Monday, November 3, 2014

Debating the Merits of Tearing Down Mark Zuckerberg for His Chinese Talk

On October 22, Mark Zuckerberg posted a 30-minute video of his discussion with students and faculty of Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management in Beijing. The video has reverberated around the halls of the Internet because Zuckerberg did the whole thing in Chinese.

Within a day, China observers around the world began giving their view of the talk. One reaction unfortunately set the tone, though. Foreign Policy's Asia Editor Isaac Stone Fish ("a Mandarin speaker" is at the top of his bio) berated Zuckerberg for his poor Mandarin presentation, publishing a post titled: “Mark Zuckerberg Speaks Mandarin Like A Seven-Year-Old.”

What followed in the subsequent week was an exchange between that FP editor and myself--the platform provided by James Fallows at The Atlantic--over the correctness of his views. My original response to the FP editor is copied below the break. The editor’s response to me is here. Finally, here is a third post on others’ views toward our conversation.



The essay below was originally a guest post on James Fallows' blog at The Atlantic.

FP Editor Insults Zuckerberg Like a Seven-Year-Old
By Kevin Slaten

Last Wednesday, Mark Zuckerberg sat down with faculty and students at the Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management to discuss Facebook and technology. To everyone's surprise, not only did Zuckerberg open with “dajia hao!” (“hi, everyone!”), but he proceeded to use Chinese to conduct most of the 30-minute conversation.

A number of observers noted that while his Mandarin was not textbook, Zuckerberg deserves admiration for the hard work he put in to get to that point, and even then, he was relatively relaxed and seemed to enjoy the occasion to converse in his new language.

But the Asia Editor at Foreign Policy, Isaac Stone Fish, took an entirely different—and solidly inane—perspective: “Mark Zuckerberg Speaks Mandarin Like a Seven-Year Old.”
Stone Fish writes, “It's hard to describe in English what Zuckerberg's Mandarin sounded like, but I'd put it roughly at the level of someone who studied for two years in college, which means he can communicate like an articulate 7-year-old with a mouth full of marbles.”

This article is the literary—if I can even use such a respectable word—equivalent to a person heckling somebody with a lisp who has the courage to get up in front of a lot of people and make a respectable speech despite knowing fully well his own linguistic challenges. To use a public platform to make fun of this person is at best irrelevant and at worst mean-headed.

Someone could respond to me: this is Mark Zuckerberg, among the most rich and powerful people in the world. Okay, fine. Zuckerberg probably can't hear haters like Fish through his oceans of cash.

But this is not really about Zuckerberg; Stone Fish's negativity is directed at many more people than one.

There were more than 8,000 shares of Stone Fish's article, meaning tens or hundreds of thousands of people have read it. Among these are intermediate-level learners of the Chinese language who, like Zuckerberg, have not yet mastered the challenging tonality aspect associated with Mandarin Chinese.

What is Stone Fish, a “China expert”, telling these students of Chinese when he is tearing down a notable person for speaking non-standard Mandarin? He's telling them, “you'll be laughed at”, thereby alienating the people most likely to study and work in and around China in the future. This is not the sort of role modeling and leadership that we should expect from Foreign Policy's Asia Editor.

What's more, as a second-language learner of Chinese himself, for Stone Fish to look down on others for their “imperfect” Chinese is both arrogant and risky. There are highly respected China experts—dare I say much more experienced and influential in the field than Isaac Stone Fish—who have used their nonstandard Mandarin to deliver well-received public speeches. Hell, even  the Mandarin used in speeches by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping (neither of whom were native Mandarin speakers) was notoriously nonstandard.

Those of us who did not grow up speaking Chinese, Mr. Stone Fish, should be especially careful not to throw stones in our glass houses. You might rethink your language confidence if Da Shan—the Chinese name of Mandarin expert Mark Roswell—published an article leading with “Isaac Stone Fish Speaks Chinese Like a Seven-Year-Old”. And before you become defensive, Stone Fish, remember that a seven-year-old Chinese kid could probably speak Mandarin more fluently than the majority of us foreign learners.

What's puzzling about Stone Fish's aimless post is that it comes fromForeign Policy, particularly as it was written by that magazine's lead China-focused editor. In my days as a Junior Fellow in the China Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, I remember when Foreign Policy, owned at the time by the Carnegie Endowment and housed in the floor above my office, was often mentioned among my colleagues and peers for providing valuable insight into global trends.

Foreign Policy says of itself: “Foreign Policy and ForeignPolicy.com provide the best available analysis of pressing global challenges by the world’s leading experts.” So, where exactly does a childish analysis of Mark Zuckerberg's Chinese fit into this?

Based on Foreign Policy's own standards, Stone Fish's article should have looked much different.

It should have discussed how few non-Chinese CEO's have been brave enough to make such a determined effort to speak to Chinese in their own language. It should have looked into Zuckerberg's motivations for joining the board of Tsinghua's business school, such as an attempt to nurture a back channel through which he could pursue future ventures in China, especially as Facebook has been blocked by government censors there.

The article should have looked at how Zuckerberg's performance reflects a number of larger trends. Study of Chinese language and culture is on the rise among younger generations, including Millennials like Zuckerberg (and Stone Fish, and myself). China itself is also on the rise, fixing to become the largest economy in the world and host a massive consumer market; major companies are going to increasingly find ways to differentiate themselves from the competition. A boss who is willing to put himself out there to communicate in Mandarin is a marketing strategy.  

Of course, a full analysis would have taken a lot more time and effort for Isaac Stone Fish than just throwing barbs at Zuckerberg for doing his best to communicate in Chinese.

Speaking of Chinese fluency, Mr. Stone Fish, we didn't catch that link to your own 30-minute Chinese-language speech in front of millions of people around the world. Do us the pleasure of linking it in the comments below. [JF note: Or, since we don't have comments here, it can be part of a follow-up post.]

Kevin Slaten is the program coordinator at China Labor Watch. He holds a Master's degree in Advanced Chinese Language and Culture from The Ohio State University. His opinions are his own. Follow Kevin on Twitter or his blog.

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