March 2008

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James Miles of The Economist was in Tibet when the riots and protests started on March 14. China’s strict limitations on foreign journalists entering Tibet in the following days made Miles one of the few journalists who saw the riots firsthand. With all the attention being now paid to how the international media are covering the events in Tibet, we thought it would be interesting to find out how Miles felt about the questions he got upon returning from the field. Here’s how he answered us via email.

China Beat: Is there any question that you’ve been asked a lot since returning to Beijing that you think is off the mark or plays into simplistic or misleading thinking about a complex issue?

James Miles: No. The question I get asked most is what happened, and then why. What happened in Lhasa from midday on the 14th to late on the 15th did not fit the normal pattern of unrest in Tibet. It was not monk-led, it displayed little explicitly-stated political purpose, and it was violent. Reporters who interviewed me during the unrest and afterwards seemed to readily understand this. If I were a media studies specialist I’d have a very good look at this case. The foreign media were almost entirely absent from Lhasa (a couple may have sneaked in under cover after the riots broke out but would have had limited access). Yet I have seen some very good reporting on what happened, notwithstanding the Chinese media’s nitpicking. Reporting in the official press, by contrast, while reasonably on the mark as far as the violence goes, has been highly misleading by failing to look at the bigger picture of unrest in Tibet and beyond, by not asking what might have caused this anger and by portraying this as the actions of a handful of people organised by the Dalai Lama’s “clique.” It wasn’t a handful, and I saw no evidence to suggest anything other than spontaneity.

China Beat: Is there any question you wish you were asked? Maybe even are surprised you haven’t been asked?

James Miles: Again no. I found those questioning me from foreign news organisations wanted me to explain the story as I saw it. Their questions were often open-ended, putting the onus on me to tell the story as fully as I could. Some of them devoted considerable airtime and print and web space to what I told them. Nobody has asked how I felt being on my own, journalistically, in the middle of this huge story. Journalists hunt in packs on big stories, competing with each other but also cooperating with one another. Bouncing ideas off one another helps to sharpen our thinking. Having others there means that some can break away from the main story and look at what is happening on the edges. It is exhilarating being on one’s own, but this was not an exclusive of my own creation — it was the product of an environment where newsgathering is restricted.

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The cover story for the May/June issue of Good Magazine, just hitting newsstands, is “Don’t Be Scared of China.” Living up to their moniker as “media for people who give a damn,” Good’s China issue encourages readers to learn more about China and embrace, not hate, in features like the tongue-in-cheek play on tabloid Us Weekly’s “Stars…They’re Just Like Us” photo spread that declares “They’re Just Like Us…They Like Hip Hop” and “They’re Just Like Us…They Go To Vegas.”

Though this approach at cultural exchange is well-intentioned, it continues a particularly egocentric understanding of China as a recipient of American (increasingly presented as global) culture rather than a generator of trends of its own. This tendency crops up in the cover story—“Ten Reasons Why China Matters To You” by Thomas P.M. Barnett—in which reason number 8 is “Because China’s transformation echoes much of America’s past.” When Barnett writes that “right now, China is somewhere in the historical vicinity of ‘rising America’ circa 1880,” he reiterates this progressive view of history and its accompanying notion that there is a trajectory of development (exemplified by England and the United States) along which all nations travel.

Similarly, in an article on the ritzy Beijing development, “Orange County” (whose homes look just like their Socal counterparts), author Daniel Brook begins from the premise that modern China is familiar—perhaps even a replicate of the US—and, in his attempts to turn the replicate back on us (positing “If the Chinese are set on emulating us, we might as well give them something worth emulating”), reinforces the idea that the Chinese are indeed copying the United States (rather than a more nuanced view that would argue that the similarities in material culture mask deep differences in use and meaning). This feeds into the naïve belief that China will, indeed, eventually be “just like us,” rather than crediting that there are multiple legitimate paths to modernity, the majority of which do not look like America’s.

There is much to admire and enjoy in Good’s thirty-plus page China spread, including features on (and the art and photos of) many up-and-coming young Chinese designers and an essay by Jia Zhangke (the director of Unknown Pleasures, and Still Life, a recent film shot at Three Gorges Dam). In addition, regulars on the China blog circuit will recognize Jeremy Goldkorn (of Danwei.org) and Dan Washburn (of Shanghaiist) in a feature of interviews with expats who have lived (and stayed) in China.

Tibet 5: In the Third Week

With the crisis in Tibet entering its third week, we continue to sweep the web in search of interesting and/or informative pieces to bring to the attention of our readers. This fifth installment in the series is heavily devoted to retrospective works, which go back in time, either to detail what took place in Tibet in the past or explore historical analogies useful for thinking through the contemporary situation. Still, since the story continues to unfold and take surprising turns, we also include links to pieces that track very recent developments, both on the ground and in the debate over issues of coverage:

1) The Far Eastern Economic Review does a great service by making available, free from its archives, the magazine’s reports on the 1959 Tibetan insurgency.

2) Foreign Policy has posted a
thoughtful interview with Robert Barnett, author of the recent Lhasa: Streets with Memories and a leading American Tibet specialist based at Columbia University.

3) Ian Buruma, in “The Last of the Tibetans,” takes up the common theme of parallels between the treatment of Native Americans then and Chinese ethnic minorities now, but gives it some very interesting novel twists at.

4) The Economist, which continues to have the advantage over the other main Western media outlets of having had a reporter on the ground in Lhasa when the demonstrations and riots began, provides a valuable retrospective and update of things that just happened (like the disruption of a choreographed press conference by angry monks).

5) Richard Spencer, of the Daily Telegraph, offers an unusually wide-ranging and interesting discussion of the complexities to media “bias” concerning Tibet on his lively blog.

6) Parallels between recent events involving Tibet (and Iraq) and 1930s events involving Japan (and Manchuria) are explored by China’s Beat‘s Jeff Wasserstrom, in a commentary that muses on what Hu Jintao and George W. Bush might have to say to one another in Beijing in August. Donald Lopez, one of the leading American specialists in Buddhism and author of Prisoners of Shangrila, also posted a recent piece called “How to Think about Tibet” at openDemocracy, asking us to ponder the historical analogy provided by Latvia.

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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.

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Tibet Reading 4

The coverage and dialogue about the situation in Tibet has continued over the past days, evolving largely (in great part due to foreign media’s lack of access to Tibet and neighboring provinces where unrest has occurred) into a discussion on China’s media clampdown and the way the Tibet riots and subsequent protests are being read in China and abroad. Here are some of the apropos things we’ve been reading in recent days.

1. On Danwei.org, an intriguing short piece on YouTube videos, which asks if this might be “the world’s first international user generated propaganda war?”

2. When the crisis began, we were eager to see what Pico Iyer and Pankaj Mishra, both elegant writers who have penned thoughtful commentaries on Tibet in the past, would have to say, and we linked to pieces by each of them in earlier posts in this series. Now, on the New Yorker‘s site, as free content, at least for the moment, is a fascinating lengthy review by Mishra of Iyer’s new book on the Dalai Lama.

3. The Shanghaiist has a good short piece (with accompanying video) on the varied ways that the lighting of the Olympic torch in Olympia on March 24 (and the disruption of the ceremony by protesters) was covered inside and outside of the PRC.

4. China Digital Times effectively brings its readers to date on issues such as a petition by Chinese critical intellectuals calling for, among other things, an end to what they see as Cultural Revolution-type rhetoric in the government’s statements about the situation in Tibet.

5. “Riots” vs. “protests”? Outbursts of social unrest are often accompanied by battles over terminology, and Chinese bloggers have been complaining that the Western media has been using more neutral terms, such as “marches” to describe what in fact have been “riots” in Tibet and nearby areas. This piece in the BBC highlights a dilemma that Western journalists face, lacking direct access to the regions in question, and having only Chinese official reports to go on, which cannot be cross-checked easily with other sources–yet it does use “Tibetan riots continue in China” as its headline.

6. Several articles have been reporting on and breaking down the anger at the foreign media’s “bias” that has grown in China over the past week (fanned in a part by the government and its media outlets, and in part by nationalistic netizens). Read about its affects on foreign media and the atmosphere inside China here, or here. (There is also a piece in the Wall Street Journal, which requires a subscription.)

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