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Why Millions of Chinese Are Watching 'Breaking Bad'

This is a guest post from Warner Brown, a frequent contributor to FP's Tea Leaf Nation who works in urban development in Shanghai. 

Why do millions of Chinese care about a fictitious meth cook from New Mexico? The television drama series Breaking Bad, which depicts embattled high school chemistry teacher Walter White's transformation into a crystal methamphetamine kingpin and airs its final episode on Sunday, has unquestionably become a cultural phenomenon in the United States (viewership reached 6.6 million for the series' penultimate episode last week). But it has also attracted a relatively large audience in China, where it's known as jueming dushi -- "The doomed drug master." An average season of Breaking Bad receives over 10 million views on streaming sites like Sohu.com, more than double that of other recent acclaimed American dramas like Mad Men. (It's still a fraction of the 159 million views that The Big Bang Theory's most recent full season received in China.)

Like YouTube, Chinese video streaming sites include comments sections. And Chinese fans fill the comment threads for each Breaking Bad episode with hundreds of responses, which help explain what the show means to Chinese viewers. Commenters on early episodes, for example, tend to be skeptical about the series' premise: Walter, who receives a cancer diagnosis while holding down two jobs and caring for a son stricken with cerebral palsy, is compelled by poverty and circumstance to begin cooking crystal meth. As one Chinese commenter put it, "A teacher has a house with a pool and a car -- why does he still have no money and have to go work extra hours in a car wash, and in the end cook drugs?"

For many Chinese, rapidly rising home prices -- up more than 10 percent from last year in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai -- make home ownership a distant dream. A car is another expensive badge of success, made even more unattainable thanks to license plate quotas in some cities. What's more, White lives not in some high-rise shoebox, but in a detached house -- "villa" is the slightly awestruck Chinese term -- with a pool and two cars in the driveway. Owning a "villa" with a pool is a near-impossible dream for any but the wealthiest Chinese. To Chinese eyes, with all of these material hurdles crossed, Walter had made it even before he began cooking meth.

That the Whites are still viewed as poor discomfits some Chinese viewers, who live in a country bootstrapping itself into prosperity -- where the average income per capita hovers around $6,000. They see a U.S. society in which the indignities of lower middle class life and the stigma of frustrated potential can cling to people even after they acquire the accoutrements of success. As one user wrote, "Let me tell you, having a car and house and still being considered poor -- now that's scary."

In other ways, Chinese Breaking Bad fans react to the show in the same way that their U.S. counterparts do. They dissect each episode's plot and joke that they should have paid more attention in chemistry class. They debate the show's depictions of meth-making while pondering if a Walter White could emerge in China's underground meth industry. They admire Breaking Bad's black humor and cheer Walter, whom they call "Old White," and his partner-in-crime Jesse Pinkman -- "Little Pink" -- as they escape from drug lord Gus Fring, who manages a fast-food chain as a cover for his meth dealing. Chinese viewers often call him "Brother Fried Chicken" and, somewhat more problematically, "Obama's twin."

Like some U.S. fans, Chinese viewers have criticized Skyler White, who transitions from a wife suspicious of her husband's odd behavior to a knowing but often reluctant accomplice. Hatred of Skyler in the United States is often attributed to misogynistic fans who see the cautious mother of two as interfering with the show's male power fantasy, and Chinese criticisms of the controversial character are strikingly similar. Some Chinese comments paint her as "insufferably arrogant and bossy," and a "psycho bitch" who "needs a beating."

A common refrain criticizes Skyler as ungrateful for Walt's efforts to provide for his family by whatever means necessary. The notion that all of Walt's actions are ultimately for the good of his wife and children carries weight in China, with some viewers lamenting that members of the White family begin to pull away as Walter's drug business grows. One comment makes explicit the friction between culturally divergent attitudes toward family ties: "That's why the United States is so great and strong. People focus on whether your actions are right or wrong, and aren't so nepotistic. Fairness and freedom -- this is what makes the United States so attractive!"

Although this remark sparked a flurry of replies, politics are relatively rare in Chinese discussions of Breaking Bad. A notable exception is in a widely discussed review of the show's first season on the popular web forum Douban.com, where young Chinese intellectuals discuss literature and film. In "A Show that Profoundly Exposes the Ugly Face of Capitalism," author Wang Huan depicts Breaking Bad's successes and the United States' failings in exaggerated -- and probably satirical -- prose:

It really makes me sorrowful that in a capitalist country a teacher can receive such lowly treatment.... Suffering from disease and the burden of his family, Mr. White turns to a path of crime. He is not just rejecting his fate, but also the evils of the capitalist system ... after I finished watching this show, I was unsettled for a while, until I opened my nearby copy of Only Socialism can Save America [a 2010 book about the failures of Wall Street and U.S. capitalism] and thought for a long, long time.

 

Correction: This post originally referred to Gus Fring as African-American. In fact, the show suggests Fring is Chilean.

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Are Young Women Really Racing to Syria's Front Lines to Wage Sex Jihad?

It's the story that launched 1,000 headlines. And it's not hard to see why: Tunisian Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou announced last week that Tunisian women were traveling to Syria to wage "sex jihad," where they were having sex with "20, 30, [or] 100" militants, before returning pregnant to Tunisia.

There's only one problem: There's no evidence it's true. The Tunisian Interior Ministry has so far failed to provide any further information on the phenomenon, and human rights activists and journalists have been unable to find any Tunisian woman who went to Syria for this purpose.

"Everything I've heard were very broad allegations that didn't really have all the features of a serious reporting about the case," said Amna Guellali, the Tunisia researcher for Human Rights Watch. "All I have is very sparse, very little information, and I think that's true for a lot of people working in the human rights community, in addition to reporters."

According to Guellali, the political context of the statement could shed light on why the interior minister chose to make this accusation now. The Tunisian government has been under fire for allegedly asking adult women for authorization from their husbands or fathers before they travel to certain countries in the Middle East -- Ben Jeddou was justifying any restrictions by saying that the government was attempting to prevent women from embarking on "sex jihad" in Syria. The interior minister has also made the fight against extremist Salafi groups a centerpiece of his term in office. Suggesting that Tunisian Salafi women are sleeping with dozens of Syrian rebels could be another way to discredit them.

Reports of Tunisian women engaging in "sex jihad" in Syria have ping-ponged around the media for months, though the interior minister's statement is the first time it has been given an official imprimatur. As journalist Sana Saeed catalogs, the first reports appeared on Lebanese new channel Al Jadeed and in the pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat, which cited a fatwa by famed Saudi cleric Mohammed al-Arefe justifying the practice. Arefe, however, subsequently denied that he had done so, saying that "no sane person" would sanction such a thing.

Pro-Assad media have been only too eager to advance the idea of "sex jihad" as a way to tar their opponents. Syrian state television ran an interview with a 16-year-old girl named Rawan Kaddah in which she admitted to the practice. The Syrian opposition, however, denounced the program as staged and blasted the regime for exploiting children in such a way.

The only real evidence of women embarking on "sex jihad," comes not from Syria but from Tunisia's Chaambi Mountains, an area in the west of the country that has often been the site of clashes between the military and jihadists. Tunisian security forces there arrested several girls who were allegedly involved in the practice. Guellali said that she spoke to the mother of an 18-year-old female who was involved -- the mother said that a woman close to the Tunisian militant group Ansar al-Sharia got her daughter tangled up in a network of girls in the area.

But the scope of the problem -- and whether it is related to Syria in any way -- remains a complete mystery.

"It's a bit disturbing that we have these kind of declarations and then there is no follow-up," said Guellali. "[The authorities] threw out this information that they had several cases of women coming back pregnant, but there is no tracking of the cases either by the Ministry of Women or the Ministry of Interior. And they won't give any further information."

FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images