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Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Thursday, June 09, 2011

US public prefers parochial view of world 

Read with interest Li Xing's glowing review of the Chinese media in the China Daily last Friday. The gist of her article is that American news media outlets tend to focus on domestic news, because that is the only thing Americans are interested in. Although her criticism may seem a bit extreme, since national news outlets in the US do discuss international events, it must be admitted that there is a lot of truth to what she says, especially for someone who has had the opportunity to compare American news services (she refers specifically to television) with what is available on CCTV. Viewed from that perspective, I tend to agree with her, because I do watch CCTV 9, the 24 hour English Channel.

As I mentioned in a post a couple weeks ago, there is a misconception among foreigners in China regarding Chinese news outlets. Some seem to be under the impression that every news report they see in China is propaganda dictated from the highest echelons of the Party. In fact, much of the time, even government news outlets are left alone to do their job, as long as they do not present reports that portray the Communist party negatively. CCTV is a very high dollar outfit, which the Party keeps handy to use for its purposes. But this means that if you are watching news about something going on in other parts of the world, the coverage can actually be quite good.

The problem in China though, is that local news is quite limited. China is great at reporting about what is happening on the other side of the world, as a distraction from what is happening here in China. Most notable recently is the blocking of any mention of the protests in Inner Mongolia. Go to any Chinese media outlet web site, and do a search for any news about the Inner Mongolia protests last week. Nothing. These protests are profoundly significant, because they are the most volatile protests in 30 years, and because Mongolians are usually held up as an example of a minority that generally gets along quite well with the idea of being Chinese, while still retaining their cultural identity. But news about these protests is completely unreported in the Chinese media. This is a very common occurrence in China. In China I have actually been told, "If I want to know what is going on in my country, I need to ask a foreigner." Chinese people tend to be the last to know about what is going on in China.

But it isn't just local news. CCTV does have some very informative news reports about news in other countries. But it also puts out misinformation when it is ordered to do so by the Party. And they don't announce it. In all the years I have been in China, I have never heard an announcement like "We interrupt our newscast to bring you some misinformation from the Communist Party." They just sort of slip it in and hope you don't notice. For example, several years ago, when China was going through a "hate Japan" phase, I was watching CCTV and there was a report on the buildup of the Japanese military. Those of you who know the history will know that, in fact, Japan doesn't have a military. It was proscribed by the constitution MacArthur wrote for the Japanese people after World War II. Japan does have a defense force, but it is a rather docile outfit. I suppose the CCTV propagandists felt that if they showed an actual clip of the Japanese defense force, it would not inflame emotions the way they wanted, so they slipped in some footage of the North Korean army. You can imagine my bemusement. I'm listening to a report on the buildup of the Japanese "military," while the North Korean army is goose stepping across the screen. You might wonder how they thought they could get by with that. I suppose they figured they had kept the average viewer ignorant enough so that they wouldn't know the difference. They would have to have been quite ignorant indeed, because the North Korean army has a very distinctive uniform. It doesn't look at all like the Japanese defense force. But, sad as it is to say, I would venture that the majority of viewers bought it hook, line, and sinker. Maybe that's why, when I tell people that I am from Japan, they often respond with "We hate Japanese." That hatred is very carefully crafted by China's government media, and swallowed whole by viewers who have been discouraged from thinking critically from the day they were born, and proceeding throughout their entire education.

So the two problems in China are lack of information, and misinformation. American viewers have the opposite problem. It is information overload. And that overload includes a very high dosage of trivia. Americans are so busy trying to find out which movie star is having an affair with whose husband, that they don't have time to even think about anything really important. So Americans tend to know a whole lot about really trivial stuff. American students are not discouraged from thinking critically the way Chinese students are. They would never tolerate the propaganda foolishness that Chinese people take for granted. But the problem with Americans is that they are never really required to think at all. So Americans also do not tend to think critically. This is why I have often said that the two most ignorant groups of young people I encounter are Chinese young people and American young people. The Chinese are ignorant because they always have only half the story (if that)--the half the Party wants them to have. And Americans are ignorant because they have very independent ideas, but precious little truly important information. News outlets in America are largely driven by advertising, so they publish what the people with the most money want to read or see. News outlets in China are not all controlled by the Party. There are many independent news outlets that are not required to publish Party propaganda. But the Party can and does order them not to contradict the Party line, and also forbids them from publishing articles relative to certain issues the Party does not want the people to know about (such as the current unrest in Inner Mongolia).

Now, that having been said, I do watch CCTV. I like being able to walk in and turn on the TV to get a quick news report. When I first moved out here to the village, I thought perhaps I would not get a TV. But I found that I missed CCTV, so I finally got a small 13 inch TV. I don't watch it a lot, but I do like having it available. And it's a refreshing reprieve from the information overload and incessant advertising of American television. But you do need to watch it critically.

And I buy the China Daily every day. The China Daily has some fascinating feature articles about ordinary people in China. I say "ordinary," but in fact, many of them are actually quite extraordinary. When it comes to national and international news, however, China Daily is rather pathetic, except for the reports from international wire services. There are "debates" in the China Daily, and they are announced as "debates" in big letters to show that China allows "debate," but the "debates" are sterile and boring, because they can never touch anything political. You would absolutely NEVER see a debate about the merits of allowing Tibet to be independent, or whether or not China has a right to take Taiwan by force. Never. You see debates like, "Should apartment buildings in South China be equipped with hot water radiators like the apartment buildings in North China?" But this is reasonably easy for we foreigners to live with, because we have so many other ways to get information, and it is easy for Chinese people to live with, because if you've never been allowed to think for yourself, you wouldn't know what you were missing.

Li Congjun, president of the Xinhua News Agency, wrote an interesting OP-ED piece on this subject for the Asia Wall Street Journal the other day. His article complains about the imbalance in the flow of information between East and West (much more information flows from West to East than from East to West), and suggests "negotiation" to address this problem. He talks about establishing international "rules" that will correct the imbalance. Reading between the lines, what he seems to want is for the Western media to place more control on their output, so that China's media controls won't look so obvious. This will help the international media to become an "active force for promoting social progress." It's not going to happen, Mr. Li. The purpose of the media is not social engineering. It is about allowing the free flow of information, so that free citizens can make informed decisions. What Mr. Li doesn't say, is that a big part of the imbalance of the flow of information from West to East has to do with news about China.

Zhao Ziyang was the premier who refused to approve the Tiananmen Massacre. He was very influential in introducing economic reforms in China, and had a lot to do with the initial opening up of China after the Cultural Revolution. But he fell out of favor with Deng Xiaoping, because he refused to approve the slaughter of young people at Tiananmen. He was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life.

Zhao Ziyang died in January of 2005. I remember reading about it in the Wall Street Journal at the coffee bar. There was lots of information about what Zhao Ziyang had done for China (in terms of economic reforms), along with several editorials concerning the state of reform in the Country. After reading and mulling over this information for a couple hours over a cup of coffee, I walked out into the street and bought a copy of the China Daily. The sum total of everything the China Daily had to say about Zhao Ziyang's passing was encapsulated in one terse article. The one statement that caught my attention was
In the political turbulence which took place in the late spring and early summer of 1989, Comrade Zhao committed serious mistakes.
What mistakes? And mistakes according to whose judgment? Chinese young people are not allowed to ask questions like that.

This was not [supposed to be] an editorial. It was a regular "news" report. But this is my problem with China Daily. Articles in the China Daily read like they were written by middle school students who still don't know the difference between an editorial and a news report. Blatant editorializing in "news" articles is so common, one wonders how in the world those kids ever made it through journalism school. I have no idea. As a consolation, there are usually several articles from international wire services, which are written by professional journalists according to Western standards of journalism.

One of the most famous pictures of Tiananmen is the picture of Zhao Ziyang going to the Square to warn the students that the Politburo had decided to bring in the tanks. Standing just behind him in the picture is his young assistant, who, of course, is Wen Jiabao, the current premier. Naturally, I was very interested to hear what sort of tribute Wen might pay to his former boss during the period of his passing. Nothing. Not a whisper. I was absolutely dumbfounded. Sometimes I think China is a very strange country. Li Congjun seems to hope that western media outlets would impose some of this strangeness on themselves so that China's strangeness would seem less horrifying. God forbid.

China is changing. The government's decision to block Facebook during the Xinjiang trouble has spawned a silent revolution, particularly among young people. When I first came to China, young people seemed to be mainly uninterested in seeking access to web sites that were blocked. But the blocking of Facebook and Youtube changed that. There has been an explosion of VPN's among Chinese young people. Go to Google or Baidu and type in "VPN," and you'll see what I mean.

Last night, I went to the prayer meeting at church. One of the items we were praying about was the autonomous regions of China. I mentioned the trouble in Inner Mongolia, which resulted in a scene I have seen played out over and over again in the years I have been in China--intelligent, educated professional people plying me with questions, trying to find out what was going on in their own country. It is a scene you cannot quite imagine if you have never lived in China.

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