The Coconut Revolution

Last month, Indonesia was all a twitter over Barack Obama’s much anticipated visit to the archipelago. Thousands of Indonesian netizens meticulously documented every aspect of the Obama visit, uploading photos, micro-blogging commentary and tweeting reactions to the hyped affair.

Back in the U.S., the viral Obama hoopla was picked up by popular comedy show “The Colbert Report,” as host Stephen Colbert reported that Indonesian citizens “took to their Facebook and Twitter” pages during Obama’s visit.

Colbert quipped: “Really, Facebook and Twitter? I always pictured Indonesians communicating by banging coconuts on a log…”

To be fair, thinking of this tropical South Pacific island chain doesn’t exactly conjure images of cellphones and MacBooks in my mind either. But in reality, Colbert’s joke couldn’t be more far from the truth. Here’s why:

Indonesia is the 4th biggest user of Facebook, with Bahasa Indonesia as the most widely used Asian language on FB and the 5th most popular FB language in the world. Dubbed the “Twitter capital of Asia” by media monitoring agency Sysomos,  Indonesia has the most Twitter users and tweets coming out of the East. Now let’s talk blogs. There are approximately 3.2 million bloggers in Indonesia, with the number almost tripling in the past year. This explosive growth and overwhelming online presence (covering anything from national politics to favorite ice cream) resulted in Indonesia’s Minister of Communication & Technology declaring October 27th the national holiday “Bloggers’ Day.” Bahasa Indonesia is also the most widely used language after English on the international blogging portal WordPress (which is also the portal of this here blog).

But how did this overwhelming influx of Internet communication happen when in just 2009 a measly 12% of Indonesia’s 234 million population had Internet access? Even at present the country remains connected by a messy and patchy telecommunications grid (read: my Internet via laptop has gone out twice since I’ve started this post).

Cue the ubiquitous mobile phone!

Indonesia has the world’s 3rd largest mobile phone market, which has more than doubled its growth in just the past year. The influx of mobile carrier competitors, along with the low-cost of reliable mobile Internet services, makes owning a handheld device affordable and easy. Thus, the majority of Internet users have bypassed personal computer Internet access altogether and gone directly to the mobile phone for their main portal to the Web.

Blackberry, which enjoys a large share of the local handset market here (grossly beating out Apple), reports that the average Indonesian user generates a total of 592 page views from their BB handsets.* The average number of generated page views globally is about 250. That’s a lot of Web surfing on-the-go.

In addition to the in-pocket accessibility, the explosive growth of digital communication can also be attributed to a relatively free and uncensored online space. In Indonesia, anyone can virally criticise the antics of government officials (such as the recent Twittersphere lambasting of the Information Minister’s handshake with First Lady Michelle) and use social networking as a watchdog tool for political controversy. As of late, we’ve seen Twitter act as the global forum for discussion and awareness regarding the back-to-back natural disasters that devastated the country in early November. Here the trending topic #prayforIndonesia skyrocketed to one of Twitter’s top global conversations, engendering international  buzz and support as celebrities such as Tom Cruise, Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber tweeted their condolences.

But lastly, the ease of digital communication here can simply be used for reporting the pleasurable, but mundane bits of life that have always been Twitter’s wheelhouse. Whether you want to pine over your “Bieber Fever” or show the world a snapshot of your nasi goreng lunch, you can do so with a few twittering of the fingertips and untethered from any one location. And as this article reminds us: No topic is unworthy of a Tweet in Indonesia.

*presumably this figure is per month, although the report didn’t specify.

Time Flies…

It’s hard to believe that time passes by so quickly and yet so many significant events occur during these fleeting moments. I’ve been off the blogging scene for over a month now as I’ve juggled visitors, jobs, travel and the end of my two-year academic career all in the tiny span of just over one month. As the full breadth of what has transpired over these 30+ days is perhaps too much (and too boring?) for an actual post, I’ve decided to sum it up in the following photo montage.

After my parent’s visit in mid-April, I worked fast and furiously to start and finish my 15,000 word final dissertation.

dissertating...

With 14 days of almost non-stop writing, I completed the 97-page beast one day before deadline and then promptly “recovered”…

recovery

But there wasn’t too much time for sleeping, as within 24 hours of my thesis completion one of my oldest friends arrived in Shanghai for a 10-day visit and it was time to celebrate (and travel and eat)!!!!!

Linds and me in Hangzhou

brunching in China

out on the town

After a fabulous visit with Linds, it was again time for academic overload as the final weeks of my semester brought final exams, more long-winded papers, detailed presentations and the dreaded thesis defence…

Dr. Chen Na...breaking it down

After “hell” week of non-stop work and a 5 hour thesis defence in front of a panel of surly professors….I can finally say I am FINISHED with my masters program at Fudan University. And of course, celebrations ensued at various hot spots around the city…

Constellations

Citizens bar

finito

And this brings me to today, June 2nd, in which I can finally say that after two countries, two cities and two master degrees…I am officially DONE with my Masters education. And what a ride it has been. Now…onto the “next step,” which is the US of A for the summer 🙂

tasty all American treat

and then it’s off to…Indonesia??? …………Details soon!

Indonesian beach

Academic Mile$tones

Today was ripe for a bit of academic reflection for a few reasons. First, I am now officially a Masters level graduate from the London School of Economics & Political Science (don’t let the school’s name fool you. I studied Global Media & Comm. there, albeit with an economic slant). My official LSE grades were  sent from London to Shanghai and….WHOOHOO! I was pleased.

Also exciting in nerd-world: my first term at Fudan University School of Journalism is officially over. I know this because I spent the last few days bleary-eyed and dazed in my typical end-of-semester “I just wrote 2 papers and a presentation in 24 hours” state.

So, my 20-seconds of basking in the glow of  two academic milestones are over and…well, it’s a bit of a let-down.

A quick run through of all the sleepless nights of studying and paper writing, all the missed opportunities to spend time with family and friends and (sigh) ALL of the money that has been thrown towards academia over the past 16 months and …hello? Where’s the parade here?

I know that these personal milestones are just that…personal. And they don’t need the praise of many to justify their significance. But it does seem a bit off, when you’re living in a culture in which the media hands out accolades for a celebrity’s choice of hair product.

Over in chilly London, my LSE cohorts class of 2009 graduated last night in an official ceremony. As LSE boasts a student body that is 90% international, LSE alumni and their family flew-in from all over the world to attend the event. Next year, I’ll have two graduation ceremonies, one in London and one in China,to celebrate the 5 little letters that now follow my name (it’s MSc and MA, for those wondering).  But I’m not sure I’ll be able to attend either (pending where I am living in the world), or for that matter, that I’ll even feel the need to.

The past two years have taught me that academic achievements, despite the $teep costs,  are strictly your own personal gains. If you need more than a “hey, good job!” pat on the back, then I wouldn’t venture into this marathon for the mind.

In the meantime, I’ll quit complaining and enjoy the plushier side of student life: TWO MONTHS OF HOLIDAY BREAK!

Shanghai Shivers; Obama Visits

Winter in Shanghai does not officially arrive until early or mid-December.  The current season, referred to as “late autumn” is typified by azure skies, a warm swollen sun and an average daily temp of about 60 degrees fahrenheit.  Often characterized as “THE best time to visit,” the late autumn season attracts hoards of Shanghai-bound tourist and travelers seeking a comfortable environment.

This, however, was not the scene early last week as a dramatic cold-front suddenly moved in and the city shivered under a gray, dripping sky, bitter winds and driving rains.  It was against this dreary backdrop and icy cold conditions that U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Shanghai.

Huangying! Huangying! 🙂

Shanghai Daily reported the morning of Barack’s arrival: “The rain is forecast to be heaviest today…In downtown areas, wind speeds in this period may be up to 61 kilometers per hour, while that of the Yangtze River mouth will be up to 74kph…”

Personally, the drastic dip in the weather hit me with a bad cold, and on this very day I was both sick and stressed by a mound of impending school work. Shivering in my apartment with a box of tissues, two unfinished presentations to prepare, an exam the next day, a 3,000 word paper to edit and some Chinese green tea…I huddled under the covers to tune-in via laptop to the exciting news coverage of Obama’s Shanghai visit.

The marquee event, of course, was Obama’s “town-hall” style meeting with Chinese University students. As reported in my last post, the initial idea for the meeting was thwarted after censorship issues and intervention by Chinese officials came into play. However, it was officially decided to hold the meeting in spite of the strict ramifications and at 12:45pm in the Museum of Science and Technology, Barack met with approximately 500 students to discuss current affairs: namely government Internet censorship and the “Great Firewall .”

As there has been a plethora of coverage regarding this event, as well as Barack’s visit, I won’t go into great detail. But here is a quick synopsis of the good, bad and interesting moments of the slightly stilted, heavily planned and definitely censored Q & A:

  • PLUS: The meeting was not televised live on China’s state TV network, however, live broadcasts were carried by Xinhua news agency sites and on local TV stations throughout Shanghai (supposedly uncensored, although there were various delays). The White House also streamed the event live on its Web site, which is not blocked or censored in China  and a simultaneous Chinese translation was offered.  As a result, the meeting was streamed live by an approximate 120,000 Chinese viewers and Xinhua news site reported a subsequent 50,000,000 page views of the Q & A transcript.
  • MINUS: When asked the million dollar question regarding Internet censorship and the “Great Firewall,” Obama tip-toed around directly delving into the question and replied: “Well, I’m a big supporter of non-censorship”. Um, Where? When? How? Why? Can you contextualize this a bit? As this “safe” answer reverberated around the somberly silent room, I think the hearts sank of Chinese youth in attendance and the thousands listening in. Poof! Went the visions of this hip American president addressing this contentious issue head-on with an opinion or a plan. Obama’s trying kids…but he’s also a supporter of “non-pissing off” authorities too.
  • PLUS: In this same breath, when asked the pivotal question regarding Twitter (namely, that Chinese netizens are denied access to this service) Obama touted the importance of freedom on the Internet and information access to all.
  • MINUS: Obama also admits he doesn’t tweet…so what was all that “I’m a cool new media user, just like you” talk during his election campaign ’08? More importantly, who the heck am I following on Twitter under the handle, Barack Obama?
  • PLUS: Internet freedom touted by Obama immediately made headlines across Chinese news sites.
  • MINUS: A mere 27 minutes later this news story was censored and deleted by government intervention.
  • PLUS: Chinese citizens not present at the meeting were able to submit questions for President Obama via a State Department chat-room.
  • MINUS: Meanwhile, the 500 “students” present in the audience had been quite obviously handpicked by Chinese authorities, as many were members of the Communist Youth League and others were later discovered to be…well, simply not students. Shanghaiist reports:  “Turns out one of the fake students to ask Obama a question was in fact the Vice Director of Daily Affairs for the Communist Youth League at Fudan University’s Graduate School, and another was in fact a teacher who just happened to look young.”
  • WEIRD: Following the town-hall meeting, one of these students, Tao Weishuo, ran to the Washington Post with this whopper of a statement: “I strongly disagree with what Obama said about the Internet firewall… I think all Chinese people have Internet freedom – we can speak out freely on the Internet about current social affairs.” Tao’s blunt comment generated hard-hitting backlash all over cyberspace, as horrified netizens blasted Tao for painting a false picture about Internet freedom and access.
  • WEIRDER: Tao also happens to be a graduate student at Fudan University…i.e. my current graduate school. Progressive Tao…real progressive.
  • LET’S END IT ON A HIGH NOTE: Despite this scripted event, the mere opportunity for dialogue between the American president and Chinese citizens resonated for some as a clear reason for change. As one netizen tweeted: “I will not forget this morning…I heard, on my shaky Internet connection, a question about our own freedom which only a foreign leader can discuss.”

Directly following the town-hall meeting Barack jumped on a plane to Beijing to talk human rights with Hu, visit the Great Wall with a slew of photogs and even stop for a quick hug with his half-brother Mark Obama Ndesandjo.

And now?

Well, both Obama and that fierce cold front have since moved on and Shanghai has warmed to its typical 60 degree weather and normal news reports of local happenings. But has anything changed on account of the much hyped visit, or has the excitement, hope and anticipation been shelved like those controversial Oba-Mao T-shirts and key rings?

The reviews have been plenty, the opinions blunt, but I really think the key component highlighted by this whole event is the clear reminder of the state’s stubborn grip on its civic control mechanisms. This was an event held to discuss Internet censorship and control within China, and yet it only came to fruition under the conditions that it was both carefully censored and controlled. Hu Jintao points to China’s societal progression as it continues to modernize, but the Obama town-hall meeting is yet another example of maintaining status quo by tight information control. This is no longer acceptable when applied to the borderless, boundless, infinite expansion of the Internet and its burgeoning public sphere of Chinese participants.

As was evident in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, carefully orchestrated fan fare is a part of the Chinese ilk. But beyond ceremonious sporting events and elaborate shows, what happens when the tight choreography acts as road blocks to information and big brother to civic participation? This wasn’t directly addressed during Barack’s visit, nor will it be completely solved in the next. But as more and more tech-savvy Chinese circumnavigate the censors and take to cyberspace with their growing discontent, issues like these won’t be as easily side-stepped…by foreign leaders or China’s own.

Obama’s Visit to China Countdown: The Good, The Bad, and …The “Oba-Mao?”

obama in chinaChina’s a-flutter with Obama buzz

U.S. President Barack Obama will make his first state visit to China on November 15th  until the 18th.  After a 2-day stay in Tokyo, a 1-day stint in Singapore (meeting with both Singapore president Lee Hsien Loong and the 10 ladies and gents of ASEAN), Barack and First Lady Michelle arrive Monday, November 15th in mainland China (for full itinerary details, click here).

Their first stop?

SHANGHAI!

Starting the morning off with a meet-and-greet with Shanghai mayor Han Zheng, Obama will hold one of his famous “town hall” styled forums with a select group of Chinese students to discuss current and future affairs in China . A focal point of the president’s brief stay in Shanghai, the question-and-answer forum strives to bring an open dialogue between the American President and Chinese youth.

Well, the Chinese government just ain’t having that.

All over this one like the white on sticky rice, the government has stepped in to make major changes in the forum in an overwhelming desire for censorship and control. Changes include: 1) the 1,500 students expected to participate in the forum has been whittled down to a measly 600; 2)  all media is banned, excluding, of course, CCTV–the state run broadcast television station); 3) as of now, the event will not be broadcast live on television or the Internet.

These ramifications leave some sources questioning if the Q & A will happen at all.  But in the meantime, let’s hope this story takes a turn for the better as administrators work out the major, but initial kinks. After all, during his 1998 visit  both live radio and TV airwaves carried President Clinton’s candid talk with Jiang Zemin regarding  human rights, religion and the ever elusive Tienanmen square debate. Let’s hope the Party realizes that stifling the almighty Obama from its own fresh-faced youth will majorly put a damper (and negative Western media spin) on the prez’s first visit to 中国.

Speaking of the “almighty” Obama…the mainland’s got much love for America’s new President and there’s nothing like the power of Chinese love to proliferate the mass production of cheap commodified goods. Welcome consumers to the Oba-Mao!

Oba MAo close up

Obama comes in Revolutionary Red & Green!

This new trend capitalizes off the recent resurgence of Mao memorabilia within Chinese society (which in itself is definitely strange and a bit confusing — think mass produced pins, hats, bags and t-shirts propagating an  intensely deified but hotly hated (and, um, dead) ruler. Politically insensitive? Funny? Or just plain creepy? Who knows, but it’s all over stores in urban Beijing).  Now mash this Mao paraphernalia with Obama’s goofy grin and you got  Oba-Mao!

Git your Oba-Mao Tee!!!

First appearing in Beijing tourist shops at the close of summer ’09, Oba-Mao swag has sold like hot cakes to visitors and foreign tourists alike.  But you won’t see any citizens sporting these tee’s and caps while the President is in town. This week the Beijing Municipal Government has issued that all Oba-Mao goods be strictly off the market while the Chief Executive makes his visit.

China Digital Times reports:

To Welcome Obama: T-Shirt with Obama in Red Guard Uniform Taken Off the Shelf

According to some business owners, they got calls last week from Beijing Municipal Government demanding them to stop the sale of this kind of T-shirt immediately. And inspection officers even came to stores to make sure the T-shirts are off the shelf.

Business owners have been notified that after Obama ends his visit to China, they can resume the sale.

Well, sadly, Barack can’t join in the fun and sport a shirt with his own face mashed with Mao. But maybe his Interim White House Communications Director, Anita Dunn, can! According to Glenn Beck she’s a die-hard Maoist and another tyrant in Obama’s  inner circle. (insert sarcastic tone here).

So far we’ve had the bad, the weird and the ugly side of this edition of the Obama’s visit to China countdown. What about the good, you ask?

Well let’s turn back to my personal favorite stop on the China trail: Shanghai!

Official reports have confirmed that Barack and First Lady will be staying at the Portman Ritz-Carlton for their brief stint in Shanghai. (I bet they booked the “Presidential Suite” :-)) The hotel will be shut-down from November 14th – 16th for the occasion and security will be tight with a capital “T”.

Lastly, Obama will not be stopping by the sight of the Shanghai Expo 2010, but he will be surprised by a very special “gift” from the government upon arrival.

China Daily reports:

In addition to having hundreds of schoolchildren wave vivid red flowers to welcome United States President Barack Obama at the airport for his first state visit in mid-November, the Chinese government has also prepared a huge gift for this very special friend — a $3.6 billion Disney theme park contract.

Mickey Mouse in Shanghai: “Huge gift” or “Creepy Image.” You decide.

I leave you now with a great video of the Obama buzz (and crazy-ness) that’s flitting around the mainland. Courtesy of Reuters, the video has everything from a $15,000 Obama statue engulfed in flames at the push of a button, to Obama inspired haircuts at just 2 bucks a pop.

More updates as the Obama-mania Chinese Edition continues…

obaMAO

Fudan University: Fires Your Dream & Starts Your Journey to Glory

Fudan_logo

The long trek across the Pacific is over and I’ve  successfully arrived in Shanghai, China. But what exactly am I doing here, you ask?  Well if one year of studying, papers, classes and a 60 page dissertation wasn’t enough…I’ve opted for a second. For the next 10 months, I will be studying and taking classes at the Journalism School of Fudan University in pursuit of another Masters degree (this time in Journalism). Okay, so who in the world takes journalism classes in CHINA–a country that censors its own press, regulates content to maintain state control and unapologetically blocks new media sites such as Twitter, YouTube, and blogging portals  like ..ahem…the one you’re reading right now? (Click here for more information on Chinese media and Censorship).  Well, these are some solid questions, but first? Let’s start at the beginning. Here is some general information about Fudan University.

Fudan University Historic Gate

You know you're in China when the entrance to your campus looks like this...

Founded in 1905, Fudan U is the 3rd ranked University in the  mainland of China (Peking  University and Tsinghua University take the number 1 and 2 ranks). Predominantly known for its Arts and Humanities programs, the University scores 45 amongst the world’s top 50 Humanities studies.

Beginning in 1950, Fudan was one of the first Chinese institutions to enroll international students. Since then, it has accepted and trained over 10,000 foreign students from 100 different countries and regions worldwide. A good example is my Journalism program. It consists of only 11 students, but represents 9 different countries and nationalities.

Tradition, Modernity & Chairman Mao

As pictured in my last post, the Fudan campus is large and sprawling, with wide tree lined streets, gorgeous green quads and traditional Chinese streams, bridges and alcoves. Here are photos of the main campus (named the Handan Campus) which I must admit, is much more impressive than the LSE campus and loads more culturally interesting than my undergrad college.

Fudan's tree-lined streets

Fudan's tree-lined streets

Streams and bridges

Streams and bridges

Handan Campus

Handan Campus

But like the city of Shanghai itself, Fudan University is a mix of traditional Chinese architecture and design, contrasted by warp-speed modernity and technology. Check out the “Twin Towers” below. These very modern structures stand in the center of campus and soar 460 feet in the air. Reportedly, they are the tallest buildings to ever be constructed within a Chinese institution. Unfortunately, I don’t have any classes in either of these buildings, but I make a point to visit frequently as the lobby alone feels like a 4 star hotel.

The modern Guanghua Twin Towers--standing in the center of the campus, the towers are 462 feet

The modern Guanghua Twin Towers

Lastly, amongst the traditional Chinese gardens and impressive modern architecture, the campus also includes the (not so subtle) reminder that this is indeed a Communist state. A very large statue of Chairman Mao stands behind the University’s main gates.

Notice how small the person in the photo is comparatively

Notice how small the person in the photo is comparatively

The below banner was hung in front of the statue during the University’s orientation week.

The banner reads: Fudan University Fires your Dream & Starts Your Journey to Glory!

Welcome Banner

My very own journey to Glory? Sign me up!

With a slogan like that, what could ever go wrong?

Click here for more photos of life at Fudan U.