Publication: Morality in Chinese blogosphere

In today’s China Daily http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/metro/2010-03/19/content_9613637.htm

In his book East Look West See, the author Zhai Hua – no relation to me – voices the problem with our surname:

“From kindergarten onwards, people with the last name ‘Zhai’ get used to others mispronouncing or writing this rare name wrongly. ‘Zhai’ is often mistaken for ‘Qu’, ‘Cui’, ‘Huo’, or ‘Yao,'” he writes.

Zhai Hua taught me much about my last name in this humorous chapter, from its references in classical texts to Chinese airline computers’ present inability to correctly key in the character.

When I contacted him for an explanation as to why we Zhai’s are such a marginalized minority, he told me that there are actually a greater number of people with the surname Zhai than Qu in China. Yet Qu is more recognizable because of its famous bearers.

Well, thanks to a handicam, the World Wide Web and the purient curiosity of netizens, millions more now know how to pronounce my last name, as

the online sex scandal starring Zhai Ling, or “Shoushou”, has unwittingly popularized this rare Chinese character over the last month, and I couldn’t help myself from following the links bearing my last name.

I generally avoid the Chinese blogosphere – I find Chinese blogs, bloggers and blog followers overwhelming. On the rare occasion I do follow a story I get lost in the labyrinth of links, updates and comments. I can’t separate the news from the opinion, nor the authors from the readers.

The Web pages are crammed with miniscule fonts and pop-up ads waiting in ambush. Frankly, the Chinese blogosphere gives me a headache, but more importantly, the more I see of it the more it frightens me.

With the twin luxuries of technology and free time, personal business becomes public business at startling speed. As Zhai Ling apologized to the nation for actions conducted in a private bedroom, I thought of the many cheating American politicians who have paraded remorsefully at press conferences.

As netizens spun stories of Zhai Ling exploiting her tragedy to forge a film career, I was reminded of the enterprising vultures behind Hollywood and British tabloids.

Fortunately, Zhai Ling hasn’t parlayed her surging in fame into an X-rated DVD release ( la Paris Hilton) or a reality television show (a nod to Kim Kardashian)yet.

While I wait and see what this young woman who shares my last name ultimately makes of her time in the limelight, I prefer to give her the benefit of doubt.

Although she has received film offers on the back of the scandal and scored a Cosmo April issue interview, I hope she won’t learn the wrong lesson from all this – that fame is worth exploiting at any price.

It is, however, much harder to give the same benefit of doubt to the general public that is following her story. Beneath a Sohu story about “Shoushou”, the reader comment that scored the most “hits” reads: “She’s just a prostitute. What’s the big fuss?”

What a damning judgment on a stranger’s misfortune.

This comment was followed by, “I don’t want to read news stories. I want to see the photos” and another one saying, “I admit I came to this page looking for photos. I’m disappointed.” I stopped scrolling down when I saw the fourth comment, “I have the videos. Leave your address if you want them.”

After much Baidu-ing, I finally found a decent commentary. Su Pengyu wrote a story that raised the question, “Why is it that whenever a scandal breaks we Chinese are quick to jump on the morality but slow to discuss the legality?”

He contends that the public’s attention is on Zhai Ling’s “amoral” acts, completely ignoring the problem that our laws are inadequate to punish the people who distributed her personal materials.

I found Su’s view interesting, informative and morally upright.

But I was in the minority again. The bar chart at the bottom of the story showed that 2,325 readers found it “boring”. Another 305 readers felt “angry” after reading. Are they angry for her or angry at her?

Thank goodness there was a bar representing the 269 readers who were “compassionate”.

But wait, what is going on with the 200 people who found the story “funny” and the 146 who felt “happy” after reading it?

On Monday, I wrote about the “investment bank tabloid” and fretted over the state of ethics and morality in the Chinese Internet age. I hate to sound like a broken record but today I have to ask this question again.

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