I Have a Chinese Banknote That Everyone in China Is Scared Of
January 16, 2014 5:46 AM   Subscribe

In China, there are certain "bad notes" that frighten people and are refused as legal tender. Why?
posted by reenum (77 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Told in Vice's trademark "foreigner wanders around wide-eyed hoping someone will explain things" style.
posted by belarius at 6:01 AM on January 16 [13 favorites]


Maybe. Whatever Vice's issues elsewhere, I didn't see many of them in this article. I thought it was interesting and informative.
posted by JHarris at 6:12 AM on January 16


I was at a big ol' protest march a few years ago, in the days of Occupy, largely just to see what was up. The anarchists & many of the other groups were all extremely riotous. They were chanting and singing, a and some of the folks were sassing the (many) police that had been deployed. In general it felt at some level like a kind of party, a festival of dissent.

At the very tail end of the parade, as I walked back towards the center of town, came the Falun Gong. All of them walking in rows: practically lockstep, utterly silent. Someone stepped out to hand me a flyer about the movement, but in general they moved like robots. It was infinitely creepier than the rest of the protest, and felt much more serious.
posted by Going To Maine at 6:14 AM on January 16


(In Gujarat, at the end of the eighteenth century, Zahir was a tiger; in Java a blind man in the Sukarta mosque who was stoned by the faithful; in Persia, an astrolabe that Nadir Shah ordered thrown into the sea; in the prisons of Mahdi, in 1892, a small compass, wrapped in a shred of cloth from a turban that Rudolf Karl von Slatin touched; in the synagogue of Cordoba, according to Zotenberg, a vein in the marble of one of the twelve hundred pillars; in the Jewish quarter of Tetuan, the bottom of a well.) Today is the sixteenth of January; at dawn, the link to an article on vice came before my eyes; I am not the man I was then, but I am still able to recall, and perhaps recount, what happened. I am still, albeit only partially, a white guy hoping someone in this foreign country will explain things.
posted by Enigmark at 6:14 AM on January 16 [17 favorites]


Reminded me of this. Defacing currency as a form of political protest seems to be a universal thing.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:14 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


From TFA:

He clearly didn’t feel comfortable talking about Falun Gong, whoever that was.

The style is really grating. I kept expecting the author to go meet a wise old man with an absurdly long mustache in the back of a Chinese laundry in the 1930s to learn the Secret of the Note. Are we expected to believe this is a professional reporter working in China that has to travel to Leiden to discover what Falun Gong is?

There's an interesting story here, but this is not the person to report it.
posted by Dr Dracator at 6:17 AM on January 16 [42 favorites]


There was a show that travels around, called Shen Yun I think, that sells itself as a big Chinese historical/cultural thing. However it is actually a big Falun Gong production and gets really preachy towards the end. My wife took me and it was neat an all but I felt a little deceived, like going to see a movie about middle eastern history and only getting the story of the Bible.

There was a special introduction by our mayor for the show and it was the day before he met a bunch of Chinese investors. I sometimes wondered if there was more going on there.
posted by charred husk at 6:22 AM on January 16 [6 favorites]


"He clearly didn’t feel comfortable talking about Falun Gong, whoever that was."

The hell? This person is a journalist who visited China and didn't know what Falun Gong was?

I kept thinking that the significance of this story must be that someone somehow managed to get something illicit added to the official banknote. But, no, it's just that someone added it later.

I'd expect this to be a pretty common form of protest everywhere, including the US. Here, the banks remove damaged and defaced currency from circulation as a matter of course and almost all currency moves regularly through the banks, so we don't see it. I suppose somewhere that there's a pervasive cash economy where bills can remain in circulation away from scrutiny for a long time, something like this can be more persistent and, arguably, effective.

Well, actually, if someone is going to get in trouble for merely having such a bill, it would likely stay in circulation or be destroyed, as opposed to being deposited or otherwise brought to official notice. Which is sort of clever on the past of Falun Gong — the more the authorities react indiscriminately and excessively to the bills, the less likely they will be picked up out of circulation.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:22 AM on January 16 [4 favorites]


The translation isn't quite accurate. In the second line, jienan 劫難 refers to the suffering and social unrest that is said to accompany the coming of a new kalpa or cosmic eon. The concept of cosmic cycles comes from Buddhist scriptural and other sacred texts, and lots of local and popular religious groups in China have, for centuries, connected natural and human disasters with the religious doctrine of the coming of a new era. Often times such doctrines would be mobilized in support of rebellious and violent uprisings.

So my translation would be: "Humanity today is experiencing the sufferings of a new kalpa"
posted by sudasana at 6:22 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


The initial framing and headline had me wondering if the big reveal was that people believed it to be cursed or something along those lines.

It doesn't seem to be much more complicated than folks saying "yeah, I'd really rather not have this thing in my register or wallet, now GTFO and take it with you."
posted by jquinby at 6:23 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


Where's George? In a re-education camp, maybe?
posted by gimonca at 6:30 AM on January 16 [5 favorites]


I live in a Chinese neighborhood where there's a lot of Falun Gong-awareness stuff going on on a regular basis -- protest-meditations, leaflets, big posters with graphic photos of atrocities -- and, from what I understand, going around China just asking strangers about Falun Gong would be kind of like showing up in the middle of Grand Central Terminal in NYC and asking the shopkeepers and commuters EXCUSE ME CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT THIS LETTER AL-QAEDA SENT ME?

Not that Falun Gong is comparable to Al-Qaeda in action (in fact, if they are telling the truth, the Chinese government has been literally terrorizing them since the start) but no one wants the sort of attention that would garner.
posted by griphus at 6:30 AM on January 16 [10 favorites]


There was a show that travels around, called Shen Yun I think, that sells itself as a big Chinese historical/cultural thing. However it is actually a big Falun Gong production and gets really preachy towards the end.

The Chinese embassy wants you to know more!

(I love the official party organ tone of this bulletin.)
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 6:36 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


Living in Shanghai from 2002-2013, I received and spent dozens of these notes -- at least one every couple of months over ten years -- and never had a single one refused or commented on. I wouldn't go as far as to say that literally no one in China is scared of them, but really basically no one is scared of them.
posted by bradf at 6:37 AM on January 16 [7 favorites]


My dad ended up with a Scottish £10 note once that everyone was refusing because they were widely counterfeited. It's not as if places in the US don't sometimes refusing large denomination bills because they don't have enough cash on hand to repeatedly make change for them. The 'Oh look at this strange Chinese phenomenon' thing is a bit of a stretch, as is the acting as if they've never heard of Falun Gong. (It does sound like the author is Dutch* and maybe you can wander round major Dutch cities without getting a Falun Gong leaflet sooner or later, but still, it's not like they're never mentioned in the news.)

*I'm pretty refusing €500 notes is a thing, too.
posted by hoyland at 6:38 AM on January 16


Falun Gong? Doesn't ring a bell. There's nothing on the internet either. Complete mystery. I'll guess we'll never find out.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:39 AM on January 16 [17 favorites]


Where I live, a lot of stores won't take $100 bills. That means I'd rather be holding five twenties than a hundred, even though they're technically worth the same amount. In practice, the hundred is likely to be a bit of a hassle, so I'd rather not take it.

If someone owes me a hundred dollars, and all they've got on hand is a $100 bill, I'll probably tell them "Forget it. Pay me back when you've got something smaller." If I didn't have a bank account, or couldn't make deposits at an ATM, I'd definitely insist on something smaller. Don't make me spend my lunch break waiting in line to talk to a bank teller!

And this sort of preference is self-perpetuating. Why don't I want hundred dollar bills? Because nobody else wants them either! Why don't they want them? Because I don't want them!

Does that mean Americans are "scared of" hundred dollar bills? No. We just prefer to have our money in a form that's convenient to spend.
posted by this is a thing at 6:45 AM on January 16 [4 favorites]


I'm under the impression that it is more akin to Scientology than Al Qaeda.
posted by humanfont at 6:45 AM on January 16


It's weird reading a piece like this nowadays... as soon as I read "Falun Gong", I googled the phrase, and the mystery of the rest of the piece was "spoiled".

I don't know what this says, but it sure says something.
posted by 3FLryan at 6:47 AM on January 16


charred husk: There was a show that travels around, called Shen Yun I think, that sells itself as a big Chinese historical/cultural thing. However it is actually a big Falun Gong production and gets really preachy towards the end.

In the NYC metro area, this is everywhere. Posters in shop windows, even tables in the malls staffed by Chinese people pushing tickets. You never see the Falun Gong/Falun Dafa connection unless you google for it.

On that topic, it's been a long time since I've seen one of their protests, where they sit in chains and look miserable.
posted by dr_dank at 6:47 AM on January 16


I'm under the impression that it is more akin to Scientology than Al Qaeda.

I only compared them to Al-Qaeda as far as the public reaction is concerned, not their practices. They let Scientologists set up their Free Stress Test booths more-or-less wherever they like in America. Imagine the reaction to setting up an Al-Qaeda recruitment stand in front of a Wal-Mart in Iowa or something.
posted by griphus at 6:53 AM on January 16


Defacing currency as a form of political protest seems to be a universal thing.

For a contemporary US usage, see Stamp Stampede, an anti-corporate personhood / Citizen's United initiative started by Ben Cohen (as in Ben & Jerry). Their Amend-O-Matic StampMobile is quite something.
posted by zamboni at 6:53 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


Also I had literally no idea until now that Shen Yun was related to Falun Gong. I've always thought it was just a Chinese cultural thing.
posted by griphus at 6:54 AM on January 16 [4 favorites]


Meanwhile on the Interwebs, Falun Gong continues to press its case against Cisco, claiming that the company colluded with the Chinese authorities in network surveillance in breach of human rights.
posted by Devonian at 7:04 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Falun Gong seem to me, from the research I have done, to be harmless kooks who are experiencing undeserved abuse. But the CCP is probably correct to assess the movement as threatening to the status quo, particularly if the number of followers quoted in the article is accurate. I'd imagine that if anything ever had the potential to upend the Party, it would be a traditionalist, spiritualist, culturally conservative movement to return to pre-Communist Chinese high culture. Western influences seem pretty easily co-opted and assimilated into the Party's cronyism. Falun Gong, on the other hand, seems like it would be able to out-Chinese the CCP.

I guess what I mean is, the Party's reaction doesn't surprise me because these folks probably could be a huge disruptor. But I don't doubt the sincerity of the FG themselves and I don't buy the Chinese government's depiction of them.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 7:05 AM on January 16 [5 favorites]


Where I live, a lot of stores won't take $100 bills. That means I'd rather be holding five twenties than a hundred, even though they're technically worth the same amount. In practice, the hundred is likely to be a bit of a hassle, so I'd rather not take it.

It's an ongoing mystery to me where people even get the $100 bills. The only thing I can guess is that they're people without bank accounts and check cashing places give you hundreds because otherwise they'd be getting twenties out of the ATM.

(For whatever reason, the bank in my grandad's town thinks fifties are the 'standard' US denomination, so if he changes money, he gets fifties because that's all they have. Having fifties often gets you weird looks.)
posted by hoyland at 7:07 AM on January 16


Note that the crackdowns really started going overboard after the 1999 Tiananmen demonstration. The CCP doesn't like it when somebody else can inspire the kind of devotion that they feel like they have a monopoly on.

Jiang Zemin was in charge at the time and he's just about the slimiest asshole that's ever lead China.
posted by kmz at 7:13 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Ha! I'd actually sort of forgotten there were fifties. All the inconvenience of hundreds, plus you can't even use them as props in a music video.
posted by this is a thing at 7:15 AM on January 16 [5 favorites]


It's an ongoing mystery to me where people even get the $100 bills.

I come from a background where people do a lot of business in cash -- my mother bought a previous-year's-model car in cash -- and $100 bills are both rather useful and difficult to counterfeit past giving them to a person who has no idea how to spot a counterfeit bill.

When paying the vendors for our wedding, it was hilarious to see the difference between business owners who were familiar with getting paid in cash, and the ones who had never encountered it before.
posted by griphus at 7:16 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


"Living in Shanghai from 2002-2013, I received and spent dozens of these notes -- at least one every couple of months over ten years -- and never had a single one refused or commented on."

Wasn't that before the crackdown? Falun Gong, per what overeducated_alligator wrote, is not unlike new ageism in the US — it's a syncretic kind of pop-spirituality. It wasn't a concern to the Chinese authorities for a long time until it started to be a cultural movement, and then insofar as it was a cultural movement independent of the authorities, they were threatened by it. They started being mildly antagonistic to it, and this only increased the polarization and the cultural identity aspect of Falun Gong.

And then the government utterly freaked out. In a matter of weeks, they went from mildly antagonistic to full-on "Falun Gong is enemies of the state". It caught everyone by surprise, as I recall. From the viewpoint here in the west, it seemed to be wildly disproportionate.

So there's basically a before and after about this.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:18 AM on January 16


I asked one of our students from China about it. He said he wouldn't accept it, and if he noticed it after receiving it, he'd just rip it up. The problem is that Falun Gong is larger than the communist party, and with China's focus on not rocking the boat, that alone is bad. FG is seen as being able to threaten the party, so it people don't want to associate with it publicly at least. The way the student phrased it, it's as though Christians started offering an alternative to the US government and federal system as a whole. They'd be avoided as such. The way we interface with anarchists is probably a more apt analogy. Something that's better just swept under the rug because we like our jobs, etc.
posted by jwells at 7:18 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


So there's basically a before and after about this.

Yeah, but the cutoff point is pretty much April 1999.
posted by kmz at 7:21 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Falun Gong? Doesn't ring a bell. There's nothing on the internet either. Complete mystery. I'll guess we'll never find out.

Haha, looks like the intrepid Vice reporter didn't bother to take a glance at the English Wikipedia article, which is worth a look for the curious. By coincidence, I read it a couple of days ago after a passing reference in The New Yorker recent essay on Confucianism.
posted by ovvl at 7:23 AM on January 16


Falun Gong seem to me, from the research I have done, to be harmless kooks who are experiencing undeserved abuse.

It's hard for the layman - of which I am one - to understand where what the 'truth' about Falun Gong is. But we know the issue for the Chinese government: it's like startups. Find your audience and then define your purpose. In that respect, a parallel hierarchy with its own values is always a threat even if it is fundamentally benign, both because its members might try something but also because the idea itself of competing values or governance is itself threatening. Not that China has the monopoly on this, of course. More than 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall The word socialism, let alone communism, evokes almost mass hysteria among plenty of Americans.

The Chinese Revolution only ended 63 years ago - two years more than Queen Elizabeth has been on the throne and only a few years before Ciiff Richards' singing blighted the earth.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:24 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Falun Gong seems to have established a pretty good foothold in some of the Chinese communities around here. I see The Epoch Times being given away at a number of Chinese and Taiwanese restaurants; lots of Shen Yun and New Tang Dynasty posters up in Asian markets; FG members publicly protesting the Chinese government regularly.

You know what Falun Gong kind of reminds me of, really? The Unification Church. Some parallels: Li Hongzhi, like Moon, has a delusional view of himself as the messiah; he was/is persecuted by his home country for said delusions; the doctrine of the group is quite conservative, including homophobic; the movement is trying to endear itself to potentially sympathetic sectors of the U.S. through its own newspaper & media output (similar to Moon's ownership of the Washington Times).
posted by overeducated_alligator at 7:29 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


"Yeah, but the cutoff point is pretty much April 1999."

Oh, right. Seems like it wasn't that long ago. But 1999 in general doesn't seem that long ago to me.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:31 AM on January 16


This article is fucking awful. "I found this mystery in China. Here, let me not explain it!" Here's some grown up reporting explaining Falun Gong vs China. The NYT covers Falun Gong regularly. Surprisingly The Economist doesn't much, although this 1999 article is good.

It's amusing to read this awful Vice article but substitute "Scientology" for "Falun Gong", and suddenly the government's effort to keep its citizens away from the kooks makes a lot more sense. I have no idea if that comparison is fair or not, but maybe it resonates better for American readers.
posted by Nelson at 7:47 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Told in Vice's trademark "foreigner wanders around wide-eyed hoping someone will explain things" style.

On the whole, I feel like Vice's editorial posture of "cokehead skatepunks who don't know dick about anything" has produced much more interesting international reporting than traditional journalism. Starting from a position of open ignorance and being ballsy enough to ask anything questions both uncomfortable, stupid and obvious gets much more interesting answers than presuming to trade on limited knowledge....even in this slight piece, the traditional tactic would have been to go straight to the professor, who would have no doubt given a thoughtful, if academic, take on who the Falun Gong were and the CCP's attitude toward them. But all that would have been at a remove -- two removes, really --- "here is what must studies have taught me about how Chinese people think about this, so that you can now tell other people". The Vice dude went straight to the nearest random Chinese guy and asked. Is that not a better guide to what the average Chinese person's attitude?
posted by Diablevert at 7:48 AM on January 16 [7 favorites]


"cokehead skatepunks who don't know dick about anything"

This was the tagline from my first band
posted by stinkfoot at 7:54 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


I, too, thought it was going to be a cute story about an unlucky number on the bill or something. I think the people who don't want the bill are right to be scared.
posted by jfwlucy at 7:57 AM on January 16


The Vice dude went straight to the nearest random Chinese guy and asked. Is that not a better guide to what the average Chinese person's attitude?

Yeah, but couldn't they do that without getting all insultingly fake-ignorant about the answer?
posted by this is a thing at 8:11 AM on January 16


Gotta say I find 50s and 100s pretty common currency. Probably go through a few every couple of weeks.

There's something a little wide-eyed and bs-y about this revelatory article.

Seriously, no one use big cash dollahs no mo'? My geezering continues unabated...
posted by umberto at 8:18 AM on January 16


Maybe "ignorant" isn't even the right way to put it. I don't know. They just always seem to broadcast this sense of disdain for their subject — like "I couldn't be fucking bothered to understand this shit, so I had some awkward conversations and who the fuck knows what the deal is. Foreigners are weird." It would be basically effortless to show a little respect and be like "This is an interesting situation, and I had some awkward conversations about it that are worth retelling, but of course I'm still not an expert," but I guess that would go against their shtick.
posted by this is a thing at 8:22 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


Enigmark: "I am still, albeit only partially, a white guy hoping someone in this foreign country will explain things."

As a completely white guy, the first thing that popped into my head was how much that parenthetical looked like Beck lyrics.
posted by pwnguin at 8:45 AM on January 16


Pristine note for comparison. Don't be caught like this guy!
posted by IndigoJones at 8:46 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


There was a show that travels around, called Shen Yun I think, that sells itself as a big Chinese historical/cultural thing. However it is actually a big Falun Gong production...

Huh. They seem to go through St. Louis at least once yearly, and the posters are almost always up somewhere. I considered going but didn't really want to pay full price for tickets. I never knew they had any connection to Falun Gong.

Now I'm thinking of the bodybuilders who traveled to various public schools when I was a kid with a "don't do drugs" message, and then during their actual performance snuck in "also, worship Jesus" along with it.
posted by Foosnark at 9:33 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


I see a lot of $100 notes pop up at poker tables. Very common. $50 notes raise eyebrows because apparently they're considered bad luck and some people don't want them in their bankrolls. Not sure what the root of that superstition is.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 9:40 AM on January 16


It's not as if places in the US don't sometimes refusing large denomination bills ...

A 10-yuan note is worth $1.64 US.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:44 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


Oh yeah, 100-yuan bills were pretty much the de facto "regular carrying cash" denomination when I've been to China lately. Which makes sense when you consider it's pretty close to 20 USD.
posted by kmz at 9:51 AM on January 16


Another thing about this fucking awful article; it acts like China is some exotic unknown place that is nearly impossible to learn about. As opposed to, you know, a fast growing modern country with 4000+ years of written history and the world's second biggest economy. The "we're reporters... to the extreeem!" shtick is sort of appropriate to, say, Liberia where there's so little reporting and some of the shit they talk about really is pretty crazy. But this thing she's talking about here is a pretty ordinary event in a well understood place and she can't even be bothered to do basic research on the one thing of factual interest in the story.
posted by Nelson at 9:56 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


There was a show that travels around, called Shen Yun I think, that sells itself as a big Chinese historical/cultural thing. However it is actually a big Falun Gong production and gets really preachy towards the end.

I've been getting flyers for Shen Yun since forever, they're always outside the symphony hall handing them out, and it has always felt a little creepy and I couldn't put my finger on why. Like, there are a LOT of various cultural works that play in Seattle, why is this one getting so heavily advertised?

Well, now I know.
posted by KathrynT at 10:27 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Not that Falun Gong is comparable to Al-Qaeda in action (in fact, if they are telling the truth, the Chinese government has been literally terrorizing them since the start) but no one wants the sort of attention that would garner.

Yeah, I was looking into teaching English in China post-college, and the upshot is basically that the first rule of being an expat in China is "Don't talk about Falun Gong if you like being an expat in China."

Where does Vice find these people? I did not think there actually existed people who wanted to do international journalism in good faith who would literally not have the ability to find out about Falun Gong without standing in a public space shouting SO WHAT CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT FALUN GONG, CHINESE PEOPLE?

I keep wanting to assume it's because it's not a good idea to google Falun Gong from within China, so maybe the author's first line of research was shut down and he hadn't a single clue what else to do? But proxy servers exist.
posted by Sara C. at 10:28 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Haha, looks like the intrepid Vice reporter didn't bother to take a glance at the English Wikipedia article

Not really. To me it looks like a stylistic flourish for telling her little story. She also does not appear to be a native English speaker.

God.
posted by Hoopo at 10:34 AM on January 16


even in this slight piece, the traditional tactic would have been to go straight to the professor, who would have no doubt given a thoughtful, if academic, take on who the Falun Gong were and the CCP's attitude toward them.

The problem is that this is easily googleable information.

This piece is the equivalent of sending a journalist to Iowa during an election year and having them stand around wide-eyed at all the politicking, and then going to a university political science department and asking a tenured professor why someone as important as Mitt Romney spends so much time in Iowa of all places.
posted by Sara C. at 10:35 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


It also bums me out that the author of this piece has so little connection to China that they had to wander in and out of Chinese restaurants and acupuncture places asking random questions of strangers.
posted by Sara C. at 10:44 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


Also, she did not walk around shouting "HEY WHATS FALUN GONG" in public. She asked two people about what was wrong with her banknote, one of whom was the same guy that said "this money is no good, it's Falun Gong". Which, I don't know if you've ever been in a country where you can't read, but "how in the hell is my money Falun Gong?" is a legit question you might be interested in finding out an answer to. She then found someone to translate the stamp for her.

Also, there is no indication she was sent to China to report on a stamp on a bill, or Falun Gong, or anything related to Falun Gong. We are given no information about why she was in China. This appears to be some small interesting vignette about a strange experience that a freelancer turned into a bit of money.
posted by Hoopo at 10:46 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


I expected it to be a numerological thing, such as the the serial number of the note having to many 4s in it. Or meaning something awful when read in Chinese.
posted by sour cream at 10:49 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Hoopo, the problem with all this is, it's from Vice. So there are a bunch of tone and style issues inherent to the piece that make it really hard to take as anything more than a complete moron not even trying.

I dunno, I feel pretty comfortable with the idea that if an article reads like shitty journalism, and it's from Vice, there's a strong chance that it's actually just shitty journalism and not some kind of perfect storm of circumstantial reasons why the journalist simply couldn't do their job.
posted by Sara C. at 10:56 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


I also will admit that I feel a degree of belligerence about this as someone who has traveled to foreign countries and had to figure shit out for myself, and already tried to parlay that into some kind of travel writing career only to find out that most reputable publications want people with legit journalism backgrounds, not people who wandered around Istanbul for a week and had some interesting conversations.

And then Vice comes along and sends people wherever and encourages total ignorance and incuriosity.

So I'll admit I have a dog in this particular fight.
posted by Sara C. at 11:03 AM on January 16 [4 favorites]


Hoopo, the problem with all this is, it's from Vice

The problem is people expecting Vice to be the NYT. Vice intentionally does not attempt to adhere to mainstream journalistic standards. They have a different approach to reporting, when they are reporting, which has its advantages and drawbacks like mainstream reporting does. I don't think anyone at Vice would advise anyone to inform themselves about the world solely on what Vice reports.

Also this is in the travel section. Travel journalism often requires relaying information to people that might want to go somewhere on vacation, or even from the perspective of someone on vacation.
posted by Hoopo at 11:04 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


I don't so much expect Vice to be the NYT.

I do think it's good to actually try to do journalism.
posted by Sara C. at 11:08 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


I do think it's good to actually try to do journalism.

Is it inherently bad to write about something in a way that is not an inverted pyramid that adresses the 5-Ws? I don't think so. There's plenty of that out there. Vice explicitly does not do that. Sometimes it works better than other times.
posted by Hoopo at 11:17 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Hoopo and Sara, I think you're both making valid points here. Seems like the crux is: how much are you willing to check at the door when you read this article (or other Vice articles)?
posted by stinkfoot at 11:32 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


My problem is not with the fact that this isn't traditional newspaper style, which has been passe for pieces like this since approximately 1965.

My problem is that absolutely zero curiosity, research skills, or intellectual rigor was put into this piece at all.

I would have loved to see the gist of the article distilled into the first paragraph of a legit article discussing the idea of currency defacement as a political act. I feel like I know a few things about the world, but this is something interesting that I have only the vaguest notion about.

As it stands, the piece is basically "this thing happened, and I asked some people, and they didn't want to talk about it, so I asked some other people, and then Falun Gong, so." I'd venture to say that anyone with even the most cursory awareness of China has heard about Falun Gong. This is not "news". It's not anything I couldn't find out via Wikipedia.

It doesn't even tell an interesting story that I'm willing to ride along with just for yarn-spinning's sake. It's only nominally more compelling than "one time I saw some people in Times Square who were sitting in a pretend jail cell handing out flyers, and I googled it, and it was this thing called Falun Gong." (which is how I found out about Falun Gong.)

If I were a travel editor, I would pick Going To Maine's story pitch before I would pick this pitch.
posted by Sara C. at 11:35 AM on January 16 [4 favorites]


I would actually really love to read a definitive long-form journalism piece about Falun Gong outside China (where I think you could do the requisite research without running into problems with the Chinese government), and the many and varied tactics they use to influence the international dialogue about their movement.

I don't think any activist movement, worldwide, has anything close to the sophisticated tactics they use. I mean, the Shen Yun dance show connection to Falun Gong is fucking mindblowing.
posted by Sara C. at 11:45 AM on January 16 [4 favorites]


Since we're talking about Vice and coked up journalists, maybe I should tell my story about the night I hung out with Gavin McInnes and David Cross in Shanghai. To be honest, a lot of the night is a blur now, but some time in 2007, they were in town filming a piece about China (found it on youtube: 1,2,3). They'd interviewed an acquaintance of mine earlier in the evening, and he brought them and their cameraman to my bar for drinks. We talked a little, and Gavin said something like, "Hey, you speak Chinese and you know your way around town. Why don't you show us around?"

They'd already finished their shoot, and they said they wanted to see the seedy side of Shanghai. I took them to a couple of girlie bars (they tipped generously), and they peeked inside a red-light massage parlor or hair salon or something. At some point around 2am, they realized they were out of drugs, so we bought a bottle of whiskey from a convenience store and headed back to their hotel. The cameraman said he needed something from his room and walked off down the hall. The rest of us went to David's room, where he started digging through his suitcase, looking for more Adderall. They snorted some and we drank some whiskey, and eventually we noticed that the cameraman hadn't come back.

They called his room and his mobile phone, and he didn't answer, so Gavin went and knocked on the door. He banged on the door and shouted for a while, until someone from the front desk came up and very politely asked him to stop. They were staying on the third floor of the Moller Villa, which is this weird pseudo-gothic fairy-tale castle from the '30s, so the rooms have big windows with a little stone ledge right outside. David decided he was going to climb out his window and walk along the ledge, then break in through the cameraman's window. Gavin grabbed his video camera and helped David climb out the window onto the ledge, while narrating something like, "American D-list celebrity falls to his death in Shanghai..."

I held my breath, wondering if I would be deported when everything went wrong, but he somehow made it to the third or fourth window over, and the cameraman actually let him in when he knocked. They both came back over to David's room, where we finished off the whiskey, and I started walking home around dawn.*

*I just realized that all of my stories from that time period end with "finished off the whiskey and walked home at dawn"
posted by bradf at 11:48 AM on January 16 [9 favorites]


While I don't think anyone can mount a sane argument for the shape the Chinese crackdown on Falun Gong is taking, I sometimes find myself concerned by the presence of the group in my neighbourhood. The extent to which a Messianic and homophobic (ctrl+f "homosexual") religious group founded in the 90s has blossomed, publishing a popular free newspaper and putting on international variety shows, leaves me suspicious as to what's going on behind the scenes.

I've felt put off by the tone of certain FG demonstrations I've witnessed in Vancouver and Victoria. I recall an "art show" that featured exclusively photorealistic canvas paintings of prisoner torture by police, with donation boxes beneath each individual work. While the human rights abuse is unquestionable, it really felt like the purpose of this event was to capitalize on Western anti-Chinese sentiment to the financial benefit of the founder, Li Hongzhi, who has lived in New York since 1995. I've wondered about the extent to which the American leadership of the group encourages Chinese members to continue throwing themselves in front of the army in order to attract funds from well-meaning Westerners who are justifiably concerned about the insanely disproportionate response. To what extent are practitioners being manipulated by their leaders? It's hard to find unbiased references about this. My response is, I guess, emotional - I'm worried that there's a right-wing cult savvy enough with its advertising that something as big as Shen Yun can functionally fly under the radar.
posted by metaman livingblog at 11:52 AM on January 16 [5 favorites]


I'm worried that there's a right-wing cult savvy enough with its advertising that something as big as Shen Yun can functionally fly under the radar.

This isn't even the first one. (Previously)
posted by Apocryphon at 11:56 AM on January 16


That's kind of what I mean. There are just so many huge questions, from almost any angle and appropriate for almost any outlet's particular tone, that this piece boggles the mind.

It's as if someone came to Los Angeles after living under a rock, somehow found out about Scientology, and published a Vice travel article that consisted of one paragraph of information copy and pasted from Wikipedia.

It's just such a huge and compelling subject, and one that readers already have a cursory familiarity with. It's the sort of thing that makes anyone with any amount of basic curiosity about the world start spinning their wheels. Except for this Vice writer, apparently.
posted by Sara C. at 11:58 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


This is not "news".

Indeed! That's the point!

So anyway, where a lot of us live it is totally OK to pass a defaced banknote where someone has written a bunch of ks on the word "America" so it says "Amerikkka" which is some kind of political statement. People would even accept this bill at the 7-11, or the bank, and it would be removed from circulation.

This article shows that in China, it is so verboten to even bring up this group that people will not accept the bill for fear of potential consequences when they try to pass it off themselves, and hesitate to even explain what's wrong with it. It is actually good information if you're travelling there. Like, maybe don't talk about the government and don't get into the topic of Falun Gong.

It's not anything I couldn't find out via Wikipedia.

So it's bad because you already know it or could find out by other sources?

No, not everyone knows Falun Gong. My exposure to them is they sometimes used to go up on Parliament Hill and do protests, like hundreds of other groups do all the time, and also they have people camping out outside Chinese embassies and consulates sometimes. Never really looked into it. This is not uncommon.

If I were a travel editor, I would pick Going To Maine's story pitch before I would pick this pitch.

First off, editors decide what is best for the particular publication they edit. I still feel like you're unwilling to take Vice for what it is and what it tries to do. If you were an editor at Vice you would be taking them in a totally new direction. Second, unless you meant a different comment it sounds like you would pick a story about a protest in the States as a travel story about China.
posted by Hoopo at 12:01 PM on January 16


I still feel like you're unwilling to take Vice for what it is and what it tries to do.

Oh, trust me, this couldn't be further from the truth.
posted by Sara C. at 12:11 PM on January 16


This article shows that in China, it is so verboten to even bring up this group that people will not accept the bill for fear of potential consequences when they try to pass it off themselves, and hesitate to even explain what's wrong with it. It is actually good information if you're travelling there. Like, maybe don't talk about the government and don't get into the topic of Falun Gong.

As I said before, these bills are pretty common and people are generally not afraid of them. Mentioning FLG in conversation is not "verboten," as long as you're referring to them negatively. In my experience, people are more worried about someone within earshot being a member of "the evil cult" than of being arrested for saying three words. And "don't talk about the government?" Guess no one told the taxi drivers ... or the random people at bars and restaurants ... or just about everyone in the country ... China's not North Korea, FFS.
posted by bradf at 12:17 PM on January 16 [2 favorites]


China's not North Korea, FFS

I'm sorry if my use of the word "verboten" gave the impression this is what I was trying to say. Even having been in the Beijing airport for 2 hours was enough to know that much. "Don't talk about the government" was clumsy as well. I'm ducking out, but next time I'm in China I'm still not going to go out of my way to discuss Falun Gong or the government's treatment of them.
posted by Hoopo at 2:18 PM on January 16


While I don't think anyone can mount a sane argument for the shape the Chinese crackdown on Falun Gong is taking, I sometimes find myself concerned by the presence of the group in my neighbourhood. The extent to which a Messianic and homophobic (ctrl+f "homosexual") religious group founded in the 90s has blossomed, publishing a popular free newspaper and putting on international variety shows, leaves me suspicious as to what's going on behind the scenes.

As is so often the case, two sides of a conflict can both be wrong. See also: The CCP and KMT, almost all religious wars, etc.
posted by kmz at 2:40 PM on January 16 [3 favorites]


When I was in China I encountered plenty of "bad notes" that were refused as legal tender. They were counterfeit 100 Yuan bills that people identified by rubbing them between their fingers. I somehow got stuck with one in Xinjiang - not exactly sure how, as I never had any problems with the notes the bank ATMs give out - and everybody could detect it pretty much instantly just by a quick rub, even while flipping through a stack of 100's.
posted by pravit at 3:11 PM on January 16


On New Years Day there was a largish pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong. I met some of the local occupy-style protesters (People Power) as well as more conventional political groups, all seeking franchise for the local administration elections, which are currently decided by an appointed assembly vote.
Interestingly, the Falun Dafa had a large contingent in the march too, all dressed in their uniforms and in military precision.
I don't have a frame of reference to place it all in, but I was surprised that a part of China was allowing pro-democracy and Falun Gong protesters march down the main street and gather at the Central station. And the young HK people power protesters were very well presented and courteous.
posted by bystander at 3:55 AM on January 17


On the whole, I feel like Vice's editorial posture of "cokehead skatepunks who don't know dick about anything" has produced much more interesting international reporting than traditional journalism.

It certainly has its place. I don't dislike Vice, but I also wouldn't trade it for traditional journalism as such. It's a different approach to getting information into peoples' heads. For example, I take everything in the Vice Travel Guide video series with a grain of salt, but at the same time, they provide color and flavor to more reliable (read: less anecdotal, less hyperbolic) reporting of the same regions, and motivate an audience who otherwise wouldn't hear about these topics.

What irritates me is the extent to which Vice has gone from adopting this approach as a strategy to maintaining it as a branded editorial style. While I wouldn't accuse them of staging footage or fabricating anecdotes, the temptation to misrepresent their experiences and their own prior knowledge is clearly enormous. I don't for a second believe that the author didn't look up the Falun Gong as soon as they had access to the uncensored Internet, so continuing to write "as if entirely in the dark" borders on being reality television by another name. Vice would do well to continue encourage provocative, gonzo journalism, but their credibility suffers when they playact the part.
posted by belarius at 5:35 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


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