Chinese whispers in the Big Apple

New York was unseasonably warm early last week, but despite the hint of spring the town seemed quiet. February was never a prime tourist month in any case, but now a rising dollar is eating away at the city's shopping appeal. There's a noticeable impact on the customarily casual service: taxis screech to a halt at the slightest sign of interest; bellboys race to pick up luggage; maître d's beckon clients inside exclusive restaurants. As Barack Obama struggled to get his $787bn stimulus package through Congress, Manhattan's high-end stores were in permanent discount mode: January seasonal clear-outs had morphed into three-week-long Valentine's Day sales, which then segued into Presidents' Day bargains - anything to get those shy consumers back on the job.

One fairly recession-proof organisation is George Soros's Open Society Institute. An event I was chairing at OSI's Upper West Side headquarters on Tuesday evening drew comment for the increasingly rare generosity of the pre-meeting buffet - as well, of course, for the intrinsic merits of the discussion on the future of internet freedoms with OSI fellows Rebecca MacKinnon and Evgeny Morozov, experts respectively on the Chinese and Russian webscapes.

MacKinnon produced a hilarious collection of videos of singing alpaca harvested from the Chinese web. The alpaca is a small Latin American camel that produces a fine light wool, but, it has to be said, is no great beauty. Why its sudden popularity among Chinese netizens? It helps to know that the phrase for alpaca, cao ni ma, literally translated as "grass mud horse", is only one tone away from sounding like "fuck your mother".

This is enough to make it the symbol of the moment for mutinous Chinese web users, and judging by the wide variety of alpaca videos on offer, there are a gratifying number of those. It's not often that I feel sorry for China's cyber police, but it must be tough to find an excuse to censor alpaca videos that doesn't make the police look as silly as the alpaca. (Not that ridiculous arrests are unknown in China: some Tibetan monks were detained for whitewashing a building that had once been used by an incarnation of the Dalai Lama. Whitewashing with subversive intent is as unconvincing a charge as unauthorised reincarnation, also against the law in China. Bodhisattva beware.)

MacKinnon also showed some irreverent responses to China Central Television's ill-judged celebration of the Lantern Festival, during which their overcharged fireworks set fire to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, a futuristic building from the studio of Rem Koolhaas. The Mandarin, which was still under construction and is now a smoking ruin, was next to the CCTV headquarters building, which Beijing wags have christened "the underpants" for its resemblance to a pair of standing longjohns. CCTV, meanwhile, having created this spectacular event, barely covered it, no doubt in deference to state instructions to bury the blaze. Like the Olympics-related disasters of last year, this is one bad omen Beijing would prefer not to publicise.

Back to New York on Friday to hear Hillary Clinton make her first foreign policy speech to the Asia Society elite at their plush Upper East Side premises. The society's departing chairman, Dick Holbrooke, who lusted for years after what is now Clinton's portfolio, has become Obama's man with the brief to fix Afghanistan and Pakistan, a thankless task which he has taken on with apparent enthusiasm. The secretary of state, meanwhile, keen to make some impact in the new job, was Asia-bound and this was her first public statement of what the world could expect from the new administration.

As the Asia Society is among those elite institutions suffering from diminishing endowments and shrinking donations in these hard times, the excitement of hosting Hillary engendered a certain amount of inner-circle ticket jostling. There was an impressive display of cosmetic surgery and some alarming helmet hair in the audience; Hillary herself, dressed in a bright scarlet jacket and black trousers, was refreshingly free of both.

The verdict on content was favourable, and not only because Clinton name-checked the Asia Society's recent road map on climate co-operation with China. She repeated the "smart power" formulation that promises less brute force and more persuasion than had been the case under the previous regime, and promised constructive relations with the rest of the world, including an offer of normalisation with North Korea in exchange for that regime's abandoning its nuclear programme. Though this is not the job she really wanted, Clinton handled questions with impressive knowledge and confidence. On the home front, she said, it was time that the US stopped turning its back on the future and remembered that it was meant to be the country that could fix things. Hear, hear.

Isabel Hilton is editor of Chinadialogue.net