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Chris Zheng

Wrongly Labeled “Anti-American,” Chinese Woman Takes to Web to Save Reputation–And Find Her Child

Ma Nan and her husband Byron Cole in happier times. (Via KDNet)

It’s a story of love, betrayal, and the very real danger of stereotypes. While a senior at Peking University in 1998, a young woman named Ma Nan (马楠) gained widespread notoriety within China as one of seven students to pepper visiting U.S. President Bill Clinton with sharp questions after his speech at the ultra-prestigious school, known colloquially in China as “Beida.”

After famous writer-dissident Yu Jie denounced her as “reciting dogma straight from the political textbooks,” Ms. Ma became known as “Anti-U.S. Beida Girl” in the Chinese media. Recently, Ma once again became a hot topic on the Chinese Internet after a bitter custody dispute between her and her American ex-husband went public.

Ma Nan: The creation of a media myth

Ma’s inadvertent life in China’s often-scathing public arena began in 2001, when it was revealed that she had ended up marrying an American man, despite her presumably anti-U.S. stance as a student.

It was not long before various incarnations of the story “Anti-U.S. Beida Girl Enjoys Happy Life in America” began to circulate in some of the more free-wheeling corners of the Chinese Internet. Seizing on the apparent irony of her dramatic conversion, media outlets and Internet commenters were quick to cast her into two easily-exploitable stereotypes. On one hand, she seemed to be a typical brainwashed “angry youth” (愤青), a derogatory term that refers to the more nationalistic and conservative members of China’s younger generation. On the other hand, she also fit the part of the materialistic, gold-digging Chinese woman who marries white men for their wealth and the chance to gain foreign citizenship.

For the past 14 years, Ma has had to contend with this inconsistent and artificially imposed identity. In the media, she is often described as having “chastised” and “berated” Clinton, especially in the field of human rights. To many Chinese netizens, Ma embodied the relentless ideological indoctrination of youth by the state. Simultaneously, her “defection” by way of marriage to an American was viewed as evidence of the impotence and hypocrisy of such brainwashing.

A cry for help

Recently, Ma Nan sought to enlist the help of the very Chinese public that had grown so used to excoriating her. Despite widespread misperceptions in both mainstream and social media, Ma Nan picked up the proverbial microphone and began to speak out through her Sina blog. But while Ma has attempted to refute the long-standing myth of the “Anti-U.S. Beida Girl,” her primary motive was to use the power of social media to find her now-missing husband and daughter. 

She wrote in her inaugural blog post:

My daughter Chanyin Kou (Cataleya Cala Cole) is a lively seven-year old girl of mixed descent. After school on May 15, she was taken away by my ex-husband Bailong Kou (Byron Ross Cole), and has been missing ever since. I implore any person in the know who sees this blog post to send Byron’s address and employer information to my email address at mamachina2012@sina.com. Right now people from both the Chinese courts and the American embassy are looking for him. I am certain that he and our daughter are in China, yet he is violating legal agreements by refusing to pick up my phone calls, give me information regarding his work and address, or let our daughter speak to me. Therefore, I can only hope that some kind person will be able to help me find him through a human flesh search. The most likely places for them to appear are Henan, Fuzhou, Xiamen and Shanghai.{{Chinese}}[[Chinese]]我的女儿寇禅音(Cataleya Cala Cole)是个活泼可爱的7岁混血小女孩。她在515日放学后被我前夫寇白龙(Byron Ross Cole)带走,至今4个多月音讯全无,下落不明。我恳请看到这篇博文的知情人,发寇白龙的住址和工作单位到我的邮箱mamachina2012@sina.com。现在中国法院和美国大使馆都在找他。而且我确知他、还有我们的女儿都在中国,但他不遵守法律协议,拒绝接我电话,也不肯透露工作和住址,更不让孩子和我通话。所以我只能恳请好心人帮忙人肉搜索了。他们最有可能出现的地方是,河南、福州、厦门和上海。[[Chinese]]

Cole shot back on October 26, posting a dozen Chinese-language blog posts in quick succession entitled “Regarding Some Unmentioned Facts in Ma Nan’s Blog Post.”

In his own posts, Cole accused Ma of being a follower of the Quan Yin Method (Guan Yin Fa Men), which is considered a cult organization by the Chinese government. Cole also alleged that Ma abused their children, a 9-year old boy and a 7-year old girl, by forcing them to eat vegan, and by brainwashing them with cult beliefs, including telling them that “the world will be ending in 2012, and those who eat meat will be eaten by animals in the next life.” As evidence, Cole posted his email correspondence with Ma’s father, and cited several personal texts from Ma. 

Ma quickly denied Cole’s accusations, reminding him that she had been vegan before they got married, and questioning his intentions. She denounced Cole for cheating on her, and revealed what she characterized as shady business dealings and unscrupulous connections with several public officials. 

Ma also took the opportunity to set the public record straight. She stressed that she married the American Mr. Cole primarily because he was supportive of her vegan ideas and practices. Despite rumors to the contrary, she had never studied abroad, nor had she moved to the United States.

Ma Nan, then a young woman, respectfully questioned President Clinton in 1998. (Via Ma Nan's Sina blog)

Moreover, Ma’s original challenge to President Clinton hardly seems to warrant an “Anti-U.S.” label. The original C-SPAN broadcast of Clinton’s speech at Peking University shows a relatively thoughtful and restrained Ms. Ma. Ma said, “I don’t think that there exists a [necessary] conflict between national freedom and personal freedom. … The prosperous development of China today is precisely the result of the free choice of the Chinese people, and the fruit of the active contribution of their efforts. … I don’t know if you agree with my viewpoints.”

In the video, Ma appeared confident yet respectful. While she disagreed with President Clinton, her comments were far from inflammatory or belligerent. 

Yet since that moment, Ma has repeatedly been portrayed as having reprimanded Clinton for America’s own human rights record. In fact, it appears that another student named Liu Lina was the one who reprimanded Clinton for America’s own human rights record, perhaps leading to confusion.

Liu said to the U.S. President, “To be honest, China and American really do have different views regarding the topics of democracy, freedom, and human rights. You proudly reflected upon the history of America’s realization of democracy and freedom, while at the same time offering China some advice. Of course we welcome advice given in good will. Yet I remember that someone once said, while we ought to be humble enough to accept criticism, we should also be courageous enough to recognize our own mistakes. In your opinion, don’t problems regarding democracy, freedom and human rights also exist within current American society?” 

Public reaction 2.0

With the facts increasingly clear, one mystery remains: Why Chinese media was originally so eager to tarnish Ms. Ma. Perhaps the popularity of rumors about her can be traced to the convenience and apparent irony of the fabricated story. Perhaps they speak to the sheer power of the stereotypes that people unfairly attributed to her. 

If anything is certain, it’s that Ma’s story fully demonstrates the power of rumor, even—or perhaps especially—within what was otherwise a tightly-controlled media environment in China. Both Ma and Cole’s blogs have received nearly half a million visits. Various online media sites, including Sina and Sohu, have reported on the incident, while the debate has quickly spread to Sina Weibo, China’s most active Twitter-like platform. 

On Sina Weibo, reaction to Ma’s public dispute has been decidedly mixed. While Cole’s accusations of cultism play to the largely atheistic mindset of the Chinese, Ma’s side of the story calls upon Chinese xenophobia, not to mention widespread anger at corruption and the prevalence of extra-marital dalliances. But the image of Ma as the “Anti-U.S. Beida Girl” still lingers on the minds of many Chinese. Prejudiced by the rumors that depict Ma as a hypocritical flip-flopper with no principles, many web users have found it difficult to believe her.  

Ironically, the same place where Ma Nan’s life took a strange turn from truth to fiction—the Internet—is where Ma has turned to rehabilitate her reputation and to find her missing daughter. While Ma has found her voice through her new blog, she may be disappointed, although perhaps not surprised, to find among her audience not a few deaf ears and unsympathetic onlookers. Such is the state of Chinese online media today.

[Correction: This article has been revised to clarify that Ms. Ma and Mr. Cole have two children together, one son and one daughter.]

14 Comments
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Chris Zheng

Chris remembers vividly the overnight train rides of his childhood that took him across China. He lived in New Haven briefly as a kid, where he went Easter egg hunting on the Green. After graduating from high school in Shanghai, he returned to New Haven for college. He is currently a Yale junior.
  • saf

    Last paragraph: Is she also missing a son? I thought it was her daughter.

    • Chris Zheng

      Hi saf, thank you for pointing this out. As far as we know, she is only missing her daughter. The error in the article will be corrected very soon.

  • saf

    Last paragraph: Is she also missing a son? I thought it was her daughter.

    • Chris Zheng

      Hi saf, thank you for pointing this out. As far as we know, she is only missing her daughter. The error in the article will be corrected very soon.

  • Milford CT

    New haven represent! haha

  • Milford CT

    New haven represent! haha

  • Justin

    There’s also a reference to Cole alleging that Ma abused their “children.” Is there more than one? If so, where is she or he?

    • Chris Zheng

      They have a son as well, by the name of 寇博龙。He should still be living with Ma. Cole alleged that Ma abused both of their children in the period before he took away Cataleya by forcing them to eat vegan.

  • Justin

    There’s also a reference to Cole alleging that Ma abused their “children.” Is there more than one? If so, where is she or he?

    • Chris Zheng

      They have a son as well, by the name of 寇博龙。He should still be living with Ma. Cole alleged that Ma abused both of their children in the period before he took away Cataleya by forcing them to eat vegan.

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  • Daniel Tynan

    The guy probably realized after being in China longer that he could do much better. I remember going to a Quan-Yin info session in Toronto. It is definitely a cult. .though I’m sure fairly harmless. It was rather simplistic like Christianity. Surprised the leader is still alive. she must be pretty old.

  • Joshua Karton

    Ma Nan was one my teachers in Beijing in the summer of 1999 (in the Princeton in Beijing program). I was a beginner Chinese student and in China for the first time, and had no idea that she was notorious! She is a highly intelligent, kind, and conscientious person, and was an excellent teacher. One of my classmates who had worked at an elite boarding school in New England tried to get her a job there. (I should say, though, that Ma did have some odd, new-agey beliefs even at that point.) I am really sorry to hear that her life has taken such a hard turn.