Monthly Archives: August 2015

Meet The Badass Transgender Talk Show Host Who Wants to be China’s Most Influential Woman

(You can read the original article and see more of Matjaz’s picture here.)

SHANGHAI — They call her “poison tongue.” Jin Xing has verbally bitch-slapped TV hosts, stormed off sets and carved out a reputation as a straight-talker who does things her own way.

“My words aren’t like massage oil — they’re like acupuncture needles,” Jin Xing (pronounced “jeen shing”) told The WorldPost. “They go right to the nerve and twist it.”

qipao with kneeler

But right now Jin is silent. She sits in her chair backstage at the Shanghai People’s Theatre, glaring at a script while her team prepares her for the night ahead. They’re dabbing on makeup, snipping stray strands of hair and lining up three costume changes. She’ll be taking the stage to deliver almost two hours of stinging social commentary interspersed with performances by her dance troupe. Tonight’s show marks her first live theater performance since the debut of her new TV talk show, “The Jin Xing Show.”

Jin says she’s “always nervous” before taking the stage, but these aren’t the jitters of someone new to the spotlight — she has been performing at the peak of the dance world for decades, and her television appearances have been lighting up TVs and iPads for years. These are the nerves of a perfectionist, someone who demands that each punch line is on point and every gesture is executed so precisely that it appears effortless.

Looking straight at the mirror in front of her, she delivers instructions to Xiao Nan, the tuxedoed young man who plays her assistant and foil.

“When the drum roll is going for your entrance, let it roll for a minute before you come out,” Jin advises. “You need that expectation to build.”

make up side view

For Jin, 47, the expectations have been building for close to three decades. Over that time, she’s charted a course that was almost unimaginable at the beginning. Jin, a transgender woman, has gone from being crowned China’s best male dancer while performing with the People’s Liberation Army troupe, to becoming China’s most celebrated female talk show host and the mother of three children.

These days, on the weekly “Jin Xing Show,” she riffs on the cultural milieu of modern China, ragging on the nouveau riche and dispensing motherly advice. Dressed in an exquisitely tailored qipao, Jin offers up earthy wisdom, biting sarcasm and stories from her own larger-than-life background. The show’s aesthetic harks back to 1920s Shanghai — a gilded age of international glitz and organized crime — and Jin glides across the stage with a dancer’s grace.

But it was when Jin’s formidable temper smashed that serene surface last year that she went viral. While serving as a judge on China’s first season of “So You Think You Can Dance,” Jin tore into the show’s host for trying to pull a sob story out of a contestant who’d been injured.

“Chinese TV always digs at people’s scars, consumes their pain. This is the biggest weakness of Chinese TV and I hate it!” Jin spat out, doing nothing to conceal her contempt. “I hope that on ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ we won’t use people’s pain, we won’t use people’s sympathy, we won’t use people’s suffering.”

The show’s host was stunned. Audiences loved it. Nine months later she was on the air with her nationally broadcast talk show.

jin xing hands up

Jin’s star is rising (literally translated, her name means “gold star” or “Venus”), and it draws fuel from a deep well of ambition. She sees herself becoming the Oprah Winfrey of China, and then using that popularity and power to enter politics.

“A long time ago, people told me I’d become a politician and I said, ‘I know, but not yet.’ All of this, this talk show, everything, it’s all preparation,” Jin told The WorldPost.

China’s government often rewards apolitical celebrities like basketball player Yao Ming and actor Jackie Chan with token appointments to ceremonial political bodies. Jin said she won’t be taking that route.

“I don’t want to go through the ordinary ways,” she said. “I have my own ways. People say I’ll be the most influential woman in this country. I say, ‘I know it, but not yet. I’m working on it.’”

Ambition on that scale would border on delusion if it weren’t for Jin’s remarkable past.

girl lifted

Growing up in China’s cold northeast, Jin knew from an early age that she wasn’t like the other little boys.

Girls’ toys held more appeal and Jin envied her big sister’s femininity. During a storm, 6-year-old Jin stood out in the rain hoping lightning would strike and transform her into a girl. But the lightning never came and Jin trudged back inside soaking wet.

Jin became a member of the army’s performance troupe at the age of 9, enduring training regimens that she said would be clear-cut child abuse in the U.S. But the sacrifice paid off. In 1986, at the age of 18, Jin won China’s national dance competition with a performance of Mongolian ethnic dance.

Two years later, Jin arrived in New York with a prestigious scholarship to study modern dance and an English vocabulary that consisted of, “Hello, excuse me, thank you, bye.”

“If I think of the one thing I’m proud of, it’s that … the day I stood on Madison Avenue I started being in charge of my own life,” Jin said. “I have no leader, I don’t take any salary from my unit, and by age 22 I was paying other people.”

Jin left the U.S. three years later, after winning major accolades for her choreography of the dance piece “Half Dream.” Following teaching stints in Italy and Belgium (she speaks five languages), Jin returned to China with one goal in mind: to bring her public persona in line with her private self.

jin xing back looking at stage

Jin chose to have gender confirmation surgery — and she wanted to undergo the procedure in China. In 1994, Chinese doctors had almost no experience with such operations, she said, but still she felt a pull to make the change at home that was part spiritual, part superstitious.

“I need the chi, I need the earth. I need them to protect me,” she said. “In a Western environment maybe the technology is there, but my soul is too lonely.”

Jin emerged from the operation to find that one leg had been partially paralyzed. Doctors told her she would be walking with a limp from that day forth, but three grueling months later she was back on stage dancing.

Stares and raised eyebrows followed her for a time, but Jin gained instant approval from the only two people who she said mattered: her parents.

“I fully respect the copyright. If those two people don’t mind me changing their creation, then why should I mind other people’s opinions?”

jin looking in on flappers

Over the next decade Jin founded an independent dance troupe, opened a bar, closed that bar, adopted three children by herself, and met her future husband, a German businessman working in Shanghai.

In between family time and international tours, she began appearing as a judge on talent shows. Those programs are where Jin first earned the “poison tongue” moniker for cutting through the fluff that dominates Chinese TV.

Elisa Montalvo, an American dancer and choreographer who has worked with the Black Eyed Peas, first saw Jin when she stormed off the set of “So You Think You Can Dance.” Two dancers who had previously worked together were “randomly” paired up, and Jin refused to participate in the charade.

“Jin Xing always does things the right way and the true way, even if it goes against what people expect or what’s comfortable for them,” Montalvo told The WorldPost.

“There’s this fear of [disrupting] the harmony, so people always go around the back door. But she’s very direct. … There’s no b.s.”

jin xing xiao pingguo hands clasped

But even she has to bite her poison tongue from time to time, Jin admits. Politics is a strict no-go zone for sharp remarks, and apparently benign bits of social commentary can turn sensitive with a change in political winds. Jin credits her decade-plus of military training with helping her walk that line.

“I know where the boundaries are,” Jin said. “I’m not against the government. I’m not against the [Communist] Party. I’m just saying the reality, the facts.”

For the past two years, Chinese President Xi Jinping has overseen a tightening of state control over popular culture and a crackdown on any form of activism outside official channels. That effort would appear to throw a wrench in Jin’s plans for turning her public persona into political power.

She knows the value of patience, however, and she describes her show as the perfect platform from which to build her fan base and bide her time. At her recent live performance in Shanghai, Jin deployed two hours’ worth of material on topics like marriage and materialism. She closed the night with an audience interaction performance of “Little Apple,” the country’s biggest line dance pop hit.

“I know this country, I know what time it is. I don’t want to make [people] happy for one day and the next day the show is closed down,” Jin said. “I need to slowly spend time to build up the foundations. One day this show is going to be grown up, and then no one can touch it. Nobody can touch it.”

 

 

Anatomy of a Chinese Airport Rumble

(You can read my original Beijing Cream post here.)

It’s 8:40 pm on a Friday. We’re lined up at the China Eastern Airlines counter a full ninety minutes before takeoff, and I have everything I need for a great, just-quit-work weekend: passport, check; cleats, check; Frisbee, check; baijiu-Fanta mix, check. But just then, China decides to remind me where I am. Ahead of us in line, an argument begins to stew, froth, and bubble. The verbal combatants are an elderly couple, possibly from the countryside, and two overdressed, overly made-up, and apparently overconfident young women.

The initial dispute is over whether a luggage cart bumped into an ankle, but it gets ugly fast: one of the girls taunts the old man’s ability to speak standard Mandarin Chinese. Airline employees break up the verbal sparring as quickly as they can, but the tone for the evening has been set. At the counter, a friendly but frazzled attendant tells me my flight doesn’t yet have a gate, and I already have an idea of what I’m in for.

“Does that mean the flight is going to be delayed?”

“There’s no way to know right now. Just head through security, take a seat and wait.”

“Okay…”

~

By 10 pm I’ve slumped into chairs around the corner from the China Eastern counter along with 30-plus fellow travelers to Ningbo. There’s a collective nervousness about the total lack of information, but a sense of safety in the knowledge that they wouldn’t leave withoutall of us. As the minutes tick by, most people have their eyes on the flight monitor, but mine keep wandering to the company whiteboard that sits upside down and untouched in the corner:

“Hello, today’s flight ____ to ____ has been delayed because of ____. We are very sorry for all inconveniences. This sign will be updated every five minutes.”

At 10:50 the television monitor makes its opening play: 32登机口. Gate 32. The news travels via murmur through our group, and we show detectable optimism as we head down the causeway. What greets us on arrival at Gate 32, however, kills that flicker of hope. The expansive gate is populated by a few men in cheap suits who are slumped creatively around the arms of airport benches.

Our group hasn’t sat for more than ten minutes when the flight monitor makes its second play: Gate 19. The number flashes for a minute before settling into a steady neon blue. Our fellow travelers, with their luggage and their discontent, now make their way back down to the far end of the terminal. Gate 19 forms a cul de sac at this end, and the geography matches the mood. As we sink into our seats, people begin fearing the worst and getting ready for the long haul. Instant noodles are purchased, playing cards come out, pillows are unpacked, and you get a moment to appreciate how good Chinese travelers are at settling in wherever they find themselves.

My frame doesn’t fit well on airport benches, so I abandon any expectation of rest and concentrate on worrying. A delayed flight is expected in China, but there’s something eerie about the ever-changing gates and the fact that they’re still advertising a 10:40 pm take-off at 11:45. The airport is fast emptying of staff, and our group hasn’t had contact with China Eastern employees since they were last seen two hours ago.

A few members of the group are dialing airport help lines when the television monitor makes another bold change. At 12:15 am, the monitor informs us that our flight will be departing from Gate 32… at 10:40 pm. Several passengers rise to the bait, but while we’re gathering bags, our collective angst turns into action. The group quickly coalesces behind some very vocal middle-aged women who have had enough. As they spout off, the loose gaggle of passengers transforms into a posse out for blood.

With the China Eastern desk long-since abandoned, the mob rounds a corner to find a break room where employees of another airline are eating Ramen. At this point, anyone wearing a uniform is deemed guilty by association. On the defensive, the workers deny any connection with our airline. Asked where the China Eastern people are, they reply, “They already clocked out.”

Fresh blood on a shark snout, that comment. The middle-aged women — we’ll call them the Aunties — are beside themselves and immediately pull out the big guns. “Everybody send out Weibos! Everybody send out Weibos!” Nervous anger and microblog posts begin to emanate out from our group. We demand that our two hostages contact China Eastern people, and we only leave when reports trickle in that our airline’s people are back at the counter.

Marching down the concourse for the third time, our posse is riling itself up for confrontation. As voices grow shriller, distinct sub-groups begin to emerge. At the front the Aunties are feisty and feeble at the same time. They’re dressed and hair-dyed in a way to showcase their (or their husband’s) moderate financial success. Creeping through their 50s, the three women appear to have channeled decades of quiet emotional suffering into indignation over the 800 meters they’ve been forced to walk tonight.

On the other hand, one of the words you keep hearing bounce around their conversation is “rights,” e.g., “consumer rights.” Now that’s something that’s rarely brought up in China (outside of CCTV’s exposes of “malicious” foreign firms), and it’s one that could use a little more play. Consumer rights in China are abysmal, with a company generally considered socially conscious if it doesn’t poison or outright defraud you. These Aunties’ tone may be shrill, but there’s a kernel of a legitimate complaint in there.

Behind them is a loosely assembled group of half a dozen young men. Nearly all wearing black jackets and tacky shirts, the guys look like the kind of people who hang out on street corners and try to sell you receipts or stolen Motorola Razrs. A Chinese person with strong regional prejudices might guess that the men were from Henan. We’ll call them the Goodfellas.

The rest of us are tag-alongs, sharing in the ire but unsure what to make of it. As we approach the China Eastern counter, now populated by three female employees, the Aunties’ wrath finds a target.

“Where the hell have you guys been? We’ve been marching back and forth for hours with no sign of what’s going on!”

“We’ve been here the whole time.” (Lie.) “And why have you been marching back and forth? The flight is delayed and departing from Gate 40.” (Infuriating, but interesting tact.)

As the employees persist with a combination of bald-faced lies and potential half-truths, the outline of our conflict takes shape. China Eastern’s position is that after a brief delay in information, the flight has consistently been set to depart from Gate 40 once the plane arrives. Our claim that monitors have been displaying a revolving stream of gates is met with absolute denial from the employees: the monitors have always displayed Gate 40.

This unfortunate employee has wandered in past her depth here, and she realizes she’s in trouble when the Aunties, Goodfellas, and tag-alongs cry out: “TURN AROUND!” “LOOK AT THE GOD DAMN SCREEN BEHIND YOU!” “READ ME WHAT IT SAYS ON THE MONITOR!” Oohhh. That’s going to be a tough one to wriggle out of, so the woman takes a bold stand: she will not turn around and look at the screen.

Cue: Frenzy Feed.

Everyone gets in on the action, with even the most reserved members of the posse spewing venom across the counter. Company policies are being cited, compensation is being demanded, and someone’s character is being called into question. Camera-phones are snapping pictures of faces, name tags, and television monitors. Cornered and argumentatively crippled, the woman calls for reinforcements in the form of a mid-level manager.

When back-up arrives, it is calmer, friendlier and about 125 pounds heavier. The man appears to be in his early 30s, and has probably sat through a few graduate classes on customer service. His hair is dyed and styled to appear slightly more Western, and his healthy potbelly also takes after certain aspects of Americana.

A fresh perspective and some diplomacy buy the man time, but in the end he’s fighting a losing battle. The Aunties quickly work themselves into a frenzy, citing a litany of health issues aggravated by tonight’s regimen of waiting and walking. One with dyed red hair and a complexion to match begins pounding the counter and lecturing Mr. Middle-Manager on her high blood pressure.

The Goodfellas have taken up positions safely behind the Aunties, contributing nothing except a periodic “Yea! She said it!” and the occasional slander of someone’s mother. One member of the gang makes his first real foray into the debate by wadding up a newspaper and throwing it at the manager’s head. It’s a bullseye, granted one without a whole lot of force.

This is where our pudgy middle manager truly shines, if just for a moment. He bows his head, takes a deep breath and says, “You know what, respect goes both ways,” before plodding ahead with his analysis. Unfortunately his position in the argument isn’t proving quite so flexible.

“The flight has always been scheduled for Gate 40… No, I won’t turn around and look at the screen… No, there won’t be any compensation for you passengers. OK?”

The last rhetorical “OK” is uttered in English over his shoulder as he turns to walk away from the counter. The man doesn’t make it two steps before a half-full plastic water bottle sails out of the crowd, over my shoulder and directly into the left cheek of Mr. Middle-Manager.

BOOM.

The man turns on a dime and lunges at the counter as the Aunties retreat. His pudgy fingers grasp at the culprit, a darker man in a grey jacket who is smirking from a safe distance. Slowly awaking to the public relations disaster on their hands, two male employees grab Mr. Middle-Manager by the arms as their female co-workers whip out camera phones and snap pictures of the culprit. The better restrained the big man becomes, the bolder our water-bottle thrower grows. He steps up to the counter and wags fingers accompanied by curses in Mr. Middle-Manager’s face.

By this point there are enough camera-phone angles on the scene to accommodate a Matrix-style freeze-frame 360. Each side is hoping to gather evidence for the coming trial to be waged on Chinese social media.

Unfortunately, our manager isn’t doing his side any favors. His initial composure has given way to an elephant seal battle for male supremacy. In struggling to free himself for the offensive, the man exposes his ample belly. Pushed up against a wall he grabs for the only large projectile on hand: a metal stool. Cursing the stench of his assailants’ mothers’ reproductive organs, Mr. Middle-Manager lifts the stool for launch. Lucky for him, one of his co-workers manages to get a hand on it, deflecting the missile onto the counter. The China Eastern staffers hold tight as the aggrieved manager rages and wriggles. Weaponry and energy deprived, Mr. Middle-Manager contents himself with a purely verbal assault as he’s ushered away.

As China Eastern’s lone combatant is dragged off to a back office, some female employees have managed to get around the counter and directly photograph the water bottle thrower’s face. Soon the argument re-centers around the bottle thrower, the Aunties and a gaggle of female employees. By constantly upping the ante and baiting the employees, one cunning Auntie manages to get a woman to swear at her. They all immediately seize on the lone curse word, wagging their fingers in the face of the embarrassed woman who knows she’s slipped up.

The chaos has finally garnered the attention of a higher-up who comes down to fill the role of our fallen middle-manager. He takes a similar tack, apologizing and even bowing. But our impassioned defenders of customer rights are not to be so easily placated. Despite inciting the scuffle, both the Goodfellas and the Aunties are now demanding financial compensation and a direct apology from Mr. Middle-Manager.

As it becomes increasingly clear that neither of these will be forthcoming, most of the tag-alongs begin the slow walk down to Gate 40. Some time between 1 and 2 am, our 10:40 pm flight finally begins boarding. We take our assigned seats along with around a hundred other customers who somehow did get the memo on Gate 40. In the end, the final delay comes from the Aunties and the Goodfellas who defended their honor until the bitter end. They trickle onto the plane after half an hour, empty-handed but determined to give off the mien of victory. The Aunties’ conversations are dialed up four notches as they give a blow-by-blow retelling of the most exciting thing that’s happened to them in a decade. When the emotional hollowness of the conversation really starts to grind my gears I pipe up with a simple, “That’s enough, thanks.” It earns a stink face from an Auntie, but voices are lowered.

Four hours after our scheduled takeoff, China Eastern Airlines MU5177 gains speed down the runway and finally takes off into the black Beijing night.

A Day in the Life of China’s First Cyber Dissident

Why is Huang Qi the only activist optimistic about human rights in China?

(You can read the original post here.)

CHENGDU — It’s 8:30 a.m. on a Friday, and Huang Qi is knee-deep in the drudgery of defending villagers’ rights.

We’re driving south out of this steaming metropolis in southwest China, headed to a village restaurant slated for demolition to make way for high-voltage power lines. The family that owns the restaurant thinks the government is stiffing them on compensation. That’s where Huang comes in.

Huang is a talker, but his vocabulary is drastically different from that of China’s other prominent human rights defenders. He doesn’t discourse on the nature of freedom; he rarely mentions the constitution or the inviolable dignity of the individual.

As the high-rises give way to corn fields, Huang is quizzing villagers about the compensation per square meter of the restaurant. He’s explaining the government permits required to carry out a legal demolition. He’s weighing the appraisal of fruit trees. He mentally catalogues each answer, assessing the government’s compensation package and what can be done to increase it.

Huang Qi takes in reports of government land seizures and state violence from around China.CREDIT: MATT SHEEHANHuang Qi takes in reports of government land seizures and state violence from around China.

“Democracy is great; elections are great. But in China you need to work on very practical things when you’re working on this stuff,” Huang said. “Democracy is an action — not something that comes out of your mouth.”

Huang has been waging a campaign to protect the interests of China’s dispossessed for 17 years — eight of which he spent in prison. After working for more than a decade in manufacturing and business, in 1998 he created a site exposing human trafficking and then started China’s first domestic human rights web site. Two years later he became the first known “cyber dissident” to be jailed in China for online activity. Released in 2005, Huang went right back to human rights work. In 2008 he was rewarded with another three-year jail stint for reporting on how shoddy construction of a school led to student deaths following an earthquake.

Now 52 years old, Huang maintains many of the mannerisms of a Chinese factory owner. He chain-smokes cigarettes and relishes a good deal — or a good fight. When not fielding phone calls from aggrieved citizens, he is coaching farmers on how to resist forced demolitions and squeeze more compensation out of local officials.

Guo Yingliang, a farmer who has protested over compensation on his seized farmland, holds up a certificate commending him as an "Excellent Communist Party Member." Three days after this photo was taken his wife, Wu Ping, was reportedly detained.CREDIT: MATT SHEEHANGuo Yingliang, a farmer who has protested over compensation on his seized farmland, holds up a certificate commending him as an “Excellent Communist Party Member.” Three days after this photo was taken his wife, Wu Ping, was reportedly detained.

His website, 64tianwang.com, is a clearinghouse for the injustices that plague the bottom rungs of Chinese society: violent evictions, forced abortions, attacks by club-wielding thugs. The site has been blocked in China for a decade and a half, but Huang shrugs that off. He believes it’s still reaching its audience.

Higher-level government officials monitor Tianwang for tip-offs about corruption among local officials, Huang says. China’s leaders are in the midst of the most sweeping crackdown in decades on corrupt officials — and rival political factions. With fear gripping Communist Party cadres, the threat of publicity can be an effective deterrent for local despots.

“In China the law isn’t important — power is important,” Huang says. “The key is finding the methods that the government is most afraid of.”

Urbanization and nail houses

At the restaurant on the rural outskirts of Chengdu, Huang gives the owners a 30-minute crash course in negotiations and resistance: Demand to see all the government permits. Don’t allow any demolition before compensation is agreed on. If there’s violence, take pictures and immediately send them to Tianwang volunteers to put on the website.

Li Min and other Tianwang volunteers pick vegetables as a gift for Huang Qi.CREDIT: MATT SHEEHANLi Min and other Tianwang volunteers pick vegetables as a gift for Huang Qi.

“Resistance gives you bargaining power,” Huang says. “Power produces respect.”

As he departs, the family that owns the restaurant loads the car down with bags of peaches from their trees.

Huang’s success in helping China’s poorest residents stand up to the Chinese state keeps his phone buzzing throughout the day.

“Hello… yes, this is Huang Qi… ok… look, send me this in a text message. Write the time, place, people and your phone number. Don’t include your own commentary, don’t curse the government — just write down what happened… If you can’t type then have a kid type it for you.”

Rural land seizures, both legal and illegal, have been the grease in the wheels of the largest wave of urbanization in human history. As China’s leaders flung sprawling networks of highways, high-rises and high-speed trains across the country, farmland has been acquired and repurposed en masse.

A "nail house" in the middle of a road in central China is finally demolished in 2012.CREDIT: STR/GETTY IMAGESA “nail house” in the middle of a road in central China is finally demolished in 2012.

Deals turning rice paddies into shopping malls are immensely profitable, but little of that profit reaches the land’s original inhabitants. Land seized by local governments is often resold to developers for dozens of times the compensation that farmers receive. In return for being kicked off their land and deprived of the only occupation they’ve ever known, farmers are usually given a lump sum payment or apartments in new developments.

Villagers who hold out for higher compensation sometimes end up living in “nail houses” — a Chinese term for the last building left standing after its neighbors have been demolished, like a stubborn nail that can’t be hammered flat or yanked out. Occupants of nail houses are often subject to the full gamut of intimidation and violence: bricks through windows, illegal detentions in “black jails,” and vicious attacks by armed gangs.

Huang meets a group of core Tianwang volunteers for lunch before visiting Yuan Ying, the proud resident of a “nail car.” Yuan, a 46-year old woman who used to work in a bread shop, refused the compensation offered for her home. After the building and subsequently the tent she lived in were toppled, Yuan bought a boxy van and parked it on her property. She now sleeps alone in the van amidst a vast sea of rubble.

Yuan Ying stands beside the car that she uses to block construction on the site of her former home.CREDIT: MATT SHEEHANYuan Ying stands beside the car that she uses to block construction on the site of her former home.

Crushing corruption and dissent

Driving toward our last stop of the day, Huang proudly catalogues the local officials who have been thrown in jail after corruption exposés. China’s President Xi Jinping has pursued a two-track approach to squelching disobedience, simultaneously jailing huge numbers of corrupt officials and the very activists campaigning against corruption.

Most activists describe China as in the midst of a mounting crackdown on the pillars of civil society: independent media, activists and lawyers. That momentum culminated in the recent detentions of many well-known human rights lawyers, a move that some say marks the death knell for the rights defense movement.

Huang sees things very differently. He is one of the only high-profile activists who say the human rights situation in China is improving. He’s also one of the only activists who has spent more than a decade fielding phone calls from peasants who are having their land seized and their loved ones thrown in prison.

Scrolling through his website, Huang says he’s seen a dramatic drop in human rights abuses at the grassroots: violent evictions and illegal detentions. In 2013 the government abolished the dreaded “re-education through labor” system, a move that Huang says signals major progress.

Huang Qi visiting the area affected by the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.CREDIT: MATT SHEEHANHuang Qi visiting the area affected by the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.

But other activists are clearly dismayed about Huang’s claim that things were improving.

“This is a dangerous thing to say,” said Liu Feiyue, founder of Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, a prominent human rights web site. “It’s a lie that’s not based in reality.”

Liu has worked on civil rights issues for a decade and has been detained briefly by police. Earlier this year he described the human rights situation as the worst since 1989. Liu suggested Huang’s positive spin was rooted in hopes that “he could win favor with the government.”

Is this progress?

A more generous interpretation might point to how long Huang has been in the movement and just how bad things were when he began. One of the first major investigations by his website documented government officials profiting from forcing fishermen to undergo mandatory appendectomies. Other pieces detailed the brutal suppression of Falun Gong practitioners. When he began, without social media or web sites challenging government propaganda narratives, there were virtually no channels for individuals to air their grievances.

If Huang and his volunteers are currently trying to avoid confrontation with authorities, they’re not doing a very good job. Li Min, one of the leading citizen journalists documenting abuses for Tianwang, disappeared into police custody 24 hours after accompanying us on these home visits. Li’s husband had spent the previous three months in the hospital after he was brutally attacked by men armed with wooden clubs. (Local police hung up the phone when questioned about both cases.)

Other Tianwang volunteers are currently awaiting trial and subject to ongoing harassment of their families. Huang gives himself a 90 percent chance of spending another few years in prison.

Liu Zhizhong searches his wife, Li Ming, outside a prison on July 20th. Li was detained on July 18th and remains in custody on charges of "obstructing official duties."CREDIT: MATT SHEEHANLiu Zhizhong searches his wife, Li Ming, outside a prison on July 20th. Li was detained on July 18th and remains in custody on charges of “obstructing official duties.”

After one last visit to victims of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, we pile into the car and head back toward Chengdu. Over the course of nine hours and 200 kilometers (124 miles), we’ve visited four homes and one hospital, accumulating several gift bags of peaches, lettuce and green beans in the process.

Looking out the window as we fly down the highway, Huang reflects on the number of calls he gets and how things have changed since he began this work almost two decades ago.

“When the people take part in defending their own rights, that is the first step in a democratic movement,” said Huang. “You must have the people first.”

These Chinese Rappers Are Trying To Take Hip Hop Mainstream, But Who’s The Bigger Hater: The Communist Party or Confucius?

(You can read the original piece here.)

CHENGDU, China — Earlier this week, the Ministry of Culture banned 120 songs from Chinese websites on the grounds that they “trumpeted obscenity, violence, crime or harmed social morality.” Hip-hop accounts for just a tiny sliver of mainstream music in China, but at least 50 of the 120 banned songs are by mainland Chinese and Taiwanese rappers. No one ever thought hip-hop and the Chinese government would be a match made in heaven, but this was pretty cold.

Still, here in a modest apartment covered in cat hair, an architect at the local Chengdu zoo is plotting his takeover of the Chinese hip-hop scene. Xie Yujie, aka Melo, is a 23-year-old recent college grad who spends his days designing structures for animals, and his nights ripping into rival emcees.

The rapper Fat Shady gets a crowd live in Kunming, China.

Rail-thin and with a chest covered in tattoos, Melo came up in the local freestyle battle scene, plowing through opponents until there weren’t any challengers left. He took on the nickname “Mr. Nobody Can Fuck With Me.”

Hip-hop is carving out a niche within Melo’s generation, and he’s confident that his localChengdu rap collective is going to steamroll rivals and dominate markets.

“Back in old-school China… the emperor was like, ‘If there’s more land and we don’t use it, we’re fools,’” Melo told The WorldPost. “There’s only one standard for success: using rap, using my fame and my music, to earn enough money to really” — here he switches into English — “make it rain, get that paper.”

In discussing his plans for domination, Melo likes to allude to the Mongol Empire’s 13th-century invasion of Europe, but for now his aims are more modest. He’s in a duo with another rapper, Psy.P, and they’ve printed 1,000 copies of their first full mixtape, “Prison Trap.” The group, Tiandi Hui, is hoping to sell at least 500 units.

The rappers in Melo’s crew are some of the most talented hip-hop artists in China, but only a couple can support themselves with music alone. The crew records songs in home studios and shoots music videos using GoPro cameras on selfie sticks.

For the past decade in China, if you wanted to live like a hip-hop star, you wouldn’t actually go into hip-hop. You’d have a much better chance of partying in the champagne room as aprovincial tax official than a top-tier rapper.

That is starting to change — for corrupt officials and aspiring rappers alike — but hip-hop still faces a serious culture clash in the Middle Kingdom.

Violence, rebellion and sexually explicit rhymes are common themes for many of the American artists whom local rappers idolize. But the Chinese Communist Party has shown zero tolerance for any of the above, and has blacklisted artists who cross these unwritten lines.

Then there’s the Chinese listening public itself. Can chest-thumping emcees find a wide audience in a conservative culture where education, family and personal humility are among the most dearly held values?

Fat Shady, a 25-year-old rapper and a member of the same crew as Melo, is easily one of the country’s most successful hip-hop artists. But he sees China’s culture and history as major obstacles to the art form’s growth.

“Chinese audiences can’t accept music with any attitude or individualistic stuff,” Fat Shady told The WorldPost. “China used to be a Confucian society, and it was all about being humble, stifling, smothering, suppressing. Then we went through a lot and everyone dressed in exactly the same clothes. Again — stifle, smother, suppress.”

English-language tattoos on Fat Shady's arms read "Hustle & Flow" and "Shady."

But hip-hop is perfect for giving voice to that kind of frustration. That’s exactly what Fat Shady did with his song “Daddy Ain’t Going to Work Tomorrow,” an angsty anthem in which the emcee rails against the petty indignities of the working world and demands a chance to “live out a little bit of truth.”

“When I finished writing it, I was like, ‘This track bangs, the people are going to love it,’” Fat Shady said. “Every week I’d perform it for all kinds of different people — old dudes in their 50s with gold chains, young tech kids with glasses, soldiers.”

Local love turned to national fame when Fat Shady performed the song on a TV talent show similar to “The Voice.” Video of the performance went viral among Chinese workers fed up with the daily drudgery of their jobs.

Video Editing by Audrey Horwitz

Just as important as what Fat Shady was saying in his rhymes was the way he said it: Fat Shady, like all the members of the Chengdu hip-hop collective, raps almost exclusively in the local Chengdu dialect of Chinese.

The languages spoken in China comprise a sprawling family of tongues, some of them as unintelligible to each other as French and Romanian. Today, speaking in dialect or with a regional accent is often seen as a sign of poor education. Ambitious young Chinese men and women work hard to scrub such inflections out of their speech.

But Fat Shady and Melo are proud of their hometown, and when they rap, they don’t try to disguise where they’re from.

“Every city has its own personality, and the personality is in the dialect,” Fat Shady said. “When you hear the Chengdu dialect, it has a kind of ‘whatever’ feeling to it. Standard Mandarin just doesn’t give you that feeling.”

Fans of Fat Shady gather at a show marking the opening of the Golden Paris real estate development in Luzhou.

Staying true to his roots paid off: Fat Shady has managed to turn his song about quitting his job into a lucrative career in and of itself. During a typical week he bounces between corporate events, doing short sets that always end with “Daddy Ain’t Going to Work Tomorrow.” Last month, he performed at a local mango festival and the opening of a real estate development called Golden Paris.

Although Fat Shady still believes most Chinese listeners can’t really handle hip-hop with attitude, he was able to support himself with these shows while putting together his new album, “People, Society, Money.” The album is inspired by trap music, a genre that developed in the American South and takes its name from a slang term for drug houses. That world might seem light-years away from this corner of southwest China, but Fat Shady sees parallels between the seedy underside of his home country and the Atlanta neighborhoods where trap evolved.

“China is full of these low-class, dirty millionaires, and they live the same way,” he said. “They don’t give a shit. They might have people killed, or a bunch of their workers might die on the job, but they’re still rich. Thirty workers die? No problem. They just cover up the news about it. To me, China is one big trap.”

Fat Shady signs autographs backstage before a show in Luzhou.

Hip-hop in China — as in many other countries that have adopted the form — exists as a striking mashup of global and local cultures. Fat Shady has inked Eminem’s face and the phrase “Hustle & Flow” onto his arms, but he raps in a dialect so local that even other Chinese people can’t understand it. Melo took his alias from the NBA star Carmelo Anthony, but the name of his duo with Psy.P comes from an 18th- and 19th-century secret society dedicated to the overthrow of China’s last dynasty. Rappers mimic the dance moves coming out of Compton, but instead of handguns, they carry blades of the sort favored by local criminals.

Of all the nefarious foreign influences that could have gotten Melo into trouble, it was Uber that finally pushed him over the line. In May, when Melo heard that Chinese police were cracking down on his beloved ride-hailing app, he went straight to his home studio to throw down the gauntlet.

“Where there’s oppression, there’s resistance,” Melo declares at the start of the track. “I only represent myself. I just like taking Uber. It’s just better than your taxi. What you trying to do? Bite me, bitch!”

The song takes aim at taxi oligopolies and meddling bureaucrats. Within hours, the track was trending on social media and gathering hundreds of thousands of hits. But the joy was short-lived. In the second verse, Melo had crossed way over one of the invisible lines.

“I don’t write political raps,” he says in the song. “But if politicians try to force me to stop rapping, I’ll cut their heads off with a knife and lay them at the feet of their corpses.”

The Chinese rapper Melo gained notoriety in May with a song that accused government authorities of interfering with Uber.

The song was scrubbed from the Internet, and local police called Melo to the station. After warning him that he could be charged with promoting terrorism, the police made Melo promise never to release the song again.

It was a scare, but one that feels good in hindsight.

“It proves that I can stir things up so much that the government has to hold me back,” Melo told The WorldPost. “I think if I can make one song like this, I can make a second and a third.”

Whatever comes next, the Uber incident changed the game for Melo.

“The path of a rapper is a hard one — only a tiny percentage will end up succeeding,” he said. “Even though the government stopped one of my songs from breaking out, this gives me a big push. I’m like, fuck, all that practice wasn’t for nothing.”