The Taelspin on Tibet: The Chinese Response to foreign media coverage of the 3.14 unrest

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 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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  1. Froog–

    China Beat has been in-transit for the past few days and without internet access. Your comments have now been posted.

  2. Froog,
    “Lighten up, man. I only make “assumptions” about your persona as you present it on blogs. You do sound ‘Chinese’ in that you do mostly put forward typically ‘Chinese’ attitudes (scorn for foreigners expressing opinions on China, extravagant denunciation and mockery of Western media, etc.).”

    You seem such a “sensitive” person and “meticulous” about wording, judging from your comments on this thread. But your comment above sounds rather insensitive and unfair to Pfeffer (especially when the “extravagant denunciation and mockery of Western media” by this commenter are well justified).

    Since you’ve been living in China for years, you should have known that there are some other no less “typical ‘Chinese’ attitudes” you left unmentioned. Ever heard of this no less typical one insisting that “The moon seen in China is less rounded than the moon seen in the West?”An indiscriminate and all-embracing of anything West attitude has done and is till doing horrible harms to China. I wonder why people like you who are often hyper sensitive and overactive to the so called Chinese “foreigner bashing” rarely pay serious attention to this type of ‘Chinese’ attitude.

    This has been a wonderful disscussion and I particularly enjoyed reading all your detractors’ comments, thanks to you.

  3. Ah, Chiditon, at last you have a name.

    To disparage someone’s thinking ability is an insult – you can’t get away from that. Apology accepted. But you undermine your contribution to the debate by saying things like that in the first place.

    I did not say that the topic of “bias in the Western media” was not important. I said that the instances of alleged bias the Chinese media had highlighted seemed to me to be “not that important” in terms of their quantity and degree, when considered in the context of the vast majority of relatively ‘unbiased’ reporting.

    I reached that conclusion after some deep thinking. Really.

    I have never denied that I may have some ‘baggage’ of my own – of course our cultural background and education tends to programme each of us with certain assumptions and prejudices. All I have said is that the influence of the Western media on the thinking of people in the West is not nearly so uniform, so overwhelming, so harmful, so thought-limiting as the influence of state-controlled propaganda is on Chinese people.

    Regarding Iraq, there was quite a lot of debate in the serious news media at the time (certainly in the UK, where I come from; but I think almost certainly also in the US, where most of my friends now live) about whether the invasion was justified, with a number of sceptical or opposing voices being heard. In the UK, Robin Cook, a senior politician and former Foreign Secretary, resigned from the government in protest at Britain’s support for the invasion: that provoked a lot of discussion.

    At that time, however, the threat of Saddam Hussein becoming able to deploy WMDs was widely accepted as real. As more information has come to light on this, the decision to invade has retrospectively attracted more and more criticism. The key question now is whether the US Administration deliberately lied over this issue to secure support for the war; that, I think, is still unproven, and perhaps unprovable; however, many people believe that to be the case, and it remains a central issue in the ongoing debate over Iraq.

    Regarding the environment, foreign companies tend to come in for closer scrutiny of their operations here than Chinese ones – from the government, from local media, and from foreign media. It is, however, probably rather difficult to gather information on individual violations. Therefore, most stories will take an overview of the situation – concentrating on the underlying reasons why pollution is such a big problem in China: poor regulation and enforcement, local government corruption, the impulse to cut corners in order to maintain high economic growth. I don’t doubt that if an egregious example of bad practice by an American company here comes to light, the foreign media will be only too happy to write it up.

    The supposedly “too positive” portrayal of Western countries within China is mainly limited, I think, to economy, technology, and lifestyle. The government here wants people to become more aspirational in order to boost domestic consumption – so the West (and Japan) furnishes useful examples of prosperous societies driven by the hunger for i-Pods, X-Boxes, HDTV, and next-gen mobile phones. Comment on almost everything else – sexual morality, drug use, crime, biased or dishonest media, corrupt or incompetent politicians – still tends to be overwhelmingly negative. This is particularly noticeable in school textbooks on “Life in America”.

    Pfeffer is a very bright fellow (sorry for the gender assumption there, Pfeffer, but your style does reek of testosterone rage) and I agree with quite a bit of what he has to say. However, Chiditon, if you really think his comments here have been “balanced” – well, I’m glad you’re not a tightrope walker; you wouldn’t last very long.

  4. I picked up an interesting thread on that I summarized on my blog about one Australian’s experience of the torch run there.

  5. Of course most Westerners don’t understand China like the Chinese do. But the problem with most Chinese, including those who study in the West and learn impeccable English, is that they are followers of a religion. It’s known as “Chinese nationalism”, and it precludes any rational analysis of the underlying assumptions of the case.

    The reason that the pronouncements of even the most articulate Chinese commentators here are virtually indistinguishable from the official line is the fact that both ordinary Chinese and the Chinese government are agreed on the basic tenets of the religion. Once you accept the nationalist line, all the rest is detail.

    Because the Western don’t support that particular religion, whatever they say is going to be ‘biased’. I agree that Western reporting is slanted in many ways, that it is unsympathetic to China, and that the slip-ups are a major problem. But what infuriates even the best-educated Chinese is not the ‘lack of understanding’ of the Western media. It’s the fact that the Western media refuse to endorse the tenets of their religion.

  6. Let me say that I have first hand knowledge of what’s happening in Tibet and particularly in Lhasa. I’m so despondent over it in general. It’s astounding that people can do this to other people and come up with the most insane rationalizations and justifications. Lhasa, my sacred city, has been turned into a mere fragment of itself. Tacky shops, restaurants, brothels, amusement parks, etc. The Han-Chinese population out numbers Tibetans. I just don’t understand humans, how they are able to do these things, with no feelings, no compassion, like robots. It’s not about the U.S. or any other country. It’s about my country, TIBET. I want to follow Dalai Lama middle way, non-violence, but I feel if we don’t do something soon Tibet and fundamental Tibetan culture will be all but gone. I cry every day for my people, for my country. I’m trying not become angry. I don’t want to hate. It’s very hard. I have lost loved ones. It’s very hard. I’m begging the Chinese and all Chinese who have moved to Tibet, please leave, please, we want our country back, it’s almost too late. We know it’s a lot to ask but you’re asking up to give up our country, our sacred homeland, you’re not even asking, you’re just taking. I give up. I don’t know what to say or do anymore.

  7. I fear that the plea we see above will only ever fall on deaf ears in China.

    The difference between Western media and Chinese nationalists is as follows:

    Westerners: Tibet is a part of China (but not necessarily happy with it).

    Chinese: Tibet is an inalienable part of China (and it is impossible that the people of Tibet could ever be unhappy with it).

    The Chinese nationalist, with his/her superior knowledge, “knows” that his belief is true, and can muster any amount of “factual evidence” to bolster that assertion. No foreigner could ever know enough to beat a Chinese at this game, because the Chinese is arguing from a position of total conviction.

    Since Tibet is an “inalienable” part of China, the Tibetans have no ideological, emotional or other defence against the continued colonisation of their homeland by other Chinese ethnic groups (in practice, the Han ethnic group). Thus the hopelessness of the plea that we see above.

  8. Interestingly I’ve read this entire thread and there is always skepticism/suspicion of things the chinese, be it the government or the people say but observing this thread I get the notion news coming from the free tibet movement receives far less critical analysis and is taken at face value more readily.

    I myself am not entirely familiar with the situation so I have been browsing many free tibet websites and they seem to employ subtle but sophisticated PR techniques such as Astroturfing.

    The post above Joseph K’s post seems to exemplify this idea. Joseph K’s post is highly critical of even “articulate chinese” as sharing the same nationlistic religion as the government but readily incorporates the words by anonymous accepting it as a real plea.

    The argument going back and forth touch on bias and propoganda but I find it surprising rarely anyone questions the free tibet movement’s propoganda, even the pro-china posters seem to ignore them.

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