This Week's Waypoints Is About Repression, Nature, and Escape


#1

It's Wednesday and that means Waypoints, where the site's staff and friends will bring something to share with each other and with you: a TV show, art exhibit, movie, album, or other thing from the universe of pop culture. to discuss, dissect, and enjoy.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/kzj4gz/waypoints-podcast-hellraiser-planet-money-laid-back-camp-ferryman

#2

So I wanna start this off by saying I adore Waypoint and everyone here and everything you guys do, and I value this site tremendously. It’s because of this that listening to the segment discussing the Chinese “social credit point system” was extremely frustrating.

I won’t claim to be an expert on China or the specific situation, but from what I knew prior to the pod and from what Patrick said during it, the descriptions of China as this Orwellian nightmare seem really hyperbolic. At worst, they sound similar to things that credit angencies do and that debtors are subjected to here in the US. I’m not trying to argue that the system is, in fact, good. It is completely acceptable to examine this situation and conclude “This seems repressive and bad”, but it is not useful or valuable to alledge that the closest referents we have for the situation are those in science fiction. China is in many ways a deeply flawed and repressive society, but it hasn’t transcended into some extreme realm that can only be compared to a sci fi nightmare. The narrative that Chinese society is a hellscape of constant repression is one that the US foreign policy establishment is very much interested in perpetrating to other and vilify China, and repeating hyperbolic sentiments like “China is Black Mirror irl” is doing the work of pepetuating that narrative.

I feel like I sound very Whataboutist here, and the thing is is that China is a society that is in many ways worth condemning. The US is too, and that doesnt excuse either of them, and a thing I adore about Waypoint is how concious of how deep the flaws in American society you guys are. But when we indict the flaws in a society the context in which we both indict and understand those flaws should be one of reality. How does China’s system of prison labor compare to that in the US? How does this social credit system reflect the ways that citizenship and social status are constructed in the US and Europe? Shaking our heads and going “How very spooky, how very Orwell,” doesnt broaden our perspective but narrows it.


#3

Not too much to add to this except deep agreement. It felt very weird hearing some of the language being used in this pod with no one calling it out. There was, in particular, a line about China’s ‘authoritarian tendencies’ which smacked very much of orientalist ‘Asiatic despotism’ rhetoric, the kind of which you often hear about Russia, China and the DPRK (none of which, obviously, are perfect societies, but all of which are subject to a lot of gross and unchecked racism in western media).

I can at least say I have faith that the Waypoint staff will take these criticisms to heart and hopefully address them. And just so I’m not being completely negative, I really liked hearing Rob touch on his own journey into Irish history and the delicate and informed way in which he handled talking about the IRA and British imperialism in Ireland.


#4

I’ll say it: its damn racist and plays deeply into fascist propaganda from both the west (US State Department) and chinese fascists. It really doesn’t differ except in positive ways from America (for examples) credit score system except that it actually has positive aspects and improvements over the western version (Primarily the targetting of the rich over the masses). If I have poor credit in America? I’m not getting health care, airline tickets, housing, hotels, etc all the same. This is basically taking at face value patently false claims about China because oooh, who could ever understand the mysterious Far East.


#5

I’m VERY glad I wasn’t the only one a bit weirded out with how this was framed. NPR shows generally are trustworthy sources, but their track record with China, the Korean Peninsula, and Japan has been NOT great. (To be clear, the podcast isn’t the first place I heard this story, so I’m not just responding to Waypoint here). I’m trying very hard to wrap my head around this infrastructure and figure out why the Chinese government, who are typically pretty god damn savvy, would implement this in such a transparently evil way. If anything, the system itself seems like just one difference in degree/severity away from American credit reporting or criminal records - things that can be impacted by bad luck, worsened by bureaucratic negligence, and ultimately ruin your life for no good reason. But what seems suspect is that the Chinese gov would emphasize and refuse to hide the dystopic nature of the whole thing. It sort of reminds me of the story going around 10 years ago about people in the DPRK being taught that Australia doesn’t exist - it begs so many unanswered and bizarre questions and yet years went by before anyone even questioned it.

Anyway if anyone has more sources on this story, especially from journalists more closely tied to the PRC, I’m really curious to check them out.


#6

Please never say “Fucky Stephen King” ever again.


#7

There is a great article about the use of technology in China:


The scary part of this is, as always, when it comes to minorities like Muslims and Uighurs.
China is not a democracy, not even close. So describing it as having authoritarian tendencies is really an understatement.
I am pretty disturbed by people talking about China as “not perfect” and arguments like: well the US is not great either. That just shrugs off the suffering that occurs there.


#8

My issue is not with describing China as authoritarian, as vague as that term is. Obviously, single-party (or, if you’re pedantic, a united front dominated by the CCP) rule is an authoritarian style of governance. But when you say (and I apologise if I’m misquoting, it’s been a while since I heard the pod) “China”, as an entity, possesses “authoritarian tendencies”, and then later on say “China” is deceitfully trying to portray itself as an “open culture”, it sounds like you’re making judgements of the inherent characteristics of a people which comes across as heck of racist.

There were other issues with how the staff discussed it that people have mentioned. But I’m studying Soviet History atm and regularly run into nonsense about ‘Russians’ inherently trending towards iron-fisted rulers, as if by nature, which is deeply rooted in Asiatic despotism myths and which was instantly brought to mind by the way China was being discussed in the pod. It stuck out to me, is all.


#9

For me there is a big difference between saying “China is authoritarian” and “the chinese people are authoritarian”. “China” is for me a shorthand for the chinese government or state not the people living there.
There is a lot of racism in the criticism towards a lot of countries. But there is also a lot of trivializing of brutal repression.
It was just weird to me how many were basically defending the chinese government on this issue.


#10

I sincerely doubt that the intent of Waypoint here was to send some sort of yellow peril message, and I did not hear it that way. The discussion, I felt, was primarily about the potential harm that this system, which the government of China is now introducing, represents for people living in that country. The discussion was never framed with there being some inherent Chinese characteristic that gives rise to repressive systems, which would, I think, be racist.


#11

I don’t think it’s fair to characterise the concerns of @Platzkart about the discussion as aiming to ‘defend’ China. I don’t have a strong background in this issue in particular (and will read more into it – thank you for your link), but one can say “I think this is lacking nuance or is playing into Orientalist tropes” without necessarily saying “this isn’t true” or “this is a good thing”.

Referring to ‘China’ as a whole without qualification can opens the door for uncritical engagement. Whose initiative is this? Is it new? Is it different?

In fact, I’d specifically quote this from the article you quoted as doing a good job of avoiding falling into this kind of trap:

Hu Jintao, China’s leader from 2002 to 2012, had attempted to solve these problems by permitting a modest democratic thaw, allowing avenues for grievances to reach the ruling class. His successor, Xi Jinping, has reversed that trend. Instead, his strategy for understanding and responding to what is going on in a nation of 1.4 billion relies on a combination of surveillance, AI, and big data to monitor people’s lives and behavior in minute detail.

Specificity helps to counteract this tendency, as it pushes back against monolithicism in favour of genuine insight and helpful understanding.

(P.S. As someone who studied Chinese and Soviet history at an undergraduate level, I can definitely understand a tendency towards pushing back hard to avoid letting folks fall into ‘Asiatic despotism’, even by accident.)


#12

I feel like it’s a pretty reasonable shorthand to say “China” or “Russia” or “The US” when specifically talking about actions by the governments of those nations. Saying “The Ministry of State Security of The People’s Republic Of China” (or whatever department) over and over is kind of excessive.


#13

The part about basically defending the chinese government was not directed at @Platzkart. And you are right they were not doing that. I meant the whataboutism that was happening.
I still think that criticizing the use of the word “China” in a conversation like this is a bit much. But it is definitely something that everybody should keep in mind.


#14

That isn’t what I’m requesting – you’ll note that the MIT article that @Jokn linked to (and I singled out for, in my view, avoiding this kind of trope) doesn’t go into many more specifics than what I excerpted and otherwise uses ‘China’ as a shorthand. It takes the time to note the distinction between Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping’s governance styles. Noting that the social credit system is a policy initiative emerging out of Xi’s authoritarian style of governance. One can argue that this is Xi’s style by looking at other uses of technology and surveillance (in the way that the MIT article does) or the pushing of ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ as official doctrine.

(If you want to see my excessive/pedantic side of this: “China” as a short-hand for the People’s Republic of China plays into the PRC’s longstanding propaganda position of China being the sole legitimate ‘China’, despite the existence of the Republic of China (now more commonly known as Taiwan). It’s not quite like calling North Korea “Korea”, but it’s not dissimilar either.)


#15

This right on the money. The thing that needs to be emphasized here is the want for nuance in Waypoint’s discussion. I want to point back to something I said in my first reply:
“It is completely acceptable to examine this situation and conclude ‘This seems repressive and bad’, but it is not useful or valuable to alledge that the closest referents we have for the situation are those in science fiction.”

Saying things like “China is making Black Mirror real” is a fundamentally othering narrative. It says that the regime and its methodology of repression are so extreme, so beyond the pale of contemporary human experience, that our chief referent becomes a work of fiction. And the thing is is that when something happens in the West that could be likened to Black Mirror or Orwell, the sensationalist headlines provoke a good degree of much deserved eye rolling. But when the comparison is to a society accross an ocean, and especially a society that has been traditionally othered in Western culture through notions of “Asiatic Despotism”, suddenly the comparison to Black Mirror is made with a troubling sense of sincerity and sobriety.

It is more than fine to criticize China’s government, a society and state “in many ways worth condemning”. To ask for nuance and clear headedness in that criticsm is not to dismiss it. And in comparing the Chinese state to the American state there is no desire to exonerate either of their crimes, but to place them all in dialogue with eachother, rather than treating them as diametrically opposed. The United States is a country that puts children in cages for seeking asylum, and China is a country that imprisons people en-masse in re-education camps because of their religion and ethnicity. To compare the flaws of both is not to exonerate either, but to acknowledge that both are modern states enacting the kind of violence modern states do. Othering narratives that disconnect our criticsms of China from the broader global and historical context in which it exists just are not useful or valuable. And that’s exactly what describing the Chinese state as “Black Mirror” or “Orwellian” does.


#16

My experiences with the PRC are pretty limited but one only has to watch some Chengguan getting the shit kicked out of them by street vendors a few times to realize that what the Party dictates and what actually happens in real life are often very different.

But my instinct about the surveillance state/social rating thing is that it’s basically just another way to fuck over the Uighurs.


#17

As far as i remember they didn’t describe the whole state as Black Mirror but that the concept of a social rating is something that has been done in an episode of Black Mirror.
My problem with your comparison to the USA is:
first: that’s not the issue here.
and b: that happens every single time a country does something terrible. Someone always goes on that the USA is also terrible because they did X. And a lot of time that serves to undermine the criticism of that other country. Whether intentional or not.

Not to say the USA is above criticism, not even close.


#18

Just to dovetail away from the (very legit) conversation around the Planet Money episode, I just wanted to pick up on a couple of things in the discussion of The Ferryman.

The first is when Natalie was talking about recordings, there are some platforms that provide recordings of live, big-budget theatre. Digital Theatre is hardly comprehensive, but it’s a great subscriber service with a bunch of filmed productions from larger UK theatres like Tricycle, Young Vic and the RSC. There’s also BroadwayHD, which I’ve never used but seems pretty good and has some surprising deep cuts (Branagh & Thompson in Look Back In Anger, my word). Theatre recording and streaming has a loooooooong way to go, but it’s something I guess.

The second is when Rob was talking about how shows often don’t travel outside of New York unless they’re stratospheric, Hamilton-sized successes. There’s a lot of truth to that, but I feel it’s a little bit dismissive of smaller theatres - not even talking small shopfronts like Chicago is full of, but bigger theatres like Steppenwolf in Chicago or Huntington Theatre Company in Boston.

There’s this cultural narrative that’s pretty prominent in the West that New York and London (and Berlin, depending on who you talk to) are where theatre lives, and it does sound like the team - all admitedly relatively new to theatre - buy into that a bit. At one point, Rob even says that he’s going to more theatre because he’s going to New York more. Hell, even I’m susceptible to it and I live in Wellington, New Zealand, a country whose most prominent companies would probably have a fraction of the operating budget that a theatre like Steppenwolf does. There’s this assumption - sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken - that theatre made outside of the big-budget stages is less necessary, less of an event and less professional, and that trickles down to the way that regional audiences view their own regional theatres, ignoring the independent shopfronts and enforcing their ‘rights as a subscriber’ to complain about anything at the state theatre that doesn’t look like a well-made play.

But Broadway and the West End are mostly reactionary institutions: they pick up stuff that’s lived elsewhere, or commission writers at the height of their power, or adapt well-known movies or books or what have you. It’s the apex of a capitalist industry model. It’s really telling that the New York Times published a story about this year’s Broadway season with the lede “In a turnabout no one expected, New York’s most prominent stages are rich with drama, most of it new and most of it American.” (The article mentions The Ferryman; it also mentions one I really want to see and probably never will, American Son.) It is not where theatre lives - it’s where theatre goes to show off.

This is turning pretty quickly into a ‘support your local theatre’ jeremiad, but that’s because it kinda needs to be made after a discussion that kinda shut regional theatres and storefront theatres and everything in between out of the conversation. All the Broadway supremacy narrative enables is a devaluing of the work that these theatres do to develop new writers and new work - and to restage work like The Ferryman. It might not be the blockbuster size of the Broadway season, but it’s still The Ferryman and it’s probably being made by people with far more on the line financially.

I really appreciated Danielle talking about Kink Haus the other week because it shined a bit of light on a smaller dance work, which rules. (La MaMa’s a great theatre, New York.) But this conversation could have done with a bit more acknowledgment of theatre beyond Broadway, to me.


#19

First, I was imprecise with my language. They were speaking specifically of the comparison between the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive” and the social credit point system. However, my point still stands that saying a real legal system is not merely analagous to, but in fact directly resembles a sci-fi dystopia only serves to other the government and society that perpetrate that legal system. It is at the very least hyperbolic.

Second, the reason I brought up comparisons to the US in particular are twofold. The first reason is that I was suggesting a more apt real world comparison than the comparisons made primarily to science fiction. The second reason is that I am not seeking to undermine critics of the Chinese government, but to undermine Western (and especially American) narratives that serve to other and vilify China. The difference between criticizing and vilifying is that in a sound criticsm, one should understand successes and failures in equal measure, compare and contrast the issue at hand with the actions of others, to examine in detail the ideological nuances of an issue, all to understand how and why systems fail the way they do and commit crimes the way they do. Take the recent discussions of Rockstar, and specifically the Hausers and their leadership. There is room of course, to say “Wow fuck these guys”, but the team always dives deep into the logics (both material and ideological) that drive the Hausers to do what they do. The discussion on the social credit point system was the equivalent of saying of the Hausers “Wow what a bunch of Ebenezer Scrooges, what a shame”.

The reason vilifying China is bad is that it plays right into the hands of, well, the right. One of Trump’s favorite targets is well known to be China, sneering it every time he says it. Just like in many other cases, his rhetoric here is a more extreme form of an existing narrative. It isn’t just that our jobs are going to other countries, it’s that they’re going to ~Mexico~ and ~China~. The idea that Chinese people are a suffering oppressed mass under the heel of an all powerful Communist Party is not one that exists to the benefit of Chinese people. It is one that the Western foreign policy establishment depends on to stoke resentment towards, and empathic distance from, a geopolitical rival. Millions of people in China wake up and live their lives every day in the real world, and by characterizing their suffering as somethong fantastical worthy of fiction, we empathize with them less, not more.


#20

All this is to say: please help me get Rob to see The Wolves in Boston in January and talk about it on Waypoints https://twitter.com/AdamGoodallYes/status/1058481141655601152