Tea Leaf Nation

The Communist Party's Terrorism Survival Plan

Old 'people's war' tactics are being mobilized against a new threat.

HONG KONG -- Terrorism is on the mind of the average Chinese citizen these days. Assailants have attacked crowded areas like train stations and markets in large cities around China, indiscriminately killing travelers, vendors, and passersby. Particularly shocking was a March 1 knife attack in the southern metropolis of Kunming, which claimed 29 victims, followed by a bomb attack in a crowded market in Urumqi, capital of the western region of Xinjiang, which killed 31 on May 22. Chinese authorities have blamed these attacks on Uighur separatists from Xinjiang.

State media has tried to manage the aftermath. After the knife attack in Kunming, state-run China Central Television (CCTV) tweeted a survival guide in case of terrorism on Weibo, China's popular microblogging platform. The guide, complete with an Astro Boy-like cartoon figure dressed in a Superman suit performing first-aid maneuvers, has advice like, "Try your best not to scream out of fear because it would further agitate the perpetrators" and "do not stop to take photos with your cellphone and share on social media."

Later, after the Urumqi market attack, CCTV tweeted more detailed advice for surviving attacks in a variety of scenarios and locations, including in gunfights and explosions on the subway, buses, hotels, or markets. "Hide behind objects that can cover your body," the guide advises, warning that objects such as lampposts, small trees, and fire hydrants are inadequate cover because they "seem dense but are too narrow." Many of the country's state-owned media have shared similar guides online, in print, and on television. On May 24, police in southern Yunnan province, where the Kunming attack took place, distributed more than 80,000 colorful survival guide brochures to the public. 

Online response has been mixed. Many Internet users take the guides as a hint that the Chinese government expects similar attacks to become a regular occurrence in crowded areas in China's large cities, and are demanding the government to do more to actively prevent attacks. One user tweeted in a typical comment, "Why are the media outlets telling ordinary people how to survive it but not criticizing the government for not doing more to prevent it?"

But from the ruling Communist Party's standpoint, calling on citizens -- mobilizing the masses, in party argot -- is an example of government doing its job. On May 30, domestic media reported that as many as 850,000 volunteers, most of them retirees in their 60s and 70s, have been called upon to patrol Beijing's streets. The report interviewed a 78-year-old woman named Guo Xiuyun, a 10-year veteran of the volunteer team, who said the team mostly consists of "elderly party members, cadre, and retirees." Guo claimed that her high level of vigilance helped law enforcement catch a man who was selling counterfeit money last year. "We have to let the terrorists see our red armlets," which designate volunteer patrols, said 61-year-old Li Huishen, who keeps up her patrols in Beijing's searing summer temperatures by "bringing more bottled water and staying in the shade."

Also on May 30, the Beijing Youth Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Youth League, reported that as many as 100,000 informants, even shoe cobblers and newsstand vendors, are now helping report suspicious activities. The Beijing police claim that the patrollers and informants will help collect information in local communities to form a "security network that involves the whole population."

"People's war" is one of the core components of former Chairman Mao Zedong's strategic theory and a tried-and-true tactic for the party, which used it to win China's gruesome civil war in 1949. But in the ensuing decades under Mao, the rhetoric of a people's war was often used against the so-called "class enemies" or "counterrevolutionaries" who had upset the party in one way or another. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, the phrase was often invoked by so-called red guards, mostly young Chinese then empowered to perpetrate massive destruction and strife. After subsequent leader Deng Xiaoping instituted market-oriented reforms in 1979, the mention of a people's war became increasingly rare.

Now that the Chinese government is facing a new threat, it seems ready dust off the old trope. In a May 24 editorial, the Hong Kong-based pro-party Wen Wei Po newspaper called for the use of a people's war to defeat terrorism by "mobilizing the masses to uncover the terrorists and their behind-the-scene puppet masters." The minister of public security, Guo Shengkun, also vowed to use the power of the masses to avert terrorism in a May 22 speech in Xinjiang.

Not everyone is convinced that a people's war would be effective in preventing attacks. Xinlin Shi, the pen name of a writer of historical fiction, tweeted that a people's war will only "make everyone suspicious of people around them and fear for their own safety." Lu Yaming, an Internet executive in the southern city of Shenzhen, wrote on Weibo that "the whole population is now in fear. Isn't this what the terrorists want?" Another Weibo user lamented, "The campaign to pry into the private affairs of the people by mobilizing other people is scarier than terrorism." 

To be sure, asking citizens to be involved in counterterrorism measures is common around the world. In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, law enforcement in the United States called upon everyone to report suspicious activities. "If you see something, say something," read a popular slogan.

While the mere phrase of a people's war may invoke unpleasant memories for some Chinese, the party seems to be grasping for every possible way to combat what it sees as its new enemy. The problem, however, is that people's wars in China have historically overreached their intended mark, instead turning the populace against itself. As the threat of terrorism continues to loom over China, the ruling party will need to balance the demands for privacy in a modern society against the age-old doctrines of Maoism.

AFP/Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation

Meet 'Crazy Jack,' China's E-commerce Titan

A former employee says Jack Ma sees himself as an artist, not a businessman.

The fizzy anticipation surrounding Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group's U.S. listing is a curious blend: equal parts investor giddiness (its initial public offering, or IPO, might be richer than Facebook's) and tart caution (the company is too secretive, abets piracy and fraud, has iffy corporate governance). This shouldn't be too surprising. Cross-cultural collisions on this scale tend to breed outlandish hopes and dark fears.   

Enter Porter Erisman, a former Alibaba insider, who has produced and directed his first ‘docu-memoir': Crocodile in the Yangtze: The Alibaba Story. The breezy one hour and 15 minute picture, released globally via video site Vimeo on May 28, isn't exactly a sobering bucket of ice water on Alibaba fever. But it serves to remind audiences that the e-commerce behemoth from the Far East has humble origins, that it was created in a tiny one-room apartment by, what Erisman calls in the film, a bunch of dreamers led by Jack Ma, or Ma Yun (pictured above), an eccentric former English teacher turned tech entrepreneur who founded Alibaba.

If that synopsis bears echoes of the Apple creation myth -- dreamers again, this time in a Silicon Valley garage -- it's meant to. Erisman, an American expat whose decade-long tenure at Alibaba afforded him a front row seat to the company's dizzying if sometimes rocky rise, set out to make a film that would humanize China's go-go tech industry and show Westerners the shared DNA that unites entrepreneurs the world over.

Erisman told Foreign Policy via Skype from Tokyo that he sees much Western skepticism toward Chinese companies, which he hoped to temper with an insider's view of a Chinese startup. "I would hope people in the West would embrace the idea of Chinese Internet companies growing to the scale of their Western counterparts because I think it's not a zero-sum game," Erisman said. "These green shoots at the grassroots level in China have the same hopes and dreams as entrepreneurs anywhere in the world," he added.

The film explains how Erisman, who hails from Denver, Colorado, first ended up in China in 1994 and quickly found himself hosting a travel show for Chinese state television before eventually being wooed by a web company in the scenic resort city of Hangzhou, not far from Shanghai. As he explains in the film, that company, an online business-to-business platform with zero revenue, was called "Alibaba" because the founders hoped that small businesses would use their site to say "open sesame" to global trade.

Erisman's journey is intercut with footage of Ma, who remains Alibaba's figurehead today. The film shows Ma from the pre-Alibaba days when he was attempting to launch China Pages, a sort of online yellow pages for the Chinese Internet. That venture failed, but the film also shows Ma gathering 17 friends in his apartment in Hangzhou in February 1999 to lay the foundation for what was to become the biggest e-commerce company in China.  

Ma's incredible focus and foresight are on display as he lays out his vision for the path ahead, telling his co-founders that they are building a global site to compete not with other Chinese platforms, but with Silicon Valley. He warns them that 8 am to 5 pm workdays won't cut it, since his goal is to take the company public by 2002. The film then charts the crazy ride from that day up to subsidiary Alibaba.com's Hong Kong stock exchange listing in November 2007. Meanwhile, the group's consumer retail site Taobao improbably manages to beat out deep-pocketed eBay for Chinese market share along the way. (The film's title comes from a famous Ma quip that described eBay as a shark in the ocean and Alibaba as a "crocodile in the Yangtze River.") Erisman's picture shows shy-looking computer nerds belting out karaoke at company parties, and employees crying tears of joy when the company finally begins to make revenue.

There are also crises to be managed, including a staff quarantine when a coworker gets SARS, a viral respiratory illness that led to international panic, in May 2004. It also depicts the fallout from Alibaba's partnership with Yahoo right around the time that the U.S. search company was revealed to have handed over the personal emails of journalists and activists to the Chinese government. Based on evidence delivered by Yahoo, the writer Shi Tao was sentenced to 10 years in jail for leaking state secrets; he was released in August 2013, 15 months short of serving the full term. The media held Ma's feet to the fire on this issue, but he has argued that Yahoo had no choice but to comply with local Chinese laws.

Erisman said he had tried to get his film shown by a Chinese broadcaster, but the deal fell through because he refused to delete some of the film's political content -- he declined to specify which scenes they wanted cut -- so there is no immediate plan for a China release. Its current incarnation also can't be viewed in China, as Vimeo is blocked there.

The film might be too hot for Chinese censors, but it is far from a takedown of Alibaba, and it can't fairly be called objective. It was, after all, produced and directed by an Alibaba shareholder who clearly still has affection for his former employer and colleagues. The film doesn't wade into a string of fraud cases that led to the resignation of two senior executives in February 2011, which to be fair, occurred after Erisman's exit. Nor does it touch Alibaba's persistent problems with pirated or counterfeit goods sold via its platform. (Craig Crosby, publisher of the Counterfeit Report, an online piracy alert site, was quoted by the Associated Press in a May 27 report saying that the cash from Alibaba's IPO would "open the floodgates on counterfeits.")

The picture also rarely shows Ma with his guard down. Erisman said he worried that he might upset Ma if he revealed too much personal information (Ma's wife and kids are never mentioned), but the person whom many call "Crazy Jack" might have preferred a more unvarnished take. Ma allowed Erisman access to the company's video and photo archives, but didn't see the film until 2012. Erisman said Ma's favorite part was a section Erisman debated including: the details of a distraught phone call after a tough round of layoffs when Ma asked Erisman if he thought Ma was a good person. 

Erisman admitted he wasn't sure how Ma would react, but said his former boss found it the best part of the film. "Maybe he appreciated that I captured that moment, the difficult part of being an entrepreneur that people don't normally see," Erisman said.

From the film, it's clear that Ma lives his work. Erisman says the Alibaba founders still get together on weekends to "play cards and drink tea." When asked whether enormous wealth and success had changed Ma, Erisman said it seems to have mainly boosted Ma's confidence as a manager. But, he added, Ma has never seen himself as a businessman. Instead he thinks of himself as an artist who is creating something for society. "He views work as an expression of yourself," Erisman said.

That observation was a re-phrasing of a coda at the end of Crocodile, where Erisman sums up why working at Alibaba had been so important to him and why he felt it was worthy of a film. "In a country where speech still has limits, my colleagues found self-expression in the form of a company," Erisman says in a voice over. "I felt if the rest of the world had seen the China I'd seen, maybe fear of China's rise would be replaced with optimism and hope." 

AFP/Getty Images