so I'm guessing "bitch"is a dead-on translation and he's trying to soften it.
ms_maree 23rd-May-2012 12:31 am (UTC)
Yeah, that's really not much better.
homasse 23rd-May-2012 12:41 am (UTC)
I just looked up the word he used, 泼妇, pofu, and it's definitely sexist, and the translations given for it were "shrew" and "bitch."
ms_maree 23rd-May-2012 12:49 am (UTC)
Shrew is pretty much an old-fashioned word for bitch.

On the topic of China (and their foreign affairs), a senior Chinese official who apparently on the fast-track to becoming Premier told the Australian foreign minister that Australia had to make a choice between China or America as 'godfather' (his words).

He said that Australia can't have both and China finds it upsetting that we're still so close to America while trying to forge relations with China.

IMHO It could be my imagination, or maybe the news reporting but it seems China is putting more and more pressure on their neighbours to choose sides.

Edited at 2012-05-23 12:50 am (UTC)
homasse 23rd-May-2012 01:09 am (UTC)
I don't think it's your imagination; China has really been ramping it up lately. They've also been getting a lot pushier with their their territorial claims, all the while saying THEY are the ones being bullied (The Philippines is bullying China. Seriously?)

It's a lot like the government is using tactics that work well IN China outside of China on a global, international scale, and, uh, no.
ms_maree 23rd-May-2012 01:15 am (UTC)
Philippines is bullying China. Seriously?

Yeah, I don't know if they believe it or it's just a tactic.

But I don't think any countries in the region are at a level to bully China, even the wealthier nations. I mean, fair criticism Australia and Japan, even South Korea are closer Allies of the United States for various reasons and I can see how China could feel their borders are at risk ie American bases - but the only country I can see in the world that can even come close to 'bullying' China is the United States and I'm not so sure about that anymore, or how long that would last.

The country is a super-power, and just like all of the past super-powers, isn't shy in pushing their weight around economically and militarily.
homasse 23rd-May-2012 01:44 am (UTC)
Also, on the "pofu" thing:

I threw out the question of how to translate 泼妇 to a table of translators and interpreters yesterday afternoon. Consensus was “bitch,” since terms like “shrew,” “scold,” “blowen,” “harridan,” etc. are no longer in common usage, but the native speakers of Chinese — both female — said that it actually struck them as nastier than “bitch” in this context, since it is possible to be a reasonable bitch but not a reasonable 泼妇.
alryssa 23rd-May-2012 02:57 am (UTC)
ameliorate 23rd-May-2012 01:44 am (UTC)
Interesting post, thank you for sharing.
sobota 23rd-May-2012 02:11 am (UTC)
my mum is in china, and as a white, german, red haired and green eyed woman, she sticks out. her chinese is pretty damn near flawless though. she told me about this, and says it's closer to be the c-word (rhymes with punt).
ruby_chalice 23rd-May-2012 11:06 am (UTC)
"an idiot Briton sexually assaulting a Chinese woman on the streets of Beijing"

An 'idiot'? Really? People who commit sexual assaults are idiots?

An inappropriately tame insult for someone perpetrating a deviant criminal act.
homasse 23rd-May-2012 01:00 pm (UTC)
seamouse 23rd-May-2012 02:11 pm (UTC)
unfortunately, while most languages offer a seemingly endless buffet of female-specific insults, the guy who commits sexual assault is just...simpleminded? maybe just wasn't thinking at that moment? am I the only person grating at the discrepancy between 'bitch/c*&$/howeveryawannatranslate it' and 'idiot'?? Not that i'm a big fan of namecalling (easy way out, imho), but i'm even less a fan of misogyny
ruby_chalice 23rd-May-2012 03:41 pm (UTC)
Thank you!

But you expressed yourself far more eloquently than I did.
homasse 24th-May-2012 01:29 am (UTC)
It was not part of the article. It was me, the OP, giving background. Thus, after the cut and separated from the article by dashes.
ruby_chalice 25th-May-2012 10:19 am (UTC)
I was aware it was you. It's unclear to me why you think that makes a difference tbh.
homasse 23rd-May-2012 11:06 pm (UTC)
You know that "idiot" was my, the OP, comment giving background, not part of the article, right? OK.
seamouse 23rd-May-2012 11:18 pm (UTC)
nope. totally didn't catch that. my bad.
homasse 24th-May-2012 01:28 am (UTC)
No worries. I was wondering why people were jumping on that. :/

I almost never comment in the post itself to give opinions on posts, since I don't want to prejudice people's opinions on the article, but I will give opinionated background info if I think people might not be up to speed on things, which is all that comment was.
apostle_of_eris 24th-May-2012 02:33 am (UTC)
Welcome to the world view of The Middle Kingdom. The Chinese name for China is "the center of the universe". It's probably a violation of physics for a barbarian to have anything like a valid criticism of China, much less a genuine claim against her.
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