Does Xi Netflix and chill?

Xi Jinping House of Cards

Just hours after landing in Seattle for his first state visit to the U.S., Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a wide-ranging speech touching on cybersecurity, China’s economy, the “Chinese Dream,” and classic American rom-coms, impressing observers with his knowledge of American pop culture.

Speaking at the Washington State Welcoming Banquet in Seattle, the Chinese leader’s line of the night has to go to his dismissal of speculation that his infamous anti-corruption campaign has been about removing his own political enemies.

“We have punished tigers and flies. It has nothing to do with power struggles. In this case there is no House of Cards,” he said.


If you’re like me, you will have read this story in English first and thought something along the lines of:

Oh no he didn't

Oh yes he did.


If you’re interested, yes, House of Cards is indeed a thing in China, under the title 纸牌屋. You can check out the Douban page here.  Nevertheless, the mind boggles at the thought of Xi and his minions sitting down with beer and fried chicken to catch up with what Francis Underwood’s been getting up to lately.

Oh, and if you were wondering why he felt the need to declare that “there is no House of Cards”, it’s because there totally is.


Ever heard of the Vyapam Exam Scam?


Then you’re not alone. I barely know anything about it, and weird Asian shit is my speciality.

Basically, a bunch of professors, doctors and bureaucrats in Madhya Pradesh were letting pretty much any idiot pass official medical exams in return for bribes.

Normal for India, you might say. And it’s a fair point, although few of these scams lead to over 2000 arrests, including of VIPs.

And then the people involved started dying suspiciously. Again, this isn’t entirely unusual. What is unusual, however, is that it didn’t stop. The official toll is in the 20s round about now, but most people say that really it’s well over forty. These include suicides, accidents, deaths that have been officially attributed – under somewhat iffy circumstances – to illness and, in one dramatic incident, the immolation of the former Dean of NS Medical College on his own lawn. Just recently they appear to have nobbled a journalist whose only crime was interviewing relatives of a previous victim, it being this particular incident that got me thinking about the coverage of the affair.

Obviously, if this was happening in the US or Europe, then we’d hear about nothing else on CNN, morning, noon and night. However, I’m not attributing the lack of coverage entirely to ethnocentrism. There’s also the fact that China and India are so huge and so chaotic, that they can maintain a relatively high level of Gross Domestic Strangeness without any of it necessarily being picked up upon by the rest of the world.

Zhou Yongkang: hair, protocol and weasels

Zhou Yongkang

Zhou Yongkang — erstwhile oil czar, former chief of China’s dreaded state security apparatus, a man once swaggering and fit enough to perform 50 to 100 pushups in front of fawning onlookers — has completed his transformation into a sad historical footnote. On June 11, China learned the man it once feared will spend the rest of his life in prison when the Number One Intermediate People’s Court in Tianjin, a large city near Beijing, handed Zhou his fate for corruption and abuse of power, both on a staggering scale. As the chief judge read the verdict aloud, his hands visibly shook. But Zhou already looked neutralized. What struck observers most profoundly was not the long prison term awaiting him, but the shock of heretofore-unseen grey hair on his head.

While it’s true that age is venerated in China, its leaders nonetheless make every effort to appear strapping — late Communist Party strongman Mao Zedong is famed for having swam the roiling Yangtze River. In the coded language of Chinese politics, there could be no more fitting image of Zhou’s swift passage from colossus to cipher than the simple change in hue.

For even mid-level Chinese bureaucrats, assiduous maintenance of a dark mane is part of the standard uniform of power. Zhou appearing without it is the state’s way of saying that it can deny him anything.

That includes a soapbox. Zhou’s trial was closed to the public, a sharp turnabout from the quasi-public trial of Bo Xilai in August 2013, another high-flying politician now imprisoned for corruption. Although Bo’s trial was not shown live, some details emerged via official court accounts on Weibo, China’s Twitter. Those materials quoted Bo speaking in his own defense, and even cross-examining witnesses testifying against him. Then again, Bo had built something of a fan base in China’s south, where he governed the megacity of Chongqing by fear and patronage. By contrast, Zhou, who has few if any defenders left, was shown on China Central Television (CCTV)’s flagship news broadcast, Xinwen Lianbo, bowing his head and reading from prepared remarks. “I accept the judgment of the court; I will not appeal,” Zhou intoned. “I admit the facts of my illegal conduct, and the harm I have done to the party enterprise.” He is not shown apologizing for any harm he may have done to the rest of China.

Chinese state media may not have hid the news — doing so would only lend it the alluring aura of the forbidden — but it has been careful to signal that whatever happens to Zhou is far less important than what President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang are doing today. CCTV news positioned the story third in the night’s lineup. Xi’s meeting with Burmese opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi led the broadcast, followed by Li’s attendance at a meeting on food safety. A commentary that followed the Zhou news emphasized that Xi and the party center have treated corruption “with life and death seriousness.” It’s best, the remarks seem to imply, to forget about Zhou and look toward the future.


Chinese authorities have not censored all mentions of Zhou, but they certainly have axed some, captured on the mirror site Among them are expressions of surprise that Zhou was not sentenced to death. But there was also more on Zhou’s hair. “The number of years of his sentence, or even whether he was sentenced to death, ultimately don’t matter to China’s law, politics, or future,” wrote one user who claims to be a policeman from the mid-sized city of Xuzhou. “I just think it’s a shame he doesn’t have a head of black hair anymore.” The user quoted Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a novel about the jostling of feudal lords for primacy in post-Han dynasty China. The police officer used a phrase from the book describing an elderly but evil minister of court: a “white haired weasel, a grey bearded bandit.” Zhou, he implied, was never anything more than that.

For what it’s worth:

1. The hair thing is spot on. I once knew a high-ranking cadre who took his off every night when he got in from work.

2. But there’s no point reading too much into the order of precendence on the tv news. Protocol dictates that the President always appears first, no matter how dull his activities. There is a set order in which the doings of the elites are mentioned, and it is followed religiously, whatever else may be going on.



How the other half dines

Outrage on the Chinese internet as it emerges that as dozens of Shanghai citizens were being stampeded to death on New Year’s Eve, local officials were nerby eating extravagant dinners for which they almost certainly didn’t pay.

As Shanghaiist puts it:

A ‘kaiseki ryori’ eatery called Kongchan has been identified as the restaurant by news portal, which published a number of images showing the establishment’s lush interior.

The restaurant is owned by a district-linked company called the Huangpu International Business Corporation, according to the Sina report. When senior district officials eat here, all they need to do is to sign their name on the dotted line and the payment will be taken care of, the report added.

Details of the officials’ luxurious multi-course meal have been making waves on the web, and in the heat of China’s anti-extravagance campaign, has netizens questioning who paid for the pricy dishes.

In fact, the restaurant is called 空蝉, which is indeed pronounced ‘Kongchan’ in Chinese, and refers to the empty shells that cicadas leave behind them when they transform. But the name has a huge amount of background to it.

In Japanese it means the same thing, but is pronounced Utsusemi and is the name of a character in the Tale of Genji:

Utsusemi (空蝉/Cicada Shell/ Lady of the Locust Shell) – She is the wife of the Iyo Deputy and stepmother of the Governor of Kii. She attracts Genji’s attention, but resists his courtship despite his repeated attempts to win her over. Although she will not become a central character in the tale, Utsusemi is memorable as the first woman Genji court in the tale and whose courtship the readers actually witness and also, arguably, as the first to resist him.(chapters 2,3,4; reenters the tale in chapter 16; is mentioned again in chapter 23)

A lady of lower rank, after the death of her father she has no choice but to become the second wife of the Iyo Deputy, whose first wife is dead at the time of the narrative (Chapter 2 ‘Hahakigi’). She accidentally attracts Genji’s attention during one of his visits to the Governor of Kii’s mansion. Forced to avoid a directional taboo, young Genji leaves his father-in-law’s mansion at Sanjō and takes refuge to his retainer’s house. Ritual purification also forced the women of the Iyo Deputy’s household, Utsusemi included, to temporarily reside in the same place.

Having heard some feminine voices and the movements in an adjacent room, Genji becomes interested in the Governor’s step-mother, whom he already knew was young and potentially attractive. That very same night, Genji steals into the women’s quarters and under the guise of being a lady-in-waiting (Utsusemi is calling for Chūjō, which is both the sobriquet of her servant and Genji’s current rank of captain), he slips next to Utsusemi. Once the lady realizes who he really is, she is terrified and would like to call for help, were it not for her awareness that such a discovery would only bring her shame. Even so, she still rejects his advances and keeps strong despite his seductive words, until Genji, at a loss, can only think of taking her away to a more private location. As he carries her out of the room, he encounters the real Chūjō who is more than ready to defend her mistress against this unknown intruder until she too realizes who he is. Genji’s rank and status is simply too high for the two women to dare raise a commotion.

Once Genji secures Utsusemi’s location, he continues to pour out sweet words and promises, yet the lady ‘was as (…) the young bamboo: she bend but was not to be broken.’[9] Despite the textual description, many Genji critics read the incident as Genji’s success despite the lady’s resistance. Their interpretation lies heavily on one verb in the original, miru, which, although has multiple meanings, also refers to ‘making love, carnally knowing someone.’ Because of this one meaning among many, the traditional interpretation of the scene was that Genji does manage to break through Utsusemi’s defenses and ends up sleeping with her. Other critics however, most prominently Margaret Childs,[10] prefer to reject this interpretation as unfounded.

After the incident in question, Genji tries to see the lady two more times. The first time, she finds out about his arrival and takes refuge into another wing of the house, where she surrounds herself with her ladies-in-waiting. Frustrated, Genji ends up taking her younger brother to bed, as her replacement. This episode is considered the sole explicit example of homosexual relations in the tale.

The second time, Genji manages to get close to her and he even gets to spy on her playing go with her step-daughter, Nokiba no ogi. This kaimami (man spying on one or multiple women through a gap in the fence/ curtain/ screen) became a favorite screen among Genji artists and has been often illustrated as representation for chapter 3 “Utsusemi.”

After having spied on her, Genji, with the complicity of Utsusemi’s younger brother, Kogimi, steals into her chamber again. Aware of his presence, Utsusemi manages to escape from Genji’s embrace by discarding her outer robe like a cicada discards its shell (hence the chapter title). In her desire to escape him, the lady also abandons behind her sleeping step-daughter, who becomes Genji’s unwitting prey. Unwilling to admit defeat, or rather to sleep alone for the night, Genji makes do with what is left behind and ends sleeping with Nokiba no ogi, who does not even imagine she has been the victim of mistaken identity.

At the end of the fourth chapter, ‘Yugao’, Utsusemi leaves the capital with her husband who has been appointed governor of a province. Nokiba no ogi also gets married and leaves the narrative. Utsusemi returns in chapter sixteen, ‘Sekiya,’ when she meets Genji on her return from the provinces. They exchange poems, and Utsusemi is shown to regret not being able to accept Genji’s advances (because of Utsusemi’s marriage and differences in rank).

Last time the readers encounter Utsusemi is in chapter twenty-three, ‘Hatsune,’ where they learn that she has become a nun after her husband’s death. The reason behind her decision is her desire to escape the unwelcome amorous attentions of her step-son, the Governor of Kii. After taking the tonsure, Utsusemi comes to depend upon Genji and takes residence in his former home (his home before the building of the Rokujō-in), Nijō-in.

Outside of a literary context, however, 空蝉 refers to the impermanence of all things, and particularly human mortality. The Buddhist equivalent of ‘all flesh is grass’. As Jim Breen’s dictionary puts it: ‘the real world; temporal things’.

However, the word does not have a purely pejorative sense. It can also imply someone who successfully navigates the temporal pleasures that the world has to offer. Someone like Genji, for example.