Caution against Hasty Decisions in China: the Case of HNA

Alert: This was written in late January 2018 and the picture has shifted again. Still, it may be useful to keep the larger lesson in mind.


In the opaque policy environment in China, it may behoove those of us on the outside to take a closer look at what Chinese investors are thinking and doing. What lies behind the woes of China’s juggernaut, HNA? Many in Chinese bond market see the saga as part of a power play at the top that is far from over. A mid-December 2017 WeChat commentary retweeted by “The Finance Paparazzi Girl” (金融八卦女)  pointed out that the bond market had not been overly hasty to dismiss HNA and Wanda as dead and gone. Some investors had been, until as late as December 2017, content to “sit back and watch the big show unfold,” having learned their lesson when “blind short-selling” over the embattled Wanda and Hongqiao did not pay off earlier in the summer. The writer delicately alludes to the “labyrinthine shareholder arrangements, opaque subsidiary deals, the two mysterious charities and the stake giveaway that defies common sense,” echoing suspicions that HNA is organized deliberately to hide owners with high-level political connections. This is consistent with Western press reporting.

While this is only a theory, we do have some evidence that some powerful players went to bat for HNA late in the day against central government stance.  Eight policy and commercial banks and the provincial government in Hainan were still vocally supportive of HNA by year-end in a public Dec. 13 announcement (CDB, BOC, CCB,EIBC, ABC, SDPB, ICBC, BOCOM all spoke up here.) The Hainan-based executives said they wanted to get behind the Hainan Deputy Party Secretary Shen Xiaoming’s directive that the well-being of the province is tied to HNA’s fortunes. Only after Guo Shuqing of CSRC said in the People’s Daily on Jan. 17, 2018 that there needs to be a cleanup of “a vast financial conglomerate” did the banks change direction.

The fight may still not be over. One of China’s widely read financial social media accounts confirms that Guo’s interview forms part of a larger and consistent policy trend that bodes ill for private sector conglomerates, including Ping An, HNA and, of course, Xiao Jianhua’s Tomorrow Holdings. We are to infer, from Guo’s reticence in not naming the firms directly, that the power play is still ongoing. A Hong-Kong based Chinese commentator thinks the December move by the banks and the Hainan official shows continuing local government disregard of central directives whenever possible, and may point to deeper political rifts. This makes sense since, in the Chinese system, local and banking officials rarely act on their own without some significant establishment backing.

What does this mean for the rest of us? In short, in China, it’s not over until it’s over. Chinese bond buyers are not making snap decisions. There’s some food for thought in that.

(Note on the bond market reaction reporting: Granted, the writer may have toned down the bad news given the government’s frequent ban of financial information that is judged to trigger investor panic. Still, “The Finance Gossip Girl” has a proven track record of reporting on sensitive financial information. When “The Finance Gossip Girl” was shut down in June 2017 in the wave of crackdown on entertainment social media, a widely reposted article used the account as an example of successful social media 自媒体and the censorship risk they run, reporting that at its height the account had more than 3,000 sources in the industry and over time became widely respected for its integrity and accuracy.)


Beacon of Democracy: Taiwan as Hope for Chinese Civil Society

My research on the multifaceted impact of Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement on the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Whole article here.

Main Point: People in China are supporting democracy in Taiwan as part of their political liberalization. The demonstration effect of Taiwan’s democracy and its refutation of Beijing’s claims of Chinese exceptionalism both contribute to that liberalization, which the Chinese government considers a threat to its legitimacy. Over the long term, Chinese civil society’s support for Taiwan is likely to change the dynamics of cross-Strait relations. The world should take note of the significant benefits of Taiwan democracy for peace and stability in the region.



Save Matt Damon! or, Entertainment Content as Political Dissent in China

Telling political commentary is buried in unlikely places on the Chinese Internet.  Scandals about high-ranking officials and popular opposition toward the government are disguised as entertainment gossip. The best proof of the potential for political change found in such gossip is in the goofy admissions from Chinese Internet companies that “aliens have abducted the webpage you’re trying to access”:




One of the most recent targets of this scathing political commentary is the movie “Great Wall” starring Matt Damon, due out February 2017.

Here is a quick sum-up of what the most upvoted Chinese users of (Goodreads and Imdb rolled into one), have to say about the “Great Wall”:

“So spineless Hollywood was knocked to its knees with cold hard Chinese cash – I can accept that. But why should our very own Matt Damon get dragged into this muck? Save him!”

“Director Zhang Yimou has been dead a long time already.”

“Okay, fine, Jing Tian’s acting is world-class —— now will you please drop the gun?”

Waving the said gun, the Chinese Communist Party wants to keep its image as the sage leader of a powerful and prosperous country front and center. The Chinese equivalent of Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB and Amazon were chided by the censors recently.  Propaganda-approved movies pushing the Party’s message receive rock bottom scores from a jeering public. The authorities ordered more patriotism and less criticism in movie reviews by users.

It’s too bad that the steamy innuendos which sell movies so well are, in this case, about the movie but not in it. Tian, the female lead of “Great Wall,” got the role through high-level connections within the Chinese system. Jing Tian is a great mystery. Of a belabored, heavy-duty beauty, with eyes likely surgically enlarged to achieve the terror-stricken stare of silent-film era stars, Jing has starred in a series of box office and critical low-ballers that hemorrhaged eye-popping sums of money. She acts as well as a rock, hence the sarcasm of the last Chinese user review.

The man who foots Jing’s bill feeds the gossip mill that erodes the government’s legitimacy. There is a list of four names in circulation. A deputy Vice Minister of Propaganda? One of the direct descendants of the men who founded People’s Republic of China on a platform of banning official privilege? The contrast between the image of Xi’s Party as austere, all-correct and faithful, and such blatant patronage and corruption in China’s state-dominated movie industry, is not lost on the millions of gossip-news readers. This is the underside and bottom-up part of China’s anti-corruption campaign, and it’s likely to last long after Xi puts away the scalps of his arch-enemies.

Audience rejection of Party propaganda also comes out strong in their criticism of Director Zhang Yimou. Viewers feel a particular disappointment in Zhang, something akin to seeing Spike Lee morph into an unctuous Leni Riefenstahl chasing greenbacks. Zhang, a one-time Gold Lion winner, spent his more recent movies trumpeting that the people of China require benevolent despotism to save them from their own weakness and folly. Liberal Chinese mourn the one-time Gold Lion winner Zhang, whose courageous exploration of the Party’s misrule, including the Cultural Revolution, was banned (“To Live”).

Little surprise, then, that “Great Wall” is struggling with a 50% rating on the Chinese IMDB Douban (worse than 93% of all fantasy movies), despite a surge of paid boosters who attack the film’s detractors for “kissing the foreigners’ ass” and “sneering condescension at their own culture.” (Both the government and businesses in China are adroit manipulators of culture wars – sounds familiar?) Hollywood merely put the finishing touches on this disaster, spitting out a predictable script “with as many plot holes as monsters,” to quote another disdainful user review.

I would like to think there is a moral here. Keep that 50% rating in mind when debating whether to shell out another $39 bucks for your next movie outing. Follow the Chinese  people’s advice and skip the “Great Wall.” But by all means let us keep watching the political fireworks  that come out of China’s online gossip mill. It signals public dissatisfaction with Xi’s government that belies its 90% poll ratings. 

Post script: Xi’s government shut down a number of entertainment accounts on Chinese social media in June 2017. The official reasons given include “vulgarity” and the “hyping of the relationship sand private lives of stars.”  A telling protest letter from the reader to a Hong Kong publication writes: “Frankly, the truth is that in China, political and entertainment news rub shoulders.”


Where Has All the Chinese Internet Traffic Gone? – Business Solutions to Content Overload in China

The Chinese content market offers a fascinating comparison to the rest of the global Internet. According to research by KPCB and Hillhouse Capital, Chinese Internet users numbered 688 million by the end of 2015. Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter clone, saw its market worth catch up to Twitter at around 11 billion dollars in 2016. Tencent, the owner of popular social messaging app WeChat, achieved a market capitalization of $242.04 billion in August 2016.

An underlying factor to consider in understanding China’s online content market is its unique appeal to readers. The Internet offers Chinese users more space for free expression and access to news than offline. That unique appeal translates into more eyeballs and advertising revenue, and Chinese businesses have been fighting fiercely over the prize. Here is a snapshot of two notable trends in China’s mobile content apps market, currently dominated by WeChat but remaining open to ambitious and nimble startups:

Information overload

Like elsewhere, content has exploded on the Chinese Internet and harmed user experience. For example, the Financial Times ran an article in April 2016 titled “Overloaded China users battle ‘WeChat fatigue’” stating that many of the app’s 806 million users find WeChat content, distributed through channels which include 13 million official accounts, “overwhelming and useless.” According to academics at Fudan University and Guangdong Foreign Language University, China’s top mobile news apps, such as Tencent and Sohu, suffer from the same malaise of overflowing information that is badly organized and comes with little personalization. One important demographic factor underpinning this problem of too much content chasing too few viewers is that the growth in both users and time spent on the Internet has been flattening, according to the tech site Huxiu.

User response in turn has been punishing. According to a year-end report on the “WeChat Ecosystem” by Yeezan, a digital media service platform, official accounts are losing followers and page views; featured stories at popular accounts (some with millions of followers) see an 8.9% click-through rate. Dishonest tactics attempting to cover up such decline illustrate the extent of the problem. Reports of faked clicks and bought “zombie” followers to the tune of 1,000 for $3 on WeChat went viral in September 2016.

Solutions to information overload reshaping the content space

In some fascinating ways, WeChat is illustrating the possible outer limits of content distribution via social networking. Chinese commentators have pointed to sources of strain within WeChat that are likely contributing to its declining reach:

1. As social grows, quality slumps:

Both the quality and personalization of the information users receive tend to decline as social network broadens and content from less familiar contacts dilute the information stream, until the stream explodes by several orders of magnitude;

2. Winner-take-all:

The of traffic flows to a small number of top influencers, and the cost of acquiring followers is increasingly steep for latecomers.

3. A laggard in algorithm adoption, WeChat still largely relies on a timeline structure with minimum filtering.

Users have been flocking to curation that pares down content in ways tailored to their preferences. Jingri Toutiao (“Today’s Headlines”), the 4-year-old newcomer mobile news app that has gained an impressive advantage over competitors from traditional portals (such as Netease, Sohu and Tencent), solves the problem using algorithms with impressive success. It now boasts 580 million users, 63 million active daily users, and some of the longest average daily use time in the industry. Tencent News comes in a remote second, with 120 million users.

Consequently, there are now signs that the news industry is investing in algorithms and moving away from human curation. The Chief Editor at Sohu News, for example, is leaving the company, and CEO Zhang Chaoyang admitted to reporters that they are reorganizing the editorial team to take advantage of machine curation. Zhihu, Quora’s Chinese equivalent, stopped having its team of professional experts curate answers, throwing open the door to all users to crowdsource recommendations.

What next?

From the point of view of Chinese users, there is a lot of room for improvement. In response to declining reach, advertisers have been pulling back from WeChat. The WeChat team is now getting its toes wet in developing algorithms and intervening more actively in content distribution. One analyst pointed out that, even though the company is sitting on a goldmine of data comparable to that of Facebook, only 10%, or $514 million, of Tencent’s overall revenue comes from advertising, of which WeChat’s advertising income is only a portion. Similarly, despite its vaunted technical edge, Toutiao’s content customization is rudimentary compared to Facebook’s FYI. Yidian, Toutiao’s acknowledged rival that just received D-series funding, is vowing to improve user experience with a combination of search, human and machine curation. A head-on collision between WeChat and upstart rivals may be hovering on the horizon, and bear close watching. A lot of money hangs in the balance.













美國的廢人,據他們自己說,像是很不少。美國的哲學家或文化評點泰斗,得往電視往夜店裡找,都是講脫口秀的,郭德綱一流人物。在大麻合法之前,美國社會門戶大開,“供應兩種刺激物質,週一到五咖啡因值班,支持生產力,週末酒精接力,這樣才能喝高喝笨,不至於察覺自己在坐大牢”(比爾稀客思,Bill Hicks, 1961-94)。 由此推斷,上班族不廢不笨的,少之又少。
















女兒順口提了一句:我這數學已經算上來了,總分是B,這學期到現在考的都是B 和 C。我心裡緩緩浮出一隻巴掌,做勢甩過去:考個乙你也好意思誇口,你不害臊,我都替你害臊!我眼睜睜和那隻長著獰厲眼嘴的巴掌對看,等它化作青煙四散。










且玩且讀 —— 歐遊讀書雜記

旅遊的時候,要不要帶書,帶什麼樣的書,一向是個為難的選擇。最正宗的自然是「量身定做派」︰知道要去黃山或康斯坦丁堡了,就事先作好功課,勤懇精確的帶上《徐霞客遊記》或蒙太固夫人的《土耳其使館書簡》(Turkish Embassy Letters, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu)。除此之外,還有認為「行萬里路,讀萬卷書」的上下聯勢不能同時並行不悖,堅持純粹體驗,旅行時只讀導遊書的「原教旨派」;擔心被職業導遊和七彩明信片的刻板印象先入為主,連導遊書也不看,要保留想像童貞直到和異地相見歡為止的「驚喜掛帥派」;以及因為沒作功課,錯過羅孚宮的水晶妝臺或融聖妙狂蕩于一身的聖德列莎雕像,捶胸頓足的「事後追悔派」等等。于這些派別,我或多或少都做過入門弟子,滄桑甘苦,一時也說不盡。
























他们这一讲,我不免想起我作为美籍华人,『人民当家作主』,给过共和党『一块儿我的脑袋』(美国俚语)。四五年前去本地的县赶集(county fair), 带孩子看看牲口,坐旋转咖啡杯,吃点子棉花糖啥的,遇见站岗的共和党候选人西装革履,欠身握手殷勤赶着拉票。我行礼如仪,客气的告诉他:『我搬来美国三十余年,作為读過研的白領,无论从哪一重身份看来:移民,亚裔,女性,中產,贵党的所论所为,从未予我替我出力的印象。希望贵党以后能够校正方向,争取我们的票仓。』(这是美式的温柔敦厚我其实想说你大爷的你们哪一回不是践踏我们去讨好白人男主子?每次这样违反本性,吃力好吗,害我又多吃了一团棉花糖。)



Google Translate Chinese: Passionate Mainframes



Google Translate claims that it has made significant strides. A couple of Sinologists I know tested it for Chinese to English, and declared it wanting. I figured I’d round out the picture, and test it the other way around.


Admittedly this is a short list. Give me a reason to make it longer next time, Google.


Save the date

Google translation: Expiration date. (保存日期 )

Human translation: 标记日历


Airbnb) Passionate and dedicated hosts

Google translation: Filled with passion and dedicated mainframes (充满激情和专用主机 )

Human translation: 热忱尽心的房东


(Paradise Lost) Evil, come be my good

Google translation: ungrammatical; the closest English gibberish may be: “Evil, good what is come belongs to me.” (邪恶,来是我的好。)

Human translation: Evil, come be my good (恶呀,你来做我的善吧。)


This last flourish of genius was quoted by the rediscovered writer Mu Xin (木心),  a recent cult phenomenon among the liberal educated young in China. Not sure if the rendition originated with him, or whether some Republican-era translator supplied it.


『閒話英文中譯』: 查生字水性楊花之必要




原文作 “the most painful song ever recorded,” 看了不怕小粉紅不驕敵自得,大外宣把美帝調戲得拖甲曳兵,創痛平生。殊不知原文字面上意思,並非去到盡頭的劇痛,而近乎北京俗語的“牙磣,” 像聽釘子刮玻璃那種鑽到牙齦裡的酸冷,實在是“做事離譜之極,旁人看著都替你難受著急”之意。認真要中譯,或可寫做“令人不忍卒聽。” 又則,這句型並非正規書面語,乃年輕人誇張輕倩沒三兩重的口語,網路博眼球之用。類似造句包括:

OMG, I’d never seen an outfit that hideous in my life!

諸如此類的“至今最…””有生以來從來沒…” 不建議直接口服,要配著”腦袋瓜那麼大的一顆鹽”吞下(take it with a grain of salt the size of my head。”中文人話的說法,就是“聽聽就好“”酌量參考。”不相信,看紐時或衛報,選情再火爆,川普再胡鬧,也絕不使用最高級形容詞:Donald Trump Is the Most Hate-driven Candidate in US History (川普是美國有史以來最滿腔恨毒的總統候選人)

現代中文翻英文,深情款款,此心不渝,看到辭典第一義就認死扣。依我說,還是水性楊花一點的好。順便多事雞婆一句(大陸的說法是:鹹吃蘿蔔淡操心)上圖據說摹寫的是杜甫的麗人行,“楊花雪落覆白蘋,青鳥飛去銜紅巾。” 杜甫不怕跨省,對網警比中指,公然搬出楊國忠和妹妹虢国夫人亂倫的性醜聞壓軸: “炙手可熱勢絕倫, 慎莫近前丞相嗔,” 膽兒肥碩頂喉嚨了,壯哉!

中文觀點: 中共“军事文化网络主题论坛”上透露了什么信息



For Indie Authors: the State of Translations in China


Chinese translation: My watch’s run out of battery.



There is increasing awareness among indie authors that their sales hinges in part on how good a job their translator does. Overseas markets now beckon like so many Hesperides, their walls freshly fallen to the battering ram of the Internet. Babel, however, still reigns within. Authors, who are now happily in control of virtually all aspects of their work, find that they cannot vouch for the new face – some would argue, the reincarnation – their brainchild is to take on elsewhere.

Given the interest in the China book market and its relative opaqueness, I thought I’ll take a crack at summing up a few facts and themes about the state of translation of foreign books in China, as voiced in the Chinese press. This is meant as backup to a lot of the good resources out there, such as Christine Sun’s reporting. If you are an indie author who want to make inroads in China with a translation that does justice to your work, take a look.

(1) A lot of Chinese translations are bad

This is a long-running pet peeve among China’s arbiters of culture. One of China’s largest Internet portals, Tencent, carries a 2013 special feature story titled “Translations as Gibberish: Who’s at Fault for Screwing up Translations of Copyrighted Works.” The article begins with a memorable quote:


“I know every single word on the page, but when strung together they don’t make the least bit of sense,” such is the immediate impression of many readers toward contemporary translations of foreign books.

And this remains the verdict throughout. In late 2015, when controversy erupted over a new translation of Tagore, another prominent media outlet, Phoenix, ran a similar lament.

The common Chinese reader embraces these gripes as heartily as they poke fun at the censors they love to hate. There are pages of collections, hash tags and exclamation-riddled reviews devoted to rotten translations on Douban alone (China’s answer to Goodreads.) When such errors slash and burn their way through a book, the ravages sustained by characters, plot and style is as arbitrary as it is systematic. Some seasoned translators cover their tracks with aplomb and occasionally a wayward genius. Readers walk away only slightly discommoded, marveling at the author’s puny powers or ostentatiously foolish waste of their time.

Those who crave the gory details can look to my upcoming piece.

(2) Poor working conditions and race to the bottom

The underlying causes deserve several doctoral theses; a brief summary ought to suffice. According to Chinese reporters and commentators, an array of factors are to blame.

As market competition becomes more fierce, traditional publishers in bidding wars for well-regarded foreign titles cut cost by paying translators less. According to one 2015 research report released by quasi-governmental organizations on translation, translators are both better educated and worse paid than other workers; over half make less than the median income, even though 96% have at least a college degree. Translation cycles run between one and three months long, and the book is almost invariably split among several translators. It goes without saying that this hurts the brilliantly written, inventive, fact-packed, or otherwise noteworthy books the most. Likewise overworked editors are often not in a position to sew up, like Ali Baba’s hired tailor, the helter skelter body parts – editorial and stylistic consistency go by the wayside.

Turned off by a Darwinian market, the best translators exit the profession for greener pastures; those who remain farm out their assignments in order to make a living. A teeming army of college students can pay their phone bill, as well as prepare for their English certification exam, Band 4, by taking on slivers of foreign books. Things hit a new low in recent years, when high school students in foreign language programs signed on to the tail end of the food chain, often through recruitment ads on the web.

(As a contrast, consider that the best Chinese novelists, playwrights and poets had done the most enduring translations of Western classics until relatively recently. In one well-known instance, writers Xiao Qian and Wen Jieruo, a married couple, spent four years over “Ulyssses.”)

Finally, to make a quick buck, Chinese publishers continue to get creative in all the wrong places. Again, for brevity’s sake,  here is one deplored practice: Some publishers have been known to come up with phantom translators — award-winning fixtures in some illustrious grove of academe — under whose fictional names dozens of titles in an obscene number of languages are churned out within half a year. I have seen legit Chinese translators on Internet forums look to haphazardly edited machine translations as one of the few plausible explanations for this extraordinary fecundity.

(3) Hopeful trends for better Chinese translations

Not all is doom and gloom. The paying public in China is rapidly becoming more discerning. The stages of Chinese development are remarkably compressed; things that take decades to unfold elsewhere zip through in a few years here. There is increasing recognition that badly translated titles perpetuate a vicious cycle of oversupplied markets and disgruntled buyers that does not serve any part of the publishing industry well. Meanwhile, foreign titles top the critics’ lists of recommended reading, enjoying a popularity that is, rather ironically, fostered by censors. In keeping the creativity of Chinese writers in check, censorship makes foreign works more alluring.

The Internet also offers new solutions to the problem of shoddy translations, by giving online translator communities more visibility and channels to evaluate the professional reputation of star translators (notwithstanding a quite severe problem with paid Internet marketing). Those who excel in the face of the long odds are fiercely passionate about their craft, toil tirelessly in its service, and defend their right to a decent living the best they can. In other words, they are the kind of people indie authors this side of the pond would find a lot to talk about with.

In Chinese, wage slaves complain of having to “dining on the wind and farting smoke (喝风屙烟).” Chinese translators enjoy little legal or de facto protection against contractual breaches and withheld wages. They cannot be expected to do right by the titles they are entrusted with, when they’re treated worse than a server farm. Under the changing dynamics of indie publishing, we may be able to find a way to change those realities. Better livelihoods make better books.