Online in China

I’ve been playing a lot with QQ, an instant messaging platform that is really popular in China. By “really popular,” I mean that it has over 700 million users. Anyway, there is an English version, and if you sign up, you’ll soon be inundated with friend requests from random Chinese people. Most of them want to make foreign friends and practice their English. I like to make friends, I don’t mind speaking English, and I have met some really cool people this way.

Occasionally you get propositions of another sort. I have been offered the opportunity to purchase everything from insurance to apartments (come to think of it, mostly insurance and apartments). I have been the surprised recipient of earnest–but entirely random–marriage proposals. During times of political upheaval, I have been interrogated by young nationalists about my viewpoints on foreign policy. However, until Sunday night, I’d never been offered the opportunity to star in a movie. “Only need two minutes” was the pitch. “You’ll be advertisement. Pay you 500 RMB.” I couldn’t pry loose any details about the product other than it was music-related, but chalked the mystery up to the producer’s English level (which wasn’t great). After a lot of questions about my background, the dialect of English I spoke, and whether I had any acting experience, she asked to meet. I agreed.

After cancelling and rescheduling on me twice, we finally managed to meet this evening. I gave the producer a specific location to meet me after work but she got lost, so an hour and a half-dozen text messages later, we finally found each other. At this point I was hungry, so I asked her to wait while I grabbed a sandwich. When I returned, she pulled out four Post-It notes covered in English text. This, she informed me, was the script, which we’d shoot tomorrow night in Guomao, on the opposite side of Beijing. It appeared that two minutes was already stretching into two days plus a long commute. I took the script and reviewed it. Although it was in horrible, nearly incomprehensible Chinglish (and mind you, I’ve been in China for 2 1/2 years now and can comprehend most Chinglish), I managed to puzzle out the meaning. They wanted me to record an infomercial for fake Eddie Van Halen and various other counterfeit famous-name guitars.

“Is English OK?” the woman asked me, beaming. “I wrote myself!” I replied (in the measured, face-saving way that is necessary here) “It’s not bad, but is maybe more formal than we would use. I could suggest some small changes.” She nodded eagerly. “Yes, more advertisement, we make Web site! Internet!” At this point, I gently broke it to her. “In America, Eddie Van Halen is very famous. I cannot use his name on your product. He could sue me in the US. I’m an American guy, it is easy for him to do that.” The woman nodded gravely, clearly understanding my concern. In retrospect, I am guessing this wasn’t the first time she’d heard similar concerns expressed. “I will call boss!” she said. A flurry of numbers dialed, harried pacing, an animated conversation with either a person or dead air, and she eventually sat down again. Putting down the phone, she said with an air of finality, “Boss tell you must say this names.”

“Find someone else, then,” I replied, with my own air of finality. “500 RMB isn’t worth being sued by Eddie Van Halen.” A crestfallen look, some quick calculation, and then she shifted the conversation away from business. What was my job? How much was my salary? I really seemed kind, couldn’t I just help her with this small thing? Where does my family live? Do I like to eat Chinese food? Am I married? Was I really sure that she couldn’t persuade me to become an actor? Eventually I finished my sandwich, wished her goodbye, and made a beeline for the subway. My acting career, it seems, is finished before it even started.


Seemingly every time there is an article published online concerning Chinese government policy–whether in the Chinese or foreign press–an army of Netizens comes out to comment on it. By reading the comments, most Westerners would be surprised at just how many people fully support the Chinese government and the Communist Party. Chinese people, like Americans, have a very strong nationalist streak–they’re especially patriotic around National Day, which is their equivalent of the 4th of July. And yet, some Chinese Netizens are openly skeptical of the motives of their patriotic brethren. “Wu Mao,” is the online whisper. Far from grassroots nationalism, it’s said, the comments are actually bought and paid for. “Wu mao” means just that–a rate of .5 RMB per comment (about 8 cents).

Surely there is no astroturf online. You can believe everything you read on the Internet, can’t you?

And then I went to read CNN, the Seattle Times, and some other US news sources. Practically every article I read, no matter what the topic, had multiple comments blaming Democrats, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and President Obama for the problems of the day, even those involving misbehaved pets. If you believe Web comments, there’s a groundswell of conservative Tea Party populism just waiting for the election to “take our country back.” Take it where (or from whom) isn’t explicitly stated, of course, so who knows. Maybe to Shaanxi.

“Wu mao,” I thought. It seems plausible. In a society where $300 per month is a good salary, that’d be excellent pay to leave identakit right-wing blog comments, many of which are completely off topic, looking like they were cut and pasted from a collection of boilerplate. Either that, or the right wing of our population is disproportionately online with a disproportionate amount of time to comment in disproportionate unity. Either way, maybe I should start a side business.

Taobao is like a Chinese version of eBay, except with unique Chinese features. No effort at localization is made. It’s in Chinese only. You can buy an incredible variety of products there. Unfortunately, as is often the case when buying things online in China, you still have to go somewhere and fill out a form and get it stamped and usually make a phone call before the deal is actually done. If you’re interested, there’s an entire field guide (in English) devoted to using Taobao.

Wow, this sounds like a hassle already. Why bother? You can buy good stuff for really cheap. Much cheaper than retail here in Beijing, or probably anywhere in China. Retail overhead is high, and margins are fat, and Taobao cuts out at least some of the middlemen.

Unfortunately, there’s a loophole. There is apparently no listing fee. Merchants specializing in PA equipment and DJ gear have responded by posting enormous catalogs comprising virtually every audio product ever made, all at incredibly low “too good to be true” prices. Of course, you have to call them first to “verify inventory,” and then they just try to upsell you to whatever they have in their inventory, since they don’t actually have the product you wanted. Classic “bait and switch.” And hey, if they get away with it, they got a sale, so everyone’s happy. Right?

Hopefully Taobao does something to regulate this activity soon. From my perspective, an online catalog of products you can’t actually buy (and are listed at bogus prices) is just a colossal waste of time.