This is a dispatch from Shanghai. I am sitting here slap bang in the middle of a fog 96 floors above this mega city which looks like a crazy vision from the future, manifesting priapically on both sides of the Pudong river. If you had any doubts about China’s rise in the world come look at these towers and be suitably cowed.
The city is orderly, almost antiseptically so. Flowerbeds, jogging paths and lanes – many dedicated lanes, some for cycles and some for cellphone-reading pedestrians.
I visited China 20 years ago. It was a much more anarchic place then, despite the greater proximity to Maoism. On every street corner people were selling their Little Red Books. The world was changing.
Today I have been pondering quite how very much. I have not been able to search for anything on Google, or open Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. My e-mails come intermittently and wifi is painfully slow. WhatsApp won’t download any pictures or videos. To get any real connection people use virtual private networks, an illegal shortcut to the world, sketchy and under threat because I don’t think the Chinese government likes it at all.
So I was understandably shocked when my daughter sent me news that the Dolce & Gabbana show that I was here to watch – “The great show”, with 300 models, 40 “great” celebrities, a giant gilded rotating stage and all the grand, mad, passionate beauty Stefano and Domenico indulge in – was summarily cancelled.
The rumour mill was churning. Apparently Stefano Gabbana, the trigger-happy uber commentator of the fashion world, had managed to insult the entire Chinese populace. And then the show was cancelled. Rumours and posts immediately circulated that the Chinese government had done this to keep the public peace.
In the world of Trump, we have become accustomed to the idea that great nations use Twitter for populist rabble rousing. The EFF has learnt this lesson rather well.
What nations need, it seems, are common enemies. In this case it is easy to imagine that the common enemy is a potty mouthed Italian designer with a penchant for picking crazy irrational fights on the internet. I think the story is more complicated and more simple than that.
It started with an ill-considered advert that showed a Chinese model eating a cannoli with chopsticks. Humorous to whoever conceived it, a deadly serious insult to others. Then some crazy exchanges started making their appearance on social media, and on Diet Prada to be specific. (The latter is now calling for a credit for breaking the news on Women’s Wear Daily.) The exchanges were deleted and D&G maintains it is fake news, like the story that the Chinese government stepped in to cancel the show.
The truth is probably something in between. A bit like the futurist fog I sat in this afternoon, with sudden insights coming in and out of view as it cleared momentarily. The internet is a powerful tool – no wonder the Chinese government try to curtail it.
Everyone should view this story with a sense of foreboding and a pinch of salt. There is no excuse for racism, there is no excuse for rabble rousing, there is no excuse for fake news. In the end everyone pays. The cost? Something beautiful that got eliminated unceremoniously under the weight of the world’s most contemporary problem, social media. What is free speech, who gets to practise it? Who gets called on it? Who has the right to call it? If we learn anything from today it is that we should all be asking these questions, all the time, of everyone and everything we read.