The BoZhu Interviews: “Social Media Provide a Common Virtual Space” -

an interview with Catherine Yeung

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Catherine Yeung runs the blog Under the Jacaranda Tree,

a public forum with a personal aspiration: to fulfil a longstanding wish, shared by several friends, to provide a cyberspace venue for some overdue open and honest discussions about the internal conditions of the People’s Republic of China and their effects upon the international community and the Earth.

Under the same virtual tree,  Catherine’s co-blogger Ned Kelly (or his re-incarnation, for that matter) runs his virtual pub, not necessarily, or not exclusively, with China-related topics.

The Interview:

Q: I’m feeling tempted to call this interview “blogs, and what became of them” – there has been one post Under the Jaracanda this month so far, and the previous post is from April. During the first two years after you and Ned Kelly started the blog, your average number of posts per month was exactly thirteen. Why the slowdown?
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A: I didn’t slow down at all. I’m actually blogging much more often than before. It’s just that I’ve been doing it at other places, rather than at the Under the Jacaranda Tree Blog. I started my Twitter account in 2009, and so far I have posted 13,450 tweets. My Sina Weibo venture commenced about a year ago. And I am also in the process of migrating from Facebook to Google+.  My co-blogger Ned is doing more or less the same thing. The only difference is that Ned has moved on to writing about Australian and American politics, while my focus is still on China.
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Q: Could you share some links?
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A: My Twitter name: WLYeung;  my Google+ Profile: https://profiles.google.com/u/0/106435663716662310692.
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Q: How would you usually introduce yourself, when meeting people, and asked for a few words about yourself?
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A: This is Catherine Yeung from Under the Jacaranda Tree Blog. I write about China.
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Q: You are Australian, and of Chinese ancestry. You read both Australian and Chinese media. Which are the three worst Australian news article about China you can remember – and vice versa? Which are your favorite information sources, be it on the internet, or elsewhere?
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A: In my opinion, Australian journalists have, by and large, done a decent job reporting about China. The best among them are: John Garnaut, who writes for the Fairfax News Group; Stephen McDonell, ABC’s China Correspondent; and the very talented Jane Hutcheon.
For me, the worst media reports on China ever written by an Australian are in fact not published in Australian newspapers.  And they are not even written by a journalist. I’m referring to two articles by the ever illusive “former Australian diplomat to Russia” Gregory Clark: “The Tiananmen Square massacre myth” published on 15 September 2004 in Japan Times, and “Black info and media gullibility: creation of the Tiananmen myth” published on 1 July 2011 by the same news service. To cut the long story short, back in 2004, Mr Clark claimed that the Tiananmen Massacre was a western media fabrication. He has recently upgraded his allegations and is now adamant that the entire incident was some kind of gray propaganda concocted by British intelligence.
My co-blogger Ned wants to add a note here about worst Australian news report on China. Ned says, “Any media publication that bears the title “China’s Rise” is bad, period.” His remark reminds me of an Australian politician, the self-proclaimed father of Australia’s republican movement Malcolm Turnball MP. Mr Turnball is now running a regular column for the Fairfax news group promoting China trade. I have a distinct impression that Mr Turnball is the Kissinger Sino-US PR team’s latest recruit. But I may be wrong. Only time can tell …
My blog roll represents a significant part of my information sources. I also receive first-hand information from media contacts I have established via Twitter.
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Q: If Australian papers or correspondents are more informed about China, could it be for the relative proximity between the two countries? And does professional reporting, in your view, amount to a more informed public in Australia, than in Europe or North America, for example? Or is there no great difference in quality between coverage from the three continents, anyway?
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A: I didn’t say Australian journalists are “more informed” about China. I am just suggesting that most of them are “as informed” or “as professional” as many first class journalists from other developed countries. Those three Aussie journalists in particular are not just professionally qualified, they also have good language skills. John Garnaut speaks Mandarin and is a human rights lawyer by training. Stephen McDonell speaks fluent Mandarin and Spanish. Jane Hutcheon speaks fluent French and Mandarin, and has acquired near-native proficiency in Cantonese.
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Q: Under the Jacaranda Tree is meant to be a place for people to meet online and to discuss China-related issues. What motivated you to start it?
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A: Under the Jacaranda Tree Blog was started as a celebration of my co-blogger Ned Kelly’s completion of his sojourn in China. It’s meant to be a continuation of a dialogue we had been conducting on and off for many years via letters and emails. It is also a tool for us to reach out to the world. As you know, Western Australia is, by all accounts, a rather remote part of the world (and here we are not just referring to its physical location).
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Q: How closely do you follow Chinese and non-Chinese blogs respectively? Do you (as a reader) or they (as bloggers) focus on certain, recurring kinds of news and topics?
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A: I subscribe to more than 70 online publications, some in Chinese, some in English. They include blogs, newspapers and journals. I am following more than 400 Twitter users and 80 odd Weibo users. Among them there are Chinese dissidents, academics, media workers as well as China-based foreign correspondents. I’m also a part of the HK InMedia network. It is my intention to read as widely as possible. But it seems the topics that constantly catch my eyes are: media censorship, mass incidents, corruption, rule of law (or the lack of it) and religious freedom.
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Q: Have you seen big changes in your own blog or blogs, and in the Chinese, or foreign “China blogosphere” since you started blogging yourself?
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A: Yes indeed. However, I see those changes as a reflection of similar changes in the entire China blogosphere. They are mostly propelled by the discovering of new social media. Nowadays, I’ll use Twitter for a quick exchange of information, Google + for sharing video clips or posting detailed analysis of current affairs, and conventional blogging for longer pieces of translation or for advocating a certain course of action. I hope I can integrate all these into a single platform. But unfortunately the WordPress template I’m using for my blog does not have the best tools for such endeavour. I am still searching, and will be grateful if technologically savvy readers can give me some suggestions.
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Q: In your view, has China changed since you started blogging? Has the overseas Chinese community changed? Or has the world changed? How so?
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A: I’ve seen many changes, but they are not all good news. The space for freedom of speech in China has dramatically contracted in the last 2 years, particularly among the dissident community. The Chinese censors’ effort is closely matched by the CCP propaganda department’s much improved strategy at selling China’s soft power. Meanwhile, the so-called pro-democracy faction among overseas Chinese community worldwide has been more or less discredited. The world is now more eager to see a stable China than before the 2008 financial meltdown, to the extent that many world leaders are willing to overlook some rather obvious human rights violations that are happening in China.
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Q: Being a bilingual blogger, you seem to follow both Chinese- and English-language blogs, and blog posts from Chinese and from foreigners alike. Do you see anything they would have in common? And what makes them different from each other?
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A: They are very different. The difference is not just confined to the topics they picked. Let us take the Wenzhou train crash as an example. Most English-language bloggers wrote about how the news was censored. There were some discussions on possible implications for the Chinese government, but they are not in great details. Many Chinese bloggers who wrote about this incident, however, seemed to be more interested in the way the rescue was handled. They were also eager to ascertain whether there were signs of a cover-up.
Ultimately it comes down to a different reason for blogging. English-language bloggers who write about China are doing so mostly as observers. Most of them want to use their blogs as a forum to provoke discussions. For many Chinese bloggers, particularly those who are living in China, the blogosphere is a virtual space for them to gather, to exchange information, to gossip, to monitor the authorities and to plot the kind of actions that they cannot otherwise have contemplated in the real world.
The good news is: the difference between the two groups of bloggers can be bridged. From what I can see, social media, such as Twitter and Google +, or even the Weibo, have provided a common virtual space for the two bloggers’ groups to converge. The exchange of minds is made possible by bilingual bloggers (or “bridges”, as my friend Isaac Mao calls them). With the number of bilingual bloggers and online projects growing, I am confident that the gap will be gradually narrowed.
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Q: Weibo is often portrayed as a social or political game-changer in China. Would you agree with that? How do you feel about Weibo?
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A: I’m still feeling my way through Weibo. So I may be able to shed more lights at a later stage. But my first impression is that it’s a bit of an exaggeration to call it a game-changer. However, as mentioned above, I believe social media such as Weibo can provide a common space for some meaningful cultural exchanges. So I strongly urge those of you in the English-language China blogosphere to go over there and have a look. A friend of mine, who is doing a Japanese major in university and doesn’t speak any Chinese, has recently set himself up at Sina Weibo with the help of Google Translate. He says he is having fun and is thoroughly enjoying the experience. So why don’t you have a go too.
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Q: Have you ever stopped reading blogs because you felt they were becoming boring, or because they angered you?
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A: So far only one blog has this kind of effect on me. And of course you won’t be surprised if I mention the name “the Fool’s Mountain” ….
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Q: You are an active campaigner for human rights. Do you feel that global reactions to human rights violations are usually disappointing? Why should people with a vested economic interest in China care about human rights, and speak up for people who are persecuted, even as they may harm their business by doing so?
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A: No, I don’t find global reaction disappointing. I just find world leaders’ presumptuous attitude unsettling. As a matter of fact, pressure from the international community and human rights organisations has proven to be very effective in putting a check on human rights abuses in China. Ai Weiwei’s release from illegal detention, among a few other cases, is a good example.
For Australian businesses who say they don’t care about human rights in China, as long as business keeps going, I have a word of warning for them: those who allow evil to conquer the world will suffer from its consequences. If human rights abuses are acceptable in China, there is no categorical reason why they are not acceptable in other parts of the world, including Australia.
A note from Ned: “JR, I am referring you to Kant’s categorical imperative.”
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Q: You said before that the pro-democracy faction had discredited itself. Was it for leaders being presumptuous? In which ways? Or is it for misinterpreting the status quo, or for  the American and European economic setbacks of the past three years?
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A: As far as I know, the overseas dissident community has always been fragmented and there are rather serious internal power struggles among key members. It’s possible that there are personality clashes. But I’m more inclined to believe that agents from CCP’s United Front Work Department have infiltrated the community. Many of these overseas dissidents have been away from China for too long and their views on current issues are out of date. Consequently, activists in the PRC find it difficult to take them seriously. For many PRC-based Chinese netizens, the title “民主斗士“, or democracy fighters, is considered a derogatory term.
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Q: Is there an unasked question to which you would like to reply to all the same?
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A: Just one: Which flavour chocolate you like best? White, milk or dark?
Answer: All of them.
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Q: Catherine, thank you very much for this interview.

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The interview was conducted by an exchange of e-mails.

Concerning Catherine’s suggestion that I should give Sina Weibo a go, I’ve actually done that a few months ago. I’m only occasionally reading there, so far.

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Related

» All BoZhu Interviews
» Jacaranda, Wikipedia

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11 Responses to “The BoZhu Interviews: “Social Media Provide a Common Virtual Space” -”

  1. Truly excellent, Catherine and JR.

    And couldn’t agree more about Turnball et al spruiking the Rise and Rise of…
    When the wheels fall off the metal/energy exports to China, you will be able to hire engineers here for 50 cents an hour.

    The Qld government runs a really triumphalist ad spinning its jobs creation program, but there is no mention of China’s role in underpinning this program. Every time it comes on, I have to turn off the TV and do some housework.

  2. Just found your blog. I was reading some of your entries, I found “China’s Financial Crisis: from Wenzhou to the Global Economy?” particularly interesting.

    I’m a US citizen whose taken an interest in studying China and communicating with those who live there – foreign or native-born citizen. A particular subject of interest, one that’s a centerpiece of my research, is the build quality behind much of her new infrastructure – which is a concern of mine (as is America’s aging infrastructure, which has been badly neglected by D.C.’ idiotic political elite).

    Anyway, I’ve bookmarked your blog; I look forward to checking it.

  3. Talking about building projects in China and their sustainability, you guys may want to check out these two reports:

    1. A Spiegel report about a German ghost town on the outskirt of Shanghai http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,791392,00.html

    2. A Caijing report about the state of a 23 billion dollar railway project which has to be abandoned because of shoddy practices. The report is in Chinese but the photos say a thousand words http://www.caijing.com.cn/2011-10-24/110913185.html

  4. Every time it comes on, I have to turn off the TV and do some housework.

    KT, to turn television off is always a great idea. That said, I’m almost sure that Australian tv isn’t quite as bad as German tv. (80 per cent of the evening news is only news because the political parties, amply represented in the stations’ boards and committees, have a stake in them.)

    I found “China’s Financial Crisis: from Wenzhou to the Global Economy?” particularly interesting

    I think both Die Welt‘s and Caixin‘s coverage make the situation appear more grim than it is, Brewskie – not by the account what was / is going on, but by the feel that seems to be in the air – that there would be a crash with no matching bailout. I believe that the problems are aggravating, and that the central government hasn’t shown the will to address them, but so far, chances are that it has the means to stabilize the financial system, not least because the bad and underperforming loans are mostly a domestic issue, and the set of tools to address them is much wider – both for the issue being domestic, and because no bank can refuse a big write-off if the state orders one. As far as the financial crisis is concerned, the lacking rule of law is an advantage at the moment, but not in the long run. Besides, it was also a lack of rules which has brought the crisis about… Thanks for bookmarking!

    I guess that the “German town” could have come at a better point in time, i. e. some five to ten years ago, Catherine. But it also seems that German architects and engineers are as opinionated as ever. What customers get may be very different from what they originally planned. After all, the engineer (or architect) is an expert, and knows better.
    Anyway, Chinese investment, just as Chinese loans, are under-performing on average.
    At the outset of the global financial crisis, India’s investment was only 50 per cent of China’s, according to MIT’s Huang Yasheng (in an interview with Nanfang Metropolis back then, but created economic growth which amounted to 80 per cent of China’s.
    The railway project you linked to seems to perform somewhat, umm, below that level…

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