Tea Leaf Nation

Red Rover, Red Rover

Chinese loved to hate their space program -- until its mascot became a talking, web-savvy bunny.

"Hello, is anyone there?" With these words on Sina Weibo, a microblogging platform, the Chinese lunar rover Yutu -- named after a jade rabbit of Chinese folklore that lives on the moon with a beautiful goddess -- resurfaced on Feb. 13 after a two-week hiatus. In its last Weibo appearance on Jan. 25, Yutu had announced to its followers, which now number more than 430,000, that it had "a little problem" and might not survive another dark and freezing lunar night. Its seeming last words: "Goodnight, world." (At night, temperatures on the moon can plummet to negative 279 degrees Fahrenheit.)

Yutu's social media debut, which began the day before the rover's Dec. 2, 2013 launch, has been a smash hit in China: Yutu has garnered more than 9 million Weibo mentions, and of those sampled by FP, most are positive. Staid state-owned media like news service Xinhua have published Yutu's Weibo tweets as if they were the official announcements from mission control. One Weibo user wrote that when he learned from a BBC report that Yutu had ceased operation, it was "the first time that national Chinese news had ever made me cry." Among the outpouring of support for Yutu on China's Internet, the few voices questioning the lunar mission have been effectively drowned out.

Yutu's savvy social media run is a surprising success for a Chinese space program that has endured years of failed efforts to sell space exploration to a skeptical public. It's rather clear by now that the Chinese government sees Weibo, a microblogging platform that permits a single user to broadcast a message to millions, as a threat as well as an opportunity; starting in September 2013, authorities cracked down on the platform by arresting hundreds of microbloggers. But now the government can score two recent social media wins, the other being President Xi Jinping's December 2013 lunch outing at a Beijing bun shop, which has transformed the humble eatery into something of a pilgrimage site.

That's quite a turnabout for the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA), which made its first manned space flight in 2003 and has sent ten taikonauts into space over five missions. Authorities have made every effort to whip up patriotism and rally public support behind these missions, including frequent front-page coverage in state-run papers. In June 2013, the attractive Wang Yaping, China's second female taikonaut, beamed back science classes delivered from space, replete with nifty tricks like a suspended water ball. In addition to giving blow-by-blow coverage of the missions, China's state-owned media wrote up detailed, humanizing profiles of each taikonaut. The smiling, clapping, and flag-waiving passengers on China's Shenzhou 9 spacecraft, launched in June 2012, even toured the country after their return, also visiting former colonial outposts Hong Kong and Macau.

None of it seemed to work. The manned missions were technological successes, but publicity flops. The heavily stage-managed taikonauts did not connect with ordinary people, and discussions on China's Internet forums and social media often focused on why the government of a developing country had chosen to spend billions of dollars' worth of taxpayer money firing rockets into space while many Chinese citizens struggled in poverty. In June 2012, respected liberal outlet Beijing News ran a widely-shared report about the exhaustive safety checks for the taikonauts' food supply -- including a dedicated fresh-water reservoir for fish, and individual tracking numbers for each milk-producing cow -- an infuriating contrast to the frequent food safety scares which bedevil average Chinese. Even the launch of China's first space-bound woman in June 2012 was clouded by discussions of another woman from central China named Feng Jianmei, then 23 years old, who two weeks earlier aborted her seven-month fetus under pressure from local authorities because the birth would have violated China's one-child policy.

The salvation of CNSA's public image is likely thanks to the insights of a group of young people with a Weibo account, whoever they may be. On Dec. 2, 2013, the account started to report the Yutu lunar mission in the first person, anthropomorphic voice of a brave rabbit explorer, who often interacted with ordinary Internet users using the latest web slang. As a result, while Chinese taikonauts -- likely heavily coached by members of state-run media -- have come off as robotic, the purported Weibo voice of what's assuredly a robot has paradoxically seemed deeply human. En route skyward, the Yutu avatar wrote that it stole one last look at Earth: It was "really blue," which made him "a bit sad." The account lamented forgetting to "strike a pose" when the United States' Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter flew by to take a picture. Occasionally, Yutu's account retweeted images of actual rabbits.

One possible explanation for Yutu's unusually savvy campaign is that its architects are not in fact employed by Chinese authorities. The identity of Yutu's Weibo handlers remains a mystery; although U.S. outlets including CNN and news satire The Daily Show have referred to Yutu's Weibo comments as if they hail directly from state media, the account generating the quotes is not actually verified as the official account of CNSA's mission control, although it seems to have inside knowledge of Yutu's latest comings and goings. Internet users have speculated that the account is actually managed by Guokr, an online community site dedicated to explaining popular science. (Guokr is one of only three accounts that Yutu follows and there are frequent interactions between them.) In other words, if the government is behind this social media success, many can't believe it.

Regardless of the identity of its ultimate mastermind, the successful effort to personalize China's Yutu mission shows a path to PR success for a Chinese space program that has been searching for one for more than a decade. Since taking power in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party has usually been able to manipulate media by fiat. But Chinese social media provides new space for public reaction to coalesce, and backlashes against official narratives of all kind are now common, with censorship alone proving insufficient to stop them. China's government is having to learn new tricks in response. Ultimately, the project of managing opinion at home may prove even more difficult than piercing the stratosphere.

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Tea Leaf Nation

The Taiwan in My Mind

What the island -- or is that rogue province? -- looks like to Mainland Chinese.

I have always found it difficult to talk about Taiwan. Growing up in Mainland China, I heard about it all the time: in newspapers, on soapy television miniseries, and in my history classes.  Yet all the while, I felt totally estranged and disconnected from an island that sits a mere 110 miles off China's coast.

When I read about the Feb. 11 meeting between Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese officials in the Mainland city of Nanjing -- the first formal meeting in 65 years -- I had flashbacks to all I had been taught about that politicized word, "Taiwan." As a child in the 2000s in Beijing, the first thing I remember learning about Taiwan was that it was a part of China, one that reflected, somehow, on China's national glory. Later, as part of my high school curriculum, I learned that Taiwan symbolized China's history of humiliation and civil war, and that the Qing Dynasty ceded Taiwan to Japan as a colony in 1894, after a crushing defeat in a naval battle. Japan returned the island after Japan's defeat in World War II, but after the Kuomintang lost the Chinese civil war and fled to Taiwan in 1949, the island was again separated from the Mainland. In the ensuing decades, I was taught, only meddling by the United States stopped the Chinese people from reclaiming what was, and is, rightfully ours. 

This narrative has instilled in my mind the belief that reunifying with Taiwan would be the utmost proof of our nation's glory, strength, and integrity. I still remember a story I heard in primary school about a group of Mainland students at an overseas conference. When they realized that the conference's map of China did not include Taiwan, the students repeatedly insisted on the need to replace the map with a correct one, until the organizers yielded. I cannot remember whether I read the anecdote in a textbook or heard it from a teacher, but during discussions in high school, I learned that nearly all of my classmates had heard the same thing: a testament to the tale's popularity and far-reaching influence.

The underlying message is plain and simple: Taiwan is a part of China, and every Chinese citizen is obliged to defend the dignity of his or her country. To many Chinese, whether Taiwan is part of China is not only a political question -- it's a moral one. After Taiwan's ex-president Lee Tenghui and then-President Chen Shuibian made a series of remarks in favor of Taiwanese independence in 2003, my elementary school class organized a meeting to denounce them. One by one, we stood up to make short speeches about Taiwan, a place we had never visited or knew much about. What we actually said faded away long ago, but the angry faces and acerbic tones -- including mine -- are still vivid in my memory. Those moments, combined with statements issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs protesting Taiwan's independence movement, shaped many Chinese's perceptions about the island: not as a real place with real people living real lives, but as a symbol of our country.

These strong political beliefs, combined with a lack of understanding of the reality on the ground, mean that while most of us from the Mainland think Taiwan is part of China, we can't actually feel that it is. I find it harder to relate to events in Taiwan than to those happening to my people. I think my experience is typical: Taiwan feels like a disconnected independent state to most Chinese, regardless of whether they believe Taiwan is, or ought to be, part of China.

And not all Chinese harbor semi-religious beliefs toward unification. Those increasingly dissatisfied with the authoritarian regime on the Mainland, who admire the democratic institutions of Taiwan, or who read more about Taiwan's history on their own, may switch their viewpoints. I have friends on the Mainland who now believe that Taiwan's independence, or unification under Taiwan's current democratic system, is the best way to go. But despite the growing diversity of opinions about Taiwan, in the minds of Mainland Chinese, the concept of Taiwan is still abstract, symbolic, and highly politicized.

The opportunity to travel to Taiwan and witness the place firsthand has brought about a fundamental change in my own conception of the island. Starting in 2011, residents in China's large cities could visit Taiwan without a tour group; I took advantage, and made a trip there in August 2012. The second night after my arrival, I stood amidst the crowd in the bustling Shilin Night Market in Taipei, and for a moment I closed my eyes. I smelled alluring Chinese food and heard peddlers calling out in Chinese from behind food stands. I felt as if I were in Shanghai or Guangzhou; a sense of intimacy washed over me. I started to realize how much the people there shared with us; and for a moment, the all-consuming political argument about independence seemed trivial -- even humiliating.

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