Weekly Wanderings: Censored Bear Edition

▪ It’s not often that my longtime love of Winnie the Pooh has much to do with my career as a China watcher, but the two finally converged a couple of weeks ago, thanks to the PRC government’s decision to censor online images of one Silly Old Bear because he allegedly resembles President Xi Jinping (or vice versa). This led to a front-page Financial Times article and lot of blustery headlines elsewhere, like “Why China Censors Banned Winnie the Pooh” (BBC) and “Winnie the Pooh Is the Latest Victim of Censorship in China” (Vox).

As Luna Lin and Emily Rauhala explain in a refreshingly measured article at the Washington Post, Pooh did not actually fall subject to a complete ban on the Chinese internet, in the way that some other topics (such as 1989’s June Fourth Massacre or Liu Xiaobo’s death) have been. Yes, images like the one above directly comparing Xi Jinping to Pooh were blocked, as were some mentions of the bear’s name. But the cyber ministry didn’t put into place its most aggressive censorship mechanisms, despite the frequent mentions of Pooh being “banned” and “deleted” from the Chinese internet in foreign reporting about the story.

There are two (seemingly contradictory) lessons we can draw from this episode. The first is that—as so often happens, and especially in writing about China—absurdity sells, whether it is, strictly speaking, true or not. The idea of the mighty PRC government fearing adorable pictures of a hunny-loving cartoon bear is simply too good a story to pass up. It also fits into the mental picture that many foreigners have of the Chinese state: humorless, monolithic, repressive.

(Another example of this, with much less grounding in reality than the Pooh story: a 2011 New York Times article that stated phone calls were being terminated when the word “protest” was uttered. Adam Minter has a good blog post debunking the claim.)

But at the same time, the Chinese state is often humorless, monolithic, and repressive, and it has become even more so under Xi Jinping. And that is where most of these articles don’t go far enough in explaining that censoring Winnie the Pooh might sound quirky and funny, but it’s just one example of a greatly tightened internet environment (see this Bloomberg story for more). Although the censorship of Pooh seems to have been applied with a fairly light touch and for a brief period of time, it’s emblematic of a far bigger crackdown on freedom of expression in China that deserves more international attention—and not only when adorable cartoon characters are the target.

1983: I, too, looked a lot like Pooh.

▪ A new venture announced this week, in which I will play a small role: the Los Angeles Review of Books China Channel, coming to computer screens this fall thanks to a generous grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. The China Channel will be a stepped-up version of the existing LARB China Blog (which I used to co-edit with Jeff Wasserstrom) with more frequent posts and a broader range of material. I’m an “advising editor,” so won’t be handling day-to-day management of the site but will help identify potential contributors and work with the other editors to develop projects. And if things go well, I’ll be writing for the channel somewhat regularly too. Anyway, stay tuned.

▪ If you’re a writer or other creative type, I hope you’ve subscribed to Manjula Martin’s “Three Cents” TinyLetter, in which she discusses the financial side of the freelance life. In the latest issue, Martin links to a must-read blog post by Alana Massey, “Don’t ‘Wonder’ About Your Paycheck, Ask for It.”

One of the few things I don’t enjoy about writing is that it’s so damn difficult to get paid for your work. A lot of publications don’t compensate writers at all (and I have mixed feelings about that; if it’s a small, labor-of-love niche website I will agree to write for free, but if it’s a household-name-type publication, they need to ante up), but even when you have a contract and delivered the work on time and filled out all their forms, it can still take months and months to get a check. I’ve rarely gotten paid on the first go-round—it often seems like they don’t even start the process to issue a check until I follow up (like, “Oh, okay, she definitely wants this money. Yeah, yeah, we should pay her.”).

I’m not shy about asking for money that’s due to me, but it took time for me to train myself to make those follow-up emails direct and pleasant but not apologetic. As Massey explains in her blog post, it’s easy to fall into weak phrasing that makes it seem like your request is an imposition (“I wondered if you could tell me the status of my invoice payment” and “Do you have an idea of when…”). Women, especially, are conditioned to be pleasant and non-aggressive, which then translates into timid phrasing when an awkward subject like money is on the table. But as Massey learned, and I did too, a no-nonsense email devoid of the word “wondering” gets results. And while editors and accounts payable people might not even think much of the difference in phrasing, sending a direct but not apologetic email asking Where the hell is my money?!? (more professionally than that, of course) makes me feel better about standing up for myself.

▪ This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of when I moved into my house, the decoration and furnishing of which is … still a work in progress. As much as I love watching HGTV and relaxing with the hand-me-down copies of Better Homes & Gardens my mother saves for me, I don’t really enjoy the actual process of making an Instagram-ready home into a reality. I need the Property Brothers to show up and do the work for me.

But yesterday evening, I finally committed to—and realized!—a concept for my front porch: reading and relaxation. The porch is one of my favorite things about the house, and last summer I said that my top priority was to get furniture for it so I could sit outside. I looked around a little bit, but almost immediately found myself paralyzed by indecision. Did I want a table and chairs so I could eat meals outside? Or should I go for a more casual vibe? Adirondack chairs? A rocking chair? A chaise lounge? For months, I’ve been (non-creepily, I swear) checking out my neighbors’ porches for inspiration, while mine continued to feature only a dusty blue nylon quad chair that I think my father won at a golf outing.

This week I decided that I was done with the uncomfortable quad chair; it was time to make a move. Last night after work I went to Home Depot and Lowe’s and considered every outdoor seating option they offered. At Lowe’s, I finally settled on a chaise lounge: if the porch were bigger I’d want a table and chairs, too, but if I only have space for one thing, it’s going to be a place where I can read, write, and take naps on warm summer afternoons.

Conclusion from last night’s test run: excellent choice.

▪ A footnote to the Pooh censorship story: there’s now a Dissident Pooh Twitter account, which is my second-favorite China satire feed (Relevant Organs will always come first—they wouldn’t have it any other way).

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