Wednesday, September 30, 2020

SCIENCE FICTION WRITER LIU CIXIN, NETFLIX AND SENATOR MARSHA BLACKBURN'S THREE-BODY PROBLEM

(AS PUBLISHED IN SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST 30.09.20)

"Why a US senator’s attack on Chinese writer Liu Cixin and Netflix smacks of nationalistic double standards"

  • US senators, including Marsha Blackburn, have called Netflix out on Liu Cixin’s comments on the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang. Yet Blackburn, a supporter of Donald Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’, is no friend of Muslims in Xinjiang or anywhere else

In one orbit, you have a politician from Tennessee, in another orbit you have a science fiction writer from Shanxi. Though their lives have followed very different trajectories thus far, each has begun to perturb the movement of the other due to the dark tug of nationalism.

Marsha Blackburn, a US Senator from Tennessee, nominated US President Donald Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize, denies climate change and rejects the science of evolution.

Liu Cixin is China’s first winner of the Hugo Award for science fiction. He worked as a computer engineer in rural Shanxi, but his creative flights of fancy have taken him clear across the universe.
Their point of contention?
 
Netflix is adapting Liu’s The Three-Body Problem,an epic novel that is grounded in  China, but imbued with a breathtaking cosmological perspective.
 
A China-produced version of The Three-Body Problem had been slated for a big-screen release but was postponed indefinitely due to an unsatisfactory cut. Then Netflix proposed a television series, bolstering hopes that the award-winning story would make it to the screen after all. The 2019 record-breaking box office success of The Wandering Earth,also based on a book by Liu, was encouraging.

Enter Blackburn, stage right.

In this fevered US election season, she is attacking Netflix’s creative collaboration with Liu, not so much because of his books, but because of a few comments attributed to him in a June 17, 2019 profile in The New Yorker. Blackburn’s letter to Netflix cites the following comment by Liu about his government’s policy in Xinjiang: “If anything, the government is helping their economy and trying to lift them out of poverty … If you were to loosen up the country a bit, the consequences would be terrifying.”

Clearly, Liu’s view of his country doesn’t conform to the highly politicised negative narrative currently wreaking havoc with US-China relations.

The quote in question is pro-status quo, but it is neither remarkable nor should it be entirely beyond the comprehension of those criticising Liu. Indeed, it is not so different from what an avowed supporter of Trump, like Blackburn, would say about the need for federal intervention
in the face of racial unrest in US cities.
 
The context for Liu’s comments, only alluded to in the interview, was a series of terror attacks, including a bloodbath at Kunming railway station in 2014 that killed 31 and injured 140 and which the Chinese government said was perpetrated by separatist forces.

Liu’s revulsion of terrorism, and his willingness to embrace strong measures to combat it, should not be unfamiliar to Americans in the post-9/11 era. Absent the play of nationalism, his law-and-order stance does not differ as much from Blackburn’s as it might appear at first glance

The real dispute is not in the realm of ideas but nationality.

For a Chinese to talk about China much in the way an American might talk about America is too much for an American supremacist like Blackburn to digest.

Although the news from Xinjiang is not reassuring and Uygur advocacy enjoys growing support on both sides of the aisle in Congress, Blackburn is no friend of Muslims in Xinjiang or anywhere else. She strongly supported Trump’s “Muslim ban”, as well as his border wall with Mexico.
 
At a time when the US economy is struggling and the country is facing a divisive election, racial strife and intimations of civil war, it is puzzling that Blackburn and four fellow US senators should take the time and effort to single out Liu and excoriate Netflix.

Blackburn’s jeremiad against China makes a specific mention of “involuntary medical testing, and forced sterilisation and abortion”, which is not surprising; one of her political ads falsely accused Planned Parenthood of being in the business of selling “baby body parts”.

Liu’s stated support for China’s one-child policy, elsewhere in the interview, and his implicit support for abortion gives the US senator all the ammunition she needs.

A master at manipulating indignation, Blackburn is playing the China card to rile up a depressed and confused electorate in favour of Trump.

 

 

Philip J. Cunningham is the author of Tiananmen Moon, a first-hand account of the 1989 Beijing student protests

Monday, September 28, 2020

WHAT TRUMP TOUCHES, HE RUINS. WHAT HE CANNOT TAKE A PIECE OF, HE WILL ATTEMPT TO DESTROY



 

By Philip J Cunningham

 

WeChat is a ‘killer app.’ It does many things and it does them well. It’s popular, intuitive and easy to use and has been successfully monetized. It does what some American-produced apps do, but does them better and in a more integrated way. The US is not always number one.

 

Maybe that’s why the US government, which has long nurtured Silicon Valley as the tech arm of the industrial-military establishment, and feigned to look the other way as American-born Frankensteins like Facebook and Google were unleashed on an unsuspecting world, has ordered a hit on WeChat.

 

WeChat’s parent company TenCent has created a winner. The threat to ban WeChat from the US, where it is especially popular among people with links to China, is an attack on the free speech of millions. To ban a popular platform of expression is an abrupt authoritarian turn that even staunch US critics could hardly have predicted a few years ago. The shocking shift in US policy reflects Trump’s defining values: he is mean, he is a bully, he is unpredictable, and, perhaps of greatest concern during this fraught election cycle, he is a sore-loser.

 

Silicon Valley is still a force of nature, so why is the US acting like a loser instead of a winner? Why the sudden smacking down of competitors?

 

Once the undisputed leader in computer hardware, app development, tech innovation and all things software, the US, under Trump’s insecure and petulant leadership, has taken to bullying and banning vital competitors.

 

Trump’s limited intellect, short attention span, tax tomfoolery and tattered business record all point to a “let’s make a deal” mentality. As a result, he has bullied and berated innovative companies such as Huawei, which makes excellent phones, and Tencent, which created WeChat among many other things, and ByteDance, the creator of Toutiao and the insanely popular video app, TikTok.

 

The US president may have mastered Twitter, but he doesn’t understand the complex, inter-connected tech ecosystem and his mistakes are coming back to bite. He has surrounded himself with nay-saying China Hawks such as Peter Navarro, Mike Pompeo and Michael Pillsbury who seek to level the playing field with China by beating a retreat from the field and then zapping it.

 

The preening desire to be number one at any cost and by any means on the part of the numbskull narcissist in the White House is causing the US to lose friends and lose influence at a precipitous rate.

 

There was a time where US business confidence was sufficiently buoyant to live and let live, to share its technology with the world, knowing it had new, superior products coming down the pipe. A time when tech artists and creators, such as Steve Jobs, and not money-grubbing parasites like Mark Zuckerberg ruled Silicon Valley.

 

Those days are over, if not objectively, then at least subjectively, in keeping with the doom and gloom headlines and the increasingly divisive and dour national mood.

 

When unbridled greed becomes the national ethos, it’s a race to the bottom.

 

Leaving some major foreign policy debacles aside, the US in the early post-war period exuded confidence and projected a naïve but not entirely insincere aura of global goodwill.  The complex, charismatic and tragic John F. Kennedy embodied that reach-for-the-sky, future-embracing ethos.

 

Even though the US limped out of Vietnam in 1975 with diminished prestige, and culture wars replaced the space race as a focus of national yearning, the country retained an internationalist perspective that led to a boom in US-China trade, tertiary education and cultural exchange.

The “good times” lasted through the Obama administration.

 

It’s gone now. Kaput. Gone, too, are the days of decency and graciousness. Michelle Obama famously summed up the winning attitude that helped her and fellow African Americans achieve much in the face of unfair obstacles and constant ridicule.

 

“When they go low, we go high.”

 

With Trump, all that’s changed. His method of operation and aspirational motto might as well be: “When they go low, we go even lower.”

 

It’s no coincidence he was groomed in the negative art of the deal by Roy Cohn, consigliere to criminals and Cold War McCarthyites.

 

Trump, showing signs of an undiagnosed obsession, has tried to dust off everything his predecessor touched and undo everything his predecessor did. The gilded redecoration of the White House is part of that obsession, if he had his way it would soon look like a chintzy branch of Trump Tower and a Trump golf course. That’s why First Lady Melania Trump was late in moving in, that’s why Jackie Kennedy’s much-beloved Rose Garden had to go.  

 

What’s all that got to do with WeChat? Every time Trump touches something, he makes it worse. America’s rose garden has been vandalized from within, it’s cracked and broken, its beauty withered on the vine.

 

Trump allowed the excoriation of Huawei to continue apace, while sleazily hinting that a “deal” was possible. He naively thought he could make some serious cash by banning TikTok and then unbanning it under new ownership, and only made a mess of things.

 

Ditto for WeChat.

 

What Trump cannot take a piece of, he will attempt to destroy. It’s the way he is. It is what it is.

 

 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

UNEXPECTEDLY SUCCESSFUL PROTEST STAGED IN THE HEART OF BANGKOK

 

Thursday, September 10, 2020

THE MUCH-MALIGNED MULAN IS NOT SO BAD


 

Mulan is a movie, a make-believe story, so it’s hard to understand why it’s attracting so much hate in the media. It’s much ado about nothing, a tempest in a teapot about a sappy princess film made for middle-schoolers from Manhattan to Manchuria. 

The film may have muddled a much-beloved myth, but most of the complaints are tangential to the film itself. Calls for a boycott are presumptuous, logically inane and pointedly political. The film is being social-media shamed; it’s a case of guilt by association, guilt by geography, guilt by China. 

Disney entrusted New Zealand director Niki Caro, despite a thin resume, a big budget for a big film, but money alone is no guarantor of success, especially if the script is sub-par. The budget was squandered on expensive location shoots, costly CGI and a short detour to Xinjiang for a little background ambience that Disney would come to regret. 

Contradictions that dogged the production process also dog the hounding of the critics. It’s been noted that the director and most of the crew behind the camera are Caucasian, so they can’t possibly get China right. On the other hand, the director and crew are also criticized precisely because they got China exactly right­; not ancient China but today’s China. Mulan portrays an authoritarian state in which the paramount leader is universally revered, minorities are viewed askance, and everyone is constantly exhorted to be honest, to sacrifice and work hard for family and the collective good. 

So, what is it? Does the film “understand” China not enough, or all too well? 

The arguments about cultural authenticity are similar. There are Asian Americans, and untold numbers of Chinese nationals prone to question the “authenticity” of a film made by someone not of the ethnic group being portrayed. Well, at least the director of this story about a young woman is a woman. But Caro must have anticipated the inevitable critique of not being Chinese and thus pre-emptively doubled down, spending big buck to enhance “authenticity.” She exuded pride talking about the hiring of 80 trick riders from Kazakhstan and Mongolia for the cavalry scenes in which ethnic rebels shoot from horseback.  And she personally made a trip to Xinjiang to get a sense of the “real” location that is only alluded to as the northwest in the script. 

But Caro’s visit to Xinjiang, reportedly home to numerous labor camps that imprison large numbers of indigenous Uyghurs, not only did not lend an aura of authenticity to the film itself, which is a whimsical work of fiction, but it set off a firestorm of controversy that has yet to abide. 

In today’s world, where American leaders and their counterparts in the Five Eyes countries of UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada are waging a concerted anti-China influence campaign, the hapless Xinjiang visit provided fodder for politically-primed critics of all stripes. Not just human rights advocates concerned about the Uyghur’s plight or the opportunistic “pro-democracy” activists in Hong Kong who harassed actress Liu Yifei for six months because of a single retweet, but even desperate US politicians striving for five minutes of fame in an incendiary election season.   

Mulan is not a bad film. It’s a feature film, not a documentary, it’s not even remotely historical. It’s a make-believe entertainment based on a popular, appealing and endlessly malleable legend of a warrior woman. The dialogue is clichéd and the plot is full of holes, but it’s a visual treat, and represents years of hard work on the part of cast and crew. 

But sometimes a warrior woman can find herself in the wrong place at the wrong time, as was the fate of star actress Liu Yifei, for whom a single retweet about Hong Kong police, and the English words, “What a shame for Hong Kong” have caused her to be excoriated beyond reason and belief. 

That such a milquetoast of a film should win such opprobrium and that so admired, but anodyne an actress as Ms. Liu should be so vilified is unfair.  It’s a case of media over-kill, in which the media is the message and the media is the problem. 

The hot currents of the social media influence moods around the world, moving almost at the speed of light, like a lightning flash. 

Mulan is just the latest lightning rod. It could happen to almost any film and any of the people associated with a given film. All it takes is an offhand comment, a politically incorrect action, a clash of cultures or a hyped-up trend in the cancel culture wars and millions of dollars can go up in smoke. 

Toast anyone? 

It’s ironic that Mulan, of all films, turned out to be such a Rorschach test for the insecurities of the present moment. Few films have done such due diligence, attempting to adhere to the dictums of political correctness on both sides of the Pacific at once. Mulan made a good-faith effort to strip from the production any “cultural incorrectness” that viewers in the world’s two biggest markets, China and the US, might find objectionable. 

What did the film in, ultimately, was not so much the ponderous effort of trying to please, but trying to please too hard at a time in history when it’s all but impossible to please both sides because things are so polarized. It doesn’t take much to get sparks flying. 

The film was also hampered by a hankering for stellar box office. The producers put up 200 million confident they could make more. Raking in a cool billion was not out of the question if it proved to be a hit everywhere, which begs the question of pandering to popular tastes. 

As such it was scripted as a feel-good film stripped of things deemed objectionable, but also overladen with elements that viewers in both markets were calculated to find pleasing.

The result was mishmash. 

To put it another way, despite excellent acting by lead Liu Yifei, and sumptuous production values, Mulan fell on its own sword.