Joel Pett: A not-so-innocent abroad recounts his China tour, connects with fellow cartoonists

Cartoonist tours China defending freedom of speech, press

Herald-Leader CartoonistJuly 8, 2012 

I realize this may alarm true patriots, but I just spent two weeks in China on a low-level diplomatic mission, sponsored by you, the generous taxpayer, and your United States Department of State Department. By "low-level"' I mean I think the chain of command was: Obama/Hillary/Herald-Leader Cartoonist. Close, anyway.

Since I was never asked to serve my country by drone-striking or waterboarding suspected terrorists, or strafing anyone with Agent Orange, the least I could do was give speeches and grant interviews about how U.S. cartoonists make relentless mockery of our business leaders, elected officials, sports icons and other religious figures.

Some cartoonists overseas aren't able to do that without risking threats, censorship, incarceration or bodily harm. This was the third time I've traveled overseas on such ventures, the first two having been in Cameroon and Bulgaria, in proud service of the George W. Bush administration.

Interestingly, there are more English-speaking Chinese than Americans, some 400 million. When I arrived, my Chinese was limited to "Chai tea," "tai chi" and "Yao Ming." But I now know Chinese for "super PAC donor," "Friend of Coal" and "pepper spray," which translates approximately to "perv remover."

To perplex the largest possible number of Chinese in the shortest time, the schedule was packed. I spoke most often at universities, such as Sun Yat-sen University, which is, according to the glossy brochure, "a name-brand institution of higher learning" with the motto: "Study extensively; Enquire accurately: Reflect carefully: Discriminate clearly: Practise earnestly."

Hard to argue with any of that. I am, at this very minute, discriminating clearly against those British spelling variations. None of the universities I visited appeared to have great basketball teams, which made me more than a little suspect.

I spoke to history students, English students, art students, journalists, cartoonists, whomever our helpful embassy folks booked, about the limits of press freedom, and entertained with cartoons, hilarious jokes that apparently defied translation and live drawings of such familiar Chinese household names as Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Mitchell McConnell.

Well, they don't know McConnell, but I shared cartoons of him as an obstructionist moneybag, a turtle, a dinosaur, a cockroach, a cross-dressed hooker and a stain on the blue dress of democracy, which I'm pretty sure serves the national interest.

The most unusual place I presented was at an enormous complex of offices at the (drum roll, or egg roll, please...) "Cultural Relics and Replicas Development Co., Ltd." It's just what it sounds like, a private company that makes phony "relics" on an enormous scale. After all, if historic artifacts are a good thing, brand-new relics are clearly way better, and a lot less dusty and cracked.

CRRDC, Ltd. is also developing a frighteningly immense theme park — a combination of Las Vegas, Disneyland and communism. How bad could it be? If it flops maybe it could just be re-branded as a "relic" theme park. I'll bet it will have a Great Wall that is Greater than the current so-called Great Wall, which is broken down in places, clearly past its prime and so uneven you could twist an ankle or break a heel.

No doubt it will also feature dancing oversized stuffed tigers, long after all the wild ones have been killed for their alleged virility enhancement, which is tragic for animal lovers, but may strengthen the critical international market for perv remover. I suggested an exhibit combining traditional Chinese architecture with the hunting of canines for food, under the palindromic name: "A dog! A panic in a pagoda!" My smiling hosts looked perplexed, so I'm guessing it won't happen.

I met plenty of cartoonists, some of whom drew crude caricatures of their Honored American Guest. (Honestly, I don't know where anyone gets off exaggerating someone's features for comic effect. Seems rude.) There is a very special bond among cartoonists around the world, which cuts across nationality, language, even ideology. Either we all feel a collective mutual affinity, because of our shared passion for railing against injustice and authority, or it's something in the ink. Most of them worked for the state-controlled media, but some drew for private new-media outlets, and others simply post online, on such taboo subjects as human rights, party corruption, and abortion.

One signed with the pseudonym "Rebel Pepper" and a tiny cartoon of an animated pepper with its middle finger extended. (Digital media?) Certain things transcend language barriers, and make us feel like one big human family — things like a cool breeze, a tired smile, the chatter of playful children and cartoon vegetables making obscene gestures.

Posting online has great rewards, such as freedom of expression, freedom of not getting paid, freedom of having your web access shut down 180 times and freedom of being invited to "tea" with government officials.

"Tea" means a sit-down chat with party hacks to "discuss" your work, your intentions for your future work, the weather and whether there's an outside chance you're part of a foreign plot to undermine the Chinese way of life, which I believe is defined as constructing the largest possible number of skyscrapers in the shortest span of time. Simply a friendly reminder that you're being watched. Always great to know you've got an interested audience.

Of course, plenty of headlines in the Chinese state-run press could come from anywhere:

"Courts more cautious on death cases"

"Pension obligations strain budgets"

"EU debt crisis needs decisive action"

"Bigfoot, Elvis in alien ritual sacrifice"

Maybe not that last one, since the Communist Party is officially snubbing Sasquatch, ever since he drove that blind activist's getaway car.

Many of the opinion pieces read like they were written by a People's Committee of Bureaucrats on Oxycontin and sleeping meds, or maybe an op-ed writer here. Seriously, they had me at "... consumption based on a fair distribution of national wealth is another inexhaustible source of internal dynamism..." Look for that in Mitt Romney's next TV spot, funded by Restore Our Future. (I've politely pointed out before that you can't really "restore" the future, since it has yet to be "stored," but they're sticking with it anyhow.)

One infuriating and deeply disturbing op-ed piece claimed that the current Syrian calamity was a creation of the U.S. government to distract Americans from our failing economy. This is clearly outrageously false because Americans are fully capable of distracting ourselves without government help, unless maybe Dancing With the Stars, Real Housewives and Nascar are CIA plots. Maybe I was in China too long, but, come to think of it, that sounds plausible.

I was also interviewed and written about in the Chinese press, where I was roundly misquoted, resulting in a series of blasphemy, libel and slander suits, just to underscore my commitment to freedom of speech. In truth, the pieces were all very flattering, although I officially denied drawing the accompanying cartoons, claiming that they were cheap Chinese knockoffs. Just to be safe.

I explained that government censorship is not a problem here, that we prefer private-sector censorship, artfully administered by merely "downsizing" cartoonists, or intimidating us into drawing stuff that entertains but doesn't provoke. Both systems work well to produce talented but disillusioned young cartoonists who can't find work without selling their souls. But our "censorship" is clearly superior, due to a lack of tea.

You're probably wondering about certain things, like whether you can get chocolate miniatures of the famous terra cotta warriors, whether I could watch the U.S. Open golf and how many prostitutes hit on me. The answers are yes, yes and lots. I've never been approached by a prostitute in Lexington, where they apparently have higher standards. There are many good reasons to avoid participating in the sex trade, among them potential death, the depressing global exploitation of young women and not knowing the Chinese word for "condom" (language barrier method?). I did, however, happily bite the heads off chocolate terra cotta soldiers.

One Chinese tradition I was pleased to see has remained untouched by the explosion of modernism is the ancient and hallowed marketing of T-shirts bearing unlicensed Peanuts characters, accompanied by randomly incomprehensible displays of English, such as: "Continuity Enormous Music," "Happy Colon Polyps" and "Coach Cal is Lame For Not Playing Indiana."

I may not have seen those precise phrases, but given that there are over a billion Chinese, they must surely exist. I did see a young man on the street whose shirt said simply "Intentional," which could not have been an accident. And my hands-down favorite was a blue T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan "Every Damn Day." I may steal that and use it as my personal newspaper-deadline mantra.

My final presentation in China was at the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, in front of an English-speaking audience who could understand the fine points of editorial cartooning, such as irony, satire, comic pacing and deftly converting a drawing of Bill Clinton into Saddam Hussein. There were a number of perceptive questions: "Why did you choose to be a cartoonist?" "For what reasons did you become a cartoonist?" "How do you live with all that negative thinking? Is it healthy?" I answered as best I could, then retired for the night, wracked by negative thinking about my negative thinking. Thank you for your perceptive question, young man. I believe I'll flee your country now.

In closing, I'd be remiss if I didn't once again thank you, the United States Taxpayer, for the opportunity, and for the delicious room service club sandwiches, minus the bacon and no ice in the mango juice. While I'm at it, my apologies for the computational error which resulted in a $150 taxpayer-financed load of laundry at the Shanghai Ritz Carlton.

I know the country didn't need any further transfer of wealth to China, so I damaged a series of "relics" of equal value before leaving. We may even have come out ahead in this exchange. I hope you all take great pride in the fact that on the last day I tossed around my remaining Yuan like Rockefeller on ecstacy, tipping bellhops, window washers, bathroom attendants and a somewhat surprised 747 pilot.

I tipped an old woman who picked up my banana peel 20Y, which is either a little more than three bucks, or a little more than three hundred, I'm not sure. But she thanks each of you, and will remember you next April 15.

For those of you who object to this obvious and unconscionable waste of national treasure, I offer a rebate of your share, which I figure to be about one-brazillionth of one of those flattened pennies you can get at arcades. Not even enough for a solid blast of perv remover.

Joel Pett: 231-3443. Email: jpett@herald-leader.com

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