Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Pretender
At first glance of the many press clippings and self-written PR releases he carries Zhou Tao seems like a western journalist's dream come true.
1. Sticking it to The Man by speaking out? Check. Since April Zhou's been railing publicly via the Internet, TV and Chinese newspapers against rising housing prices in Shenzhen where indeed they're climbing with no end in sight. Example: Since two years ago an apartment in the Sunny Bay neighborhood of the district I rent in, purchase and rental prices have nearly doubled. He's gained fame with a grassroots movement urging people to buck the housing binge buying trend and boycott home buying until prices fall. Though few here know the image, imagine him as the lone, anonymous citizen standing up to the tanks of real estate developers and government officials selling them the land in a modern day Tienanemen Square situation.
2. Persecuted by authorities? Check. He says he's been detained by police and received threats from developers and shadowy mystery thugs for his bold action. His phone is tapped, he claims, and he's constantly followed.
3. A man of the people; acclaimed as a modest "hero" by the masses? Check. Ask him and he'll show you screen full after screen full of cell phone text messages sent by admirers. "You speak for us. You are a true hero" is typical.
4. A man of action? Check. Zhou says that not even being snatched by plain clothes cops at the airport and detained for 5 hours prior to a flight to Beijing stopped him from eventually getting there in order to deliver his message to prime minister Wen Jiabao.
5. Following his own example? Check. "I rent a two bedroom apartment for 1,500 yuan (US$187) a month. I cannot afford to buy one and wouldn't even if I could unless prices fall," he told me via C's translation. He claims to eke out a modest living as the owner of a golf supply store. (Golf? Red flag! Red flag! Definitely still a rich man's pastime in China. On second thought, hold that "check)
The trouble is is that his story -- while being lapped up by the Chinese press and hotly followed on the Internet -- doesn't exactly stand up to even cursory scrutiny.
He arrives an hour late in a 200,000 (US$24,000) yuan car for an interview in one of Shenzhen's hottest real estate markets. Strangely, though stopping the runaway apartment buying train here is his mission and though he says he's lived here for 11 years he calls 3 times enroute to ask for directions claiming that he's never heard of the neighborhood.
He's sporting a Titleist cap and a spiffy Sport brand golf shirt, carrying a sheaf of publicity materials and within 3-minutes of meeting casually mentions that the Asian Wall Street Journal has just done an interview with him. His golf handicap, a question I ask in order to break the ice? "Ninety." Huh?
These guys who detained you, what did they say? "Nothing. I asked why have you taken me and they never said." He goes on to embellish the story with an account of being driven to a neighborhood he never recognized where he sat in an apartment with his captors who again asked him "nothing." No threats? Nothing? "Nothing. Then they let me out of the apartment and I still didn't know where I was. I finally realized I was in Louhou." Louhou is a district in Shenzhen where he said earlier he'd lived for the past 11 years. "How did you get back to your car at the airport?" "I can't talk about it."
Direct questions about his missive to the prime minister reveal that he actually didn't get the message to Wen but to an anonymous official whom he can't name. What did it say? It was on my Internet site but it's been blocked. He adds, apropos of nothing that before he began selling golf ware he was in the People's Libration Army special forces and produces a black and white photo of a younger self in civilian clothes aiming a pistol at the camera as proof.
Then he says his cell phone is being tapped. "How do you know?" "Government officials call and tell me but don't tell me their names."
"The government officials call you to tell you that they are listening to your phone calls and don't leave their names but they leave their numbers?" C wisecracks to me in English, referring to the fact that the majority of cell phone calls one receives here have caller ID. He also claims to have been banned on the domestic Internet, though his website is still up and running. He clarified that observation by saying that his more "controversial" interviews and statements have been excised but are still available here courtesy of "foreign" Internet sites because "the government cannot block foreign Internet sites." Right. Tell that to someone without a proxy server or anonymouse savvy trying to read this blog, much less something about the Dali Lama from the mainland.
It gets worse. I go to the restroom in order to let C chat him up, Chinese citizen-to-Chinese citizen style. After returning she says he's told her that he amassed a fortune of nearly 1 million yuan after leaving the army and being recruited to head an unnamed PLA department as a 21-year old civilian. He used that to start his golf business. Oh, and by the way, an (unnamed, untitled) "American government official" is coming to China to talk to him about his cause.
And oh yeah, he did buy an apartment in Shenzhen in the late '90s. But sold it a few years later because it was too far from work. And then he bought the car. Which costs him 3,000 yuan a month for gas etc. And he's just quit his golf business in order to volunteer his time for an "international charity." Which one? "I don't know yet. There are so many."
"My parents are poor farmers. I only want to help people like them."
So...why don't you sell the car and ....?
"It's all here in what I wrote. Didn't you see me on CCTV? On Phoenix TV? Why are you asking all these questions? Just put what I wrote here in your newspaper."
As we're leaving he says something to C in Chinese. "What did he say?" I ask after he drives off.
"He wants me to read your story before you write it make sure it's all positive."
Yeah, this guy's a real Che Guevara.
It sounds like the kind of drivel I used to hear near closing time in the bars I used to play in. Big plans, big schemers, and "nobody knows this information but me".
I saw his Phoenix TV debate and this guy seemed to be a far-leftists and a joke. He was politicising a pure market economy problem using tactics from the cultural revolution.

At the show, he kept accusing a particular real estate developer from Beijing of bribing the officials in order to gain land at low prices, however, when he was asked to produce evidence, he had to dodge the question with a few slogans from cultural revolution.

None of his arguments had any rationality or factual evidence and he just gave me the impression that he didn't know what the hell he was talking about and was just there to gain some publicity and stir some shit up.
sounds like an aaron nattrass
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