A Chinese movie star topples Boing-Boing

The most popular blogger in the world and the Wealth of Nations.

Published May 24, 2006 6:46PM (EDT)

I pulled out my Chinese dictionaries this morning, determined to make sense of the most popular blog in the world, as ranked by Technorati. I was curious: What could possibly have displaced Boing Boing, the venerable headquarters for digital culture activism and compendium of links to the bizarre that for so long ruled the roost? Surely something we should all be paying attention to.

Without first doing any background research on Xu Jinglei, the Chinese woman who writes the blog, I plunged into (what was then) the most recent post. My Chinese is rusty, my background in the simplified characters used by mainland Chinese even sketchier, and my dictionaries are threadbare, but an hour later, I had it pretty much figured out. Xu and some friends had gone to a karaoke bar to celebrate something (a friend's successful defense of a thesis?). There, one of her friends had become a laughingstock, and the men had all stood around close together, "like bodyguards."

The last line of a very short post: "I've got an early day tomorrow, I'm going to sleep."

This was followed by hundreds upon hundreds of posts from readers; an avalanche of advice, affirmations of love, admonitions to take better care of herself, and more.

Xu Jinglei has a lot of fans. A little Googling, and I now know that she is an actress and director. A graduate of the Beijing Film Academy in 1996, she earned early fame as a television star and moved quickly into movies. She won a best director award from Spain's San Sebastian Film Festival. She has long been considered the most popular blogger in China, and in early May, after Technorati tweaked its ranking algorithms to better account for the foreign language blogosphere, she jumped into first place in the world.

I don't mean to deprecate her content. I've read a couple of interviews with her and she seems smart and vivacious. I suppose I could spend some time contemplating the cultural nuances of the fact that a Chinese movie star's chatty diary has displaced an edgy digital-culture hot spot for the online avant-garde. But I have different fish to stir-fry.

The first thing that came to my mind after contemplating Xu's blog was a recent Washington Post article that went to great lengths to shred the notion that China is graduating so many more engineers than the U.S. that Americans should all be in immediate fear of technological obsolescence.

The author, Gerald Bracey, did a good job of showing how the widely publicized factoid that China is graduating 600,000 engineers every year is far overblown. The quality of those engineers does not compare with U.S. graduates, and the numbers themselves are hugely inflated -- the best guess now is perhaps 350,000. (In comparison the U.S. graduates about 150,000.)

Fine -- it's always worth giving any statistics that get wide play in the media a hard look. But the focus of the article misses the real point. The relative number of engineers graduated in the U.S. and China this year or last year or next year is not terribly important. The trend line is what must be watched. China is pouring resources into its universities, into supporting research and development, into every aspect of education. Is the U.S. showing the same commitment?

David Warsh's terrific history of how economists have come to understand growth, "Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations," has a very clear thesis. Economic growth is a function of the accumulation of knowledge in society. Access to raw materials is not the critical issue -- knowing what to do with those materials is. Ever since the industrial revolution the world has witnessed an astonishing, accelerating buildup in knowledge -- and there has been no slowdown of late. Peak oil doomers like to argue that civilization will collapse when oil gets too expensive, but oil isn't the key resource. Smart people who can figure out new ways of doing things (with less energy, with different sources of energy, etc.) represent civilization's salvation. Anything government can do to increase the number of highly educated people in a given society and the ease with which knowledge can be transmitted is to be encouraged.

When I glance through the hundreds of comments on Xu Jinglei's blog, I don't care that many (most) of them are vapid. What I see is yet another sign of a great civilization storming into the information age. The Internet is the greatest tool ever invented for the distribution and amplification of knowledge, and China is going to make full use of it -- in gross numbers, it will make more use of it than any other nation. This is a country where 20 years ago the vast majority of people did not own a telephone. Now it boasts more than 400 million cellphone users. A country that has respected the value of education for thousands of years is now bootstrapping itself as fast as it can manage.

Ultimately, I think this is a great, hopeful thing for the world. The more great Chinese engineers there are in the world, the more likely one of them will figure out how to cheaply and safely produce energy from nuclear fusion, or some other marvel. Perhaps one such brilliant innovator is posting to Xu Jinglei's blog right this very minute.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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