Is it Time to Shred the 'Paper Tiger'?

At a press briefing at the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Wednesday, a reporter asked a question that seems to come up whenever China attempts to do anything of global significance: Is China a paper tiger? His question pertained to China's controversial new air defense identification zone, and the government's failure to respond when the United States defied it by flying two B-52 bombers through the area. At the briefing, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson deflected the question, saying: "The word paper tiger has its special meaning. You should look it up."

Well, we did. And guess what: Everyone has a different definition.

Journalists seem to never tire of comparing China, in one way or another, to a paper tiger. Is China's economy a paper tiger? Are its cyber threats a paper tiger? How about its banks? Or it's ability to innovate? The list goes on. Apparently, everyone wants to make a paper tiger out of China. Ironically, it was Mao Zedong who helped popularize the phrase that journalists have now come to rely on when disparaging the country he shaped. But in Mao's usage, it was the United States, not China, that deserved to be called a paper tiger. In a 1956 interview, he had this to say about U.S. imperialism: "In appearance [U.S. imperialism] is very powerful but in reality it is nothing to be afraid of, it is a paper tiger. Outwardly a tiger, it is made of paper, unable to withstand the wind and the rain."

The paper tiger, according to Mao, has two distinguishing characteristics: It's shallow show of strength and its disengagement from ordinary people. "The wind and the rain" refer to the masses, both in the United States and elsewhere, who will batter the tiger until it finally crumbles. Could this apply to China? To find out, we took Mao's 'paper tiger' interview and replaced all mention of the United States, Americans, and imperialism with the words "China" and "Chinese." Here's an excerpt:

"Now [China] is quite powerful, but in reality it isn't. It is very weak politically because it is divorced from the masses of the people and is disliked by everybody and by the [Chinese] people too....

At present, [China] is powerful, but when looked at in a broader perspective, as a whole and from a long-term viewpoint, it has no popular support, its policies are disliked by the people, because it oppresses and exploits them. For this reason, the tiger is doomed. Therefore, it is nothing to be afraid of and can be despised. But today [China] still has strength, turning out more than 100 million tons of steel a year and hitting out everywhere."

For what it's worth, China churned out 716.5 million tons of steel in 2012.

Anyway, Mao's definition isn't the only one out there. Years before Mao popularized the phrase, Amelia Earhart used paper tigers as a metaphor for fear. In 1998, Osama Bin Laden described the American soldier as a paper tiger, "unable to endure the strikes that were dealt to his army, so he fled." Philosopher Paul de Man used paper tigers as a metaphor describing anxiety around the emerging field of literary theory. (He concludes that one should just call a cat a cat.) 

Merriam Webster defines "paper tiger" simply as "one that is outwardly powerful or dangerous but inwardly weak or ineffectual," which is probably what journalists mean when they use it. Still, the phrase has been used so liberally and so often that, like Mao's original tiger, it begins to lose its teeth. Perhaps it's time for a new definition -- one from Bill Watterson's much loved comics: As Hobbes, Calvin's striped cartoon companion, once defined "paper tiger," it's simply "a tiger with a newspaper route."

Flickr/'No Matter' Project


The Top Five Career Paths for Berlusconi After Being Booted from Politics

Poor Silvio Berlusconi. On Wednesday, his colleagues in the Italian Senate effectively declared him unfit for office and voted to expel him from the body.

The vote effectively caps the former prime minister's tumultuous fall from grace, one that has featured rampant allegations of tax fraud, underage prostitutes, and wholesale corruption. In short, Europe is losing arguably its worst and most entertaining politician.

That has headline writers around the world in dismay, and no one would like to see Berlusconi launch a second act more than the journalists who have gleefully covered his time in politics.

To that end, here at FP we have some ideas about how good ol' Silvio might spend his retirement. Without further ado, here are some suggested career paths for how Italy's most polarizing politician can put his sunset years to good use.

Russia's ambassador to the Holy See

Sure, he's been nailed for tax fraud and having sex with an under-aged prostitute, but Berlusconi is already something of an informal religious emissary. Not only are his policy positions famously friendly to the Church -- as prime minister he expanded subsidies for Catholic schools and stood as a bulwark against gay marriage and euthanasia -- the Great Seducer is also apparently skilled in the art of proselytism. As one attendee of his famous "bunga bunga" sex parties told an Italian radio host in 2011, "He loves God, he speaks to God. He is a believer and thanks to him I have become religious as well."

What's more, Russian President Vladimir Putin has already mooted his old friend for the coveted diplomatic posting -- if we are to believe the rumors circulating in the Italian press. "Putin intends to give Silvio Berlusconi a passport, a diplomatic passport, which would allow him to spend the rest of his days in his foreign residences: Antigua or Bermuda, or perhaps St. Moritz," an unnamed MP from Berlusconi's Forza Italia party told the right-wing newspaper Libero. Now stripped of his parliamentary immunity, the ambassadorship would have the obvious benefit of shielding the former prime minister from further legal trouble. It would also give him the chance to smooth over what has been a turbulent relationship with the Church. So what if the Vatican has slammed Berlusconi for his "worrying weakness for young and flowing actresses" and for throwing the "whole country into chaos." Catholicism is all about forgiveness, right?

Certified Public Accountant

Are you an Italian business tycoon who hates paying taxes? Is the government's nickel-and-diming cutting into your bottom line? We've got just the accountant for you. It took Italy's Court of Cassation 208 pages to detail Berlusconi's ingenious scheme to avoid paying taxes on the roughly $320 million his offshore companies pocketed after inflating the price of TV rights to U.S. films as they relicensed them for domestic broadcast. The former prime minister, in the court's words, was "directly responsible for the masterminding, creation and development" of the tax-evasion plan. If you're thinking it might not be a good idea to hire a guy who is probably headed to prison, consider how long it took him to get nailed: Berlusconi was slapped with his first tax-fraud conviction in 1997 and he's only now been expelled from the Senate. There might not be an Italian word for Teflon, but the smart money is on Il Cavaliere to keep the charges from sticking.

A beauty salon for world leaders

With his face frozen in an eternal botox-ed smile, a retired Berlusconi could probably
pull off a stint at Madame Tussaud's impersonating his own wax figure. But it seems the sprightly 77 year-old's energy would go to waste at the famous museum. Instead, the man whose ageless glow can be attributed to extensive cosmetic surgery should turn to opening a high-end beauty salon geared toward a high-powered clientele. According to Berlusconi, who took a leave of absence during his tenure as prime minister just to rejuvenate his face, getting  plastic surgery "shows respect to those who expect you to represent them on an international and national stage." For roughly the price of what your country gives to combating malaria (Bill Gates estimated Berlusconi's expenses for hair-transplants to be just that, or less), you'll get an entirely new look, which might help you stay in power for more than two decades.

The salon could offer an "Il Cavaliere Pearly Whites" teeth whitening service, a hair replenishing specialist (where you could choose from the "color-in" option or a nice hair-plug), and a make-up artist who uses just the right amount of guyliner, inspired by "the Great Seducer." Finally, the salon would provide tanning services under the name "Get Your Obama Tan On," as Berlusconi seems to be convinced the U.S. president has the perfect tan.

The end result? For the small price of wearing a stylish white bandanna for a few weeks to hide the scarring: an overwhelming burst of youthful energy. A little cosmetic surgery will make you feel just like the former prime minister -- "40 to 42 years old in all aspects of life."

'Bunga Bunga Tours'

Nothing short of a huge international success awaits the "Bunga Bunga Tours" cruise line. A former cruise ship singer, the prime minister would be returning to his roots -- only this time, he'd be running the luxury liner, and running it with style. Like his infamous Bunga Bunga disco parties, for which Berlusconi now faces serious charges, the guest list will exclusively include powerful old men and not-so-powerful young women. The cabins would be supplied with stripper poles, and the balding men in hawaiian print shirts would have a wide variety of slightly underage female escorts to choose from, all dressed in costumes ranging from the classic sexy nurse or sexy nun to U.S President Barack Obama, if anyone so fancies. To avoid some unfortunate legal mishaps,"Bunga Bunga Tours" would probably be sailing only in international waters.

FIFA president

If all else fails and the Vatican decides that Berlusconi's various transgressions cannot be forgiven, the Bunga Bunga luxury liner crashes and sinks, and Vladimir Putin sues his friend Silvio for a botched hair transplant, the former prime minister can always turn to a post at the governing body of his favorite sport -- soccer. His resume, brimming with qualifications in fraud, debauchery, power-grabbing, and bribery, would go right to the top of the pile for the position of the president of The Fédération Internationale de Football Association -- or FIFA. It's possibly the most corrupt post in sports.