Time to drop anchors…
Mar 1, 2019 (WiC 442)

Mention CNN and the faces of its top news anchors will spring to mind. But could artificial intelligence render their role obsolete?

Xinhua news agency seems to think so after creating the world’s first female news reader. Called Xin Xiaomeng, she will make her “professional debut” reading the news during the upcoming ‘two meetings’ of the country’s national leglislature and political consultative body this month.

The AI anchor was created in collaboration with search engine Sogou. Based on images Xinhua has released, she looks like a typical newscaster and is also said to have convincingly real facial expressions.

Alongside Xin the news agency announced an updated model of male equivalent Xin Xiaohao, who can stand up and gesticulate. An earlier version was seen in November at the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen. “I will work tirelessly to keep you informed as texts will be typed into my system uninterrupted,” he explained helpfully in an introductory video.

Xinhua says that increased use of AI will bring down production costs. But perhaps the real upside for Beijing is that artificial anchors don’t veer off script.

Raising the red flag
Feb 22, 2019 (WiC 441)

Welcome to the “biggest city you’ve never heard of” declared Jeremy Clarkson in last Friday’s episode of his Amazon Prime show The Grand Tour (which he co-hosts with fellow ex-Top Gear presenters Richard Hammond and James May). He was speaking of Chongqing, the southwestern municipality with a population of over 30 million.

Much of the threesome’s hour-long show was spent in Chongqing where Clarkson initially test-drove the Hongqi L5, a limousine with the hefty price tag of £880,000. His review of the 3.2 tonne Chinese vehicle (known as a Red Flag in English) was more upbeat than WiC had expected, though he did insist on wrongly pronouncing its name as a ‘honkie’.

“I only saw this thing for the first time a few moments ago and already I’m in love. I love the way each door weighs the same as a medium-sized mountain. I love the flagpoles. It’s like a cartoon baddie’s car. Hongqi won’t say how fast it will do 0-60 but I don’t care about any of that because it is just magnificent and evil,” he concluded, before adding the rejoinder: “The price is mad.”

At this point Clarkson cooked up an idea for how a Chinese executive could get more bang for their automotive buck. Just as richer Chinese love to shop for discounted luxury in England’s Bicester Village, he proposed they could also buy second-hand elite cars nearby and have them shipped to China. Even after taxes were paid it would still, said Clarkson, cost less than purchasing a new Honda Civic in China and be great for Britain’s balance of payments.

To this end he brought an old BMW 750IL (costing £8,400) to Chongqing to persuade the Chinese that this was a bargain – being about a hundredth of the cost of the Hongqi. The usual crazy road tests followed with all three presenters driving their cars and marvelling at a drive-thru factory. It sold doors – five million per year (Hammond revelled in the English translation of its corporate slogan: ‘If employee us angel overtime, it is not devil when they get salary.’)

There was another scene where some goose intestines were dipped in a spicy Chongqing hotpot, which Clarkson memorably described as “rubber hosepipe coated in napalm”.

During their trip through western China Clarkson admired the scale of the road network. “In 1988 China had no motorways at all, and now 30 years later it has 84,000 miles of them. That’s more than any other country in the world. Since 2011 they’ve been building 6,000 miles of motorway per year. It beggars belief and it’s not like the terrain is easy – but there aint no mountain high enough to stop them.” Spectacular footage followed of incredible infrastructure feats: “This bridge, for example, is 34 miles long. Then there is the Duge Beipanjiang Bridge, you could fit the London Shard underneath it twice over.”

Still there was a recognition at the end of the show that their mission to persuade the Chinese to buy cheaper second-hand German cars while shopping in Oxfordshire had a flaw. “It was a good idea except this programme is shown in every single country in the world, except one: China. So this entire show has been an entire waste of time.”

Hoping for harmony
Feb 8, 2019 (WiC 440)

A long-running debate on Chinese social media about the differences between what the British say and what they mean is thought to have began with an article on the topic in The Economist in 2011. Yet many Chinese still find what they term as “English-style English” somewhat inscrutable. For example: grasping that the British are really inferring the opposite when they start a sentence with the phrase “with the greatest respect”.

On the flipside, what should we deduce from the message sent to Chinese-speakers by the UK government – via the Chinese calligraphy that adorned the famous black door of 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the British prime minister – over Chinese New Year this week?

Netizens were pleased to see a pair of well-wishing couplets framed by two striking cherry blossoms and the photo of the doorway soon went viral across Chinese social media. The couplets can be roughly translated as “the phoenix brings harmony and the dragon brings good fortune; the red peach blossoms in spring to celebrate the new year”.

Alongside the festive message, Number 10 hosted a reception to celebrate the lunar new year, welcoming a hundred schoolchildren – mostly from ethnic Chinese families in the UK or students at the London Mandarin School. Guests enjoyed performances played on the Gu Zheng – a string instrument, before tucking into food prepared by three master chefs from Tianjin, flown in specially for the event.

Theresa May, the current occupant of Number 10, also took part in the ‘lion eye dotting’ ceremony, an ancient ritual supposed to bring luck. That’s something that she will be needing as she heads into another tortuous round of Brexit negotiations.