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Chart: China’s Services Activity Contracted for a Third Straight Month in November 2022

Both Official and Caixin PMI hitting a six-month low, as prolonged Covid-19 containment measures battered consumer-related businesses and dampened confidence.

The Caixin China General Services Business Activity Index, which gives an independent snapshot of operating conditions in services industries such as retail and travel, dropped to 46.7 from 48.4 in October. Readings of less than 50 indicate contraction.

The sustained contraction in services activity mirrored that in China’s vast industrial sector — the Caixin China manufacturing PMI for November, released Thursday, stood at 49.4, the fourth consecutive month of a below-50 reading. The Caixin China General Composite PMI, which covers both the manufacturing and services sectors, fell to 47 from 48.3 in October.

Source : Caixin

Chinese Students Designed an ‘Invisibility Cloak’ That Evades Security Cameras

Zhang Tong wrote . . . . . . . . .

Several Chinese graduate students have invented a plain-looking, low-cost coat that can hide the human body, day or night, from security cameras monitored by AI, according to the team.

The InvisDefense coat can be seen by human eyes but is covered in a pattern that blinds cameras in the day and sends out unusual heat signals at night, according to the team.

Their work won first prize in a creative work contest on November 27 sponsored by Huawei Technologies Co as part of the China Postgraduate Innovation and Practice Competitions
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The project was overseen by Professor Wang Zheng, of the school of computer science at Wuhan University, and the developers’ paper on the invention has been accepted by AAAI 2023, a top academic conference on artificial intelligence.

“Nowadays, many surveillance devices can detect human bodies. Cameras on the road have pedestrian detection functions and smart cars can identify pedestrians, roads and obstacles. Our InvisDefense allows the camera to capture you, but it cannot tell if you are human,” Wang said.

During the day, cameras often detect human bodies through motion recognition and contour recognition. Bearing a specially designed camouflage pattern on its surface, the InvisDefense can interfere with the recognition algorithm of machine vision, effectively blinding the camera so it cannot identify the wearer as a person.

At night, the camera tracks human bodies through infrared thermal imaging. Irregularly shaped temperature-controlling modules nestled on the inner surface of InvisDefense create an unusual temperature pattern that confuses the infrared camera.

“The most difficult part is the balance of the camouflage pattern. Traditionally, researchers used bright images to interfere with machine vision and it did work. But it stands out to human eyes, making the user even more conspicuous,” said Wei Hui, a PhD student in the team who was responsible for the core algorithm.

“We use algorithms to design the least conspicuous patterns that can disable computer vision.”

The team carried out hundreds of tests over three months before coming up with the best pattern.

Another advantage of InvisDefense is its low cost. Printing a pattern on the surface is relatively cheap, and only four temperature control modules are needed to blind the infrared camera.

“The cost of a complete set of InvisDefense is less than 500 yuan (US$70),” Wang said.

“This is the first product in the industry that can avoid public pedestrian detection and does not arouse suspicion from human eyes. Through campus testing, the accuracy of pedestrian detection can be reduced by 57 per cent – that number could be even higher in the future.

“Our results prove that there are still loopholes in current artificial intelligence technology and computer recognition technology, researchers could use our algorithms to improve current models.

“InvisDefense might also be used in anti-drone combat or human-machine confrontation on the battlefield.”


Source : SCMP

Video: People in Shanghai Protest Against COVID-19 Lockdown on November 26, 2022

After Falling Births, China’s Marriage Rate Sees New Low — Again

Ye Zhanhang wrote . . . . . . . . .

Young Chinese are just not in the mood to marry.

China’s marriage rate slumped again in 2021, with the country recording the lowest number of nuptials since 1985, financial outlet Yicai reported Thursday, citing data from the National Statistics Bureau. Only 11.58 million people tied the knot for the first time last year, down by 0.71 million from 2020.

The figures, which aren’t yet available on official websites, add to growing concerns over the country’s ability to avert the population crisis plagued by low birth rates and aging. Demographers worry that China will be unable to reverse the falling birth rate, which also plunged to its lowest level since the early 1960s last year, with several provinces recording negative population growth for the first time in the country’s modern history.

“It’s also expected that the aging ratio will continue to rise due to the decline in marriages,” Dong Yuzheng, dean at the Guangdong Academy of Population Development, told Yicai.

As of 2021, people aged over 65 accounted for 14.7% of China’s total population, well above the level of 7%, which the United Nations defines as an aging society. Next year, neighboring India is set to overtake China as the world’s most populous country, indicating the country’s demographic quandary.

In the wake of the looming crisis, Chinese authorities at all levels have introduced a raft of policies, encouraging people to marry and have children. Such provisions usually aim to reduce the burden of childbirth and parenting by offering an extension of parental leave, tax rebates, and other financial benefits.

Meanwhile, to save marriages from breaking down, authorities instituted a 30-day “cool-off” period for divorcing couples into the country’s first-ever Civil Code in 2020, which they claim is working. In recent years, some experts have also proposed lowering the minimum age for marriage — it’s currently 22 for men and 20 for women — to better sync with the change in family planning policy.

However, such incentives are often met with lukewarm responses, especially among the urban younger demographic, who prefer to delay marriage due to commitment issues or costs associated with starting a family. In 2020, the average age for those marrying for the first time was 28.7 years old, an increase from 24.9 years old in 2010, according to the latest national population census.

“At this stage, I just want to focus on my career and gain more financial freedom for myself,” a 24-year-old woman surnamed Li told Sixth Tone, adding she wouldn’t consider marriage for the next five years. “If I can’t even take care of myself, how can I take care of another person and a family?”

And the reluctance toward marriage is likely to continue this year, too. Official data showed that only 5.45 million couples tied the knot in the first three quarters of this year, down 7.5% from last year and its lowest number since 2007.


Source : Sixth Tone

IMF Head Urges China to End Mass Lockdowns

David McHugh wrote . . . . . . . . .

It is time for China to move away from massive lockdowns and toward a more targeted approach to COVID-19, the head of the International Monetary Fund said days after widespread protests broke out, a change that would ease the impact to a world economy already struggling with high inflation, an energy crisis and disrupted food supply.

IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva urged a “recalibration” of China’s tough “zero-COVID” approach aimed at isolating every case “exactly because of the impact it has on both people and on the economy.”

Georgieva made the comments in a wide-ranging interview Tuesday with The Associated Press in which she also cautioned it is too early for the U.S. Federal Reserve to back off on its interest rate increases and held out hope that an energy crisis driven by Russia’s war in Ukraine will speed the push into renewables in Europe. She also called increasing hunger in developing countries “the world’s most significant solvable problem.”

In China, protests erupted over the weekend in several mainland cities and Hong Kong in the biggest show of public dissent in decades. Authorities have eased some controls but have showed no sign of backing off their larger strategy that has confined millions of people to their homes for months at a time.

“We see the importance of moving away from massive lockdowns, being very targeted in restrictions,” Georgieva said Tuesday in Berlin. “So that targeting allows to contain the spread of COVID without significant economic costs.”

Georgieva also urged China to look at vaccination policies and focus on vaccinating the “most vulnerable people.”

A low rate of vaccinations among the elderly is a major reason Beijing has resorted to lockdowns, while the emergence of more-contagious variants has put increasing stress on the effort to prevent any spread.

Lockdowns have slowed everything from travel to retail traffic to car sales in the world’s second-largest economy. Georgieva urged it “to adjust the overall approach to how China assesses supply chain functioning with an eye on the spillover impact it has on the rest of the world.”

The Washington-based IMF expects the Chinese economy to grow only 3.2% this year, on pace with the global average for the year.

The Communist Party has taken steps in the direction Georgieva recommends, switching to isolating buildings or neighborhoods with infections instead of whole cities and made other changes it says are aimed at reducing the human and economic cost. But a spike in infections since October has prompted local authorities who are facing pressure from above to impose quarantines and other restrictions that residents say are too extreme.

Asked about criticism of a crackdown on protests, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman defended Beijing’s anti-virus strategy and said the public’s legal rights were protected by law.

The government is trying to “provide maximum protection to people’s lives and health while minimizing the COVID impact on social and economic development,” Zhao Lijian said.

China, a founding IMF member, has a prestigious single seat on the the organization’s 24-member executive board, unlike most countries that must share a seat. Its 6% voting share is behind only the United States and Japan.

While China’s policy ripples out worldwide, Georgieva said the greatest risk facing the global economy is high inflation that requires central banks to raise interest rates, making credit more expensive for consumers and businesses. Coupled with that is the need for governments to take care of the most vulnerable people without undermining central bank efforts with excess spending.

“Policymakers are faced with a very difficult time in the year ahead,” she said. “They have to be disciplined in the fight against inflation. Why? Because inflation undermines the foundation for growth, and it hurts the poor people the most.”

Asked if the U.S. Federal Reserve should pause interest rate increases that are strengthening the dollar and putting pressure on poorer countries, Georgieva said that “the Fed has no option but to stay the course” until inflation credibly declines.

“They owe it to the U.S. economy, they owe it to the world economy, because what happens in the United States if inflation does not get under control can have also spillover impacts for the rest of the world,” the Bulgarian IMF chief said.

Inflation data is still too high in the U.S. and Europe and “the data at this point says: too early to step back,” Georgieva said.

She warned that international tensions between the China and the West and between Russia and the West threatened to restrict trade and its beneficial effect on economic growth and prosperity. She added that while there are concerns about supply chains disrupted by the pandemic, “we have to work harder on finding a way to counter these protectionist instincts” while being honest about supply concerns.

Georgieva said the world was already seeing signs of increased hunger before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine disrupted grain supplies to Africa and the Middle East. More investment in resilient agriculture and support for small farmers as well as efforts to reduce food waste would be part of the solution, she said.

“We have to admit in the wealthiest societies, in the wealthier families, that we waste food on a daily basis, even in quantities that are sufficient to feed the rest of the world,” she said. “Hunger is the world’s most significant solvable problem.”

Yet hunger has been increasing in recent years.

The world needs “a focus on food security in a comprehensive way that reduces waste, increases productivity and most importantly, focuses more attention on small-scale farming, where a great deal of livelihoods of people, especially in developing countries like that, would go a long way to bring this solvable problem finally to an end,” Georgieva said.

Russia’s war also created an energy crisis after Moscow cut off most natural gas supplies to Europe as Western allies supported war-torn Ukraine. The resulting high energy prices have created an opportunity to “accelerate the transition to low-carbon energy supplies” through incentives for green investments.


Source : AP

Chart: China Manufacturing Activities Continue to Contract in November 2022

Activity in China’s manufacturing sector contracted for the fourth straight month as Covid-19 outbreaks across the country and stringent measures to contain infections continued to dampen both supply and demand, a Caixin-sponsored survey showed Thursday.

The Caixin China General Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI), which gives an independent snapshot of the country’s manufacturing sector, rose to 49.4 in November from 49.2 the previous month. It was the fourth straight month of readings below 50, which signal contraction.


Source : Caixin

The Benefits of Technocracy in China

Liu Yongmou wrote . . . . . . . . .

Since the Reform and Opening initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, any casual observer of China’s leaders might note how many of them were educated as engineers. Indeed, at the highest level, former presidents Jiang Zemin (1993–2003) and Hu Jintao (2003–2013) as well as Xi Jinping (2013–present) all studied engineering, although Xi subsequently did academic work in management and law. And an engineering influence exists not only at the very top. A high proportion of government officials at city, provincial, and national levels have had some form of technical education. For example, of the 20 government ministries that form the State Council, more than half are headed by persons who have engineering degrees or engineering work experience. As a result, foreign analysts have suggested for some time that China functions as a kind of technocracy—a nation run by people who are in power because of their technical expertise—and have often criticized it as such. This assessment reflects a common Western view that technocratic governance is inherently anti-democratic and even dehumanizing.

But what does technocracy mean today, especially in China? Given China’s remarkable emergence in recent decades as a vibrant player on the world economic and political stage, might technocracy in the Chinese context have some positive characteristics?

To understand technocracy in China, one must first have a sense of historical context and above all an understanding of the cultural impact of a series of devastating military humiliations—the Opium Wars of the 1840s and 1860s, in which, in the name of free trade, China was forced to allow the importation of opium and the Summer Palace was sacked; an 1895 war in which Russia captured the Liaodong Peninsula and Japan took Taiwan, the Penghu Islands, and eventually Korea; and the 1899 Boxer Uprising against Christian missionaries, to which Great Britain, France, the United States, Japan, and Russia all responded by looting and raping in Tianjin, Beijing, and elsewhere. In reaction to these defeats, Chinese intellectuals turned the Qing Dynasty thinker Wei Yuan’s injunction “to learn from the West to defeat the West” into a social movement motto. Early Republic of China attempts to learn from the West actually involved the conscious importation of technocratic ideas by the Nanjing government. A number of Chinese who studied in the United States during the 1920s returned home influenced by American technocratic ideals of such figures as Thorsten Veblen and Howard Scott. One example is Luo Longji, who studied at Columbia University from 1922–1923 and returned to China to publish a number of articles arguing for what he called “expert politics,” his term for technocracy. Luo subsequently founded the China Democratic League, which remains one of the eight non-Communist political parties represented in the National People’s Congress.

Initially, however, all attempts to learn from the West had to struggle against internal political disorder (the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and a resulting long-term civil war) and renewed invasion by Japan (from 1931 to 1945, through which China endured the brunt of the World War II Pacific Theater). When Mao Zedong and the Communists won the civil war and on October 1, 1949, declared the People’s Republic, political consolidation and technical development vied with each other for priority.

For the next quarter century, until Mao’s death in 1976, the purity of redness often trumped technical engineering competence. The disaster of the Great Leap Forward (1958–1961) was caused by ignoring technological expertise, especially about agriculture, and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) closed many universities in the name of learning from the peasants. The Reform and Opening that began two years after Mao’s death naturally became an opportunity to rehabilitate expertise, both engineering and economic. In policies influenced by the successful development pathways pursued by technocratic regimes in Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, the new paramount leader, Deng, moved engineers into critical government positions. Hu Yaobang, as Party Chairman (1981–1982) and General Secretary of the Communist Party (1982–1987), further proposed that all leading government personnel be trained technical specialists. The technocratic practice of scientific management, which Vladimir Lenin had declared as exploitative under capitalism but beneficial under socialism, offered a bridge between engineering and economics.

THE VARIETIES OF TECHNOCRACY

Before discussing what technocracy has come to mean in China today, I want to first step back to briefly explore how the term has come to be understood in the Western intellectual tradition. In one of the few empirical studies of technocracy, political scientist Robert Putnam defines technocrats as persons “who exercise power by virtue of their technical knowledge” and describes the “technocratic mentality” in terms of five key characteristics:

  • Confidence that social problems can be solved by scientific or technological means.
  • Skepticism or hostility toward politicians and political institutions.
  • Little sympathy for the openness and equality of democracy.
  • A preference for pragmatic over ideological or moral assessments of policy alternatives.
  • Strong commitment to technological progress in the form of material productivity, without concern for questions of distributive or social justice.

Putnam’s 1977 study further distinguishes between two types of technocrats: those with engineering technical knowledge versus those with economic technical knowledge—noting that the two groups diverge with regard to characteristics three, four, and five. Economic technocrats were more likely than engineering technocrats to grant importance to politics and equality and to be more interested in issues of social justice.

In a recent revisiting of the comparison, Richard Olson’s Scientism and Technocracy in the Twentieth Century: The Legacy of Scientific Management (2016) suggests that subsequent decades have witnessed something of a reversal. Engineering education has called increasing attention to social contexts that take politics and social justice seriously, while economics has become more quantitative and less concerned with social issues.

Neither author notes, however, the significant roles played in all modern societies by what could be called limited or sectoral technocracies. Technical knowledge is a basis for power that democratic societies willingly grant: for example, by delegating authority to the military, physicians, and civil engineers. At the same time, such societies may bitterly contest technocratic authority with regard to evolutionary biologists, agricultural researchers, and climate scientists.

Such distinctions help make clear what is really at stake in concerns about technocracy. In short, governance by technical experts and governance employing such principles as those of scientific management are not the same. When exercising political power, technical elites such as engineers and economists may also use the authority of their expertise to advance positions or policies that are not simply technical. In doing so they can easily ride roughshod over the interests of those they are supposed to serve, and in the process use their expertise to preserve their own political interests.

In Western developed countries, technocracy has thus been subject to multiple criticisms. Marxists attack technocracy for helping capitalism control workers. Humanists claim technocracy turns humans into machines. Libertarians criticize technocracy as encroaching on individual freedom. Historicists and relativists criticize scientific principles and technological methods for not adapting to human society.

Yet advanced techno-scientific society depends crucially on some level of technocratic governance. City mayors cannot provide safe water systems without asking engineers to design them. Governors cannot promote regional disease prevention and healthcare without medical and public health professionals; they cannot reduce environmental pollution without technical experts to monitor air and water quality. Heads of government would not even know about the ozone hole and global climate change without scientific advisers. The progressive deployment of technocratic elites in the practices of governance, even when under the supervision of non-technocratic elites, is a critical feature of all social orders today.

Maybe the fact that some form of technocracy is one of the basic characteristics of contemporary politics is a reason it is so often criticized. There is certainly some sense in which contemporary politics is characterized by a kind of universal resentment against the unintended consequences of a techno-scientific world that, along with all of its benefits, seems to be depriving us of traditional solaces and stabilities.

TECHNOCRACY, CHINESE-STYLE

In The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy (2015), political theorist Daniel A. Bell provides a strongly positive interpretation of the current situation in China. As Bell sees it, the fact that Chinese leaders, such as President Xi, have spent years managing cities and provinces as well as serving time in national ministries develops a level of expertise in both engineering and economics that is often short circuited in Western (especially US) one-person, one-vote democracies. The further fact that independent surveys repeatedly show high levels of public satisfaction with the Chinese government (regularly higher than is the case in Western democracies) provides a sound argument for legitimacy.

Certainly, it is the case that China today is living through a heroic stage of engineering in its urbanization and infrastructure development—something that would not be possible without a significant level of technical competence playing a major role in the exercise of political power. For decades China has, in fact, been educating engineers to an extent that has raised competitive concern in US engineering circles. According to the US National Academies report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future (2007), in China, 50% of all undergraduates receive degrees in engineering, whereas in the United States, it is only 15%. Although that number can be questioned, it probably remains the case that in China, a much greater percentage of university degrees are awarded in fields of engineering than in the United States. At the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Chinese Academy of Engineering in 2014, President Xi not only gave an address to all attendees praising the contributions of engineers to current Chinese achievements but sat in the audience and took notes on other talks by European and American speakers. In doing so, he publicly declared himself to be occupying dual roles, both as political leader and as technical expert. It’s difficult to imagine a US president doing the same.

Yet Daniel Bell’s interpretation of China as a soft technocracy is not realistic in terms of the ways in which political elite selection and promotion take place in the People’s Republic. The process by which Chinese politicians rise to power is not fully determined by institutional processes but remains strongly influenced by individual, private relationships. Many experts come to power not because of competency or technical professional qualifications; loyalty to Communist Party of China ideology and politics and building strong relations with party leaders remain critical factors.

Thus, the situation in China with regard to technocracy is complex and ambiguous. Since 1978, more and more technical experts have become part of the government, creating a limited or soft technocracy. But the ideal of socialism has not been replaced by the ideal of technocracy. Indeed, the extent to which Chinese technical experts, especially those at high levels in the government, actually employ their engineering or economic knowledge once they gain access to political inner circles is far from clear.

Nonetheless, in China today, there exists a more favorable attitude toward technocracy than is found elsewhere. I see three reasons for this overall positive view. One is a heritage of scientism. From the second half of 19th century, Chinese anxieties about backwardness have promoted a faith in science. Since then, although conditions have changed, scientism has remained popular. Insofar as it is scientism applied to politics, the Chinese tend to have a positive attitude toward technocracy.

Technocracy also fits with the Chinese tradition of elite politics and the ideal, to reference a Confucian phrase, of “exalting the virtuous and the capable”—although the traditional tendency was to privilege virtue over capability. Although Chinese virtue politics emphasized knowledge of the Confucian classics instead of Western technical expertise, both assumed that knowledge was more important than the representation of the interests of those being governed.

Finally, there is the close relationship between socialism and technocracy. Socialism remains the dominant ideology in China. The founder of the ideal of technocracy, Henri de Saint Simon, was criticized by Marx and Engels as a utopian socialist, but his thought still exercised an influence in Marxist theory. Veblen, another important defender of technocracy, was also to some extent a Marxist. There are many similarities between technocracy and socialism: a common promotion of economic planning, the idea that capitalism will perish because of problems created by production, and a strong emphasis on the values of science and technology.

The positive attitude toward technology present in contemporary Chinese culture is an advantage for developing a kind of technocracy appropriate to China. Indeed, I would defend some form of technocracy as progressive, especially for China. I hold this view not because of any inherent virtues that one might ascribe to technocracy, but because any assessment of technocracy must consider the broader political context. Technocracy is a better and fairer use of power than any other hierarchical system. Against the background of the Chinese heritage of a long feudal culture, technocracy is a better way to confront social problems than authoritarian politics divorced from technical expertise.

Moreover, in a socialist system in which political ideology plays a prominent role, technocracy can improve the status of intellectuals. From 1949 to 1978, Chinese intellectuals were oppressed, and even now do not receive the kind of respect necessary for thriving in the knowledge economy. In China, irrational political activities and political decision making is all too common. Contemporary Chinese administrative activities need scientization and rationalization. Although scientization and rationalization can go too far and create their own problems, their absence in any nation will result in more and worse problems, all the more so in China where, as I have noted, pathways to political advancement are often personal and private.

From the beginning, technocracy has taken on radical and moderate forms. In the radical form, technocrats have sought to re-engineer the human condition and have given birth to the tragedies of centralized planning and large-scale social engineering. By contrast, moderate technocrats seek only to practice what Karl Popper called “piecemeal social engineering,” that is, to introduce appropriate, rational reforms into society and then to undertake evidence-based assessments. Along with Popper, John Dewey, and others, I think some form of soft technocracy is more progressive for China than other proposals promoted by the West that would emphasize only democratic institutions without acknowledging the political and historical context from which China’s governing institutions continue to evolve.


Source : ISSUES

Chart: Number of Domestic Flights in China Plunges in 2022

Source : Bloomberg

Chart: China COVID-19 Cases Rose Past Last Peak in April

Source : BBC

Young Chinese Are Still Seeking Serenity — Now Through Digital Fish

Zhang Liting wrote . . . . . . . . .

This is not the easiest time to be a university student. Sure, some of us are making do — meeting our needs for social interaction through cloud clubbing, cardboard pets, or coordinated crawling parties — but between the ongoing pandemic controls and the struggling economy, it can be hard to stay positive.

That goes double when you’re a second-year master’s student. The internships we land this year are crucial to a successful job search, but even if you can get off campus, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to enter your company’s office.

That’s how I found myself at Wang Bin’s house on a recent Wednesday afternoon. A friend of mine, she invited me over for company while we each interned from home as best we could.

We chatted as we worked. I told her about a married couple I’d interviewed, and she complained to me about the unreasonable demands of her clients. The more she talked, the angrier she grew. A frown crept over her face, her back tensed, and she swore with an almost religious devotion.

Then, just as suddenly, she stopped, took out her iPad, and began intently tapping the screen with her stylus. Stealing a peek, all I saw was a wooden fish. Every time she tapped it, the iPad emitted a crisp, almost ethereal sound and the words “Merit +1” popped up on the screen.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Knocking on a wooden fish,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I knock it 500 times a day.”

I couldn’t help but feel amused at her latest preoccupation. Wooden fish have a long history in Buddhism and Taoism. Nuns and monks knock on them to chant or ask for alms. Fish, they say, do not close their eyes; the shape is meant to remind believers never to forget their faith. This was the first time I’d seen one inside an iPad, however, much less an iPad belonging to a 24-year-old.

“It’s not just me, it’s on the phones of thousands of young people,” Wang explained, somewhat defensively. A quick online search suggested she had a point. Maybe I was the weird one. The app, Muyu, or “Wooden Fish,” had briefly surged to second place on the Apple App Store’s free app download list in China. To date, it’s been downloaded almost 5 million times.

Not everyone is tapping their own fish: Douyin, the version of TikTok accessible on the Chinese mainland, has over 150 million videos related to virtual wooden fish. If you search for “virtual wooden fish” on the popular video streaming site Bilibili, some of the top results have hundreds of thousands or even millions of views.

This all may feel overly wholesome, but the initial reason for the popularity of virtual wooden fish is anything but. If you’ve never heard of “hell jokes” before, the concept is self-explanatory: A kind of mean-spirited meme, they’re jokes made at the expense of other people’s misfortune. If you laugh, then you’re “going to hell.”

Wooden fish apps first caught on as a kind of tongue-in-cheek way to wipe your spiritual slate clean. Whatever cosmic debt you accrued in the process of laughing at a hell joke — to say nothing of the guilt — could be worked off by tapping a virtual wooden fish to acquire merit and get back in the Buddha’s good graces.

“Hell jokes can be wicked, and while everyone knows that knocking on wooden fish and listening to the Great Compassion Mantra to acquire merit is a joke, it does serve as a simple, convenient, and comforting ritual,” explained Hu Wan, a classmate of mine and another ardent virtual wooden fish knocker.

Indeed, on the subway back from my friend’s house, I began to wonder if I was the only person at my school not knocking fish. Scrolling through my social media feeds, I came across one of Hu’s videos in which she filmed herself simultaneously tapping a virtual wooden fish and fingering prayer beads on her wrist. She’d even superimposed a Buddhist saying calling on her followers to attain enlightenment.

“At first, I just thought it was funny, but later I found the rhythmic sound to be quite soothing,” she told me. “Some of the sound effects seemed to purify my soul. Especially when I have to get a paper done quickly, I can be really anxious. I need some calming sounds.”

Hu’s video is typical of a new class of wooden fish power user. The once-simple gag now centers on increasingly elaborate setups, as bored young Chinese think of ever-more complex ways to accumulate virtual merit. Why be satisfied with tapping a wooden fish on your iPad when you can also burn digital incense, play mantras through your phone speakers, and count off prayer beads on your smart watch?

App developers have responded to the shifting market by rolling out a whole school of virtual wooden fish to knock, from simple programs like Wang’s favorite to more deluxe offerings that let you engage in the not very Buddhist-seeming activity of competing against your friends for the highest merit score.

Many of these offerings operate in a legal gray area. China strictly controls online religious content, especially where money is concerned. While some developers seem to have taken a devil-may-care approach to regulation, others prefer to downplay the religious themes. In the app Wang uses, you can buy sound effects, and knocking the fish increases your “merit” counter, but there’s no overt religious messaging.

That stripped-down symbology suits her just fine. Young Chinese may not believe in Buddhism — one study found that less than 7% of Chinese under the age of 30 consider themselves Buddhist — but we associate its iconography with feelings of peace and calm, two things that are in increasingly short supply these days.

In the weeks since, I’ve found myself repeatedly thinking back to that day at Wang’s house. We wrapped up our work around six, just as her mother called us for dinner. The home-cooked meal was delicious — it’s been a long time since I’ve been back to see my own family — but the table talk quickly turned to the ice-cold job market.

I’d submitted three résumés that day, and Wang two. Neither one of us has any idea if we’ll be able to land a job after graduation. Her mom tried to be helpful. She knows a recruiter. Maybe he can help find us a job.

Maybe. And maybe accumulating a bit of extra merit wouldn’t be such a bad idea, after all.


Source : Sixth Tone