Tea Leaf Nation

'The Renminbi Is Failing the Chinese People'

Now even Chinese people -- not just U.S. congressmen -- are hating on China's currency.

U.S. government officials have long complained that China's currency, the renminbi (RMB), is undervalued. In April 2010, Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) accused China of keeping its money cheap in order to make exports attractive, and thus "steal jobs" from the United States. During the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign, Republican candidate Mitt Romney repeatedly complained that China was manipulating the value of its currency. But as the RMB has appreciated -- from roughly 6.8 to the dollar in 2010 to 6.09 today -- the issue has dropped from most U.S. agendas. Now, some of those Chinese "job stealers" are the ones grousing about the "redback."

During the Third Plenum, an important Communist Party meeting held in mid-November, China's state-run China Central Television interviewed Beijing residents about the conclave. CCTV generally tries to imbue important political events with a positive glow. But when a CCTV journalist asked a young man what he thought needed to be changed in China; he responded, "The RMB is failing the Chinese people." The station didn't censor the comment from its taped program, and the clip went viral on the Chinese web, with more than 240,000 views on the online news portal Ifeng. A search for the phrase "The RMB is failing the Chinese people" returned more than 820,000 recent results on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter; most of the responses sampled by FP criticized government policy.

In one widely-shared post, Weibo user Xu Shaolin, who frequently comments on finance matters, complained to his 357,000 followers, "U.S. consumers buy cheap goods produced in China, but the Chinese government takes away the dollars" to buy U.S. bonds. This leaves Chinese people "with more and more RMB that is worth less and less." Other Weibo posts under the same hashtag lament everything from the price of housing to the price of pigs' feet, a popular Chinese snack.

Yes, netizens oversimplify the complicated relationship between the value of the RMB and the quality of their daily life. But that doesn't mean their complaints are specious. Housing prices, for instance, continue to reach record highs -- the cost of a new home in China jumped 9.6 percent year on year in October -- while food prices are rising the fastest they have since May 2012. By ensuring an oversupply of RMB, one user wrote, the government is lowering the currencies' value and "stealing money from people's pockets." Though it may not be what Romney had in mind, that's what "currency manipulation" means to some Chinese. 

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Tea Leaf Nation

Bo Xilai in Chains, Spurned Mistresses, and the Communist Party as a Sex Wolf

Six images China's censors don't want you to see.


China-watchers often call Sina Weibo "China's Twitter" because of the two websites' superficial similarities: Both social media platforms allow users to post up to 140 characters at a time, for example, although that's enough for a small essay in Chinese. But unlike Twitter, Weibo is crawling with censors. Both the Internet company Sina, which owns and operates the best-known Weibo platform, as well as the Chinese government, employ an unknown number of censors who carefully prune social media for "illegal content" such as posts that "incite illegal gatherings" or "harm the nation's reputation or interests."

Certain keywords, issues, and images are forbidden, although Weibo does not make clear exactly what's off limits, or why. One May 2013 Harvard study showed that censors targeted posts with "collective action potential" --  the possibility that they might inspire a protest or other coordinated, offline action. Weibo's censorship team works with the government to determine what topics have this potential, then scrutinizes, and often deletes, related content.

In order to explore how censors decide what to quash, the non-profit media organization ProPublica published a gallery of deleted Weibo posts on Nov. 14. The editors at FP reviewed the 524 deleted posts and curated six particularly arresting examples of what, exactly, incenses Chinese censors.

1. Bo Xilai in chains. The caption (not visible here) reads, "Is the show over?" Bo was the Communist Party chief in Chongqing, an inland megalopolis of almost 30 million, until a series of scandals, prompted by an aide's attempted defection into the U.S. embassy in February 2012, derailed his career. He was tried in August for corruption, embezzlement, and abuse of power. But to many watching in China, the proceedings looked like a show trial, in which Bo had no more agency than an actor in a play. In the picture above, Bo seems to be taking part in a Chinese model opera -- a morality play in which every detail, from costumes to lighting, has symbolic significance. His white shirt, for example, likely indicates his innocence. Censors probably deleted this image because it challenged the legitimacy of Bo's trial.

2. Xu Zhiyong. Bo was not the only figure jailed in 2013 whom authorities feared could become a martyr. Xu co-founded China's New Citizens' Movement, an alliance that campaigns for freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, among other civil rights, in June 2012. Authorities have detained Xu on a number of occasions, most recently on Aug. 23; he remains in prison. The words in the picture above read "Citizens are in trouble," referencing the broad spectrum of rights violations that his movement aims to address. This image, drawn in the style of party propaganda, valorizes Xu and his mission. Censors probably deleted this post to prevent Xu's example from inspiring others to challenge the government.

3. A wolf who "serves the people." It's not just flesh-and-blood dissidents that worry China's censors: sometimes cartoon characters can also raise their hackles. Wolves are often the villains in Chinese children's stories (including the popular animated television show Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf), and the wolf in this picture represents China's Communist Party. The text in the background is the well-worn Communist phrase "serve the people," while the badge around his neck reads sex wolf, slang for "pervert." The wolf's three blinged-out wristwatches symbolize corruption -- Chinese netizens often presume that officials photographed wearing expensive timepieces are on the take. For example, in Aug. 2012, Shaanxi provincial official Yang Dacai appeared in photographs wearing Rolex and Omega watches. The pictures went viral on Weibo; Yang was later removed from his post and jailed. Harsh critiques of the Communist Party rarely survive on Weibo.

4. Fan Yue and Ji Yingnan. The depiction of the Communist Party as a "sex wolf" stems in part from real-world examples of lurid official conduct. In this picture, posted July 23, then mid-level bureaucrat Fan drapes his arms around his lover, television hostess Ji. After the married Fan dumped 25-year-old Ji, the spurned mistress posted pictures of the couple's happier days on Weibo, revealing the lavish lifestyle she enjoyed under Fan's patronage. These images proved especially sensitive because mistresses are another symbol of official corruption in China; in popular imagination, only dishonest government workers can afford to keep mistresses clothed in brand-name apparel and driving luxury automobiles. (One survey conducted by Renmin University in Beijing found that 95 percent of corrupt officials kept mistresses.) Censors who scrubbed this image were likely aware that proof of official wrongdoing -- as opposed to speculation -- is especially provocative.

5. Massive protest in Guangzhou. This photograph shows people gathered in the streets of the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou to protest the planned opening of a polluting trash incineration plant. According to the BBC, on July 15, the crowd of protesters stretched for more than a mile. It is unknown whether the protests were successful: An Oct. 22 article in the party-line People's Daily Online quoted the vice mayor of Guangzhou emphasizing the need to accelerate the construction of five trash incineration plants in the city -- but he refused say whether one of these five was this plant. In China, authorities usually censor images of "mass incidents" such as this one to prevent copycat protests elsewhere.

6. Wu Hongfei. Copycat protests happen online too. Wu, the Beijing-based singer and journalist pictured above, was arrested for her social media posts. In July, shortly after a man named Ji Zhongxing detonated a bomb at Beijing International Airport, Wu commented on Weibo that there were several government offices that she would like to blow up. Detained for 11 days and then released, Wu insisted her post was a joke, while supporters maintained that the arrest was a violation of her right to free speech -- constitutionally granted, but often denied in practice.

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