Rednecks, Red Guards & Trolls: Kaiser Kuo on US-China Online

by Elliott Ng, posted in News & Issues

Kaiser Kuo TEDx HonoluluFor those of us involved in the development of new internet media and technology, there is almost a faith-based view that what we are doing has an inexorable, positive force toward ushering in the world we want to live in.  However, in the area of US-China relations, the growth of unmediated internet contact between China and West has not led to greater mutual understanding, and has largely exposed great rifts between “Them” and “Us.” In a speech at the TedX Honolulu and Rethink:Hawaii conference, Kaiser Kuo highlighted the fact that online contact has been a centripetal force in US-China relations at the people to people level, pulling us further apart, or at least reinforcing our existing misconceptions of each other.

I’ll first summarize Kaiser’s comments, and then share my own reactions and feelings below.  I do want to quickly say that this centripetal force of the Internet is the opposite of what I had in mind when I started CNReviews in 2007.  I expected that smart use of  internet media, even on a small niche blog like CNReviews, could create awareness and attention far greater than any person-to-person effort.  But the seeds planted by online outlets like Danwei, ESWN, Global Voices Online, Shanghaiist, even chinaSMACK, have not resulted in a great harvest of ongoing interest and understanding in China among Western readers, and instead remain a relatively small niche community serving Chinese expats and those with pre-existing interest in China.  And yes, the comment threads are indeed full of unthinking China-bashers, unthinking China defenders, self-important egomaniacs, and even sock puppets (and the China “experts” that hold them).

Meanwhile, in the real world, we continue to live apart (in geography and in mindset) as the dynamics of global capitalism increasingly tie us together.

Introduction: Kaiser Kuo

Kaiser Kuo (Twitter) moved to China in 1996 and is a rock musician in a band Chunqiu, writer, journalist, and speaker.   He most recently served as director of digital strategy for Ogilvy Digital China, where he wrote at the (now defunct) blog Ogilvy China Digital Watch.  In my opinion, he is one of the most articulate thinkers and writers about how internet and technology is shaping the most important bilateral relationship in the world today: US-China.

Will online relationships boil down to Red Guards vs. Rednecks?

Kaiser spoke on the growing awareness of the chasm between Chinese and Westerners thanks to increasing interconnectedness on the internet.  He gave a longer speech (video, 78 min)  at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, entitled “Shouting across the Chasm.”  His TedX speech was a shorter version but sounded the same themes (I will link to it when it is available).  Bob Page, at The Mercury Brief, did an exceptional job summarizing the speech.  The post, and the speech was picked up by numerous esteemed China blogs including China Herald, Useless Tree, China Digital Times, ChinaGeeks, Danwei, and Peking Duck.  Plenty of discussions have happened already around this speech.

Earthquakes happen when pressure builds up under the surface

By and large, US-China relations at a government to government level have been as healthy as it ever has been.  Last summer, during the Beijing Olympics, I recall watching George W. Bush enjoying the autumn days of his Presidency watching the US Women’s Volleyball team and thinking that China was one of the one bright spots of the presidency of George the Younger.  I (who never had a good thing to say about George W) even stuck my neck out and wrote about George Bush’s Uncharacteristically Nuanced Approach toward US-China Relations.  With Obama’s arrival 11/16 in Shanghai on his first trip to China as President (see itinerary on, a fairly functional relationship exists between governments.

But under the surface, according to Kaiser, at a people-to-people level, “a real crisis exists, and relations between Chinese and Anglophone Westerners are at a real low.”  To use the analogy of an earthquake, the surface looks calm, but the invisible shifting of the techtonic plates.

In the past, contact between Chinese and Americans “took place at small scale and with intermediation” often in “painfully polite settings.”  Bob Page summarized Kaiser’s contrast of the past with the present in his blog post:

“For most of the 30 years since China’s reforms began, Chinese and American civilians rarely met face-to-face in significant numbers,” Kuo says. “When encounters did take place, they were typically stage-managed events among civil, often painfully polite participants in sister city arrangements, trade delegations and cultural exchanges.

“In March 2008, in the run-up to the Olympic Games, Chinese people were curious about what the world would say about them…. But they were blindsided by negative English-language reporting. While hundreds of millions of Chinese had risen out of poverty, while the Chinese economy had grown by 10 percent annually for nearly three continuous decades, while China’s biggest cities had become forests of skyscrapers with vibrant cultural scenes, none of this was deemed newsworthy by Western news media….

“Instead, Chinese and Americans went after each other in the comment sections of news stories, blog posts, YouTube, forums and boards in an escalating people-to-people brawl that continues to this day. They fight over a litany of issues: Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen, trade, Internet censorship, religious freedom, Myanmar, Darfur, sanctions on Iran, carbon emissions, and so on. The first real people-to-people encounter between the world’s reigning and rising superpowers did not bode well.

What changed?  In short, English literacy in China, and the internet.  “What has happened since is two things.  One, has been the ubiquity of English language education in secondary schools in China, and the other thing that has happened is the stupendous rise of the Internet.” said Kaiser.  “In 1999, there were only 8 mm people on the Internet. Fast forward to today, we have 338 mm Internet users (in China) and in the course of 10 years, have achieved 94% penetration of broadband….this has made it possible for unmediated, large scale interaction with Westerners and Chinese.”

In this new media landscape, government-to-government relations are on the surface, while a hot, turbulent sub-surface of popular opinion continues a hidden techtonic shift.  What if a crisis were to happen?  How could popular opinion shape and limit government’s response?

Welcome to the Internet:  where your one-sided beliefs are reinforced by others just like you

Even within the West, with its tradition of free press and free speech, we see how the Internet has caused us to self-segregate into communities of similar interest and political leaning.  From Bob Page’s post:

But this is the Internet we’re talking about, which many of us believed would bring down barriers and usher in the death of distance, the good times of a global village. Instead, it has made us more fractured and tribal…. It’s also true within America, where nowadays you only read the political blogs and viewpoints of those who happen to be on your side of the political aisle.

We read what we want to read, according to Kaiser.  Those on the left read Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo, and those on the right read “whatever wacko right wing website they read.”  (Its clear where Kaiser falls on the ideological divide).  The “kumbaya” factor of the Internet is, in fact, more dead than alive.

In China, the internet “has historically been dismissed as greasy kids stuff” (e.g. internet games, internet cafes, entertainment) but is “also the emerging public sphere in Chinese life.  China has never had a public sphere for intellectuals to gather and discuss the issues of the day,” according to Kaiser.  As a result, the internet in China is extremely important for shaping popular opinion.  But the internet in China is no more enlightened than in the US.  In fact, at Chinese Blogger Conference 2008, Chinese blogger Ping Ke (?? aka buchimifan) spoke on the need for greater rational online debate within the Chinese blogosphere.  And Roland Soong, in a speech prepared for Chinese Blogger Conference 2009 (see 1kg CNBloggerCon minisite and summary of event on GlobalTimes) and Blogfest Asia, shared the reasons why he doesn’t allow comments on the EastSouthWestNorth translation portal that he runs.  An excerpt:

I do not think it helps for me to facilitate this kind of exchange between “Red Guards versus Rednecks” (or “Chinese Fenqing (angry youth) PK Foreign Fenqing (angry youth)”).  I may want to communicate some information to people, but I am likely to encounter the kind of situation as described by Leung Man-tao (???) in Southern Weekend:

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In a 10,000 word essay, I came across one sentence that displeased me.  I forgot about the rest of that essay and I wrote a 20,000 word essay to criticize it.  Why should I bother to read the whole essay?  Why should I bother to delve into it or try to comprehend its true meaning?  It is merely an excuse and opportunity for me to express myself.

Indeed, I have come across someone who wrote: “I am not interested in the facts about what happened in Tibet, because I already know how to define the event.”  What is the point for providing information to people like that?  They are not interested in any information.  My own utility to them would be to provide the excuse and/or platform to rave and rant about their pre-established and immovable positions.

Spiraling toward bipolar disorder?  Toward a more resilient system of US-China relations

Unfortunately, the diagnosis of our condition is more painfully clear than the remedy.  Kaiser, blogger Roland Soong, journalist/professor Rebecca McKinnon and blogger Aimee Barnes have each shared some thoughts on how we can prevent the downward spiral that we won’t even recognize until something goes wrong.  I’ll caveat this by saying that these suggestions are in English for the English speaking audience.  Of course, there is just as much work to be done on the Chinese side, and supporting those who can influence Chinese opinion in a positive way is just as much part of the prescription of success.  It is very much a two-way relationship.  Here are Kaiser’s recommendations:

  1. Cultivate personal knowledge – From Roland Soong’s post: “Knowledge is the first step. You can[not] talk about something unless you are knowledgeable about it. Why do you want to talk about that something? Because you think that the knowledge has changed your position. And that knowledge may also change your readers, especially those who form the subject of the discussion.”  Blogs are a great place to start.  For English-language readers, Kaiser mentioned several sources including Alltop China, CN Reviews, ChinaGeeks, Danwei (Danwei China mirror site) and ESWN. CNReviews had highlighted blogs that translate Chinese netizen comments and other blogs to watch in 2009.
  2. Understand Chinese History – Accept the need to understand Chinese history.  Chinese current events are framed by a view of history held by elites.  Understand that view as best you can.  According to Kaiser, a place to start would be The Search for Modern China by Jonathan Spence.
  3. Learn what Chinese people actually think when their defenses are down. The conversations taking place when it’s not believed ‘whitey’ is around are decidedly more nuanced.  Blogs that translate Chinese content (listed above) can be a starting point.

Rebecca MacKinnon wrote an open letter to Barack Obama advocating a people-to-people approach toward building relationships between Americans and Chinese.  I posted on an Aug 2009 conversation I had with Rebecca and excerpted from the original letter:

Just as you have used new technology to engage with the American electorate, your China policy can be greatly strengthened if you conduct a real conversation with the Chinese people. Listen as much as you talk; provide a much-needed platform for open discussion. The U.S. embassy in Beijing should build a Chinese-language website modeled after, focused not just on U.S.-China relations, but on the range of concerns and interests – from environment, to food safety, to factory safety standards, to education and real estate law — shared by ordinary Chinese and Americans. Some linguistically talented State Department employees should start blogging in Chinese. Open up the comments sections, see how the Chinese blogosphere responds, then respond to them in turn. Translate some of the Chinese conversation into English for Americans to read and react, then translate it back.

Perhaps the idea of open comments will just draw out “those shouting loudest on both sides…Red Guards and rednecks,” as Kaiser Kuo characterizes the internet.  I believe that more person-to-person efforts are complementary to and more important than an online approach.  This could potentially involve study abroad, educational tourism, volunteer tourism, sponsored events, cross-border events, and informal delegations.  The goal of online efforts should be to convert online connections into in-person connections, and take it out of the blogosphere and into the realm of real-world discussions.

Aimee Barnes comes up with a 5 point approach:

  1. Including youth leaders and business influencers into the dialogue now hosted by academic and governmental elites
  2. More support for business leaders in both countries to build bilateral relationships
  3. More study of Mandarin among US kids and adults
  4. Deeper understanding of China’s history and government among Western media
  5. New “equal access” research institutions/think tanks that include more Chinese-born specialists

In my opinion, based on 2 years of following English-language Chinese blogs, mainstream media, and actively blogging on CN Reviews, I am more and more convinced that actual person-to-person contact, as opposed to online blogging and conversation, is the most important ingredient to building trust, relationships and increased understanding and mutual respect.  I suppose many of you would say “Duh, of course.”  But if we believe that the internet can be a force for evil (or divisiveness) we must also conclude that it can be a force for good (or improved mutual understanding).  In any case, the “genie can’t be put back in the box” and online discourse will continue on both sides of the Pacific.  But energy should be placed toward efforts that bring together business leaders and non-governmental leaders on issues that we both care about, and rely on material self interest as a mechanism for building bridges.  And a much heavier investment in person-to-person connections between leaders in all fields in China and US is necessary and cannot be replaced by the online discourse dominated by trolls, fenqing, panda-huggers, panda-bashers, Red Guards, and rednecks. In the meantime, your free speech is not guaranteed on the Internet, at least not on our blog.  You can go create your own blog if I don’t like what you have to say!

From written content, to community organizing

For people like Kaiser and Rebecca MacKinnon who are working on writing books, I feel a key metric of success is not just the number of books sold and the number of online references, but the number of influential people on both sides that engage in a deeper and more informed dialogue with the other side as a result of the book.  It is an exercise in community building and community organizing, rather than just the act of authorship.  The pen is mightier than the sword, but only in combination with eye-to-eye contact (or at least numerous meals and drinking together), and trust built over time.

Business partners, motivated by self-interest properly understood

In an article entitled “New Friction and Vast Agenda Awaits Obama on China Trip” in the Wall Street Journal, Ian Johnson highlights that the issues that require US-China coordination have exploded:

A decade ago, most issues discussed at China-U.S. summits were limited to three issues: human rights, nuclear nonproliferation and trade. Now, the list of topics has grown to include almost every problem facing the world, from clean energy and the war in Afghanistan to African development and fixing the world economy — all of which are expected to have a place in talks between Mr. Obama and his Chinese counterpart, President Hu Jintao.

“For the first time in the history of our relationship, global issues are at the top of the agenda,” says Kenneth Lieberthal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington who was a special assistant on Asian affairs to former President Bill Clinton. “This is new territory for us.”

It is a change that analysts on both sides see as potentially problematic. Chinese officials and analysts note that the U.S. still has an arms and high-tech embargo on China — hardly something one does with a true partner, they say. “Obama wants us to become strategic partners or friends but we aren’t either of those,” says Yan Xuetong, a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University. “We are business partners who share material interests rather than common values.”

It is this last comment from Yan Xuetong that gives me hope and concern.  We indeed have significant material interests, from energy, environment, the monetary system…so lets start there.  With self-interest properly understood, we can build a more resilient global system between the US and China.

Lest you think that Kaiser is too distraught about our future, he claims to be optimistic about our future, and we recently had a great time on Oahu.  Here’s a picture:


I’m interested in your comments.  Even if you are a Red Guard or a Redneck!