Pardon me, but who gives a damn about Gong Li anyway?

Imagethief was not in the least surprised to hear that Chinese netizens were outraged that movie actress Gong Li has taken Singapore citizenship. But then, Imagethief is not in the least surprised by anything that outrages Chinese netizens. Chinese netizens were outraged when Gong Li played a Japanese woman in “Memoirs of Geisha”, alongside fellow crypto-Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi. (In fact, all the leading roles in Memoirs of a Geisha were played by ethnic Chinese women, so if anyone should be outraged it’s the Japanese.) Chinese netizens often seem outraged by things that appear trivial to the rest of the world, such as the appearance of circles in provocative locations, kind-hearted attempts at mediation, and being French. Chinese netizens, in fact, often seem outraged by anything that transgresses against a hard-boiled nationalist line.

Which suggests that we are actually talking about a certain segment of Chinese netizens, rather than Chinese netizens as a whole or Chinese people in general. Unfortunately this distinction didn’t survive Jane Macartney’s recent Times story on Ms. Gong. To be fair, Ms. Macartney’s story is clearly focused on nationalist online sentiment. Here’s the lede:

A decision by one of China’s most famous film stars to take Singaporean nationality has set off an online furore with many ardent nationalists branding her a traitor and a shame to her native country.

Following from there, rest of the story is actually reasonable and balanced. Unfortunately the headline, which is what most readers will see and which was probably written by a sub-editor in London, is general in a way designed to reinforce foreign perceptions of the Chinese as a bunch of xenophobic goons in Mao suits. Reasonable work by good China journalists often runs into problems like this, which may be why several of my foreign correspondent friends (you’ll understand if I don’t name names) think the editors at their organizations’ foreign desks are tools.

Unfortunately the Internet-comment-as-vox-pop is a common technique in China reporting, and the colorful comments that often drive the stories usually can be traced back to that same rich vein of nationalism that surges through the Chinese Internet. While Imagethief, who has seen first-hand the PR damage that can be done when a stick is poked into the nationalist ant-nest, would never dismiss the importance of nationalism in China, there are some problems with this approach.

First, as anyone who has spent any time on the Internet knows, you can find any opinion you want on it, no matter how outlandish. Second, it’s very easy to select from a skewed sample on the Internet (which in China represents an already skewed sample). It’s fine to discuss the opinions of a narrow sample as long as that’s how you represent it. But when it’s presented in a way that invites the drawing of broader conclusions, you step into dangerous territory. If the rest of the world based their opinion of America on the comments in American political blogs, they’d sterilize the country with neutron bombs. Some of them probably want to do it that anyway, but the point stands.

This is particularly fraught in China, where Internet users are still only 19% of the population, and are demographically concentrated among male, urban youth (more here). So using Internet comments as a proxy for overall Chinese sentiment without some serious qualification, or even statistics, is dangerous.

All of which is scholarly good fun, but ignores the biggest point: Who besides undersexed dorm-crawlers gives a damn what Gong Li does? Imagethief is willing to bet that if you stopped Chinese people at random on the street in Beijing and asked them how they felt about Gong Li taking Singaporean citizenship, the most often expressed sentiments would be, “Huh?”, “How can I do that?” and “Who are you and why are you talking to me?” Not necessarily in that order.

I suspect most of this anger comes because some of these same netizens voted Gong Li “China’s Most Beautiful Person” in 2005. That’s gotta hurt. You say, “You’re China’s most beautiful!” She says, “Yeah, about that Chinese thing…” And for Singapore? For most people, this looks like pragmatism. But from a Chinese Internet nationalist point of view this has gotta be like stepping out of prom night for a smoke and finding your girlfriend making out with the football team’s waterboy in your Vega.*

Well, maybe not that bad, but pretty bad anyway.

Frankly, given the recent state of Gong Li’s oeuvre, Singapore is probably one of the few countries that would be particularly excited to land her. I’m sure it’s seen as a coup for the local artistic community and as validation of Singapore’s ambitions to be a “media hub” (whatever that means). But the state of the Singaporean movie industry can be summed up in three words: Liang Po Po.  If you don’t know what that is, count yourself lucky. In fact, thinking about it, it’s a miracle that China didn’t revoke Gong Li’s citizenship for the crime of appearing in “Miami Vice”. I watched “Miami Vice” for free and still felt violated. And Gong Li didn’t even serve in my country’s government. (Nor, thankfully, does Colin Farrel, although I’m open minded if Obama wants to offer Jamie Foxx a portfolio.)

In fact, looking back over Gong Li’s last decade or so of work, it’s all a bit worrying. “Memoirs” was watchable if you squinted and jammed your fingers into your eyes until you got those little sparkly bursts of color. “2046″, I suppose, if you’re into that otherworldly Wong Kar Wai thing (Imagethief has no patience for it, but I’m an admitted philistine). Otherwise, set the wayback machine for 1992 and “The Story of Qiu Jiu”. It’s been downhill for the Gong Li-Zhang Yimou team since then. I mean, seriously, “Curse of the Golden Flower”? Curse of the costume department more likely.

When Zhang Ziyi (who made her film debut in a Zhang Yimou movie herself) someday abandons Chinese citizenship the nationalist youth can crash on my couch and spend the night talking things out. Until then, get over it. There’s lots more important things to get worked up about, like the collapsing economy, the evaporation of the Himalayan glaciers that supply China’s water, or whether foreign bloggers are besmirching the country’s honor with snarky rants about formerly Chinese movie stars.

*This never happened to me. I couldn’t get a date for prom night.

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