You are currently browsing the archive for the Taelspin category.

Part I of two parts. The second installment, “Improving Wikipedia,” will run on Thursday, October 9.

By Charles W. Hayford

My name is Charles and I’m a Wikipedia addict.

I can’t help myself, but then, neither can 75,000 other “active contributors.” We don’t just look things up: we create articles, correct and introduce mistakes, send each other notes, and fuss over issues great and obscure. Anonymity lends a carnival air of freedom and community since, as the famous New Yorker cartoon had it, “on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog” (and yes, the link is to a Wikipedia article).

Wikipedia is an internet galactic cloud of information. Nicholson Baker, who once crankily lamented the end of the library card catalogue, in a review of John Broughton’s Wikipedia: The Missing Manual (NY Review March 20, 2008), calls it “just an incredible thing.” It’s “fact-encirclingly huge, and it’s idiosyncratic, careful, messy, funny, shocking, and full of simmering controversies—and it’s free, and it’s fast.” Wikipedia, he says, is the “convergence between the self-taught and the expensively educated.”

What’s in it for China folk? In the near future we will have at least three major print encyclopedias of China, so now is a good time to ask how Wikipedia stacks up, especially for those of us who are teachers.

The lures are obvious. Where else can you so quickly find a list of six translations of Liaozhai Zhiyi, Zhu Yuanzhang’s birthday, chopstick etiquette in four Asian countries, or not quite enough about postage stamps and postal history of China? Even weak articles often have supplementary internet links which make them worthwhile. You can find the translation of a current or tricky term by locating it in the English Wikipedia, then clicking on the link (at the left side of the page) to the article in the Chinese Wikipedia.

So what’s not to like?

When I asked around among my friends, I got an email from a recovering Wikipedian who has gone cold turkey and wants to remain anonymous, perhaps for the sake of his family’s safety:

“First, as long as you edit relatively peripheral articles, you are not likely to get involved in any dispute and people are happy to see you sharing your knowledge. However, if you venture into the more contentious articles in our field – especially the ones involving the “three T’s” – you realize that almost any contributions may be reverted by different interest groups that police these pages. At that point, you either give up or engage in a discussion on the discussion page, and that is when you realize that Wikipedia is as much a discussion club as an encyclopedia and tenacity often prevails over truth. If you want to be proven right, it’s not enough to give credible sources to support your argument, you need allies, and in order to get allies you need to talk a lot. The consequence is that you end up talking to people rather than editing articles…. many talk pages on Wikipedia are larger than the actual articles! You also realize that most people get their information on the internet and not in libraries. The fact that a scholar is widely published on the internet (but disdained by academics) often makes him a stronger source than a thoroughly researched book that may be two decades old.”

These observations are from the point of view of editing, but let’s spell out the consequences for how we read:

□ While many articles are detailed, proportionate, and sound, others are woolly, evasive, partisan, and about as reliable as a paper crutch. There’s no way to predict which is going to be which. Readers who most need reliable information are the least able to distinguish.

□ Wikipedia is a collaboration of anonymous amateurs: “Out of mediocrity, excellence.” But if anybody with access to the internet can edit an article, how do you know if that dog (with or without lipstick) got Zhu Yuanzhang’s birthday right?

True, mistakes are less of a problem than you might think. When one experiment deliberately introduced mistakes, almost all were quickly corrected. But they chose areas which are well populated. Are there enough China people out there who can correct mistakes?

□ And what if it’s not a mistake but unbalanced judgment or omission? For instance, assertions from Chang Jung and Jon Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story (Random House, 2005) were systematically inserted into a wide range of articles for which more appropriate sources were available, such as Second Sino-Japanese War, among many others. Neither the article on Liaozhai Zhiyi nor the linked article on Pu Songling mention the standard study by Judith Zeitlin, Stories of the Strange: Pu Songling and the Chinese Classical Tale (Stanford University Press, 1993) or Jonathan Spence’s discussion in Death of Woman Wang (Viking 1978).

□ In theory, the process is self-generating and perhaps self correcting, but it’s not self-limiting. To see the process in action, look at the article on Xiang Yu, Liu Bang’s rival and the hero of the Beijing opera “Farewell My Concubine” made famous by the film. Click on the “History” tab to follow how one bare paragraph in 2004 became a more than full chronicle of some 8,000 words (though it has an officious tag “This article does not cite any references or sources”). Who decides what is too detailed for a casual visitor wanting background to the film? (A useful task for you to take on: find wooly articles and write or re-write the lead paragraphs to make them into useful summary introductions to the topic.)

□ Too often collaboration turns into a version of the party game where each person adds a paragraph to the story without seeing what went before. This is serial contribution, not teamwork.

The article Chinese Literature, for instance runs a little over 5,000 words (that is, shorter than the article on Xiang Yu). There are useful facts and individual comments but the article strikes me as confusing and shapeless, not a good place to send students. Sections of the article describe periods and genres, with links to perhaps several hundred articles, many of which are nicely done, but the crucial introductory paragraph, which should summarize and set the themes, reads in its entirety:

“Chinese literature extends back thousands of years, from the earliest recorded dynastic court archives to the mature fictional novel that arose during the Ming Dynasty to entertain the masses of literate Chinese. The introduction of widespread woodblock printing during the Tang Dynasty (618907) and the invention of movable type printing by Bi Sheng (9901051) during the Song Dynasty (9601279) rapidly spread written knowledge throughout China like never before. In more modern times, the author Lu Xun (18811936) would be considered the founder of modern baihua literature in China.”

□ Wikipedia prose is stilted and timorously qualified. The “Guide to Writing Better Articles” includes “avoid weasel words,” but you can’t look at more than an article or two before you start to cringe.

□ The basic Wikipedia principle NPOV, or “Neutral Point of View” often actually turns out to be “No Point of View” or “The Last Point of View Standing.” If everybody has authority, then nobody has authority to shape or set a theme. Articles simply accrete.

□ Users of the English Wikipedia outside China will not be directly affected, but there is a continuing question of censorship or blocking access within the PRC. Rebecca MacKinnon discusses with founder Jimmy Wales whether “China will change Wikipedia or Wikipedia will change China.” Will editors be tempted to self-censor?

Wikipedians recognize these objections. The frank though rambling article “Researching With Wikipedia” is an excellent summary of the pitfalls and drawbacks, with links to other good articles. The jist: “You should not use only Wikipedia for primary research (unless you are writing a paper about Wikipedia).”

These problems lie with the very nature of the creature, which cannot be changed without killing it. Wikipedia’s nature reflects the interactive, anonymous, flat, and decentralized “Web 2.0,” which includes Google, FaceBook, YouTube. This probably will lead to the end of reading books, of libraries, and of civilization as we know it.

The flat internet breeds a clickable link mentality which expects everything to be available instantly and acts as if anything that’s not clickable (in English, please) doesn’t exist. True, as my colleague Alan Baumler points out, vastly more articles are available online. But because much of human experience is not clickable in English, the usable world is reduced to the present. As an MA student remarked to a librarian friend of mine when he recommended an article which was not online, “I don’t do paper.”

The interactive and decentralized internet is flat, that is, it reduces hierarchy. Populist bloggers welcome the end run around elites in the national media to allow direct access to the facts. The early film director D.W. Griffiths suggested that when movie cameras became widespread, historians would no longer be needed since anyone could look at the photographs to prove what had or had not happened.

These all misunderstand the nature of knowledge by confusing “data” with “facts” and “analysis,” and contribute to an anti-intellectualism disguised as anti-elitism. Wikipedia’s sense of community – a good thing – sometimes defers to the anonymous persistent voice rather than to the well informed and accountable expert.

Even the claims to internet democracy may be exaggerated – 1 percent of Wikipedia contributors account for nearly half the participation. The WikiProject Countering Systemic Bias is a cool minded analysis and call for help in balancing the predominately male, white, English speaking geeks who live in affluent Northern Hemisphere countries and do most of the editing.
In the end, I will stick with my Wikipedia habit. The fun and information are hard to beat, and I’m not harming anybody but myself. Wikipedia intensifies the problems we discussed, but they would not go away if Wikipedia did.

The most important argument is that people use it: the article on Chinese Literature has been visited nearly 10,000 times in September 2008, the article on Chiang Kai-shek, 32,000 times and “Mao Zedong” more than 175,000 times, ranking it in the top 800 articles. As the elephant said when he pooped on the walk, “that’s here to stay.”

The good news is that Wikipedia allows us to compensate for the problems by our participation. Part II will discuss practical tricks, shortcuts, neglected features, and how to make best use of your talents in editing.


I will post further references and links at Frog in a Well, where you are also welcome to post comments.

I would like to thank Alan Baumler, Kate Merkel-Hess, Konrad Lawson, Ray Lum, and a friend who wishes to be anonymous for their suggestions.

Charles W. Hayford is a visiting professor in the Department of History at Northwestern University and author of To the People: James Yen and Village China.


One of the most recent targets of China’s self-appointed net detectives—practitioners of the pernicious phenomenon known as the “human flesh search” (ren rou sou sou)—is not an unfaithful husband, a kitten killer, or a Tibet-friendly Chinese student. Instead she is someone who is, supposedly, a comely young woman whose father owns a coal mine and who recently immigrated to Seattle, cash, flashy cars, and Louis Vuitton luggage in hand. Definitely not from Butcher Holler. And, as it turns out, a fake.

The human flesh searchers, who mete out internet justice and facilitate the harassment of those who fail their moral and political tests, have been active this year. Though some bloggers have traced the practice as far back as 2001, it has come under greater scrutiny this year as the first human flesh search case winds its way through the courts. The case has been brought by that unfaithful husband, Wang Fei, whose wife threw herself off their 24th floor Beijing balcony after posting to her blog about her husband’s cheating ways. In search of vengeance, netizens tracked down Wang’s information, harrying him with threatening emails, phone calls, and even a net-organized posse who showed up on his doorstep. In the Western media, human flesh searching gained increased attention after Grace Wang, a Chinese student at Duke University, received death threats (and her family in China was forced into hiding) after she was captured on film attempting to mediate between pro-Tibet and pro-China protestors on campus. In both cases, searchers first discovered their target’s identity and then published their personal information on the web. Virtual and physical harassment followed.

In early September, the video of the coal mine boss’s daughter started to make the rounds. In it, a young woman in bug-eyed sunglasses issues a proclamation, written in bubbly characters, that cuts to the heart of current Chinese anxieties over increasing economic inequality and the shallowness of rampant consumerism:

“Recently spreading on the Internet have been a lot of domestic Chinese girls showing off their wealth…These domestic Chinese wealthy girls normally revel in vulgar tastes…This kind of nouveau riche showing off, I completely do not take seriously, and to compete with them would be lowering myself to their level. I post these pictures not to show off anything, but only to let those girls see clearly that the most important thing is having high tastes.” (translation from chinaSMACK)

The response from netizens was immediate. By mid-September, the video had garnered tens of thousands of comments. Commentators made comparisons between the coal mine boss’s daughter’s lifestyle and that of the coal miners themselves. With 70 percent of Chinese energy from coal, the industry is a national staple, but is also one of the most dangerous with thousands of deaths per year. And Shanxi, China’s West Virginia, has been ravaged by the extractive industry. For many viewers, the glossy pictures and self-satisfied tone confirmed fears that a new generation of wealthy twenty-something Chinese, pampered by their hard-working parents, would simply take their money and run from the poverty and environmental degradation that are the cornerstones of their wealth.

The video, which supposedly showed images of the woman’s Seattle house, cars, designer handbag collection, stacks of US currency, even her sneaker collection, was ripped apart by searchers who sensed that the video was a fake. One net detective proved that the photos of her Seattle mansion were actually pictures of Yao Ming’s pad. Another found the stills of “her” BMW on another website.

Eventually, searchers traced the video back to its original source. Roland Soong at EastSouthWestNorth reprinted (and translated) the account, originally from Shanxi News Net, in which the reporter notes that:

“On September 6, the netizen ‘Huanweichen’ was identified as the first one to post the video. Through the clues provided by the netizens, this reporter was able to contact here via QQ. She is a 22-year-old girl who claims to be a student at a certain university in Beijing. She is also the planner for a DV club. Concerning the many condemnations, she said indifferently: ‘How much is real on the Internet? Isn’t it more fun to have real and fake stuff? If you believe it, then it is real!’ She said that she uploads videos almost weekly for video websites. So far she had made almost 2,000 videos. Most of them are re-posts from elsewhere but some of them are her own creations. She does so for fun as well as the training experience in video production.” (for the original story, see 6park)

The duper Huanweichen’s response at being found out—“If you believe it, then it is real!”—embodies an increasing blurring between reality and fiction. In asking whether the distinction even matters Huanweichen not only engages a debate that has raged elsewhere on the internet—as it did in the US two years ago when the doe-eyed teen vlogger (video blogger) “Lonelygirl15” turned out to be a twenty-something graduate of the New York Film Academy—but she also questions the very desire that drives the human flesh searchers to such extreme ends.

In his book on the moral conundrums of another moment of unprecedented wealth in Chinese history, Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China, Timothy Brook writes that “as the prospect of wealth fueled avarice, the moral order that had held society together gave way” (2). Brook makes the connection between today and the late Ming, when the economy grew at a staggering pace, the silver trade drew China into global exchange, and elite culture was increasingly distinct from that of the peasants. The human flesh searchers insist that they will hold the line against the avarice they perceive has resulted from today’s massive social transformation and dislocation; Huanweichen, on the other hand, asks why we should bother at all, since in the Internet fantasy world we can all be the coal mine boss’s daughter.

Following George Carlin’s death last month, China Beat got to thinking about his “seven dirty words” and what those same “seven words” might be in China. We invited David Bandurski of China Media Project to write a satirical piece in the style of Carlin, riffing on this idea of banned words in China.

By David Bandurski

I love words. And I thank you in advance, dear citizens, for obeying mine. Words are dangerous and slippery things. Some people in the West will tell you that words are playthings, and that we should all be free to do with them as we please. But I want to tell you that words are really all we have – and this is why the Party has troubled itself to choose them so carefully on your behalf.

You will have heard, I suppose, that Article 35 of our nation’s constitution guarantees that you enjoy “freedom of expression.” You will no doubt agree, however, as a matter of moral principle, that responsible citizens must enjoy all things in moderation. No good can come of enjoying words too much – and this is why we have taken it upon ourselves to parcel out this freedom, so that all Chinese can enjoy words with more or less equal moderation.

Comrade Mao Zedong once said, “Power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” But words too are powerful. It is not my intention to spook you, dear citizens, but we must all remember the way that too many words under the policy of “glasnost” – a Russian word whose direct translation is “chaos” – spelled the end of the Soviet Union.

We must not forget – and this begins with not remembering – how Zhao Ziyang said on May 6, 1989, in the midst of popular demonstrations, that propaganda leaders should “open things up just a bit.” “There is no big danger in that,” he said. His words were careless, and the end result was chaos. Nobody wants chaos. Just try to picture what it does to GDP.

Comrade Zhao, you see, failed to understand the real power of words. He failed to understand that the Party and the masses must not be too profligate with them if they are to “do the great work of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” That is why the Party had to step in afterwards to reorder your words and ideas. We have our own word for this: “guidance of public opinion.” Say it with me: “guidance of public opinion.”

Good. Now, dear citizens, I think it is best to instruct you with a couple of examples of what I mean about words. This way you will understand how to use them with responsibility and care, correctly upholding – say it with me – “GUIDANCE of PUBLIC OPINION.” Right. I hope these examples will help you remember how to forget the right things.

There are more than 40,000 characters in the Chinese language. Fortunately, basic literacy requires only about three to four thousand of these words, which makes it much easier for us to keep an eye on the ones that matter. The most important thing is not the characters themselves, but rather how they are put together. Words are like chemicals. You have to mix them carefully. I’m sure you would agree that’s just good science.

Take, for example, the character for “people,” min (民). When we place it behind the character for “person,” ren (人), we get a very nice word that means generally “the people.” We can use it in sentences like, “The Party cannot do without the people and the people cannot do without the Party,” in which the Party and the people are more or less interchangeable.

On the other hand, if we take this harmless character min, and place behind it the character for “host” or “master,” zhu (主), the result, “democracy,” is a dangerous discharge that upsets the harmony of our first sentence. One simple character rips the Party and the people apart. We must not let words come between us, dear citizens.

This word, “democracy,” is a perilous word that must be handled with great care. The only ones we can trust to use “democracy” safely are trained Party scholars. They are able to neutralize the word by sealing it up in proper contexts. Phrases like “intra-Party democracy” and “developing socialist democratic politics” are some of the more advanced ways the Party has managed to quarantine this word and keep all of you safe. On the Web, we have more sophisticated technical means of protecting you – by blocking, for example, searches of words like “constitutional democracy.”

We are constantly improving our technical and other means of fighting dangerous words so that your thoughts and ideas can be healthier. But we do need your help and cooperation. This is a “people’s war” on vocabulary, and our enemies are spilling off the tongues of the West.

Still, if we use words like “democracy” at the discretion of the finer minds in the Party, this can sometimes help promote international harmony. In my report to the 17th Party Congress last year, I used the word “democracy” in a safe context more than 60 times. Hearing the word so often, Western media got a bit over-excited. Their words for us were kind and harmonious.

“Harmony.” Now that’s a nice word. What should you say to help you fend off dirty words like “democracy”? That’s right: “Harmony.” Say it with me: “Harmony.”

“Harmony” packs quite a punch for such a small word. It muffles socio-economic problems of all kinds, most of which have arisen from the last decade of reforms.

Let’s just say you’re eaten up with words about how you were kicked off your farmland to make room for a big shopping mall that lined your local Party secretary’s pockets. The Party deals proactively with such issues by stepping back and taking a birds-eye view of your grievances. We call this the “scientific view of development.” I don’t want to get bogged down in details – the Party prefers economy of words. But basically, we are working toward a “moderately well-off” and “harmonious society” where you can afford to buy Fendi at your neighborhood shopping mall.

Of course, a “harmonious society” can only be achieved by dint of hard work. No one can get anything done when faced with constant distractions. I urge you to keep your voice down and be “harmonious.” I know that’s easier said than done. And that is why the Party lends a hand, “harmonizing” news, blogs, chatrooms and any other places where words tend to cause trouble.

“Harmony” is one of my favorite words. It reminds us that the only way we can give proper and “scientific” attention to solutions is by drowning out the noise of nagging problems.

There are many words we’d rather you not say or enjoy publicly, especially as the Olympic Games draw nearer. But you need not worry yourself over this. The Party has put numerous measures in place to ensure that you are free to make the right word choices. Sometimes, as your options are managed, you may feel at a loss for words – and really that is OK. After all, so long as your tongue is tied, we have no reason to bind your hands.

David Bandurski is a free-lance journalist and a scholar at the China Media Project, a research program of the Journalism & Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong.

“Hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like roads across the earth. For actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many people pass one way, a road is made.” – Lu Xun

This past week marked the 89th anniversary of the May 4th demonstrations, the defining event of a decade of intellectual vitality and ideological debate as teachers, students, authors and scholars drew on a panoply of ideas to make sense of the world, their nation, and how best to build a strong and vital society.

At the heart of this movement was a true marketplace of ideas. Young intellectuals rushed to read the latest issues of their favorite journals, of which there were hundreds, pages brimming with the back-and-forth of open minds at work.

The question in the hearts of these youthful, educated elite: How to save China from the ravages of corrupt politicians, avaricious foreign powers, and the stranglehold of old thinking and culture? And yet while the question remained consistent, the answers were a glorious cacophony of disparate ideologies shouted in student halls and debated in faculty dining rooms, scrawled on notebook pages and set in printer’s ink.

Whether one was a follower of John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, Herbert Spencer, or Karl Marx (among many others), or an academic focused on using new methodologies to mine China’s past and cultural heritage, or sought elsewhere for a way to unite a nation against the forces arrayed against her, what made the May Fourth era so special was the free expression of ideas, and the willingness of the intellectual elite to listen, discuss, and then accept or reject different viewpoints on the merits of the arguments presented.

It is a legacy of which China can be justifiably proud. Not only was this a glorious time in the nation’s own intellectual history, it was one of the great periods of intellectual dynamism in the 20th century. Whenever I hear the callous remark—too often bandied about these days—that the ability to think for oneself is not a part of Chinese culture, I simply refer them to the debates between Hu Shi and Li Dazhao, the essays and reports which filled the pages of Chen Duxiu’s seminal publication New Youth, or the acid satire of Lu Xun’s stories.

And it wasn’t only between the pages. The young people of the May 4th generation organized, demonstrated, boycotted, loved, and lived according to a myriad of competing ideals.

In the PRC, May 4 is celebrated as “Youth Day” and as this important anniversary approached this year (with the added convenience of a May Day holiday), the self-conscious heirs to the May 4th generation organized their own series of demonstrations and boycotts to mixed success.

Like their May 4th predecessors, the young people of China today write espousing a strong Chinese nation and their rhetoric is filled with pride and optimism for their country’s future. The passion and fire of May 4 is certainly there as well, even if the new media is an electronic one: Sohu, Tianya, and a universe of blogs and BBSs represent the new New Youth.

But something is missing: That marketplace of ideas.

Today in China, even with the government tirelessly trying to limit access to alternative perspectives, bookstores and the Internet still abound with news, essays, translations, history, and philosophy, providing young people with an access to information far beyond the wildest dreams of the May 4th students. But the desire to find out more, the craving to challenge assumptions and formulate multiple perspectives on complex issues is woefully absent. The youth of today write more than ever, more than any generation in recent memory, terabytes of opinion available online—but the anger and passion and fire of the May 4th generation are now enlisted in support of a single worldview and a single perspective on a range of issues. A whole generation whose arguments are hard-wired: an authoritarian success story.

The actions of netizen fenqing and “Pro-China” protesters along the Olympic torch route around the world are strikingly antithetical to the spirit of May 4. For too many, it is no longer about expressing one’s own views, supported with the best argument and the most relevant available evidence; it is about using mob psychology, ridicule, intimidation, ad hominem attacks, and a variety of other means to silence those with whom they disagree. And the reasons for their disagreeing are for the most part anti-intellectual: I don’t like you, what you say is not what I’ve heard or learned, and those ideas make me uncomfortable–ergo, you’re wrong.

On the more extreme end of the spectrum, in the last few weeks we have seen physical violence in South Korea, the mobbing and intimidation of protesters in Australia, and death threats against a Duke University co-ed. This is not debate. This is debate with CCP-characteristics. Students grow up immersed in a system that teaches people what to think and not how to think. The culture of debate, critical argument, and the rigorous scrutiny and questioning of assumptions is simply not a part of the PRC educational regimen.

That’s a shame. The CCP was founded by key members of the May 4th movement, including Chen Duxiu, and the Party is proud of this heritage. The May 4th demonstrators make up one of the iconic images on the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square. Sadly, though, while the image of the May 4 generation remains chiseled forever in stone, their spirit is rapidly being lost.

Foreign media coverage of the demonstrations and riots in Lhasa, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Gansu two weeks ago has sparked a significant backlash here in China. State media continues to release increasingly shrill diatribes against Western media bias as Chinese netizens take to the internet with their own protests sparked by a general perception that coverage of the riots was purposely warped and skewed by anti-China forces in the West. (For a sampling in English, check out the back and forth on this forum hosted by that bastion of journalistic integrity and objectivity: The China Daily.) There’s a whole website devoted to attacking CNN, and in this age of user-generated online content, we see the battle spilling over onto (the recently blocked and unblocked) YouTube. Moreover, some of these videos and blog posts seem intended for a wider audience, not just for domestic consumption.

Over at the popular online forum Tianya, I stumbled across a thread in which a patriotic and enterprising youth has cut and pasted pages from a media directory, telling readers that the telephone is their greatest weapon and they should use it against the foreign news organizations:

If someone is there, inquire about their mother (ahem). If they don’t pick up, keep calling and when somebody answers, curse them out and then hang up—the idea is to jam the lines so the SOBs can’t use their telephones. [paraphrase]

Charming. I remember playing this game once. When I was 12.

On a more serious note, criticism of Chinese government actions and policies is once again perceived as being anti-China, but that said: those who claim that some foreign media organizations have reason to apologize might well be right.

In the hours and days following the event, there were several cases of words and especially images misrepresenting what was going on in Tibet. While I doubt this was due to a global anti-China conspiracy (a state-sponsored bogeyman if there ever was one) it certainly suggested sloppy journalism. As the first news of significant unrest emerged from Lhasa on May 14, it seemed like one of those stories that writes itself, which is a classic trap for any journalist: “Tibetan Monks! Chinese Troops! Film at 11!” Not that the Chinese coverage was any more nuanced (“Let’s blame it all on the Dalai Lama Clique!”), but at least CCTV and Xinhua wear their lack of objectivity on their sleeve.

For its part, Xinhua blamed the Western media bias on a “cognitive blackout,” and many foreign journalists in China do need a more sophisticated understanding of the issues in Tibet. Unfortunately, the government chose to respond to this cognitive blackout with a news blackout. In the absence of information, the mind races even as the fingers type, and western journalists are generally trained in such a way that when a government appears to be hiding something, it must be something worth hiding, and so they begin to suspect the worst. On the day the violence erupted, only The Christian Science Monitor and The Economist had people on the ground filing stories as Beijing Street in Lhasa burned. Everybody else was in Beijing (the city) desperately trying to get as close as they could to the action but to little avail: the government was not letting any more foreign journalists into Tibet. Facing the demands of a 24-hour news cycle, and working with rumors, recycled information, and a limited pool of images and footage from Lhasa, too many journalists relied on preconceived notions and faulty assumptions with predictable results.

When sympathy demonstrations and unrest broke out in ethnic Tibetan regions in Sichuan, Gansu, and Qinghai, foreign media representatives rushed to these (slightly) more accessible areas, resulting in a flood of “Dateline: Xiahe” stories even as the PSB, local cops, and the usual hired goon squads tried to keep the foreigners away from hot spots. One Beijing-based journalist out west last week retorted that if a meeting of The Foreign Correspondents Club of China had been called in the Lanzhou airport transit lounge, they might have had a quorum. (On a separate note, FCCC president Melinda Liu has been quite vocal in expressing her disappointment and displeasure at the government restrictions on journalists covering this story.) Just yesterday, the Chinese government finally agreed to allow a select pool of journalists to travel to Lhasa, a move that backfired almost immediately.

The whole mess has become a PR nightmare of Olympic proportions.

Unsurprisingly, media coverage of Tibet was a major topic when Danwei held its Second Plenary Session here in Beijing on Tuesday night. It was an excellent evening and kudos to Jeremy Goldkorn and the Danwei team for putting it together. Featured speakers included Steven Liu, Olympic News Editor at Sohu.com and part of the duo that produce Antiwave (反波) a series of podcasts focusing on foreign and Chinese media; journalist Raymond Zhou who has written for The China Daily among other publications; Lindsey Hilsum, international news editor for Britain’s Channel 4 News and whose reports can be seen Stateside on PBS’s The News Hour with Jim Lehrer; and Jonathan Watts, East Asia correspondent for The Guardian and a last-minute replacement for CNN’s Jaime FlorCruz, who–it is safe to say–is not having the easiest week of his China career.

(On some level, you have to feel just a little bit for CNN: When Xinhua calls you out for lack of objectivity it’s a bit like Britney Spears suggesting that your life is out of control and you should think about getting some counseling, but I digress…)

Asked about claims of a western media bias regarding the Tibetan situation, Jonathan Watts called the events of March 14, “The most important story of my five years in China, and the most difficult to cover because we weren’t allowed anywhere near the story.” He strongly criticized the government’s decision to prevent journalists from traveling to Lhasa, a sentiment echoed by Lindsey Hilsum.

Raymond Zhou took a different view, arguing that Western media coverage of China has in general been far too negative and ignores the positive aspects of China’s development. “A farmer in the (American) Midwest, reading only the western newspapers, would get the impression that China is a dreadful place,” he said, responding to a question I asked regarding the differing role of journalists in the PRC (cheerleader for the government) and in Europe and North America (watchdog media).

Mr. Zhou has a point, except that the negativity of the media in Europe and the United States isn’t just directed at the CCP. The Bush administration constantly laments the lack of ‘positive coverage’ for the Iraq War. The front pages of the New York Times, Le Figaro, and The Guardian are filled with stories that would seem quite ‘negative’ when compared with the front pages at my local newsstand in Beijing, and as a daily viewer of the morning and evening CCTV news, I’ve noticed that this compulsion to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative stops at the water’s edge: CCTV never hesitates to trumpet the latest murder statistics, school shooting, natural disaster, or political scandal from America, not to mention the Chinese state media’s almost gleeful reportage on the ongoing US disaster in Iraq. (By way of recent example: A montage of Elliot Spitzer headlines, including those from the New York Post and New York Observer, occupied a prominent place in the morning newscast a couple of weeks back.)

I’m a historian by training, and as I’ve written elsewhere, history is a slippery ally in contemporary political disputes so I’m frustrated by the extent to which the historical record has been twisted and warped by both Chinese state media and the free Tibet crowd. But the truth is that history education in the PRC is highly politicized, and the state uses it to shape public opinion and to preserve the legitimacy of the government and the Party. The netizen response is a reflection of this, and this response has also received (at the very least) tacit official support from the traditional state media. I see a parallel here to the anti-Japanese internet fervor of a few years back, which was also given a pretty free rein and tacit official support until it threatened to hurt Sino-Japanese relations and the government stepped in and shut it down.

At the same time, while the Chinese-language online world is bursting with harsh condemnations of foreign media treachery, almost all opinions or ideas expressed in opposition to the official line are quickly blacked out, blocked, or deleted. There is little incentive for the government to allow open discussion of the Tibet question, and the curriculum of ‘patriotic education’ in the schools means that alternative perspectives on history or politics get short shrift.

The government line that China is becoming stronger and all this negative attention is mere jealousy also works on a basic level because it is a psychologically comforting response to a complex situation. Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “One of the best ways to enslave a people is to keep them from education. The second way of enslaving a people is to suppress the sources of information, not only by burning books but also by controlling all the ways in which ideas are transmitted.” When you have young people who grow up in an environment with a single point of view that is both psychologically palatable and which ties self-esteem to national pride, it’s not surprising that you get the “fenqing (愤青) phenomenon,” angry young Chinese who make up the bulk of these online demonstrations against the foreign media.

At the Danwei session, Steven Lin, argued that the role of the online forums was as a psychological release valve for these angry young people (actually the metaphor was a little more scatological, but you get the point). Raymond Zhou concurred and said that 99% of what is posted on the BBSs is “garbage.” That may be, and certainly the fenqing are more extreme than mainstream Chinese views on the subject, but not by much and their anger suggests that disruption of future events, not the least of which the Beijing Olympics, will be treated with the same indignant fury as the riots in Lhasa. These past few weeks, many young Chinese responded on BBSs with anger, natural enough given the brutality of some of the attacks on Han Chinese in Tibet, but it was anger tinged with real hatred. Sentiments such as “Forget the Olympics, ignore the Western critics,” “restore order at all costs,” “strike hard,” and “smash the Tibetan ingrates” reverberated in cyberspace, as well as more moderate views that called for foreign news organizations to issue retractions and apologies. A fax sent to several news organizations this week had “Shameless CNN! Shameless America! One day we Chinese will be strong!” written in a scrawling hand.

It’s true that following the outbreak of unrest on March 14, many in the foreign media dropped the ball, in some cases due to lazy or mistaken reporting, in others as the result of preconceived notions of the situation and a misunderstanding of the complexities in the Sino-Tibetan relationship. Meanwhile, coverage in the Chinese state media was little better in its histrionic attempts to portray the Dalai Lama as a demonic mastermind bent on splitting China and “re-imposing a slave society” on Tibetans. Chinese netizen response was sparked by outrage at flawed reports and a perception of bias in foreign coverage of the event, but i was also the product of an environment where the Party line is the only possible interpretation of either historical or contemporary ‘reality.’ Unfortunately, I fear this is not the last time in this Olympic year that competing expectations and perceptions, by the Chinese state and public on one side and the foreign media on the other, will result in unpleasantness. Stay tuned.


« Older entries