Aug 07

The evolution of political activisms according to (misused) Gresham’s law

Written by DJ on Thursday, August 7th, 2008 at 8:21 am
Filed under:Analysis, News | Tags:, , ,
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I couldn’t help but think of Gresham’s law while reading the twin news of the banner carrying pole climbing protesters in Beijing and the last minute cancellation of Joey Cheek’s visa to go to China.

It is doubtful that many people in China know this economics theory by name, either in English or Chinese (格雷欣法则). But its simplistically summarized version, “bad money drives out good” (劣币驱良币), is widely known and cited by many Chinese in discussions of all sorts of phenomenons in commerce, politics, entertainment, media, etc.

Strictly speaking, many invocations of this phrase are perhaps misguided usages of the concept. Nevertheless, for this post, let’s interpret “bad money drives out good” through a superficial and literal reading of the words to mean

  • the perverse effect that something (e.g., goods, services, ideas, acts, etc.) of intrinsically less value manages to dominate or drive out its more qualified competitions,

which can be and often is extended to imply that

  • in the presence of the bad, the good survives only by becoming bad as well.

By the way, the fact that Gresham’s law is often inaccurately used arguably demonstrates that the superficial interpretation of the theory as described above is driving out the proper understanding and thus is serving as a good example of itself. But I digress.

I have no interest to waste much ink on those vertically nimble protesters, whose antics are aptly summed up by Jeremiah (of the Granite Studio fame) in a comment at the Peking Duck as

upper-middle class kids flying halfway around the world, tipping off the news media, and then climbing a pole

Suffice to say, they are the “bad money”. Seriously, what good did they do besides calling attention to themselves and making some reporters and opinion pushers happy while enraging some Chinese onlookers? They obviously did no bother to consult with any guide on how to reach out to the Chinese people to advance a particular cause, assuming that was their intent to begin with.

Similarly, Mia Farrow is the “bad money” too. Sure, she has been quite successful at focusing the spotlights on herself and garnering praises while touting the “Genocide Olympics” tag. The fact that such in-your-face activism is generally counter-productive does not seem to be a concern to her.

Meanwhile, the “good money” hardly ever get noticed while trying to take more responsible and reasonable approaches in advancing their causes. Quickly, how many of you have heard of Brad Greiner before the news concerning Joey Cheek came out a couple of days ago? He is Joey Cheek’s less famous co-founder of Team Darfur and one with the visa revoked as well.

I am inclined to believe that Brad Greiner was sincere in his claimed non-confrontational philosophy in advocating the Darfur issue as shown in the quoted Q&A below, because otherwise Cheek and he would have been brought up in the media in much higher profiles and frequencies before this visa revocation news hit the fan. As such, they probably own a big thank-you card to whomever in the Chinese government responsible for first granting and then rescinding the visas.

[Question]: If you were a current U.S. Olympic athlete in these games, what would you do? Would you protest? Just compete? What’s the “right” thing to do?

Brad Greiner: If I were a current US Olympic athlete, the first thing I would want to do is use my down-time to learn about major issues surrounding these Olympic Games. As far as protesting is concerned, I feel it is important to honor the ideals of the Olympics, and therefore I would not choose to protest.

Instead I would focus on competing, and if asked by reporters for my views on issues like Darfur, I would give my honest opinion. I think the right thing for athletes to do, regardless of if they chose to join Team Darfur, would be to not stay silent when asked about issues they care about.

I don’t agree with much of the established narratives on the Darfur issue in the western media because of the general pattern of willful ignorance of reality by the loud voices dominating the airwaves. But I certainly respect the reported way Cheek and his partners approached this matter. It’s too bad that according to Gresham’s law, I should be pessimistic about the future survival of this breed of political activism.

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19 Responses to “The evolution of political activisms according to (misused) Gresham’s law”

  1. Jeremiah Says:

    Just to clarify, lest my comments be taken out of context, while I do classify this more as a ‘stunt,’ I do believe that people should have the right to voice their opinions on issues important to them and the comment came on a post in which I suggested physically and verbally harassing journalists who might cover protests–no matter how ill-advised those protests might be–is distinctly counterproductive to the spirit of the games and, for that matter, Beijing’s goal of impressing the world with its modernity and cosmpolitanism.

  2. DJ Says:



    This post does not address those climbers’ right to do stupid things, or some people’s stupid reactions to such stupidities, since so much have been said from these angles at various sites.

  3. bianxiangbianqiao Says:


    Great analysis. I hope you academic types will not scorn at the view on Western Protesters in the eye of a Chinese Redneck.

    I had a phone conversation with my elder brother in Beijing . He is the Chinese answer to the American redneck. Soccer used to be his NARSCAR, until he finally got disillusioned and stopped chanting SB and NB at the Workers Stadium with me. I brought up the Western protesters at the Beijing Olympics to gauge their psychological impact on him (“Did you go watch the strip show outside the Olympic Stadium?”).

    Well, it turns out my brother did not get the protesters’ messages. They only reinforced his Chinese stereotype that Westerners are uncivilized and have serious self-control problems. “Even after they have put on contemporary clothes, you still need to watch them;they cannot kept their clothes on (即使他们穿上了现代衣服,你也得看着他们。他们穿不住.)Even when they come to the city (the concrete jungle), they cannot stop themselves from falling back to their old habits of climbing up to high places as if in the real forest (保持着原始森林的生活习性见树就爬)…” I asked what he thought about the authorities closing down bars catering to foreigners around the Workers Stadium and San Li Tun area. He said he was glad and relieved. “They are already goofy even before they hit the bottle (还没喝呢就这么CaoDan). How crazy would they be if they get the bottle (喝高了还不全疯啦)?” I criticized his prejudice and narrow-mindedness and lectured him on how tolerating cheap deviance will make this world a better place for everyone. But he is a stubborn guy.

    My brother believes Amanda Beard’ has had the best show among the protesters so far. Her bare ass crack is definitely worthy of public inspection; he heard she was a fashion model from somewhere. Too bad he missed it. The American cyclists’ black masks are not bad either, just a little too subtle; the Chinese might not appreciate the mystique. He ranked the Tibet banner guy who climbed up high the last. The monkeys of Sichuan’s Emei Mountain would do a much better job (比峨眉山的猴儿差远啦).

    To me, the more educated and worldly one in the family, a striking thing these protesters have in common is their utter intelligence. I have a very sharp eye for intelligent people, as you already know.

  4. DJ Says:


    It’s always fun to hear some of the colorful languages from Beijing natives, isn’t it?

    I thought Amanda Beard’s poster represents a much more reasonable manner of advocacy. If nothing else, it focuses on the issue instead of placing blames.

    I recall one joke at PETA’s expense though:

    Q: Why do PETA protesters mostly focus on fur instead of leather?

    A: Who would you choose to pick on, elderly ladies or big bikers?

  5. bianxiangbianqiao Says:


    “It’s always fun to hear some of the colorful languages from Beijing natives, isn’t it?”

    I hope you are not looking down upon us.

  6. DJ Says:


    Eh? Why should I? Actually, how dare I, being married to someone born and raised in Beijing? My rank in the family is not that high, you know. 😉

  7. Hemulen Says:


    Well, it turns out my brother did not get the protesters’ messages. They only reinforced his Chinese stereotype that Westerners are uncivilized and have serious self-control problems.

    This is an interesting point of departure for East-West comparisons. The first thing that strikes foreign visitors to China is the incredible self-control people show in all kinds of situation traffic, queues, etc. And I will never forget the ugly stare I got when I spat on a street in Beijing…

  8. Old Tales Retold Says:

    I’m often frustrated by the lack of calculation on some activists’ parts. It’s a little like they—and here I don’t mean all activists by a long shot, but some—just throw things into a black box and hope for the best. Sure, the Chinese government is truly a “black box” to many of us (Chinese and foreign alike), but there’s no reason for the Chinese people to be such a mystery. Just figure things out about China! Talk! Read stuff online! Then, tailor your message accordingly!

    Still, I think people can go overboard in condemning the activists. It is GOOD for China to deal with this. America and just about every other country have had protests directed at them for ages. And it has been good for those countries, on the whole. It is a normal part of debate, of criticism. Not everything happens in editorials and academic papers, nor should it. Some things have to happen in the streets. Or lamp posts.

  9. Netizen K Says:

    We’re in the age of great changes and old rules no longer apply. Paris Hilton, an empty-head and one-person PR machine managed to get hershelf into the US presidential election. Ya, get herself more publicity, and better than sex, ok, this new tape is better than the old sex tape. US media managed elevating nothingness into top news.

  10. Netizen K Says:

    Bad money drives out good money. That’s a truism because we all focuses on money. Money is money to those who profit no matter it’s good or bad. The problem is money, not good or bad.

  11. Old Tales Retold Says:

    Agreed about Paris Hilton. Coverage of this election cycle has been abysmal. It is interesting how often the TV shows get the narrative COMPLETELY wrong and have to double back… and find themselves where the more insightful blogs were weeks, months before.

    A nice little Jon Stewart video on the media’s ability to elevate nothingness to top news:


    But… anyway… this is supposed to be a China blog, I suppose.

  12. BMY Says:


    I am very sorry you had very bad experience with China and Chinese people that you constantly bring up and would never be able to forgive someone who had stared at you. I respect your view.

    But I think it’s not very fair to compare some not very educated Chinese’s behaves with some Educated westerner’s behalves.

    I think you know the less self controled behaves like spitting,staring,no queing etc are well known by Chinese people and government and both are trying to improve these manner situation and it’s getting better year after year.

    On the other hand, BXBQ’s brother and some Chinese’s terms of self-control problems from some individuals are wildly accepted/welcomed by western society. There might be a culture difference.

    For myself who have been lived in the west for quiet few years and have no problem with protesting. But I still think to protest someone ,whom I don’t like, in his house when he is having a party is still lack of respect and self-control and there is always other time can be used to protest.(I know some want more attention/fame on a spotlight via whatever means)

    Anyway, I agree with OTR that it’s good for China as these kind of protesting methods are well accepted by international society if China and Chinese people want to integrate further with outside of the world.

  13. Charles Liu Says:

    The “Genocide Olympics” nutjobs likes of Joey Cheeks and Mia Farrow are out of their mind. They ask the Chinese to help, by hurting them? I agree China should do more, as rest of the world should – but there’s a huge distinction between “China can do more”, and “China is responsible”.

    Especially after so many years of inaction and indifference by the West, we suddenly want to blame Darfur on China? There are many countries to blame, starting with US support of the SPLA and John Garang 10 years ago:


    And the negative consquences of American power in Africa continues today. Remember the ex-KGB turned mob boss Victor Bout, whom we hired to run guns into Iraq and Africa?


    Anyways the original Darfur mess has since been replaced with inter-tribal conflict and herdsmen fighting for territory, scarce reource. Neither Khartoum nor Beijing has much influence over that.

  14. vadaga Says:

    All I can think of at this moment is the rhyme ‘SB here, SB there, SB SB everywhere’

  15. DJ Says:


    LOL. Perhaps that is not an inapt way of summing it up. The problem is that those SBs manage to grab and deny the opportunities for non-SBs to get their messages across to audiences.

  16. Hemulen Says:


    Of course we should cut Chinese people some slack when it comes to public behavior, but when people like BXBQ constantly zoom in on what he calls Western “lack of self-control” in China, I will remind him that “self-control” is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of China or Chinese tourists overseas.

    And the Olympics is not a private event, but an international event that come with certain responsibilities. If you volunteer to host such an event and hundreds of thousands of people come to attend, you cannot expect all of them to behave exactly the way your country usually requires.

  17. S.K. Cheung Says:

    To Netizen K #9:
    I agree. In our age of the 24 hour news cycle, it seems when the real “news” runs out, the news shows will cover just about anything, including airheads with sex tapes. Unfortunately, no longer the age of Walter Cronkite.

  18. FOARP Says:

    @SK Cheung – Including war in a part of the globe “of which we know little”? Guard against 1930’s style complainsancy, especially here.

  19. Charles Liu Says:

    Yeah, yeah, Chinese children doing nazi salute, 1930’s yada yada…

    It’s an insult to your own intelligence, F. Here’s another law for you – Godwin’s Law.

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