Posted by: Third Tone Devil | 8 April 2008

Chinese reactions to Western media coverage of the Tibet clashes

Unlike most instances of naysaying that this site covers, anger about Western media’s biased reporting on the clashes in Tibet has been noticed by English-language media, both blogs and print. The anger in this instance is partially justified. Chinese bloggers — for instance, those on the newly created site — typically cite instances where footage of police brutality against Tibetan demonstrators in Nepal was used with captions like “Unrest in Tibet,” not actually claiming but probably leading viewers to believe that the footage depicted Chinese police beating Tibetans. Other complaints are about the manipulation of images by CNN, some of which have been cut to make them seem more clearly depict brutality against Tibetans, while the originals could possibly be seen as documenting violence by them. CNN has removed the main incriminated image from its site, while RTL — a major German channel — apologised. So the grievances seem real enough.

(One issue that no one seems to be particularly interested in — except for a short article in this week’s Economist — is why a country that has just now undergone what is understood to be a democratic transition that all but forced the king out of his throne seems to have so little sympathy for demonstrators against another autocracy. Is it pressure from China or a general lack of concern for the rights of foreigners? I wonder if there are any serious voices in Nepal that have protested against this.)

The reactions to these distortions in China have been far louder than any discussion of what actually happened in Tibet. Not that the latter could be freely discussed, so the comparison is not a fair one; at any rate, indignation about bias against China mobilised many more Chinese netizens than the actual rioting and crackdown. Mainstream news portal’s Global Chinese Signature Campaign to Protest Western Media’s Distorted Reporting on the 3/14 Lhasa Beating-Looting-Robbery-Arson Incident has so far gathered 287 thousand (!!) signatures. Some journalists reportedly received death threats.

Yet the discussions on English-language blogs included posts by a number of self-identified residents of China, who laid out thoughtful arguments in a sophisticated style. Ethan Zuckerman’s blog points this out as an instance of “bridgeblogging” (blogging across different language spheres): another reminder that the Chinese Internet is essentially a national medium, and moving beyond its borders is an unusual activity. (How ironic for those early pundits who prophesized that the Internet would homogenise the world wipe out all languages but English!) One comment on Zuckerman’s blog on 29 March, by Colin L., read:

English is a second language for me, as you can tell. One thing western media have given little attention to is that they actually have a significant reader base from China. People read in English silently, and one day somehow such silence is broken. Western media are confused and shocked by questions like why these people hate us, why they are accusing us of bias. It is funny to see their self defence though I personally don’t think western media should be accused as a whole.

Another reader, Wendy, wrote on 30 March:

…just because Tibetan Chinese citizens do not share their government’s attitude toward the country’s unity is no reason to kill innocent people [referring to the 19 people killed by protesters, according to Chinese media], and I fully support the Chinese government’s attempt to restore stability to the region. Desire for independence is not the best logic for violence, whomever it comes from!

Perhaps the most poignant response to a similar discussion on Rebecca MacKinnon‘s blog — but going beyond it — was by Twofish:

China is in Tibet because most Chinese (myself included) emotionally believe that Tibet is part of China, and because of some random historical events that gave rise to this belief and maintains it [sic]. … If you don’t take into account these emotional beliefs, you lose Chinese, like myself, who are relatively liberal on the issue of Tibet. I don’t have a problem with Tibetan autonomy. I don’t really have a problem with working with groups that promote Tibetan autonomy and culture. However, if you come in with the attitude that Tibet should be independent and I’m a war criminal and an evil person for believing otherwise, I’m sorry, but I just can’t work with you. If you come in with the attitude that I’m an idiot and brainwashed, then I also can’t work with you.

And parts of the Chinese internet — though they did not challenge the reports of destruction by Tibetan protesters, corroborated by many accounts of terrified Han Chinese residents of Lhasa — did give room to Tibetans’ grievances, though not militant ones. Thus, Lian Yue’s blog (hosted by Bullog, the former host of Fatty Luo’s) has a “Letter from a Tibetan Lass” (actually a professional woman living in a non-Tibetan area), which relates her personal experiences of discrimination in employment, forcible loss of language as Tibetan schools are inferior to Chinese-language ones, and a general dissembling of ethnicity in the face of widespread Han Chinese bias against Tibetans as dirty and primitive. These complaints, of course, are of an entirely different nature from those that accuse China of deliberately destroying Tibetan culture. According to Rebecca MacKinnon, a professor of journalism in Hong Kong, Lian Yue has written elsewhere that the only way to prevent violence was to allow the press to report freely in Tibet.

The well-known blogger He Caitou (He the Cabbagehead) joined the fray late. He wrote that he had initially refrained from the debate because he took the Dalai Lama’s adherence to non-violence seriously, and yet could not disregard the fact that monks in Lhasa were looting and killing. What prompted him to react after all was Western media’s patronizing tone in its reporting about Chinese anger to its mistakes. In his post, entitled “Thanks for the disservice,” he writes that the assumption of Western media that Chinese citizens are all brainwashed and need guidance does a disservice to those Chinese critical of the government. “Actually I don’t like any kind of Olympics … but now I say, Go fuck your mothers! … From now on, Chinese people are going to unite under the national flag and with unprecedented speed renounce ever more individual rights and freedoms, in order to escape more insults and humiliations.” Despite the militant tone, this is clearly more than frustrated nationalism.

He’s post prompted a variety of comments, many quite sophisticated. tttyy argued that CNN had not done much distorting, considering the caption “Tibetans throw stones at army vehicles” conveyed what was happening clearly enough. (He was rudely clobbered down by Cabbagehead.) Fluxion sayd that though CNN may have been inaccurate, Western “mainstream media” were still the only force that could “penetrate the Harmonious Firewall to give fat guys like you who sit in front of the monitor 35 hours a day an idea.” The general tone was critical of CNN, but also of the CCP for blacking out information.

So while Western media has picked up on this instance of naysaying as evidence for growing nationalism, reactions have actually been relatively restrained and multivocal, compared to what we have seen before. Moreover, that so many Chinese posters pay attention to Western websites (and German, English, French television) is a significant development (and one pointed out by many posters who wrote that Westerners were under the false impression that Chinese netters access fewer information sources than they). This doesn’t mean, of course, that there is no retaliation — by Internet posters as well as the state. A posting by an expatriate resident in Peking on Oriental-List, a travel-related discussion group, on 8 April quoted a hotel manager as saying that

all front of office staff that were foreigners, in particular, French, Swiss, German
and Canadian, that were working in the hotel industry were having their
visas revoked and being sent home. I have tried to get hold of this info
from other sources but have not found anything. This was direct
retribution for these countries attitudes to the ‘troubles’ as it was
felt inapropriate that these nationals be allowed contact with the
public during the Olympics.


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