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.


Beijing has two English-language newspapers, China Daily and the Global Times. There is also a weekly newsmagazine called Beijing Review. Most guidebooks and Web sites take a fairly dismissive attitude toward Chinese media, and to some degree this is deserved. Anonymous editorials reflect the position of the Chinese government, and never deviate from this position. In the China Daily, news articles often have no bylines and read like editorials. Once a week, there is a two-page spread on a second or third-tier city promoting foreign investment there. The Beijing Review mostly consists of mind-numbingly boring articles on how China is inexorably growing its GDP. In a society that loves to keep score, though, nobody really talks much about being #1 in metric tons of carbon emissions.

You can learn interesting things by reading these publications (for example, you probably didn’t know that over 50% of the world’s cigarette lighters are made in Wenzhou) and the weather reports are mostly reliable. However, there are never negatives, and there are no opposing viewpoints. Smiling faces abound. In a harmonious society, who would ever disagree?

And then there’s the relatively new upstart, the Global Times. It’s published by the People’s Daily, and is the official newspaper of the Communist Party. And this is really interesting, because while the government is controlled by the Communist Party, the Communist Party is not the government. Interestingly enough, the Communist Party maintains a fairly “big tent” approach to politics. This is pragmatic, because in a one party system, there have to be escape valves. You just marginalize them. It’s a remarkably similar approach to our own system, two parties, conservative and more conservative, both of whom serve only the wealthy and powerful, except in our system nothing that matters ever gets done.

So today, in the Global Times, the headlines scream “Taboo Sex Raises Eyebrows.” This in the same issue as an article about the burgeoning gay scene in Beijing (which has a lot more burgeoning to do, incidentally), an article critical of a high school teacher’s arrest (for writing an online book about the plight of sex workers in Guangdong province), and an article replete with tongue-in-cheek sarcasm about Chinglish signs. And all of this in just one issue!

Don’t get too excited. This is still a Communist Party newspaper, published in an authoritarian country. For example, every page contains a link to True Xinjiang. This is mostly a collection of self-congratulatory articles written by Han Chinese on the governance of a province almost universally described as “restive.” Still, only a few years ago, a newspaper like the Global Times would have been unthinkable. It seems to represent a new, more open left wing of the Communist Party of China–a wing willing to be more experimental, more open, and to some degree, more self-critical.

In a way, I have mixed feelings about this. As an American, I hope that China clings to its backward system of government, because I am absolutely convinced that it makes them far less competitive than they otherwise would be. And if China were to become even half as competitive on the world stage, the United States would be completely doomed. In my view, most of our economy is based on hot air and bullshit, and our government is so consumed with winning the next election that it’s forgotten how to govern (or even that doing so is necessary). On the other hand, living here, I see the potential China has to become the world’s newest superpower. For 5,000 years, this was the world’s most advanced civilization. China has a long memory, and yearns to relive these golden times.

How will it end? Only time will tell. The beginnings of an independent media, though, is an interesting and provocative start.