What Charlie Sheen tells us about China

English newspaper of China’s Communist Party writes on US actor and his two girlfriends, but ends up mocking itself.

The Global Times is the national English daily newspaper published by the Communist Party.  Its Chinese counterpart and the other major party paper, The People’s Daily, provides official information on the policies and viewpoints of the government.

And this paper joined the likes of TMZ.com and People Magazine this week, by writing about Charlie Sheen.

The Global Times’ op-ed excoriates the actor, jumping at the case of his two girlfriends he lives with and asking, “Is he too poor to set up his wives and mistresses in different houses?”  Like a good Chinese philanderer should.

It further points out “racism, spousal abuse, addiction, politics, mental illness, boasting about mistresses are all subjects best dealt with behind closed doors. It also suggests that Sheen “take a tip from the Chinese business community, and make visits to a KTV [karaoke] parlour”.

If you’re wondering whether this a joke — it indeed is.  But it also isn’t.  The Global Times is not in the business of emulating The Onion, the popular online spoof newspaper, but in the serious business of exercising Chinese soft power by providing its take on news around the world.  Chief editor of the English paper, Hu Xijin, has said the paper reaches millions of readers and that readers “trust The Global Times and its representation of China’s diverse society”.

So what’s with the Charlie Sheen?

The Global Times is run by Chinese — but its staff of English-language writers include Chinese as well as foreign reporters.  Clues in the op-ed show a wit who has seen The West Wing, which suggests someone who is not Chinese (Sorkin’s series looking at drama inside the beltway has not been a successful crossover to Chinese viewers).  It appears the mischievous staffer has gotten away with gold — his Chinese editors unaware the op-ed ridicules Sheen as much as China.

It is fascinating that one of the hallmarks of authoritarian states is that they don’t get the joke.  Editors with no sense of humour just let it print.  Having been born into the propaganda and having drunk the Kool-Aid all their lives, they’re unable to see satire — a frequent weapon used for social criticism throughout history, against clueless governments.

“[It] makes me think of Poe’s Law,” says Jeremy Goldkorn, editor and founder of popular China media website, Danwei.org.

“Without a smiley or other blatant display of humour, it is impossible to create a parody of religious or ideological fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing.”

Goldkorn points out the Sheen op-ed’s byline is a pseudonym — a Hao Leifeng, another poke alluding to China’s best-known Communist model worker.  But what Hao Leifeng writes, uncannily resembles the serious op-eds issued by the Party — such as those of Li Hongmei’s from the People’s Daily.

“Both could be parody, both could be genuine.”

And so The Global Times editors signed off on a piece ostensibly about Charlie Sheen, probably believed there was some merit to the argument for Eastern values, recognised the reality of how business and mistresses are dealt with in China — and in doing so, published a piece that was also mocking The Global Times itself.

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