Showing posts with label Harry Wu Hongda. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Harry Wu Hongda. Show all posts

Monday, July 17, 2017

The two sides of Liu Xiaobo

Edited version first appeared in Asia Times.

China’s Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo has succumbed to liver cancer. Lionized in the West, his passing was little noted in China. Just a smidgen of reflection would explain the dichotomy.

Liu did not win the Nobel Prize for physics or economics or any of the others administered by the Nobel committee in Stockholm. He won the Peace Prize administered out of Oslo Norway.

The Nobel committee for the peace prize is appointed by the Norwegian parliament and has been responsible for the most politicized honor among the Nobel prizes.

Since there hasn’t been a whole lot of peace around the world, it’s understandable that there were more years when a peace prize was not awarded than for any of the other awards. Some of the prize recipients were matters for debate.

The peace prize has been the most burdened in controversy. For example, some say the committee gave the peace prize to the Dalai Lama in part to atone for repeatedly passing over Mahatma Gandhi, universally recognized as the most deserving to not have received the honor.

The committee also rushed headlong in the opposite direction and couldn’t wait to see what Barrack Obama was going to do as president of the U.S. They awarded Obama with the Peace Prize shortly after he was elected president just to flaunt Norwegian indignation at the war mongering policies of George W. Bush, Obama’s predecessor.

Alas for the prestige and credibility of the committee and the Peace Prize, Obama would be hard-pressed to point to any achievements toward peace in his two terms as the U.S. president.

If it’s easy to become a Peace Prize laureate, it’s hardly surprising that it’s a low bar for anyone to become a peace prize nominee. All it takes is to possess credentials with the proper slant.

The late Harry Wu (Hongda) is a good example. The aftermath of his death has revealed him to be a thief and philanderer. He stole the money set aside for Chinese human rights activists and he was a serial groper of women.

Wu rose to fame when he was arrested as he tried to enter China under disguise. After his much publicized release, he trotted around the world as a self-proclaimed defender of human rights in China. His anti-China criticism and attendant publicity got him nominated for the peace prize.

Wu and his ilk have learned that there is a career in paimapi, a Chinese saying that literally means petting the horse’s rump or in a cruder version, inducing equine flatulence. It’s a Chinese expression for obsequious flatter.

The profit is in petting the westerner’s mapi, by expressing admiration for the western concept for democracy and as if only through democracy can one achieve human rights and dignity.

The important difference between Wu and Liu is that while Wu remained in the safety of the protective West, Liu went back to China from a teaching position in the U.S. to advocate the overthrow of China’s CCP.

Liu even expressed the idea that 300 years as a colony of a western power would have done China wonders and enabled China to catch up to the standards of western democracy. That was paimapi of the highest order. No wonder the West adored him.

Conveniently overlooked by Liu is that in nearly the 3 decades since Liu went back to China, China has become the second or largest economy in the world, depending on the yardstick used in measuring China’s economy.

According to Pew’s regular polls of the sentiments of the people in China, their satisfaction and approval rating of China’s one party rule and CCP has hovered around 80% in most recent years.

Thus we have a situation where western countries that boast of popular approval ratings under 50% hectoring China to reform. They encourage China to change their system of government so that the popularity of their government can be more like the West.

May Liu Xiaobo rest in peace. Difficult to know how long he will be remembered in the West. He’s already a forgotten man in China.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Is the Navarro appointment some kind of a joke?

This is piece originally appeared in Asia Times.

The Trump transition team recently announced the appointment of Peter Navarro to a newly created post as the head of newly created National Trade Council.

Apparently this appointment will not require a Senate hearing and confirmation. Thus a lightweight could be rewarded for his loyalty and not risk embarrassing the new administration.

On the other hand, Trump could be seriously considering Navarro as his point person in trade negotiations with China. Either way, the possible involvement of Navarro on the most important bilateral relations of the world deserves serious analysis.

At one time, Navarro tried his hand at politics and ran for U.S. Congress, mayor and city council. Each time he came up empty—a many times loser.

Then he became a lame pundit who concentrated his vitriol on China mixed with questionable reasoning in economics.

As one indicator, Gordon G. Chang wrote the forward to his more recent book on China’s militarism. Chang was the pundit who wrote the book that predicted the collapse of China in 2001, only to see China’s economy doubled and then doubled again.

Navarro came to Chang’s rescue by blaming the Clinton’s Administration for letting China into the WTO and thus supposedly prevented Chang’s forecast of doom from coming true.

Then Navarro expressed his unreserved admiration for Harry Wu because Wu was a willing talking head in Navarro’s video interviews. Of course, since his death Wu’s sordid past for lying, stealing other people’s money and cheating on his wife has come to light.

Until Trump’s appointment, that’s the kind of company Navarro keeps.

Apparently, he came to Trump’s attention when he said 4 to 5% GDP growth is possible under Trump’s administration even while imposing import duties on goods made in China. If that’s really so, the economic growth would have to be increasing at better than twice the historic rate associated with a good year.

The simple but erroneous idea is that import tariff will protect jobs in the domestic market. It simply doesn’t work that way and unbecoming for a Harvard PhD economist, like Navarro, to say so.

Ronald Reagan tried to protect America’s auto industry

A fairly recent example that comes to mind was when Reagan wanted to protect the American auto industry by imposing an import duty on cars made in Japan. The idea was to give the U.S. carmakers breathing space to become more competitive.

Instead of taking advantage of the import barrier to work on their competitiveness, the U.S. car companies simply took advantage of the new prices for imported Japanese cars by raising their own sticker price. It was only after the Japanese makers transferred their plants into the U.S.—and thus avoided the import duty—that the American companies began the serious task of having to compete.

In effect, the import duty “protected” by allowing the American companies to remain inefficient. Only after the Japanese carmakers built their plants in the U.S. that the American companies had to trim their workforce to compete. And by the way, the workforce that went to work for the Japanese carmakers were non-union and got lower pay.

Imposing import duty across the board on goods made in China would be wrong-headed and even more disastrous than asking the American consumer to pay more for their cars.

Most of the consumer goods made in China such as apparel, shoes, toys, and hardware haven’t been made in America in decades. There are no domestic industries to protect and the import tax would just add the daily cost of living for every American.

American companies did not establish plants in China just for low cost labor but also to serve a growing local market there. The personal computer is an illustrative example.

The PC used to be assembled in Taiwan and then the Taiwanese companies moved to the mainland because of the significant savings in labor. Economic pressures forced their component suppliers to follow them. Component suppliers for the PC came from Japan, Korea, Taiwan as well as the U.S.

Intel combined its China and U.S. manufacturing to stay competitive

One of the U.S. suppliers was Intel. They first set up an integrated circuit assembly and test plant in Chengdu to perform the final manufacturing steps on the microprocessors made in the U.S. The finished ICs were then shipped to the PC makers all over China.

Gradually as China become a major consumer of PCs, Intel expanded their operations in China, not only at Chengdu but also added a semiconductor fab operations in Dalian.

However, even today Intel continues to make 75% of their semiconductor chips in their U.S. operations even as 75% of their market is outside of the U.S.

Intel’s total U.S. manufacturing payroll is much higher than its payroll for their Chengdu operation, even though the number of workers employed in Chengdu is “orders of magnitude” bigger than the number engaged in the U.S.—according to my source inside Intel.

The explanation is that the U.S. manufacturing steps are technology intensive and highly automated. Not many workers are required but each has to be highly trained and very well paid. The Chengdu operations involving test and packaging require many workers, but each does not have to be highly technical nor highly paid.

Taking advantage of the comparative advantage (that’s jargon from Econ 101) of each place gives Intel the means to maintain their technical dominance over their competition. This is nothing to do with currency manipulation, just simple economics.

Most of the American companies that set up operations in China may have the low cost labor in mind initially but subsequently justified added investments because China had become a huge market in its own right.

In some cases, China did impose import duty on foreign made products and thus encouraged the American companies to operate inside China—just as Reagan’s import duty encourage Japan’s auto makers to move into the U.S.

In the end, the local investment benefitted the foreign investor but also China’s economy with a more skilled workforce. The same could apply in the reverse, i.e., as regards to China’s investments coming into the U.S.

Chinese companies are looking to invest in the U.S. to be closer to the major markets here. They certainly wouldn’t be looking for lower cost of labor but would be paying higher salary for more technically demanding jobs. This could only benefit the local economy in the U.S.

Xenophobia and stupidity should not discourage these investments just because they are from China.

Navarro makes no bones about demonizing China in everything he has said but is he really compatible with Donald Trump’s real personal interests?

Last month, a video of Trump’s granddaughter, Arabella Kushner, won the hearts of millions of Chinese by reciting a poem in Chinese. This suggests that Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner, understand the importance of learning Chinese in their 5-year old daughter’s future. Surely they have more influence on Ivanka’s father than Navarro?

Sheldon Adelson has been one of Trump’s major supporters. His billions of net worth is tied to majority ownership of Las Vegas Sands and more than 60% of revenue and profits of the company is derived from Macau. He could hardly be pleased if Trump were to deliberately raise the tension between the U.S. and China.

China exercises its international influence far differently from the American way of relying on military alliances. Close to 100 countries have China as their largest trading partner. Among them, some 60 plus are also members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or are recipients of AIIB investments. Their relationship with China is based on common economic interests.

The Trump Administration should also consider the merits of developing a bilateral relations based on shared economic interest.

Bilateral basis for common economic interest

Consider for example the economic benefits of tourism from China to the U.S. Last year, less than 3% of China’s total outbound tourists came to the U.S. and they spent over US$30 billion. That was the first full year when the Chinese were granted 10-year, multi-entry visas to visit the U.S.

The future impact of Chinese tourists on the American economy will continue to grow exponentially, provided of course that the U.S. and China are not engaged in some mano a mano test of military armament.

There are over 330,000 Chinese students studying in the U.S. in the academic year just past. According to the Department of Commerce, these students contributed US$11.4 billion to help prop up the finances of the U.S. universities as well as the local economy.

Not to be overlooked another benefit of these students is that as much as 75% of the graduates would prefer to stay and work in the U.S. if the U.S. would permit.

China produces many more times graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics than the U.S. can produce. They are just the talent pool American companies desperately need to keep their plants operating and not having to move them offshore.

Trump has to understand that America is losing jobs to automation and technological advances and not to China. Someday, for example, Uber is going to rely of self-drive cars and all the drivers will have to find another job. Amazon will use drones to deliver their packages and UPS will have to either operate the drones or else find some other line of work.

Encouraging the employment of Chinese graduates will buy Trump time to figure out how to save high paying jobs that will stay ahead of the technology evolution. America’s future lies in generating highly qualified and skilled workers and not in bringing back low paying jobs from overseas.

Thus, we hope that Trump will have the wisdom to look for the win-win approach with China. To promote Navarro’s line of military confrontation and a restart of a nuclear race can only lead to lose-lose outcome and such outcomes would be devastating beyond imagination.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Contradictions in Harry Wu

This piece first appeared in Asia Times. I wish to acknowledge the contributions of Professor Norman Matloff of UC Davis. In the '90s a group of us decided to pool our energy to debunk Wu, and Norman was the one to set up and maintain the website as repository of articles and op-ed pieces written about Wu that shed light on the dark side of this individual. This website has been a real blessing for me as I was preparing to write this concluding chapter of Wu's life.

Have you ever wondered what it's like to enjoy a long pee on someone's tombstone? Well, writing this piece comes close to that feeling.

When Harry Wu unexpectedly died while on vacation in Honduras, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi gave him quite a tribute. She said, “With his passing, the world has lost a global champion for freedom and democracy.” Well ahem, in light of more recent disclosures, may be not.

Recent reports, first in Foreign Policy (May 25) then in New York Times (August 14), described a morally corrupt person, not a knight in shining armor. Wu was accused of having absconded millions that did not belong to him and was to face charges of sexual misconduct in court. The heading from Foreign Policy said it all: “In death, a darker tale of extortion and sexual misconduct threatens to tarnish his legacy.”

These posthumous disclosures hardly surprised those of us in the Chinese American community that had been following his career. We always knew him to be a charlatan and a scoundrel.

But give Harry Wu credit for being a trailblazer. He discovered that he could make a nice living by saying nasty things about China. Sometimes his statements were believable because they were based on facts skillfully doctored or exaggerated. Other times, he simply made them up as he went; the more lurid he made it, the more compelling he became. The western media could not get enough of his stuff and members of Congress were the most ardent members of his fan club.

From a middling salary of a non-profit, Wu came into his financial windfall in 2007 when families of two Chinese plaintiffs sued Yahoo for illegally providing information to the Beijing authorities that led to their arrest and imprisonment. (Illegal that is from a US perspective.) At the House Foreign Affairs Committee public hearing, then chairman Tom Lantos castigated Yahoo as a bunch of moral pygmies. Wu was invited to the hearing as an interpreter for the plaintiffs.

The cowed company agreed to give $3.2 million to each of the two plaintiffs and $17.3 million to a human rights fund as aid for future Chinese dissidents. The fund was to be administered by Harry Wu and his Laogai Research Foundation. That was a big, big mistake.

Yahoo’s donation became Wu’s personal fortune

The plaintiffs had to sue Wu later in order to get some of that $3.2 million awarded to them. Other dissidents never did see any of the $17 million. Instead the tax returns for LRF showed revenues of $325k in 2006, which jumped to more than $18 million in 2007.

In 2008, Wu bought a building in Washington DC for slightly under $3 million to house his museum. In the museum were prominent displays of photos of Wu with the who’s who of the world including Margaret Thatcher of UK and Bill Clinton and China bashing members of Congress such as Nancy Pelosi, Chris Smith and Frank Wolf.

Wu was supposed to disburse $1 million per year as aid to dissidents but according to Morton Sklar, attorney for the plaintiffs, Wu never did. Sklar said to New York Times, “But Harry Wu saw the money as his own personal fund, to benefit his own activities.”

Jeff Fiedler, who helped Wu formed the LRF in 1992 and should know Wu better than anyone, left the board in 2011. He said, “Harry was uncooperative and saw the money as his alone. He became extremely unreasonable.”

Wu died while vacationing in Honduras and cause of death has not been publicly disclosed. Perhaps he would still be alive today if he did not come into all that “discretionary” funds for exotic vacations. Rather than speculating on what might have been, I have been following his career and would like to discuss the person that he became. How he lived his life can serve as a cautionary tale.

First an important disclaimer: I cannot vouch for the accuracy of anything I say about Wu that are drawn from his public utterances. The reason is because consistency in his public statements was never his strong suit. I stand behind everything else in this piece.

How did Wu ended up in China’s prison?

Just the explanation of how Wu ended up in China’s labor camp would be reflective of his carelessness with facts. At different occasions, Wu gave different answers. Sometimes he said he was persecuted because his father was a banker and therefore Wu had the wrong family background. But then he was asked why the government would allowed him to graduate from college in 1959 and did not send him to labor reform during the height of the anti-rightest movement between 1957 to 1959?

Oh then, may be it was because he voiced criticism of the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolt. But that timing did not work either since the failed revolt also took place in 1956.

Another version which Wu had sneeringly referred to as the official Beijing line was that after graduation, Wu was assigned to a government job that would make use of his training in geology. He was caught taking money from a co-worker’s purse and that was how he made his first visit to China’s prison.

According to his own autobiography, Wu was in various prison camps from 1960 to 1979. If so, Wu would have been among the first batch to be released and allowed to return to civilian life as Deng Xiaoping returned to power and China began its reform.

In 1985, Wu came to the U.S. He claimed to have accepted an invitation to UC Berkeley as a visiting scholar; it was a curious invitation that came without any stipend. He frequently made proud reference to the fact that he came to America with just $40 in his pocket. I could not find anyone at Berkeley that would admit to having invited Wu.

As an alternate explanation, Wu had a sister living in San Francisco and it was possible that she sponsored his immigrating to the US. Less glamorous than being a visiting scholar but it would explain why Wu was allowed to remain in the America as a permanent resident. He and his sister hadn’t seen each other for 30 years and quickly found that they couldn’t stand each other’s company. He soon left her home and found work at a donut shop in Oakland.

Wu discovered his calling

Somehow the next year Wu was invited to speak about his prison experiences in China before a group of students at UC Santa Cruz. He gave an emotionally charged presentation that impressed the audience and thus Wu unwittingly found his life long calling. No more making donuts, he could just talk about his experiences in China’s prison system.

Ramon Myers, curator of East Asian Studies at Hoover Institution on Stanford heard about Wu and met with him. Myers wanted to know more about China’s prison system and gave Wu a small research grant to pursue a study. More importantly, Myers gave Wu access to the archives at Hoover. Long after the research grant had petered out, Wu continued to brandish his affiliation as a Hoover Research Fellow, a business card and title that conveyed priceless legitimacy on to Wu.

Then in 1991, Wu met Jeff Fiedler who was at the time secretary-treasurer of AFL-CIO Food and Allied Services Trade Department. I was not there but I would guess that it was mutual admiration at first sight. Okay, that might be too strong a description but each had something the other wanted.

Fiedler had a personal mandate which was to disrupt trade with China in any way he could. His logic was flawed but simple. Namely, low cost goods made in China took away jobs from American labor force. Wu could provide the ammunition Fiedler needed and Wu craved the cover of legitimacy that big organized labor could offer.

Laogai foundation founded by AFL-CIO

They founded Laogai Research Foundation to be based in Washington DC. “Laogai” was Chinese terminology for reform through labor and was the term used in China for a particular kind of prison camps. “Research,” I am sure, was Wu’s contribution having learned the bona fides that came with that word. For the early years, the so-called Washington headquarter of the foundation consisted of an extension with an answering machine in Fiedler’s department located in the AFL-CIO building.

To continue to burnish his credentials, it was necessary for Wu to gather research material by making field trips into China. His highest profile visit was to take Ed Bradley into China for a piece on 60 Minutes allegedly to expose prison made goods from China. He apparently did the same with BBC.

By the time Wu was ready to make another clandestine visit to China in 1995, he was a known and wanted person by China’s public security. He tried to enter China’s Xinjiang by way of Kazakhstan and was caught at the border entry. A female companion from AFL-CIO was detained with him.

It was hard to understand why Wu brought along a Caucasian woman at a remote border crossing if he wanted to keep a low profile and avoid detection, but it turned out to be a stroke of luck for him. The Chinese authorities had no reason to keep the woman in detention and released her within days. She then told the world that Harry Wu had been arrested.

The timing of Wu’s arrest was also fortunate for him. The International Women’s conference was to be held in Beijing later in the summer and first lady Hillary Clinton was to be the keynote speaker. Washington’s position was that without Wu’s release, there would be no first lady going to Beijing. Without that negotiation, Wu could have been facing another 19 years in China’s prison. He had become an American citizen a year earlier, so you could say he was three times lucky.

Wu became a world celebrity

Wu came back to the U.S. a world famous celebrity. Going under cover to China was no longer an option nor necessary; Wu became a popular speaker on the circuit. He appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and was interviewed by Charlie Rose and spoke at schools and universities and of course testified before various sub-committees of Congress. (Anytime Congressman Chris Smith wanted to go on C-Span, he would call Wu in for a conversation.) His remarks became increasingly lurid and graphic and his anti-China position more extreme.

Shortly after his release from China, Wu joined the picket line at Boeing in Seattle. He was quoted by the local newspaper as saying, “The strike by Boeing members (of the machinist union) is really a strike against the Chinese government; a strike the American labor movement must win.” At the time the union accused Boeing of exporting jobs to China because Boeing agreed to subcontract manufacturing of certain sections of the 737 to China. (In retrospect, Boeing would not have made a fortune in airplane sales to China without the subcontract agreement.)

He led protesters before K-Mart stores claiming that most of the merchandise inside was made by prison labor in China. Cheap goods from China made by prison labor became an important high profile issue for Wu. To disrupt bilateral trade with China, Wu went around the country claiming that practically everything made in China came from the prisons. This was in the era before Apple introduced iPods made by Taiwanese contractors in China, and Wu could get away with extravagant claims before a poorly informed American public.

In 1998, James Seymour and Richard Anderson published a scholarly study of China’s laogai penal system, “New Ghosts, Old Ghosts.” The book was widely acclaimed for its objectivity and dispassionate analysis.

Their findings disagreed with Wu’s wildly disparate estimates of the number of prison camps in China and the number of prisoners. They estimated that China prison labor could not have contributed more than one-tenth of one percent to China’s GDP. The real difference was that theirs was a rigorous study based on accepted academic practices; Wu would not have known what that meant.

Wu took on the World Bank

In 1996, Wu led the protest against the World Bank for financing an irrigation project in Xinjiang. Wu charged that the project would benefit the laogai camps in Xinjiang. He found out that a Fan Shidong had been recently released from a Xinjiang laogai and was living in Hong Kong.

Wu flew to Hong Kong to meet him and offered to pay all his expenses if Fan would agree to testify before Congress against the World Bank project. Fan refused saying that the irrigation project would benefit the local Uighurs and had nothing to do with the prison camps. Fan later revealed his encounter with Wu to the ethnic press after he immigrated to the U.S.

As Wu basked in international recognition including Nobel Peace prize nominations and spoke in the European circuit as well as in the U.S., those that knew him intimately became increasingly disenchanted with his actions.

By late 1996, Ramon Myers, who made Wu a “Hoover scholar,” said to LA Times, “We do our work in a very fair, objective way. It doesn’t help us any when Harry Wu is affiliated with us and he’s peddling his stuff in every parliament in the world. I regret, frankly, that he was ever at Hoover.”

Chinese American community disenchanted with Wu

On one occasion Wu visited Columbia University to speak and receive some sort of recognition. While lining up for some refreshments, he was delighted to meet Li Qiang, a student at Columbia, who was originally from Shanghai. Wu said he was homesick for the opportunity to speak in their local dialect. Li took the opportunity to point out to Wu that contrary to his public remarks, China’s human rights conditions had never been better in the last 50 years. Wu said, “Yes, yes but the Americans know nothing. Let’s just talk between us.”

Even as Wu became more facile with his English speaking ability, he missed the fellowship of speaking to compatriots of his homeland. Ironically, the Chinese American community was increasingly outraged by his public remarks and activities. One of his best-known publicity stunts was to use a secretly taken video of an operating room in China performing an open-heart surgery and claiming that the video was documenting the process of harvesting of kidneys from prisoners.

Ignatius Ding, a leader of a democracy in China movement in Silicon Valley, spontaneously organized in response to the visceral TV images of June 4 in Tiananmen, was an early supporter of Harry Wu. By the end of 1996, he offered a rueful observation to the LA Times that Wu had no supporters from his own ethnic Chinese community, just members of Congress. Later I asked Ding why he made that comment. He said, “I support the cause of helping the Chinese dissidents but I cannot condone Wu’s methodology. He pushed the envelope way too far.”

It was not much later that Wu sold his home in Milpitas and moved to the DC area. Thus he left the largest community of Chinese Americans in the U.S. that shunned him to be near the Congressional community that adored him.

After Wu’s death, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen from Florida who succeeded the late Tom Lantos wrote a eulogy on Harry Wu, “After a hearing on Yahoo’s collusion with Beijing in suppressing Internet freedom, Harry stepped in on behalf of those who had been imprisoned and their families.” She apparently was not aware of the charges that Harry stepped in not for anyone but his own pockets.

The tragedy of Harry Wu was that he didn’t just soak up all the funds that could have benefitted dissident families in financial distress; he also sucked up the oxygen from with other dissidents. His distortions and exaggerations corrupted the very issues that the dissidents wanted to raise against the Beijing regime. The truths that could have stood on their own merits and let the society decide were no longer possible as they were covered by the slime from Harry Wu.

Three birds of a feather

There are others that have made a career out of Harry Wu school of China bashing. Two comes to my mind. Gordon G. Chang wrote about “The Coming Collapse of China” in 2001. A decade later, China’s economy was on verge of quadrupling, surely not a sign of collapse? Undaunted, Chang boldly affirmed that he was merely off in his prediction and confidently predicted that the collapse will most certainly take place in 2012.

It is now 2016 and his fellow traveler, Peter Navarro came to Chang’s rescue. Navarro also affirmed that Chang’s prediction was just around the corner, except he was smart enough not to say when, thus leaving room to review the collapse question every ten years or so. It’s no coincidence that Navarro was also the person that produced the video tribute to Harry Wu’s life posted on the LRF website. Three birds of a feather flock together?

Featherweight credentials notwithstanding, their anti-China messages continue to find a willingly receptive audience, and they will continue to be interviewed by the media and invited to testify before Congress. And we Americans will continue to suffer from the endless charade (and parade) of charlatans.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Demonizing China for Fun and Profit

Mike Daisey is the latest but not likely the last to attain fame and fortune by making up stories about China. Daisey’s case was a widely acclaimed monologue entitled “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” supposedly based a six-day visit to Shenzhen China and his encounters with various factory workers—except as we were to find out very little of it actually happened.

Daisey’s performance on stage was a hit and he became a media celebrity that talked about his China experiences. This American Life a radio program on National Public Radio dedicated an hour on Daisey and excerpts of his monologue. Up to this point, his monologue was considered to be a factual presentation of his encounters in China since he never qualified it in any way.

Unfortunately for Daisey, some of his more flamboyant assertions on his one-man show rang hollow to those that know China. This American Life then retroactively did some fact checking and found that Daisey had lied to the program. In the end, This American Life made a full retraction of the story they carried about Daisey. In the retraction, the listener could hear Daisey’s awkward and embarrassing retreat as Ira Glass disassembled Daisey’s lies step by painful step.

By the end of the hour program, Daisey apologized to Ira Glass for appearing on his program and misled the American public into thinking that he was doing journalism when he was only doing theater—a medium where mixing facts with fiction are permitted.

An important reason for Daisey’s initial success is his choice of topic. Much of American public are susceptible and open to hearing anything negative about China. I have reduced the formula of success as ABCDEF: Americans bash China by distortion, exaggeration and fabrication.

The earliest known example that came to my attention was the so-called human rights activist, Harry Wu. He made a decent living talking about China’s human rights conditions based on half-truths and lies. He has had the good fortune of never appearing on a stage visible enough that someone was inclined to give him a once over fact check.