WeChat: the social fabric of China

wechat

Not a single phenomenon is as important in understanding Chinese contemporary society as instant messaging cum social medium app WeChat. Roughly comparable to Whatsapp, WeChat offers all important communication services you would expect from such an app, but it includes a whole array of additional functionalities. Steadily, WeChat is becoming to function as the collective mind of the Chinese and increasingly the surface of everyday life in change becomes incomprehensible without a notion of this extremely popular application.

The general Western prejudice holds that information in China is strictly controlled and that free press is limited. Without having the desire to contradict these analysis completely, my stay I China last summer enhanced my image of this topic. First of all, the fact that Facebook and Google are generally banned in China, doesn’t mean that the services they provide are deemed dangerous by the Chinese government. In fact, Baidu, Weibo and WeChat function similar and often even more advanced ways than their Western counterparts.

Therefore, I’d rather like to think of the divide between Western media and Chinese media as a “silk” curtain, between which cross-influence is not really restricted, but nobody really cares about sharing information over to the other side. Much more than an attempt to limit the flow of information among its own citizens, I believe the ban on Facebook and Google in China could better be interpreted as a measure of protectionism against U.S. corporations. Of course, censorship and regulation are in fact performed by the Chinese government. But if sensitive topics are not discussed (for example the three tabooed “T” subjects in China: Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen), it might often be a result of ignorance about these topics by the Chinese, while simultaneously we in the West can not understand that people just would not care about these topics.

The rise of WeChat in particular is intimidating. The app records over 600 million monthly users, over two thirds of the 900 million monthly users WhatsApp has. Currently WeChat is branching out to Africa, to see if it can take over the local internet market. In South Africa we gradually see a battle emerge between WeChat and WhatsApp to gain control over the market. Especially because of the wide spectrum of social services WeChat provides, I believe WeChat could very well at some point become a serious global challenger to WhatsApp. Its messaging service is only one aspect of the app, which is also used as microblogging service, social network, photoblogging service, dating app and payment service.

More than Facebook or WhatsApp, WeChat is able to provide what so many people desire: connection. In China, few meetings between strangers pass without the exchange of WeChat contact data by means of scanning a personalised QR code. That shy stranger you just nodded at in the subway reveals himself to be a highly expressive avatar on WeChat, with an unstoppable wave of stickers and other tokens of social appreciation which are ubiquitous in the Wonderworld of WeChat. To understand China, this is where it is happening now.

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Dagen Zonder Lief

dagenzonderliefThe Dutch are very nice, up until the moment they get drunk. The Flemish are very nice, but only from the moment when they get drunk. Twelve years ago I decided to move from the Netherlands to Belgium to study in Ghent. After being tormented for two years by the sheer inaccessibility of the Flemish, I planned to exchange Ghent for Amsterdam. Three films prevented me at that time from acknowledging my defeat. The first one is Any Way the Wind Blows, which I mentioned in an earlier blog post. The other two were Steve + Sky and Dagen Zonder Lief by the Flemish movie director Felix van Groeningen.

Several things had struck me from that movies. For a long time, Holland had always been considered more liberal, more cultural, more progressive and more open than Belgium. The Flemish had therefore developed a love-hate relationship with the Dutch, which usually tipped towards hate. But at the beginning of the 2000s something changed. The Netherlands had currently seen the rise of Pim Fortuyn, while the Belgium were governed by very progressive and liberal governments. In the youth scenes of Antwerp, Ghent and Brussels a new cultural generation developed, which was self-conscious, ironic and romantic at the same time. It was a culture which could define itself on its own, without feeling the necessity to compare what was happening in the Netherlands.

In music, we could witness the rise of bands like Soulwax, dEUS and Das Pop. In film you first had the still very ironic Iedereen beroemd! but then there were the aforementioned films. Most striking to me personally must have been Dagen Zonder Lief. For me, it was as if everything I always failed to grasp about the Flemish became suddenly perfectly clear.

The film features a young woman, who returns back to her hometown Sint Niklaas after she had left for the United States, only to find her former social life in scatters. Although the value of friendship is an important theme in the film, it also evokes a much deeper sense of nostalgia, a deep sense that the past is irreversibly lost and that the only thing which remain from the past are hurt and regret. For me, this movie instantaneously excited in me the desire to be Flemish myself. Had I been born in the wrong body? Suddenly it all made so much more sense, the Sorrow of Belgium as Hugo Claus had famously put it, and which could only be cured by Herman Brusselmans assertion: Mijn haar is lang (My hair is long).

Two years ago I finally left Belgium, over six years after I originally anticipated to leave and eight years after my first major Belgium-breakdown. I could finally go in recovery from the disease which is called Flanders. Yesterday I accidentally ran into a group of actors from Belgium, in Amsterdam. I learned that their company was seated in Sint-Niklaas – the infamous background of Dagen Zonder Lief and the town where I had taught ethics in a local high school during the last two years of my stay in the country. While we were discussing the poor state of the theatre scene in Sint-Niklaas, I learned to my great surprise and some embarrassment that I was talking with almost half of the cast of that precious movie. Reality had overtook me and the image I carefully crafted in my mind of the life in Flemish towns of early twenty somethings at the end of the 90s suddenly collapsed. Finally, while Belgium is currently being consumed by the N-VA, I can proudly say I am completely cured.

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Jan Mayen

One of the most exotic parts of Europe is the almost deserted island Jan Mayen. In the sixth century, the island was discovered by the Irish monk Brandaan in a expedition to see if there were any pagans left at the outer edges of Europe. The black island featured a terrifying smoking mountain. Brandaan understandably believed he had found the gates of hell. 

Jan Mayen is a small isolated island in the Arctic Ocean, lonely situated between Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard. The Dutch conquered stationed some troops on the island in the 17th Century, to support their whale hunt, but deserted Jan Mayen again after 1650 when the whales were gone. In the 20th Century the Norwegians discovered that the island provided ample opportunity for the fox hunt. Equally successful as the Dutch whale hunts, all foxes were gone by the 1920s and few Norwegians desired to stay on the freezing island afterwards. 

Because Jan Mayen could not be occupied by the nazi’s during WOII, the Norwegians who were manned the weather station formed a small independent free state. They actually needed to defend themselves against the nazi’s on several occasions, of which some plane wrecks still testify. 

Jan Mayen has one of the most minimal histories of any European place. The remoteness of the island is striking: to reach the island you need to board on a 20 meter long sailboat, the Aurora, which leaves from the quays of Iceland. The journey takes two days. The only tourist attraction is the ascent of the Beerenberg, the characteristic volcano on the island.          

Since Europe is currently facing a crisis, as a result of nationalism and an unstoppable influx of immigrants, I would like to urge everybody to undertake a trip to Jan Mayen. It appears extremely necessary in a time when national borders are being redefined to discover what had been perceived in the 7th Century as the border between with the underworld. Jan Mayen might offer us refreshing and possibly spiritual new look on contemporary Europe and its outer edges.

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The Nova Effect

Especially with modernity, religiosity had become something suspect. According to the secularisation thesis, the rational advancement of societies will ultimately lead to the decline of religion. The contemporary situation in fact proves the opposite. After a decline of religiosity after the second world war, today we see how religion continuous to rise again.

After having studied religion for some years, I believe it is not really possible to make a relevant distinction between religious and non-religious people. So-called “atheists” often express a commitment to their beliefs, which also has an influence on the rituals they take refuge to. And even for the rest category of the “non-religious”, for whom religious questions are apparently meaningless, we see often how morality, meaning making and rituals also connect these people to a larger framework of ultimate sense. The only truly non-religious are therefore the nihilists and the depressed; true nihilists are hard to come by, and fortunately, depression is for many people a transitory experience, although it might stick for a very long time.

The contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor has written a striking analysis of religiosity in our postmodern age with his 2007 publication A Secular Age. According to him, present day religiosity is characterised by what he calls the “nova effect”, in which the possibilities for individuals to give meaning to their lives has increased exponentially in the past decades. Since religiosity is no longer a public matter, but has been relegated behind the front door, the question how to understand our position in the world has become a matter of individual deliberation and therefore the options to do so have become vast.

Therefore, although “religion” in the form of institutional affiliation has been in decline, the individual expressions of religiosity have skyrocketed. I believe this evolution is an enrichment to society. If religiosity is not in the first place a public matter, this enables people to experiment with forms and expressions to connect to their perceived divinities. The diversity of people will lead to unexpected encounters when we inquire each other about our spiritual or religious rituals. No longer does modernity drive a wedge between institutional believers and the modernists; the postmodern playful human has claimed the spiritual for herself in order to create new relationships with others.

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Night watch

“Kwetsbaar lillend vlees

Ongebroken scheppingskracht

De nachtwacht houden” – Eugeen

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Anish Kapoor, “Internal object in three parts” (2013 – 2015), detail, silicon and pigment.

This afternoon I visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam with two of my guests from Belgium. At the Rijks, there are currently three works on display from the contemporary artist Anish Kapoor. This triptych, which is called “Internal object in three parts” is very daringly displayed in the “Gallery of Honour” of the museum, which is devoted to masterpieces by illustrious Dutch painters such as Jan Steen, Johannes Vermeer and above all Rembrandt.

The choice is very daring indeed, because the works are an expressionistic depiction of something, which resembles blood, meat, muscle tissue and fat tissue. The most adequate description would be that the works depict a rabbit which was put in a shredder. The works are made of silicon and color pigment. Passing visitors, when confronted with this work in the most classical of museum wings, posed the eternal question: “Is this art?”, thereby implying: “This is not art.”

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Rembrandt Van Rijn, “Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild” (1662), detail, oil on canvas.

Opposite the Anish Kapoor reliefs was one of my favourite works of Rembrandt in the Rijksmuseum: “The Syndics”. On this picture, we see six Dutch burghers, apparently surprised by the entrance of the spectator. In a most delicate way, Rembrandt breaks through the “fourth wall” of the painting. In the juxtaposition with Kapoor’s carnal festival, the glances of the “inspectors of dyed cloth” become even more poignant. As if they are inspecting and judging the appearance of these peculiar presences in the room. “Mene, mine, tekhel, upharsin.”

Kapoor’s works demands attention. In an interview in NRC Handelsblad, Kapoor has expressed his suspicion that his show at the Rijksmuseum might become an exercise of humility for him. But despite the condescending murmur you hear when you stroll through the “Gallery of Honour”, the context of the 17th Century masterpieces is necessarily and irrevocably changed by Kapoor’s critical expressionism. They present an aesthetic of the sublime next to works which were created in an age where beauty was the only aesthetic. Kapoor therefore reminds us, that it has become impossible to genuinely repeat the spirit of the Golden Age.

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Daoism and climate change

The final negotiations of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, most likely concerned whether the long expected “final draft” of the agreement would contain a commitment to attempt to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or stick with a phrase which would spin the commitments to “(far) below 2 degrees Celsius”. While the Western nations have the luxury to show off their moral superiority in forming a “high ambition coalition” (which also includes all nations so poor that they can only rely on moral superiority) which strives for the 1.5 degree ambition added to the final draft, countries such as China, India and Saudi Arabia have other interests to consider and decided to cool down (pun intended) the negotiations.

Meanwhile, I was taking part of a conference on the study of Chinese religion at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of Groningen University. At this conference, James Miller, a scholar of Chinese studies from Canada, presented a plea to think about the environment from the perspective of Daoism. One of his assumptions is that the common ecological perspective which frames our environmental endeavours as a desire to “save the planet” is part of a fundamentally Christian worldview and above all ultimately absurd.

Part of this common perspective in which the “protection of the planet” is central, Miller argues, is the idea that time evolves in a progressive and irreversible way. Our existence is meaningful because of this progressive movement. The natural environment is considered as the background on which we can project meaning. Furthermore, meaning is not part of the natural world. Human beings are assigned as “guardian” of the environment.

As opposed to this worldview, Miller puts forward a Daoist worldview, which promotes the idea of self-cultivation in relation to the natural environment. Furthermore, the flourishing of some things also requires the destruction of other things; the energy I obtain to live comes at the expensive of the death of many others. Miller argues we should be aware of the “transformational” character of the natural environment, which is an essential part to the Daoist understanding of the universe. Religion could therefore be understood as the negotiation on the economy of cosmic power.

The environmental crisis is thus not an appeal to save the planet, as the Christian/humanist worldview understands it, but rather challenges us to respond in a creative way. Miller suggests we should think of religion as the “collective representation of death and violence”. The environmental question challenges us to quantify human violence and to see how we can consume in a creative way, thus avoiding the destructive patterns we have developed in the past.

When we only think of climate change and the environmental crisis as a materialist problem, we fail to see the underlying worldviews that, first of all, identify the crisis as a crisis and secondly how the solutions which are the result of these worldviews might in fact aggravate the situation. I agree with Miller that the Daoist worldview offers an adequate alternative model, which focuses on transformation and vitality, but also acknowledges death, violence and destruction as part of nature. It also enables us to look at climate change as a challenge, instead of a crisis.

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Hard indeterminism

For a long time, it has been a common conviction that human beings possess free will. With respect to actions, individuals are considered to have a choice between different potentials and therefore, they are also considered responsible for the consequences of this action. With the modern worldview came the rise of a mechanistic and thus deterministic universe in which all events are the cause of antecedent events. This causally closed universe did not leave much room for deliberate human agency.

The apparent contradiction between our perceived free will and the universe as a causally closed system lead to much philosophical reflection on how to reconcile the two positions. Many philosophers, such as David Hume, Arthur Schopenhauer and more recently Daniel Dennett have argued in favour of such a reconciliation of free will and determinism; a philosophical position which is called “compatibilism”. Some philosophers however have argued that free will must necessarily rest on an illusion if we want to go with a deterministic universe, a position known as “hard determinism”. On the other end of the spectrum, there have also been philosophers who take determinism for an illusion. Especially in quantum mechanics, we have seen theories that describe the universe as something “statistical” rather than determined. Since the universe is not determined, in their views, a human free will is perfectly feasible – a position which is called “liberalism”.

 

One philosophical position has been neglected in these reflections. Since quantum mechanics still stands as one of the most successful physical theories of all time, all evidence points into the direction of a indeterministic universe. But this does not necessarily imply that therefore the actions of human beings are the result of a free acting agent. In short: the universe could very well be undetermined, but still human beings have no free will. This position is called “hard indeterminism”. Since many of our contemporary scientific insights point in the direction of the illusion of subjective will, but also the illusion of determinism, I believe “hard indeterminism” deserves more attention by contemporary philosophers.

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