2012 in Review (3): the Declining Sphere and the Dizzy Gatekeepers

I’m not sure what same old mug’s game means. Probably something like der gleiche Scheiß wie immer. That’s what King Tubby writes about the Sino-English gulag, i. e. the English-language China blogosphere, as the phenomenon has been dubbed sometime in the past decade or so.

While Shepherds watched: Beautiful landscape, now closely nannied.

While Shepherds watched: Once a beautiful landscape, now closely nannied.

It hasn’t always been that bad. I don’t know about the pre-2008 years, as me and this blog were latecomers to the sphere, but the run-up to the Olympic Games 2008 in Beijing was probably the last stormy heatwave that went through the sphere. And its best times were even before that, because once upon a time, the sphere or gulag wasn’t even firewalled by the CCP, foreign authors and readers within China dwelled on fragrant meadows there, playfully bopping each others with sunflowers (posts) and dandelions (comments). Not that I can tell (I wasn’t there), but that’s how the memories of the initiated come across these days.

Anyway – the past four years were interesting times, too, even if in less paradisiacal ways. Heck – the Chinese propaganda department even cared to recruit one of the American leaders of the English-language China-blogosphere! All of a sudden, floppy hats crowded the once graceful sphere.

Social management set in, too. The bozhus (blog wardens) took all kinds of approaches, and again, in an earlier post, King Tubby describes some of them. He failed to cite mine, however (just as he usually fails to link here, even if he mentions yours truly): show your feelings to trolls – show them exactly the disdain they deserve, but stay polite while doing so.

Which means that you will hardly get any comments. But what appears to be a nonstarter in most blog wardens’ view, is a perfectly harmonious and happiness tool in mine. In all these four years of blogging, I only had to censor one comment – one which baselessly insulted an academic from Norway. On the other hand, whenever comments do come in here, chances are that they are informative.

But some decline in the sphere is natural. You can call JR a “cold warrior” as much as you like (btw, what I said was that by semi-official Chinese standards, my attitude towards the Chinese Communist Party would be cold-warlike. Anyway – that’s how the internet works, and how the names stick). But: JR usually listens when others speak.

It is legitimate to write about people and a topic, rather than to interact with them. It is just as legitimate to emphasize that one wants to keep discussions in English, rather than in Chinese. One has to bear in mind, however, that most Chinese people either can’t speak or write English, or feel too embarrassed even about potential flaws in their language skills to speak out. Don’t get surprised then if the other side of the story gets told by “overseas Chinese” people who moved their ass into America, to sing the praise of the Chinese Communist Party from the land of the free, rather than immersing themselves into the great rejuvenation of the motherland.

It wouldn’t need to be that way. There is an interface world between the “sphere” and its topic, i. e. China. It’s pretty much the Chinese-language Western blogosphere. And while a Westerner may not last in a Chinese propaganda unit forever, the same can be true the other way round. There is a Chinese-language intersection towards the West, just as there is the foreigner sphere towards China. They hardly ever meet.

Fools Mountain / Hidden Harmonies was one attempt to bridge the divide – initially, anyway. But it was doomed, probably because it quickly ended up as a blog version of the “Global Times”  – only angrier, and from a particularly challenged or mortified American-Chinese perspective. A more promising try is – or was – Doppelpod. One problem (but not necessarily the only one): they write only in German. It basically seems to be a project between a German lecturer, and some Chinese students. But the German-speaking world between the bigger camps of glowing CCP admirers and “cold warriors” like yours truly appeared to be to small to lead to threads with a sustainable commenting frequency there. Last time Doppelpod posted was on November 14th this year.

But even with an English or Chinese version, they may not have attracted the critical number of readers or commenters it would take to make it a real Western-Chinese forum.

But wait – there’s a tax-funded solution. A gatekeeper in the “information overload”, as Deutsche Welle director Eric Bettermann was quoted on the Goethe-Institute’s website. That was in 2011. Bettermann reportedly also

leveled clear criticism at Web 2.0, which in some states has proven itself to be “virtually a job machine for government approved opinion controllers”. Presumably he was alluding to developments such as those in China, where the state leadership has discovered the Internet as a tool of domination.

If the role of a gatekeeper and a scout in the information jungle was Bettermann’s vision of Deutsche Welle’s role, he probably hasn’t arrived there yet. Nor has RFE/RL. And at least as far as the Western world is concerned, China Radio International’s audience seems to be limited to a small congregation of “early Christians” – you have to be a real believer to listen to “People in the Know” on a regular basis.

It’s certainly not where the world meets.

But then, it probably isn’t where the world wants to meet. And the sphere isn’t the place to be for too many people either.

The world of work is. That’s were Chinese and Westerners interact. They have to, because they are paid for it. That’s what makes those places interactive anyway.

The world of academia, too. Maybe that’s the only place where Chinese and Westerners interact because they want to. As King Tubby says, even if in a somewhat different context, maybe:

Quite a lot of shared content with different top and bottom commentary. All in all, a pretty depressing picture. I also suspect that many folk simply overestimate the importance of the China English digital world.

The digital world still isn’t the real world. The only thing that could have connected the two – in the early stages of the digital parallel universe – are the digital world’s wannabe gatekeepers. But they are struggling now. They may have the power to silence people in the real world, but they can’t build the world in accordance with their wishes either. They, too, are just part of many different spheres – and if the importance of the China English digital world is simply overestimated, so is the gatekeepers’.

And that’s good, isn’t it? Let’s not complain too much about the fragmentary state of the spheres. Hegemony would be the ugly alternative to it.

Happy new year.



» 2012 in Review (2): nothing trivial, Dec 30, 2012
» The same thing, everyday, Dec 15, 2012


5 Comments to “2012 in Review (3): the Declining Sphere and the Dizzy Gatekeepers”

  1. Thanks JR. The Mugs bit was an addition by the editor and yes, I did read your succinct commenting policy.

    And my failure to link: my apols . Compensation will follow.

    Alibi: written under deadline which was made worse by the fact that I was called out for a couple of bushfires.

    That aside, I’m still feeling my way forward with this column. To be sure, other web scribblers could do a better job, but the fact is that no one has ever set out to a web review column before now.

    Folk can object to my writing style. That’s fine, but it’s also not about to change either, and it’s all not totally negative.
    God, I just love the possibilities offered by written English.

    Simply tried to block you, Adam and others together as something different from the US perspective, cause I can’t see Adam fitting into PD mold.

    Okay, I’ve done enough grovelling here. Back to my site to put together another post on surfer girls.

    I just can’t understand why some readers object to this surf stuff.
    Didn’t I follow all academic protocols and provide references?

    Happy New Year.


  2. No need for a link compensation, KT – just needed to express my hurt feelings. Looking forward to your future posts in the Beijing Cream column. A happy new year to you, too!


  3. What you both failed to mention explicitly, but that JR intimated in his comment, is that perhaps it was possible that King Tubby, while writing a very interesting new feature (glossing the blogs which themselves gloss the news) on a website known for its hammers-to-percussion approach to the Chinese Communist Party, may have subconsiously or not self-censored because he knew that JR’s work, if linked to and thus read for the first time by a less-than-entirely-self-aware cadre of the CCP’s vast censorship net (webbing up the gaps in the Internet), that Just Recently’s Beautiful Weblog — which includes the drawings that first drew me to the site — might be conveyed somehow onto Xinhua’s wires and thus result in the Chinese people having their own feelings hurt again. The fact that JR has one of the most bilingual blogs out there means that if netizens could ever get around the URL (or whatever it is) that makes it firewalled, they might actually have to tangle with a great deal of their own material that JR pivots back on the People’s Republic, and figure out why they might be hurting their own feelings!

    Maybe I’m exaggerating, but maybe not. I cannot presume to know the mind of a KT, no more than I could accurately speculate on how certain parts of a Chinese political party with its roots allegedly in the countryside might quake at the translations and writings of a gentleman farmer in north Germany.


  4. KT censoring himself? Impossible! I’m sure he can extinguish any bushfire that shows up in his neck of the 5th continent – but not his own mouth.


  5. I think you may be correct about the censorship Adam, but for a related reason.

    Crikey, the bjc column is just a screed for a netloid.

    (Wish to heck I completed my PhD: would be writing for about three people in some obscure journal and it would probably be equally satisfying. The past/history is always more interesting than the present.)

    To be honest, I’m becoming pretty sick of this KT character and am thinking about killing him off at some date this year and writing under my real name.


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