Editor’s note: This semester, I am teaching a large undergraduate course on “Media, Culture, and Society in Contemporary China.” Given the amount of coverage about China in the American news media, I ask students to follow current news related to China and write a weekly one-page blog-style essay to share their observations and reflections. They are free to write about anything that interests them. The result is that every week, the two teaching fellows for this class, Ms. Megan Genovese and Ms. Ran Liu, and I, myself, are treated to an explosion of creative thinking and fascinating observations. With the authors’ approval, we decided to publish some of these essays here for the benefit of a larger audience. The following six essays are the first installment. We plan to publish more in the next couple of months. –Guobin Yang
With the Lunar New Year just passing, I found myself thinking often about my Chinese heritage and my family. This was my second Chinese New Year not spent at home and this one, more than the last, made me appreciate my roots. Growing up in the middle of New Jersey at a high school of about 70% Asian Americans, I had difficulty valuing my Chinese identity and would often ask my parents, “Are you sure I’m only Chinese? There’s nothing else?” Being Chinese didn’t feel special to me growing up; it felt like a mark that would herd me into being perceived as “just another Asian” with strict expectations that I was smart and would end up pursuing a medical field. I felt those expectations, some brought upon by outsiders and some enforced by Asian family friends, were toxic and with that thought in my mind, I saw myself slowly backing away from Chinese culture. I wasn’t wholly proud of my cultural identity and felt disillusioned by what I had thought should’ve been a beacon of light in my life. Though my situation was incredibly different than that of the sent-down youth, I can’t help but feel that the disillusionment we both share is somewhat similar. As mine was with Chinese culture and my ethnic identity, theirs had to do with their environment in China and not resonating with the cultural identity uncomfortably placed on them.
It was only when I got to college that my feelings started to change about my Chinese background. Coming to Penn and seeing such a diverse student population and meeting fellow peers who marvel at aspects of Chinese culture at our Lunar New Year festivals or knowing students go out of their way to learn Mandarin simply because they think it’s important has given me new perspective. Like the vibrant colors at the Chinese New Year parades, I have come to understand that my Chinese heritage is rooted in rich life and culture and makes me a stronger individual.
The Year of the Digital Red Pocket
Apart from spending time with family and friends, and devouring copious amounts of delicious food, a highlight of the Chinese New Year for many young people is receiving a red pocket (红包). However, it seems that even the most traditional of celebrations is not spared from the increasing digitization of our world. Recently, I came across a BBC News article on the increasing popularity of digital red pockets. The article talks about the money sending capabilities of digital platforms, specifically WeChat. Although the concept of sending money on WeChat was not new to me, as we covered it during one of the first lectures in class, I initially viewed WeChat and other online money transferral systems, such as Venmo, as a mere service applications, not tools to facilitate culture and tradition.
The integration of human culture and technology appears inevitable. However, there is something unnerving about this phenomenon. When I was younger, receiving a red pocket was one of the most exciting aspects of celebrating Chinese New Year. Not only was it great to earn some pocket money, but the exchange also encapsulates various nuances of Chinese culture. I remember having to conceal my excitement at the sight of the decorative red envelope, and having to appear humble and surprised. It was seen as bad mannered to be too eager, and to open the red pocket before the giver. Thus, there was always sense of renewed excitement when I was alone and finally able to see how much I was actually given. These quirks of social interaction, founded on emotion and years of culture, how will they be translated through the screen? Although I appreciate the convenience of digital applications, I do worry about the loss of such experiences. For future generations, perhaps it will be the norm to receive the red pocket through WeChat.
Gayming in China: Risk and Reward
A recent phenomenon in the LGBT community is called gayming. The word describes something that has existed for a long time – gay people who enjoy online or video games. The word also refers to said games that include distinctly queer content, as these games often queer the otherwise heteronormative world of technology and gaming. The idea of gayming has infiltrated American gay culture for some time now, but is recently being introduced in the Chinese market.
Until 1997, homosexuality was considered illegal in China. The LGBT community has been more welcomed and gained more respect in contemporary China, but the situation is still not great. The government, in an effort to cleanse the media of the “darkness in society,” banned all depictions of gay people on television. Obviously, this not only makes queer people in China feel shame, but it also threatens all of the work that queer activists have done in recent history.
Zhu Qiming, a Chinese developer, plans to release a gay-focused game in March. The game will be titled Rainbow Town. Due to censorship issues in China, the game does not feature any nudity or explicit sexual content. This does not follow the trends of the international gayming market, but it does fit within China’s policies. The release of Rainbow Town falls in line with the recent economic trend, called the Pink Dollar Movement, which is recognizing the untapped market of the LGBT population and how vital China’s gay citizens are to the overall strength of the economy.
In my opinion, marginalized groups in society often gain more acceptance when they become economically vital, or when they prove their economic power. For example, women in the U.S. showed how useful they can be to the workplace during World War II, and gradually gained acceptance of the idea that women can be in the workplace. Part of me hopes that this economic step forward for both the Chinese LGBT movement and China’s economy brings about further acceptance of the LGBT community and political equality. On the other hand, part of me wishes that homosexuality was simply accepted in China, and that the community did not have a long road ahead of them in terms of societal acceptance.
Once a Nuclear Site, Now a Tourist Attraction
In Fuling, China within the Jinzi Mountain, a defunct, never fully completed nuclear testing site has become a tourist attraction. The New York Times article by Amy Qin, “A Chinese Nuclear Site, Hidden in a Mountain, Is Reborn as a Tourist Draw,” delves into this site’s transition to tourist attraction and its past. For one tourist, this is a site of great pride and of China’s strength in the past and in the present. But for those who did work on building the site, they are disappointed to see this project that took the lives of many of their friends be turned into a money-generating tourism center. One man in particular chillingly explains that he feels disillusioned because he thought he was building something important for the nation, but in truth it was just this tourist attraction and simply not worth it.
To me, the Jinzi mountain site does not seem very reverent in terms of honoring those who gave their lives to this project. The neon lights in the tunnels make it look more like it belongs on a Disney World ride. On the contrary, I have been to many historical sights in both the US and Europe and I have never seen one that stimulated my interest so much visually — the set up and lighting make it look like more than a dry historical site. But one does not sense the gravity of its past.
Many questions about this site emerged for me upon considering it. I wondered why it was only older Chinese people who were on the tour and not a more diverse group in terms of age. I also considered why the hidden cave system was being opened now of all times — what is the government’s agenda? I would assume it is to make money, because this seems like a great way to bring in revenue if it was not being used for any other reason. If I were to go to China in the near future, I would absolutely visit this site. I still find it difficult to understand how a secret nuclear testing facility turns into a tourist attraction, but it has definitely stimulated my curiosity.
Visa Bans and Its Implications: US and China
In light of Trump’s recent ban of travel and immigration from seven Muslim countries, there has been mass protest and opposition from various communities, but one that has been particularly interesting to me is the science and engineering community, as it’s one that I’m involved with as a major in computer science and as a future software engineer after graduation. Several major technology firms have spoken out against this ban and their employees affected as well, but what is striking are the stories of key players in this community that have particular ties with such a ban. One common American example is Steve Jobs, whose father was a Syrian immigrant to the United States. Conversely, another example I recently read about in Popular Science’s article “Take It From History: Visa Bans Make Us Less Secure” is that of Qian Xuesen.
Qian was a Chinese-born national who moved to the US to study at MIT and ended up playing a key role in the development of ballistic missiles for the US. He had a long list of impressive accomplishments in furthering the aerospace field but unfortunately was a victim to the “Red Scare” incident in the US as a result of Mao’s declaration of the People’s Republic of China. This incident referred to the government’s fears and subsequent purge of those anticipated to be contributing to Communist threats within the US and thus, Qian was denied citizenship. Echoing today the many Muslims with valid US residency and visas who have not done any harm and instead contributed to America’s growing economy and society but denied entry, Qian’s contributions were outweighed by his identity and as a result, he was deported back to China. However, China welcomed him with open arms and he ended up developing the foundation for China’s nuclear weapons programs that is an important security concern for the United States today.
Qian’s story, though can be seen as an outlier in terms of the scale of his contributions, nonetheless demonstrates the hidden stories of marginalized, immigrant communities in the United States that help shape its society and industry. His story demonstrates how vital it is to see immigrant populations as sources of inspiration and contribution, and utilize their capacity to give to the United States. It also demonstrates how when you do this, you make your own country even stronger, as China did with accepting Qian and his knowledge. Especially at a time when there is increased international competition and a need to tap into the science and engineering talent to further a country’s technology capacity, it is necessary to focus on talent potential rather than identity.
Facebook Watches the Great Firewall
In 2015, Beijing authorities granted Facebook Inc. open license to open a representative office in two tower suites within Beijing. The opportunity to branch into China’s capital has typically been a sign for opening of opportunities within China. However, this opportunity was only for three months, and Facebook found it too limiting. Facebook never opened the office, the online posting disappeared, and Facebook says as of now they do not plan to open an office within China.
This set back is simply a continuation of the social media giant’s struggle with facing Chinese authorities. Facebook was blocked formally in 2009. Since then, Mark Zuckerberg has made constant efforts to breach into the Chinese market. He has courted Chinese officials, hired a China-policy chief, and started developing more censorship technology to assist the goals of the Communist Party.
Facebook is currently facing China’s extremely wary central government, which blamed free-speech social media for a lot of social unrest in 2009. Government censorship is an utmost requirement for all products within China, and Facebook needs to be able to balance their platform with these regulations. Zuckerberg himself cites that China is crucial to Facebook’s future and made significant efforts to reach compromise within the Chinese media space. One should note that Facebook has already agreed to take down illegal content within certain countries, such as pro-Nazi material within the German functioning Facebook. This censorship is what led to some Western tech giants (such as Google) to leave the market.
My belief is that regardless of how Facebook changes or censors their platform, they have already lost a significant portion of the Chinese population. The proliferation of “super” or “all-in-one” apps like WeChat have already replaced the functions of Facebook, and are built specifically for the Chinese market. At this rate, it does not look like Facebook has a chance across the Wall.