One Woman Rolls Her Eyes and Captivates a Nation

Midway through a news briefing Tuesday, the blue-clad reporter had enough. A fellow journalist in a red jacket beside her was asking how Beijing would keep tabs on overseas investment under President Xi Jinping’s Belt-and-Road infrastructure program.

Her query meandered. “The transformation of the role of state-assets supervision, centered on capital management, is currently a subject of widespread concern,” she said, then kept talking.

The clock ticked.

Disdain appeared to creep across the face of the woman in blue as she listened to the roughly-45-second softball.

When the woman in red finally got around to her main question, the woman in blue had raised a fist to her chin and furrowed her eyebrows. She cast sideways glances at the speaker and around her. Then, with a toss of the head, she executed an eye-roll to make Miley Cyrus proud.

For viewers, it was a rare flash of unscripted emotion amid stage-managed tedium. “It was like she was expressing frustration on behalf of the rest of us” over the scripted nature of the event, says Zhang Lifan, a Beiijng-based independent historian who has written critically about the government.

A meme was born, setting phones vibrating around China.

.. The eye-roller, Liang Xiangyi, a television reporter for Shanghai-based Yicai Media Group, emerged as a kind of folk hero for those tired of the turgid pageantry.

.. A Tuesday column on Chinese online-media firm Sina Corp.’s technology news portal attempted to explain why people roll their eyes: “Human eyes feature more white areas than those of other primates, therefore we have a special ability to communicate through eyeball rotation.”

.. Ms. Liang “was like an innocent child who blurted out that the emperor has no clothes,” Mr. Qin says, adding that the incident allowed “ordinary people with no opportunity to participate in politics to express their scorn and discontent in a roundabout way.”

..  “It means that what we crave in these sham, everything’s-great events is something real.”

.. Spoof videos surfaced featuring men and women re-enacting the scene.

The Body Language of Power

In this, as in so many other ways, Germany’s chancellor is a near-perfect opposite and foil to Mr. Trump. And when it comes to modern power, she is the model. She is in her twelfth year in office and odds-on to stay in it for another four after the election on September 24th. Behind her stretches a long line of failed challengers and rivals — men who had charged at her hard and who are still wondering what went wrong.

.. Mr. Schröder, whom the German press called an “alpha animal”, decided to create facts on the ground. He burst out with a forceful verbal barrage, insinuating that the moderators were biased, asserting that he was the real winner and disparaging Ms. Merkel. Constantly interrupting all his interlocutors as though in some dominance ritual, he blurted out, “Do you seriously think that my party will take up an offer of coalition talks from Ms. Merkel in this situation, in which she says she wants to be chancellor?”

.. Ms. Merkel’s reaction was more interesting. Whenever the camera strayed from the dueling silverbacks and zoomed in on her, she had a neutral expression, or a look of mild puzzlement, but never one of anger or annoyance. Her hands mostly stayed folded on the table in front of her. She hardly spoke at all. In effect, she responded to Mr. Schröder by not reacting.

.. Something had revealed itself that day on television between Mr. Schröder and Ms. Merkel. “When he entered the room, she had lost the election. When he left, she had won the chancellor’s office,” recalls Wolfgang Nowak, a former adviser to Mr. Schröder, who nowadays also has the ear of Ms. Merkel.

.. “Nobody is like her,” says Gregor Gysi, who was opposition leader in parliament for much of Ms. Merkel’s current term. Mr. Gysi is widely considered the wittiest speaker in German politics, and his job in the Bundestag was to needle and provoke the chancellor. But all of his attacks fell flat. Merkel never took his baits; he never got a rise out of her.

.. Ms. Merkel, he says, reminds him of his experience in the 1970s, when he was a lawyer in the East German dictatorship. During interrogations he could always crack the men, he says, but against a certain kind of woman he had “no chance”, provided they did not make the mistake of trying to be like men. Hillary Clinton made that mistake, Mr. Gysi says. She blew a presidential election in America against a man who is almost comical in his pseudo-virility. By contrast, Mr. Gysi says, “Merkel’s secret is that she has found a method against the men, but the men have found no method against her.”

“Merkel gets stronger by letting the men be men,” Mr. Nowak agrees. Many of these encounters resemble that televised encounter with Mr Schröder. “She let him do all his wrestling poses,” recalls Mr. Nowak. And in the end the macho always throws himself on the mat, with her left standing.

.. Take sex out of the equation for a moment, and her approach is reminiscent of the Japanese martial art called aikido. Its fighting style is based on channeling, rather than countering, the energy (ki) of an opponent, in such a way that the opponent overcomes himself. The underlying insight is that, as an aggressor attacks, his center of gravity is necessarily in flux and becomes unstable. A skilled fighter uses this. The result has less to do with tipping the opponent than with letting him fall.

.. The ultimate origin of aikido, as of Merkel’s style, is thus not strength but weakness. Morihei Ueshiba, who founded the martial art in the 1920s and 30s, was frail in his youth and so short (155cm) that he missed by one centimeter the height requirement to be drafted into the Japanese army for the Russo-Japanese war. Humiliated, he started hanging himself from tree branches and steel bars to stretch. He realized that he would never win through brawn, so he needed another method.

.. She has what Germans call “X legs” (knock knees) that make her appear to waddle more than walk. She takes a certain pride in her lack of athletic ability. A few years ago she fell and cracked her pelvis while cross-country skiing. Her spokesman, as part of his press briefing, said that “we assume low speeds.” She found that hilarious.

.. Machos such as Mr. Putin have themselves photographed riding horses bare-chested and flying with cranes. Mr. Trump cannot resist rebutting suggestions that he has “small hands” with unsubtle hints that “there is no problem” elsewhere. As though aware that she is their foil, Ms. Merkel embraces, even emphasizes, her physical frailty.

.. He speaks fluent German, just as Ms. Merkel, who spent the first half of her life in communist East Germany, speaks fluent Russian. When they converse, they often speak German and address each other with the informal du.

.. Ms. Merkel’s advisers, aware of Putin’s black Labrador Koni, had informed him in advance that she does not like dogs because she was once bitten by one.

.. The ploy backfired on Mr. Putin spectacularly. The German and foreign press was beside itself with indignation, whereas nobody got the idea that the chancellor’s vulnerability in the presence of the dog made her weak vis-à-vis Russia or its president. Instead it was Mr. Putin who looked as though he was compensating for a shortcoming. He had “to prove he’s man,” Ms. Merkel later told reporters, because “he’s afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.”

Today, according to people who have been in their meetings, Angela Merkel is the only Western leader Mr. Putin genuinely respects.

.. Ms. Merkel’s strategy is called “asymmetrical demobilization”. It means taking all the excitement out of the campaign so that voters for the other side stay home on polling day, thinking nothing much is at stake for them.

..  Her Social-Democratic challenger, Martin Schulz, tries desperately to whip up excitement at campaign events, with sweeping hand gestures and jabbing fingers. Ms. Merkel, meanwhile, keeps her hand movements to a minimum. Often she just defaults to her characteristic “Merkel rhombus”, which is really more of a kite formed between her hands.

.. “She manages to keep her finger tips barely touching even in stressful situations. That suggests that Merkel has a low cortisol level. And we choose those people as leaders who take longer to feel stress. So she is signaling something that she is not even aware of.”

.. Her body language is thus calming — to herself and her audience. The subliminal message is that politics is endlessly complex and demands expertise and subtle analysis — hers. In parliament and during debates, she often does what has been called her “dance of trust”: She sways back and forth, as though weighing alternatives, with her hands fine-tuning invisible air buttons.

.. Completely missing from her body language are dominance gestures. Ms. Merkel “gets on a stage, gets applause, lifts her hands for a greeting, but in that expansive gesture simultaneously ducks her head,” says Mr. Verra. She makes herself large and small at the same time. She does not lunge at an opponent but waits until her opponents fear looking weak and attack, thus initiating their undoing.

How does Angela Merkel wield power? If she gave an honest answer, she might cite Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikdo: “It’s not that I am so strong—they [are] wrestling with themselves and spending their energy on the air.”