11 September 2013

If a podcast falls in the woods,

Occasionally I just stumble across websites that provide me insight into what happens across China. I came across these particular podcasts by such a fortuitous happenstance. I could say that I hadn't heard of The Economic Observer English edition because it's based in Beijing but I think it's more likely the case that its leadership doesn't necessarily know how to reach or identify potential readers outside their main focus, mainland Chinese. Putting aside the state controlled media and their agenda, are independent Chinese media able to identify demographics that are interested in English language podcasts about topics from the mainland or are they indifferent to such markets? To fill out the void, there are expats who generate media content for those in China and for foreign consumption. The contrast with the degree of infiltration of these different media can be both a mystery and explained in part. The Economic Observer presents contrasting aspects: the format, the tone, and the standards of journalism that are exemplified in these podcasts to indicate that often the English language outreach little more than a kind of vanity project for a Chinese media outlet.

One way of dividing podcasts up is between those that supply transcripts and those that don't. One cannot fault websites maintained by amateurs or those with small budgets, who are unable to support the cost and bandwidth required to host transcripts. Larger news organizations, those with sufficient budgets and especially those that want to influence debates, typically provide transcripts in a timely manner, sometimes for a nominal fee, as an aid for helping to understand what has been spoken, officially. Transcripts accrue two benefits principally. For one, they make writing 'blogposts much faster since it is easier to source quotes in a text than from an audio recording. The news outlet thereby becomes a source of citations for subsequent news stories, tweeters, or bloggers. A less understood benefit of transcripts is that it enables secondary speakers of English to more readily follow the dialogue. Yes, it's an example of softpower but it's also good marketing and a means of finding more diverse audiences.
It's not then very simple to understand the situation at The Economic Observer. The decision by the editors to host podcasts in English hints at their interest in expanding to a market beyond mainland Chinese readers. At the same time, they are missing out on reaching those Chinese whose command of English might be too weak to follow the interviews yet interested in the content.  The potential audience for an online publication is by definition narrow; for a publication that focusses on economics, narrower. Not including transcripts keeps the audience smaller than necessary, which can be seen as intentional for as yet unclear reasons, or unintentional indicating a degree of immaturity in the Chinese media industry.

The podcast topics seem to all be chosen according to questions posed by visitors to the website, all of whom sound to be expats. The guests whom he invites are all able to speak at length on their specialty. I've known about the podcast host, Eric Fish, for some time now through his weblog, Sinostand.  His taking a position at The Economic Observer helps to explain the lower frequency of postings at Sinostand.  His writing in that forum parallels the high standards he sets for himself on these podcasts. His questions are well prepared and pointed. And yet, he doesn't much offer followups to challenge the nonsense that some of his guests express, certainly not to the same degree as he was accustomed to do on his own weblog. Two episodes highlight this.

In an episode on the increase of and the controversies surrounding undergraduate Chinese students using for-profit agencies to gain admission into foreign schools, he interviewed two entrepreneurs who work at Vericant. Many of Fish's questions focussed on issues having to due with higher education. During the interview, however, the two guests gradually made it clear that they were more interested in speaking about the evolution of their company to one that assists Chinese students get into private highs schools in the USA. Theirs is still a young enterprise and the earlier ambitions have been downgraded due to the impossibility of providing actual verification services in the PRC. Fish continued the interview and brought up many of the unethical methods employed in this new educational industry. I was interested in this episode, in particular, since I find myself in this line of work recently. Yet while the two consultants spoke in generalities about how they distinguished themselves from other consultants and placement agencies that engage in questionable, or outright fraudulent, practices, they mostly offered apologies and bizarre analogies to justify such actions committed by Chinese citizens.
Fish first asked about the need for independent verification of documents in China, essentially cutting to the chase as to why Chinese applicants need to pay for an additional services that students in other countries generally don't. Their answers ducked his accusation and instead they mentioned that it's only natural that verification services are necessary because China has so many students who want to study abroad. The fact that reliability and volume are two unrelated factors did not affect their responses in any way. It was still unclear whether his guests were intentionally obfuscating or innocently betraying their own ethnic sensibilities, which, for Han Chinese, is a tendency to downplay all their own shortcomings and to find fault in externalities. I don't mean to imply that this is exclusively a fault among the Han Chinese but it is a very strongly identifiable trait.
Fish then asked:

I’ve heard that this is an issue at schools… even they change the student’s transcript for whatever reason. Uh, …the school itself falsifies it. Have you heard of this?

His guests, Nicki and Kelly, responded collectively:

Uh, I have friends who are going to, uh, on the college level, who are going to study, …applying, to uhm, to US schools and other countries… and uhm, the school doesn’t… from , from …them have, the school doesn’t really change the score… they decide not show the lower scores so to make the whole GPA or the average score higher… so make the, make the, make the…the students look better on the transcript, transcription.

I have no idea why it was relevant to bring up the guest's friends and their personal plans to study abroad. It might have been an attempt at distancing or to bury the answer in a rambling response. But her answer when it is transcribed and her many pauses and missteps can be analyzed concisely: Chinese schools don't change academic transcripts, but they make the average score look better by eliminating the lower scores. Changing, but not changing because it's only done to make the students look better on their transcripts. Mutatis mutandis!
And to follow up on this sophistry, the Nicki and Kelly team justifed this behavior because it's not what is important to Chinese education.

Fish: So what do they have to gain by doing this? Do they just want to see their students go… [abroad].

Nicki &Kelly: Well, it’s a reputation thing. They can tell people that their students went and got into really popular, very famous universities in the US. But also I think it comes back a little bit to the gaokao, which we were talking about earlier, which is…because they don’t… because they put all their value in the gaokao and they don’t value those transcripts. To them making changes or showing the data in a slightly different way isn’t really a bad thing because they don’t weight it as heavily.

Reputation for altering educational documents is done to enhance the prestige of the Chinese schools. If it reduces the reputation of Chinese education internationally, then it can be seen as  a difference of values. And she pointed out that the schools just 'show[ing] the data in a slightly different way' because, well, because they are Chinese. Fish didn't push back on these blatant logical fallacies, but he instead moved forward with his questioning. Was he remaining an independent moderator or just giving them more rope to hang themselves?

Fish: hmmm. So let’s talk about that, about Chinese students going through the application process to foreign schools. What do they struggle with in this process?

For a moment I want to give the most instructive answer to this topic. The main problem is that just about all Chinese students think they are destined to attend the top schools of the world. Whenever I ask a Chinese student who intends to study abroad which school he wants to go, the answers are inevitably the same: MIT, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or even the California Institute of Technology, better know to NonChinese as Caltech. The Han Chinese apply the same criteria to international schools as they do to Chinese universities, for which prestige and name recognition are the only factors under consideration. Academic achievements, research facilities, all the qualities that western institutions strive for are the ones that Chinese 'don't weight so heavily'.
The two guests answered, blandly and without any insight:
I think the first thing is definitely the differences between the two education systems. 

Yeah, the struggle between Chinese education and nonChinese education is caused because of the differences. That the differences are also the reasons why Chinese students might seek education outside of China are simply regarded as different, not better. The most common reason given as to why Chinese students, their parents, are willing to spend so much money for a diploma is due to competition, which is merely code for the corruption in Chinese society generally and Chinese education specifically.  They continued:
Like, for Chinese students they, uhm, … it’s hard for us to know what requirements the schools have, um, um, to international applicants. Like, we think if we are… we get good scores. We, if we have a lot of, you know, activity, uh, activities written on the resume, the personal statements, it will make us good, the school will definitely accept us, but that’s not the case actually. ‘Cause a lot of schools are looking at your personality, your, um, soft skills, like creativity, communication skills, English definitely is the most important thing.  You know, also like the information the parents can get from China about the schools is quite limited. And, uh, I think that’s why a lot of families are, you know, uhm, turning to agents or consultants for help because they’re familiar with the whole application process ‘cause they’ve done that for many times. And they know the schools real well that they work with, and it’s easier for them to get the information about the schools, ‘cause not many schools have their website in Chinese, right?
The Han Chinese often switch to the pronoun, we, without being aware that its usage in English can so markedly change their message. So even as this guest was being asked a question on the basis of her being an authority, she casually assumed the perspective of all the helpless Han Chinese who would hire her company to get their children into schools abroad. It is disconcerting because she created an us vs. them dynamic, unwittingly reducing her own agency, which is not really the best way to promote her business expertise, but it's such a deeply engrained habit among the Han Chinese that she cannot even escape it even when speaking a second language.
Furthermore, why would an education consultant have proclaimed: "it's hard for us to know what requirements the schools have to international applicants." She, of course, meant: 'for Chinese parents to know', but she cannot disassociate herself from her Han Chinese identity. I am certain that Fish has encountered this before on many occasions, which might explain why he didn't point out this contradictory affectation to her and let her nonsense about how hard it is to know what foreign schools want from students slide by. Today university websites all have webpages that are very explicit as to what they want from applicants of every kind. It has never been easier to know what schools want on student applications. It's not a mystery, but it is vastly different from how Chinese institutions function where guanxi is more important than any other qualifications. But again, it's not polite to be so honest amongst Han Chinese so instead she talked about the barriers like communication skills, creativity, and English language skills.

As if to make the situation clearer for foreigners who cannot understand the challenges for the average Han Chinese who is trying to get his child into a western school, the other guest offered an analogy:

Eric, imagine you are just living in middle of suburbia in the US and you want to send your child to China to study for middle school, or for university and there are 400 schools that you’ve never heard.  All their websites are in Chinese. The application process is very Chinese. How are you going to help your student, your child, navigate this system? It’s actually quite daunting.
It's actually hard to respond to such an imaginary situation, but even if it were an option, the answer would be to ask advice from those parents who have gone through the same process, as if any existed, or to hire a consultant, again, if any existed to manage the nonexistent numbers of parents from abroad who want to get their children into Chinese high schools. But this aspect of the application process isn't even relevant to the controversies that Fish is trying to address in this interview: the pervasive use of fraud committed by Chinese on school applications to foreign schools. The analogy not only evades this topic, it shows just how clueless the guest speaker is with regards to how nonHan Chinese regard these matters. In trying to elicit sympathy, she instead revealed herself to be disconnected with even acknowledging the issues at hand.
Fish didn't push back at this stage of the interview either so he tried another tact. Acknowledging the valid need for consultants to help students in the application process, he tried to raise the issue of reliability of applications from Chinese students.

It’s uh… It is natural that an agent market would come from this, but there has been controversy, especially in the US, uh,  “Should we use them? Should we work with them? … To what extent should we rely on them?” What do you think the role of an agent should be in this process?
Their response started off well:
I think there are education consultants in the US and they are highly respected and I think similarly in China we would think that the role of an education consultant is to act a little but like a high school counselor would be, to give you information about the schools to help you really think through what it is that you want to do, to help you find a place that is really going to fit, your personality, where you think that this child is really going to blossom and grow.  I think where we would probably say what we don’t think the role of an educational consultant is to repackage the student into something they’re not, to fake any sort of documentation in order just to get the student into a school so that they receive a commission in return for that.
Yet this rational approach to thinking of educational consultants was short. Immediately thereafter the apologies continued on.
From my personal , uhm, opinion, I think they do this because, it’s not all the students’ fault,  it’s not all, …all the agents’, the consultants’ fault because the schools are asking for something that we don’t have in China like teachers’ recommendations. None of my teachers would write a recommendation for me and the scripts we… we the transcripts, we don’t think… you know, except the gaokao score, other scores there, you know, are not important. I don’t care about those. And also a lot of the essays, you know, writing of the written language, we don’t need to write anything to apply to a high school or to apply to a college so this is something that we don’t have in our education system and we don’t know what to do about this if the school is asking for those… Right, so personally our process as we’re working with these partner schools and the aim, we do what we do, which is video interviews, but the second thing we’d like to do is really start a dialogue of us and those cultural differences so that we create a better understanding. So when the admissions officers are visiting here, they are sensitive to those differences and the way people react and the reason why people do things is not that the Chinese want to fake teacher recommendations ‘cause they are inherently bad and they believe that faking things is the right thing to do. It’s more that they’ve been set up between some pebble and a hard place. There’s nothing they can do about it if the Chinese teachers aren’t going to give them a recommendation, but they need the recommendation to apply so they have to come up with one…. Also competition is another factor. You know, if everybody else is packaging themselves to be a perfect student, almost if you don’t do it, you’re worried you’re going to be left behind. 
It's quite possible that Fish couldn't follow what the young woman was saying with all her uhms and false starts. But the overall message is clear: It is the fault of foreign institutions that they ask for documents that Chinese have little compunction about falsifying and because of competition. To her credit she is clear about decoding what she means by competition. The Chinese must cheat on the applications because they know that other Chinese cheat on their applications. And it's the responsibility of the the admissions standards of foreign schools to be sensitive to these cultural differences because the Chinese are practically forced to cheat, not because they are bad, but because they are in competition with so many other Chinese!
It is, equally, possible that Fish was so flabbergasted by what he was hearing that he could not retort in both a thoughtful and a timely manner. These podcasts fall within a predetermined length of time and so Fish might also have been compelled to work within his schedule and follow his scripted questions. He did in the end get both guests to admit that Chinese parents do not, generally, want their children to study in a school that accepts too many Chinese students, which one guest refers to as 'too many international students' as though, it seems, only Chinese try to get into US schools. Doing too much to recruit Chinese makes the schools "too excitable or eager" which is bad, but this can be redeemed if the schools provide an environment with the necessary ESL programs, tutors on staff, and programs to compel interaction between the Chinese and US citizens, just the kind of controlling scholastic environment that the Han Chinese are familiar with and, in some cases, trying to escape. Finally Fish in one last attempt to get his guests to speak directly to the controversies asked:
Has anybody tried to bribe you, or send in a standin, or anything like that?
And in the end, he finally got one of his guests to confess to one instance in which a mother attempted to pay an additional 500 yuan in order that her son receive a few more minutes of time to express himself during a recorded interview. The graft was returned and the episode ends with giggling about the incident.

Another interview allowed Fish to reveal more of his hardheaded style with regards to the nonsense that is so often collectively agreed upon by the mainland Han Chinese. He only pushed back hard with one question, but his skepticism towards his guest was clear if muted.
Professor Daniel Bell must have, at some time in his career, felt that he was destined for greatness. His biography showed a steady, promising rise in academia so it must be quite discomforting for him to end up as token barbarian faculty member at Tsinghua University (Qinghua daxue). In spite of the dream of nearly every mainland Chinese parent that his child study hard and be admitted into Qinghua, it is still a steep downward slide from Oxford where Bell earned his graduate degrees.  Professor Bell's notoriety has a track record that predates his interview by Fish. I don't have an inclination to go into details about his theory of meritocracy, but it is concisely reviewed and heaped with scorn in this article from November, 2012. In it Bell uses the standard victimization tact that plays better to the members of China's ruling class like, for instance, Song Bing, presently employed as a senior executive at Goldman Sachs, who just happens to be his wife, than to his academic colleagues outside the middle kingdom.
“Any time you say something mildly positive about the Chinese government, there tends to be extreme hostility among some people...
When one chooses to be a lapdog, it's important to develop thick skin. Prof. Bell seemed to struggle with this necessity even as he struggled to explain political theories and rationalizations that he has signed onto as coauthor. Professor Bell also spent much of the interview, acting as apologist, distancing himself from writings that he has signed his name to. To his credit Professor Bell did concede that hereditary succession does have some drawbacks if one's goal is to create a functioning political system. The fact that it has been overthrown consistently throughout the last century doesn't mean, however, that if given enough time to play out in the future, it might somehow become beneficial again. And even as he stated so clearly that the present day state of affairs is rife with corruption and dysfunction, the PRC is not an authoritarian regime because he sees it as a meritocracy, but according to his magical thinking, a true meritocracy takes a long time to establish so it will only become evidently successful in the future. I think that's what he was saying. I didn't have enough patience or stamina to listen repeatedly to such meandering and selfserving banter. I had a flashback of listening to a cocksure fraternity pledge explain during a discussion in section how happy Italian peasants must have been when they could look at a castle being built on a distant hilltop and be proud that they helped to make it all possible.
It was really almost by accident that Fish pushed Prof. Bell into exposing just how much of the CCP koolaid he regularly imbibes.
Eric Fish: The idea of establishing a monarch, though, like with Thailand and England. There’s been a monarch there for so long that, just kinda seem like a remnant of the past. It’s hard to shake off now; whereas, you’re suggesting now that they establish a monarch. Would the Chinese people really go for that? Would they accept all the descendants of Confucius. I think, to be honest, Chinese people are smarter than that. Why would they accept this?
 Daniel Bell: Look, I mean. [inaudible] …It’s not a question of being smart or not smart enough. Uh, it’s true that there is a 100 year break, you know, which might not be that long in the span of Chinese history, uhm, but it’s also true that, you know, even in imperial China there were long breaks between, uh, between dynasties, sometimes when there wasn’t a clear, uh, transition so it won’t be the first time that some sort of  imperial regime, which, in this case,  would be a symbolic one or one that doesn’t exercise real power. Uh. It would be reestablished. I mean, to be frank, you know, I think it’s a good idea, in theory, to have a symbolic monarch, like those people in the politburo. Why would they have to waste so much time, meeting heads of foreign states and shaking hands? They should be exercising real political power. It would be good to have a symbolic monarch. And maybe it seems improbable in the near future that there, that it could be a serious possibility, uhm, but I think, you know, let’s have it out there an option for the future. I don’t think…I think if people are smart, they would realize it’s a good idea, not a bad idea.
So according to Professor Bell, it's not an example of exercising real political power when foreign heads of state meet with Chinese heads of state. I'm no post-doc with tenure, yet I don't think Xi Jinping wants to have to accept meeting with any other nations' symbolic leaders regardless of their mythical pedigree. He like all other leaders since the beginning of history prefers to meet with the real leaders. So Prof. Bell is an idiot on this point. I do, nonetheless, wonder what real political power, Prof. Bell thinks, is more important in 'some sort of imperial regime." Was that phrasing a lapsus linguae or Professor Bell's true definition of the CCP as a continuation of previous Chinese imperial dynasties. He did mention in the book he has coauthored, that Jiang Qing claims that historical precedent is a basis for legitimate rule in a theoretical Confucian style constitution. (Yes, this actually is considered thoughtful, academic debate within the halls or at the banquet tables of Chinese intelligentsia.)
As can be more easily seen in the transcript, for which I assume all faults to be mine, and not the fault of the Economic Observer for compelling me to transcribe it, Professor Bell has become fully sinicized in his scholastic manners in how he, just as above conerning the matter of changing academic transcripts, can twist words around to mean something different at the end of a thought from what they meant at the beginning. It, therefore, doesn't matter whether people are smart or not, but they are smart if they agree with Professor Bell.
Criticisms of specific podcasts aside, what The Economic Observer does with them is the main thrust of this essay. From what I have gathered, there is no link on the Chinese language webpage, directing readers to the English language podcasts. The webpage for the Chinese podcasts is segregated from the English language counterparts. It's necessary to stumble across them as I have done alternatively for both Chinese and English media consumers. The reasons for this remain only speculative.
The number of posted multimedia items i English is much smaller so the implementation might not be finalized. Very few of the items, nevertheless, might be considered exclusively directed at an expat readership; nearly all have crossover appeal. I cannot evaluate the Economic Observer's relative status within the mainland's media landscape. Does its prestige rise to the level of The Economist or parallel closer to the irrelevance of US News & World Reports? Certainly the writing samples by Chinese writers and translated into English don't indicate the former.
Is it possible that the Chinese editors don't yet recognize what attention grabbing scoops Fish is generating for them? Do they not imagine that a headline like: "Tsinghua Professor Supports Restoration of Chinese Monarchy" or "Chinese Plagiarism: All Fault of Foreigners" might earn them an increase in web traffic?
Or rather is it possible that the senior editors don't even bother to know what is being done on the English language side of their own publication? This is what I mean that the English language section is just a vanity project, meant to lend cachet in the perception of the Chinese readership. This partially explains why they don't bother with transcripts on the English side. They want their Chinese readers to be aware that there is an English language version of their publication, but they don't at all want to direct traffic there. I cannot verify how good the transcripts are on the Chinese side but the accompanying writeups with the podcasts are quite long so it's clear that the editors recognize the value of transcripts for their Chinese listeners.
Then again, better coiffed heads have rolled for bringing smaller controversies in China to the public's attention. The editors might be biding their time by establishing precedents on the sly. The strategy employed here is to develop a history of challenges to authority which get ignored until it finally comes out. In such a situation, the ruling elites find that they can save face by retroactively unmaking something a punishable offense only after it has become clear that punishment can cause more public disorder by attempting to reign back the established behavior.  It is still the case, from what can be best understood, that simply having an increase in traffic is enough to alert the managers of the Great Firewall to block a website originating from outside China. A website with foreign language content inside China might trigger the same alerts.

It's not clear to me that this situation bothers Fish, which, a bit oddly, is a good sign. In my own career, I have been very happy when my bosses paid little attention to me and simply allowed me to do my work as I saw fit. The topics that Fish covers are relevant and he doesn't tiptoe around controversies even when his guests try to. The best indication of this comes from postings on his Twitter account. Nowadays it might be that savvy journalists only express their strongest feelings on a more personal forum of social media. And so whatever the editors at The Economic Observer have in mind, it's manifest that Fish is making the most of the circumstances for the moment.

Unfortunately, I was onto something here: "Announcement: Economic Observer's English Site to Halt Operations"