Monday, January 29, 2007

Simon Elegant's Story on Net Vigilantism in China Is an Oft-Told Tale. Get Him an Editor for Heaven's Sake.

I have been taking Public Interest's advice and leaving lonely old men alone. Instead, I have been doing my best to ingratiate myself with the MSM by gently reminding them that, exemplary as their work may be, they could do even better, if such a thing is conceivable.

Hang out in the blogosphere long enough, and sooner or later you will come across an incident where seemingly the whole blogging community comes down on a hapless victim, who may or may not be guilty as accused. Shisaku has already taken up this particular story. But anyway, according to Mr. Elegant:

"The furor was started by Rui Chenggang, an English-language news announcer on the government's China Central Television. Rui wrote in his blog last week complaining about the presence of the Starbucks inside the hallowed walls of the Forbidden City. The presence of the coffee chain there was 'eroding Chinese culture,' Rui wrote….
"The appeal to nationalism, predictably enough, brought an avalanche of outrage [on the Internet]."

So far, so good, though the underlying narrative of the awesome anonymous power of the Internet is an oft-told tale. So what new twist does Mr. Elegant bring to the table? Mr. Elegant, in fact, goes on to speculate about the motives of Mr. Rui, saying:

"Trotting out this lame duck (can ducks trot?) has certainly sparked a rush of internet traffic to Rui's blog, and gotten his post onto the front page of China's most popular blog aggregator,"

Yet he then skirts the issue, going on to make the seemingly unremarkable point that:

"Regardless of motives or the merits of the argument …… the incident is a disturbing reminder that emotive nationalist posturing can be dangerously amplified by the web, and even acquire a life of its own. In China, as everywhere else, events in the blogosphere may have a powerful impact beyond the virtual world — for better and for worse."

The oft-told tale again. But, in passing, he has tossed a accusation of "emotive nationalist posturing" at Mr. Rui, a charge about which, if he had read the aforementioned Shisaku link to an earlier article, Mr. Elegant would have had second thoughts. Mr. Rui, it seems, is a thoughtful man.

Mr. Elegant also takes the time to sneer at Mr. Rui's provincial ignorance when he writes:

"It would be like having a Starbucks in the Louvre or at the Pyramids or the Taj Mahal, [Mr. Rui] later told a reporter. (There is a Starbucks next to the Louvre, though not actually inside the museum. And the reasons there aren't any Starbucks in Egypt or India are pretty obvious: no one can afford to buy the coffee)."

In fact, if Mr. Elegant had bothered to ask, he would have known that India's current lack of Starbucks has not much to do with poverty, and everything to do with government regulation. If fact, may I be allowed to indulge in a little insinuation myself by saying Mr. Elegant's error may not have been due merely to a lack of due diligence but a total ignorance of the story of India's rise as an emerging economy? Perhaps he should browse the TIME website from time to time, if you'll pardon the expression. He is right about Egypt to the extent that was no Starbucks there as of the end of 2006. But from news reports, the reasons for the delay of the rollout, first scheduled in 2006, does not seem to be "pretty obvious", nor that "no one can afford to buy the coffee". (Mr. Elegant seems to be ignorant of the workings of developing economies, as well as the cravings of Western ex-pat societies there.)

We still count on newspapers, TV and other mass outlets to find the villain of the week so that everyone can pile on him/her. (For a recent example of a "them", google "Duke"+"Niphong".) But here, as in so many other areas, the Internet is eating into MSM territory. (For a recent example of "other areas", go take a look at the 2008 US presidential candidates, who are forsaking the splashy news conference route and announcing their intent on their web sites.) In fact, nowhere is the tension between the two mediums more evident than in Mr. Elegant's article, which is perched on a TIME website, as of Jan. 29 right next to the TIME blogs, itself with a look somewhere between a blog entry and a real news piece. Indeed, the loose fact checking, the insinuations, the subjective feel of his piece are exactly the kind of stuff you would expect to see coming from a real blogger.

So I guess my question is, what happened to the Starbucks in the Forbidden City? It's been some time since the story broke, hasn't it? Are people picketing Starbucks? The Forbidden City? Is business down? Up, even? Have the authorities weighed in? Questions, questions. But I guess those are questions that real journalists are to ask, whose answers to know.

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