Cultural Revolution Redux? China, Social Media And The Smashing Of Public Idols

Essay: A digital spat between mega-popular Chinese blogger Han Han and one of his chief critics reveals that in modern China, despite some state restrictions, the information revolution is changing the relationship between media, fame, power and popularit

Han Han (3X) at the Hong Kong Book Fair, 2010 (wikipedia)
Han Han (3X) at the Hong Kong Book Fair, 2010 (wikipedia)
Fang Hao

BEIJING - China has spent the past two months following a lively public debate between Han Han, the glamorous race-car driver, best-selling author and China's most popular blogger, and Fang Zhouzi, a popular science writer and outspoken campaigner against academic fraud. Fang has alleged that Han's work is mostly produced by a team of ghostwriters. Han denies the allegation, and last month took Fang to court for defamation.

The battle first broke out on the Weibo microblog, China's equivalent of Twitter, then quickly spread through the conventional media, drawing in celebrities, opinion leaders and entrepreneurs, before arriving at the nation's dinner tables. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that a civil war of ideas is taking place within China. One party desperately insists that Han Han is a fake writer, while the other party is relentless in trying to maintain the literary status of their idol.

It's still hard to tell who will prevail, but we can already say that the once unassailable Han Han has already lost some of his mighty aura.

As the representative figure of China's young generation of writers, Han Han, by far the country's most influential blogger, an excellent rally driver as well as the darling of the media, had an image built upon his credibility.

Ironically, Han has now been bitten by the power of the same digital information system that feeds his fame. The microblog is indeed a new social media that propagates the notion that "nothing is unquestionable." In comparison with the traditional media, the social networks' biggest advantage is that it provides the mass of ordinary users with a platform where they can be heard and read. Instantly. The old internal debate among the elite has been superseded. The SNS (Social Networking Service) completely changes the symmetrical relation between the elite and the audience, the idols and the fans.

China is a nation that likes to create its gods. This used to happen through political power, like Mao Zedong, or through the power of conventional media. In both cases, the precondition was the asymmetrical possession of power; that is, the masses had no right to participate. The public could either consume the idols or be consumed by the idols, but they could not define or deconstruct the idols.

For the first time, social networking puts the idols, the fans, the elite and the audience on the same platform. Here, one can make gods; but the same public masses can also destroy their god. Nevertheless, the social networking platform now offers the public a most important weapon: to deny an idol his idolatry anytime they like.

The "ultimate" idol

The Han vs. Fang row has evolved from initial questioning and counter-questioning into a farce of personal attacks. Some even liken it to a persecution similar to that of China's Cultural Revolution, though I personally regard this as nonsense. During the Cultural Revolution, the rebel parties' persecution of prominent figures in various fields was backed by the universally recognized "ultimate idol:" Mao. In the case of the Han-Fang battle, there's no such all-powerful idol behind either of them. If there were, it could only be the facts and truth.

The essence of social networking is people, real people. In this medium, rather than create a sense of mystery, an idol or a brand seeks to narrow its distance with the audience. It's now a time where marketing a person or a brand as a myth is out of the question. Since the mass of people have won back their own voice, they can now define or interpret their idols any way they wish. This is the transfer of power.

What kind of power is it? It's the right to define the value of an idol. In the traditional media era, an idol - together with relevant interested parties - determined his own value. Ordinary people in China had no say as to how much that symbol was worthy of esteem. Now, as long as an idol is willing to be involved in these new media, his or her value orientation is connected to his "realness."

This contemporary idea of authenticity is based on openness, and on one's right to know others. Of course, this openness can be true or false. When an idol is presented to the public as a real person, he can no longer define himself, because he has surrendered many of his own rights to the audience. Since he can gain even more through this transfer, he also has to take on higher risk.

People who feel left behind in this transfer of power are the idols or brands who were produced in the traditional media era. Their acquisition of power was achieved in a context that was so different than the current system, which is driven by social networking.

Let's try to imagine what a "live tweet" Chinese interview of Nikita Khrushchev would be like. He would naturally be eager to tell the audience how many Russians are living in clean and warm apartments. The netizens in China might instead be more interested in asking the Soviet leader: "That shoe you were banging on the podium in the General Assembly…was it made in Wenzhou?"

Read the original article in Chinese

Photo - wikipedia

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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