Sunday, April 20, 2008

It's all so stupid

I was planning to write a big post about Tibet this week, but now that I'm sitting down and writing it, it just seems like such a lame thing to do. The whole situation is just so weird and bad. Early in March, some Tibetans were arrested for a peaceful protests around Lhasa. On March 14th, violent ethnic riots erupt. Ethnic Tibetans were the main instigators of the violence, smashing Han and Hui stores and killing a few people.

Pretty bad, right? The thing is, that's not even the beginning. A few western media outlets picked up the story; several quoted sources (free Tibet groups), falsely blaming ethnic Chinese people for the violence. CNN and several French and German sites stupidly used cropped images of police arrests (the Tibetan rioters in the back ground were cut out), and images of police brutality from India and Nepal, which were attributed in the stories to China. Many of the western media outlets focused on China's history of brutality in the region, glossed over the fact that Tibetans were the instigators in this most recent violent outburst, and generally stuck to their talking points about China, human rights, and Tibet.

Now the fun begins. Overseas Chinese students-- the only mainlanders with access to western media stories because China at that moment was in total media blackout--were outraged at the shoddy reporting in western media and began a wide internet protest campaign. This website was created, among others.

The free Tibet folks, seeing an opportunity to grab the media spotlight, staged protests during China's Olympic tour in Europe and USA. They were violent, and they seemed to go out of their way to alienate by attacking elderly and disabled torch bearers. Western media outlets dropped the ball again by highlighting the protesters and "ominous-looking" Chinese security, and by deciding not to interview Chinese relay participants.

This has only increased Chinese outrage against the media, and western media in general. There have been violent blockades of the French chain, Carrefour, in China. Videos like this are easy to find.

There's so much going on here: hack journalism, angry nationalism, politics (come on, backing out of the opening ceremony is such a lame pointless move), oh yeah, and there is also the issue of oppression, which, while being constantly shoved to the front, often falls back out of sight.

Where to begin?


Chengora said...

I completely agree that several media outlets are guilty of shoddy reporting, and attributing photos in Nepal to China is definitely wrong. However, I’m just not sure if the photo was cropped for political reasons, or more for space issues (which, sadly, take precedence in many ways).

On your point about the fact that Tibetans caused the violent riots last month, it’s definitely true. But, the Chinese narrative stops there. It’s the standard tripe about splitting China, “the Dalai clique,” and some unfortunate racial/violent undertones.

In that regard, I think non-Chinese media outlets (I won’t say “Western,” because you should see what the Japanese and Taiwanese media say) are generally doing a good job. By tying the protests to the PLA/CCP’s actions in Tibet, they’re giving a much more honest appraisal of the motivations of the protestors. In that regard, while it may be “biased” from the Chinese point of view, it is informed by a much stronger information base.

As for the relay protestors, yeah, it’s really unfortunate that they’ve gone violent, although I must admit that the violence is fairly toned down. It’s nothing like the violence in Tibet and Xinjiang, on both the protestors’ side and the Chinese government’s side. However, one question I keep coming back to is whether the protests do any good. If the Chinese just get pissed off and more entrenched, does that set back the goals of Tibetan autonomy/freedom? From a strategic view, yes. But I think this is tempered by the fact that giving into Chinese demands hasn’t done very much for the past 50 years. So, while it may set things back, I’m not sure that it had very far to go back. In addition, the overall climate of ultranationalism – of the inability to reflect and indeed accept the humiliation that comes with recognizing that you’re wrong – that failure should be placed squarely on the Chinese side. It’s hard to have that self-reflection if the only political outlet you have is the state mandated one.

But that’s just my opinion. Your thoughts, guys?

hcduvall said...

Tired, huh? Frustrated, perhaps?That's what I get after paying attention too long too anything. That said, none of it is stupid. Because in all it's warty, amateurish, hack glory, this is what actually having enough information and the free speech begets. A flawed, ugly mess--but one where you are left with the ability to complain about what's missing. Probably too "view of the principles" pov for this discussion, but there you are. Basically, for all the shoddy coverage, the only reason you can piece together what sort of happened are the institutions built under "western" principles in the first place. Compromised as Free Tibet and its ilk are as a source, are the official Chinese sources--and every Chinese source is an official one--the one you'd go to?

And from that western point of view, which has given me the knowledge that ethnic Tibetans (or if I was a Free Tibet allied sort of fellow, just "Tibetans") and pretty much the consensus view, the Chinese gov't instigate it all with their policies. How large do you want to frame the story?The oppression angle, if you want one, requires it be larger than the Chinese want, and while it could do with more nuance and coverage, in context, are the instigators really Tibetans?

As for the Olympics, I can remember one athletic event. Someone ran into my classroom when I was still in elementary to tell us that Dan Jansen finally won the gold. Otherwise, every other salient moment was explicitly political. I doubt the efficacy of a boycott of anything, most of the time, but I don't think that's lame either. If these things matter more than the moment or three when we think about them, then the only time the athletes and the like have any platform to express an opinion is now.

As Chengora mentioned in his last post,, the Chinese gov't wants the Olympics to be a coming out party, and so it is. They want the stature of a superpower out of pure self-interest, and flawed as the American version has been, and troubled as the Russian (self-interest +not-American) version is, no one's ever gone quite about it that way, we'll see if they can get away with it.

Chengora said...

I'm worried that I'm becoming obsessed with this issue. I may need to unplug from it for a little while.

Before doing that, however, I wanted to highlight a nice, brief BBC article. The Great Firewall has just recently allowed certain blocked content to be viewed. A BBC correspondent discusses some of the challenges of reporting from China, as well as the particular difficulties of responding to a slew of inquiries now that BBC news is available. He writes:

People like Xie Huai from Zhengzhou e-mailed the site saying: "I often find that stories about China diverge from the truth. Why?"

The answer to the question lies in the word "truth". Only now are many Chinese getting the chance to debate the "truth" of foreign media publications (and only those not in Chinese) because only now are they getting a point of view on some important topics at odds with the one provided by the state-controlled media.

I find this thought-provoking for two reasons. First, in talking with GF yesterday, I expressed concern that even if the state media weren't preaching their position, the Chinese public would do it for them over the core issues of sovereignty, etc. That just made me really sad.

Second, this idea of "truth". It's something that I've noticed a bit in all media, this appeal to a common sense, "it must be a widely held belief". But in countries with solid free speech protections, it's usually countered with another group's narrative about what makes for common sense. The multiplicity of viewpoints themselves temper the discussion.

But the recent Chinese commentary on the blogs seems to be obsessed with this idea of (the Chinese) "truth," and there's this curious ability to declaim other opinions while not recognizing that they may not have all the information. There has been no temperance of these ideologies with opposing ones, and that lack of humility makes it enormously difficult to find negotiating ground on issues like Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan.

However, what I am most concerned about is that this stubbornness will persist well beyond the current generation of political leaders. You need only look at the Chinese protesters in the U.S. to see that the conditioning takes a long time, if ever, to shake off. (Granted, though, most of the Chinese protesters seem to have been either students or people who lived in Chinatowns - I think these are communities which are either cut off from some of the bigger debates, or just don't care.)

Anyway, I'm worried I'm becoming too emotionally involved in this issue. Any ideas on quitting cold turkey?