A red stone wall encloses the decrepit, soot-covered housing blocks that have escaped demolition in Shanghai’s sparkling Pudong district. Like a snake, the wall bends and contorts to keep the boundaries of the Dongfang Jinzuo housing complex fixed. The wall is severed in three spots, forming entryways. Most mornings, I pass through one of the three reliefs in what I’ve come to call the ‘Boa Wall’. A concrete, winding pathway meets the mouth of the Boa Wall at the starting point of my daily commute. The pavement is beset on either side by symmetrical green space hardly large enough to hold several short shrubs. At the opposite end of the pathway lies an asphalt street that provides access to the apartments of Dongfang Jinzuo. It’s on this leg of the journey I encounter something central to Marteen Troost’s commentary on the role of Media in China – a People’s Daily message board.
Known more for his humor and relatability than for any sort of serious political commentary, Troost makes an interesting remark on the role of media throughout the Middle Kingdom in “Lost on Planet China”. In addressing the infamous 2001 Hainan Island incident, Troost jokingly creates the headline “American Aggressor Downs Peace-Loving Chinese Aircraft in Chinese Territory. Chinese Plane Was Delivering Toy Bunnies to Orphans” (Troost 130). While the mock headline is no doubt good for a laugh, it also hints at a larger issue that I encounter daily in Shanghai – the role of state-run media.
Everytime I pass the People’s Daily message board, inside the confines of the Boa Wall, I look for some reference of the Hong Kong protests. I can’t read Chinese characters, so instead, I scan for images. Over the past several weeks, even as Hong Kong consistently made headlines in Western media, not once did I notice a picture on the message board referencing the protests. So I took to the internet, hoping to find a single mention of the most significant protests in China since Tiananmen Square. The People’s Daily english website returned one relevant result for Hong Kong since mid-September: “Hong Kong must treasure economic vitality.” The article makes mention of the incident, but goes on to say “no one but the Chinese mainland really cares about Hong Kong. Some people from the West who hail the protests harbor ulterior motives to do so.”
Troost’s characterization of the Communist Party’s use of propaganda, while funny, is remarkably on point. As I reflect on his Onion-like headline, I can’t help but think of the People’s Daily mention of Hong Kong as pure comedy. Students organize the most successful pro-democratic protests in decades and the CCP responds by publishing an article encouraging Hong Kong to “treasure economic vitality”.
When I glance at the People’s Daily message board each morning, I can’t help but wonder what those reading on either side of me think of events like the Hainan Island incident and Hong Kong. With completeness of information, I can pass through the Boa Wall unencumbered, but I fear that many of my new neighbors cannot.