The following is a guest post from my friend Hannah on the latest story buzzing around the Chinese internet.
Twenty-four-year-old Liu Lili recently appeared on a Chinese job-hunting TV show. She was halfway through saying, “I was in New Zealand for three years. After those three years, I came back home, and realized, ‘Wow, China’s been through a lot of changes!’ Now if it had been New Zealand—”, when the host, Zhang Shaogang, scolded her for using the word “China” rather than “my country” （我国) or “my ancestral homeland” (祖国). He said that using the word “China” did not convey the warm-hearted feeling that two Chinese people should share when talking about the motherland.
Liu Lili probably did not realize what she was going up against when she was accepted onto the show: China’s state media and popular perception of Chinese who have lived overseas. NY Times recently reported on state media scaling back popular “racy” TV shows, such as “If You Are the One,” due to such programs’ morally ambiguous content. In that case, overt patriotism does not seem to be in the cards, but rather a tension between projected national values and the reality of seductive consumerism. Neither of these issues directly play into this episode, but nevertheless the threat of shut-down still lingers, even looms.
Liu Lili’s status as a “Returned Chinese” (海归女) is pivotal to the debate; she was slotted from the beginning to be attacked for any signs of un-Chineseness. Indeed, living and studying overseas poses a certain soft-power threat to the home state, especially when the home state publicly announces that foreign culture is invading. Had she not been an English major who studied abroad, but rather an engineer from a humble Chinese college, she may not have received such a quick criticism.
What this ultimately suggests is a disappointing albeit unsurprising picture of current media in China. Chinese media is not the freest it ever has been. Since the founding of New China in 1949, that time was probably 1976-1980 — in particular late 1978, when Deng Xiaoping announced that “Democracy Wall is a good thing.” Instances such as this one, however, may work to “invite fire into the home” (or, as is said in English-speaking countries, to cut off one’s nose to spite the face). The reporter’s follow-up analysis and many of the comments on this clip indeed express disapproval of the host, many stating “I don’t see what the problem is.”
And that may be what it boils down to: a host who was just trying to fulfill the censorship rules. But when saying the name of one’s country becomes so sensitive that it cannot be said on that country’s TV, what comes to mind is not pretty: 1984′s Newspeak, Voldemort, and – as one Chinese reporter brought up – the emperor’s new clothes. Instances such as these may be their own undoing, wherein overt patriotism may conceivably and ultimately fall out of fashion. While that may seem like a far-off day from where we are standing, I for one am counting on history’s pendulum to start swinging back.
Hannah Lincoln is a master’s student at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center and is currently writing her thesis on China’s Misty poets. Previously, she graduated from Middlebury College with a joint degree in Chinese Language and Literature and Religious Studies. She also blogs at http://www.chinab.org.