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Bridgeblogging Chinese anger over perceived media bias

It’s always encouraging when voices from around the world share your opinions. I’m buoyed by posts on Voices Without Votes that show international support for my presidential candidate of choice, and I’ve been thrilled to see Obama’s brilliant speech on race in America passionately discussed as far away as Brazil and Portugal is inspiring.

But it’s probably more important to be looking for international voices that challenge our preconceptions, rather than reinforcing them. I drove through Northhampton, MA on Sunday, where groups of protesters were spending their Easter flying Tibetan flags and condemning violence in Lhasa. I suspect there were similar groups in other college towns across the nation, and I’d suspect that the vast majority of Americans aware of protests in Tibet view the protesters as heroes and the Chinese troops quelling the riots as the enemy.

I’m not trying to challenge that interpretation – I haven’t followed the story closely enough and, frankly, there’s not enough reporting coming from the ground for anyone to be completely certain about what’s transpired in Tibet. But I think it’s a really good idea for people outside China to be aware of Chinese reactions to events in Tibet.

John Kennedy, Global Voices Chinese language editor, has an amazing report today titled “Bloggers Declare War on Western Media Coverage“. Kennedy points out that Chinese-language media is reporting “the news of Tibetans slicing children’s ears off and burning people alive,” and that many Chinese bloggers believe that coverage on CNN and the BBC has a strong pro-Tibet bias.

Kennedy writes about anti-cnn.com, a new site that identifies CNN as “The World’s Leader of Liars” and offers armchair critiques of CNN stories posted on the web. The site was founded by Rao Jin, a 24-year old entrepreneur in Beijing, who was interviewed by Jill Drew for the Washington Post – he tells her that over 1000 people have written in to the site to point to apparent errors in Western media coverage of Tibet. Many of the critiques focus on images of violence which are reported to be photos of Chinese police in Lhasa – the site’s authors argue that the police in question are Nepali, pointing to their uniforms and skin color. The site’s authors argue that these misidentifications are intentional, part of an agenda on the part of western media:


For a long time now, certain western media best represented by CNN and BBC, in the name of press freedom have been unscrupulously slandering and defaming developing nations. In order to achieve their unspoken goal, they mislead and they ensnare, switching black for white, confusing right and wrong, fabricating…willing to go to any length. (Translation by John Kennedy from Global Voices)

A video, which features many of the same images critiqued on the “anti-cnn” site has been viewed more than 734,000 times since March 19, and generated an animated comment thread of 23,500 posts. It’s beyond me to read all the comments, but I wasn’t seeing a lot of debate in the threads I scanned – mostly a lot of very angry people supporting the video’s authors, criticizing western media and arguing that YouTube was censoring comments. The “anti-cnn” site links to this video and videos on Megavideo.com, as well as a Powerpoint presentation and a PDF file covering much of the same material.

Westerners who are interested in Chinese media are regular visitors to Roland Soong’s remarkable EastSouthNorthWest blog, which translates Chinese media into English and vice versa. Many of his translations today focus on a controversial photo shown on CNN’s website. The photo as it appeared on CNN showed Chinese police in a street; the uncropped version showed Tibetan rioters who appear to be beating someone. It’s not hard to understand why Chinese bloggers believed that CNN had chosen to crop the photo to tell a different story. And CNN’s decision to change to using the uncropped photo without comment has simply angered bloggers further.

Rebecca MacKinnon is all over the story, leading her piece with an amusing story about her former employer. CNN was running a poll asking users whether the Olympics should be boycotted. A popular Chinese blog alerted readers to the poll and offered instructions in Chinese on how to vote “no”. Rebecca guesses that this lobbying effort was successful, as the CNN site later changed their poll to a less controversial question: “What do you think of a website that gives dolls breast implants?”

Rebecca notes that YouTube is apparently unblocked in China at the moment. This helps explain why videos arguing that Tibet is an indivisible part of China (and that the Dalai Lama is funded by the CIA to split Tibet from China) are receiving more than a million views. She sees this as an interesting moment for Chinese censors, who may be recalculating the benefits of blocking content:

Perhaps the Chinese government is feeling a little less worried lately about losing public support? Perhaps they are less worried that people will turn against the Communist Party after reading something in the Western media, now that it is no longer fashionable in many circles to believe what the Western media reports?

What strikes me about these videos is the fact that they’re explicitly for Western audiences, not for Chinese audiences. They make arguments in written English, overlaying captions on maps and screenshots. It’s clear that English isn’t the first language of at least one of the video authors. And the comment threads are largely in English, though it seems likely that many of the commenters are Chinese. I’ve argued previously that language is a pretty good signal of intended audience. Early bridgebloggers wrote in English instead of their first languages in the hopes of reaching a wider audience and, in many cases, influencing perceptions of their home countries. I think these recent sites and videos need to be viewed as another instance of bridgeblogging – using the tools of citizen media to try to connect with audiences in another part of the world.

The problem with bridgeblogging is that it’s no good to speak if no one is listening. I’m not seeing a lot of traction for this story in Western press thus far – a search on Google News for “china media bias” yields 118 stories, several of which are from English-language publications tightly controlled by the Chinese government, while a search for “china tibet riots” yields over 16,000 recent stories.

Some of the western media outlets picking up the bias story are doing so explicitly to debunk it. Michael Bristow’s piece in the BBC is especially interesting. He notes that “Individual Chinese have also vented their anger in internet chatrooms about these so-called biased reports. They have also been contacting foreign journalists directly – sometimes with threatening messages.” At the same time, he argues that “The criticism appears part of a wider campaign by the Chinese government to make sure its version of events in Tibet and elsewhere is the dominant one.” In other words, there may be angry Chinese citizens contacting BBC reporters to complain about their coverage, but they’re being controlled by Chinese state media.

This is a pretty fascinating contrast to the way western media has reported on blog efforts to debunk errors in media stories. While some reporters have complained about the “pajamahadeen“, bloggers have also been lionized for their fact-checking functions. It seems slightly unfair to assume that Chinese bloggers are incapable of the same techniques of press criticism that their western counterparts have pioneered, or that Chinese bloggers can’t be genuinely upset about what they see as unfair Western critique.

Let me once again remind readers (some of whom are already angrily composing comments to me) that I’m not attempting to evaluate the truth claims of these critiques. I’m surprised, however, by how little traction they’re receiving and how quickly they’re being dismissed by some of the reporters who are being criticized. My point is not that Western media is misinterpreting the Tibet situation – it’s a much larger point that people in general are pretty dumb about how people in other parts of the world are seeing events… even when those people are writing in English, telling us precisely how they see the situation.

Please see Global Voices’ special page on the Tibet riots if you’re interested in more viewpoints from China, translated from Chinese blogs.

29 thoughts on “Bridgeblogging Chinese anger over perceived media bias”

  1. Pingback: FreieNetze.de » GlobalVoices und die neuen Kriege

  2. Actually, the caption under the Spiegel picture (visible in the video at around 3:10) reads “Chinese security personnel being stoned [lit.: in the stone hail]. The military reacts with force [or, maybe more lit.: with rigidity]”. I think it would be rather clear to any German reader that the guys holding the shield are the ones being stoned, i.e. “security personnel”, not the ones who react, i.e. the military.

    That the CNN shows only one stone-thrower instead of many is hardly worth the fuss IMO. Especially when the “more truthful” picture is cropped too.

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  4. Great post, Ethan. But I wonder why the Global Voices coverage on Iran is so terribly biased against the Iranian state and is so similar to what you read everyday in the mainstream media? Why is everything so one-sided?

    Frankly, I think there is need for more editorial care when it comes to Iran. No one can trust an anonymous section editor with a pseudonym who can easily hide his or her politics behind a mask of anonymity. And this is worse when there is only one person or view that is covering a huge blogosphere.

  5. Thanks for the feedback, Londoner. It’s a challenge for us in every country we cover to try to provide fair, broad coverage. It’s a function not just of editorial judgement but of what voices are available in the local blogosphere. A number of critics have complained that our Venezuela coverage is anti-Chavez – in that case, it’s a function mostly of the fact that there are a lot more anti-Chavez than pro-Chavez blogs out there. Many of our critics see an agenda in our coverage – actually, it’s an artifact of the local blogosphere.

    That isn’t the case in Iran, I suspect. But we’ve got to rely on editors who can navigate both the language and the local politics. The model GV has used, from our inception, ia hiring an editor who’s rooted in a local blogosphere, and inviting comment, critique and suggestion from readers. If you feel that Hamid isn’t linking to the right blogs, email him. Leave comments linking to those blogs. Help make the coverage better.

    If you’re really convinced that Hamid isn’t treating the blogosphere fairly, you should make a case to Solana Larsen, the managing editor – I have basically nothing to do with the content of the site these days.

  6. Just because ordinary Han Chinese citizens share their government’s attitude toward their empire is no reason to condone it, and I’m not surprised generally unbiased media like the BBC aren’t doing much condoning. A similar situation is the way many US citizens reacted in the first flush of the Iraq war, and how, say, African media regarded it. Patriotism is not the best source of good reporting, even when it comes from citizens in blogs.

    (My personal bias here: I studied both Chinese and Tibetan, both too unsuccessfully to speak!, and spent time among Tibetan exiles.)

  7. “This helps explain why videos arguing that Tibet is an indivisible part of China (and that the Dalai Lama is funded by the CIA to split Tibet from China) are receiving more than a million views. ”

    FYI – i am inside PRC from march 17 till now. yews, youtube was unblocked, but all videos with that T-keyword are still inaccessible, including that video in question. (i needed to use TOR to view it, extremely slow)

    therefore, that explanation does not hold.

  8. China should seriously consider funding and promoting independence movements in the US (native indians?), UK (England, Scotland & Northern Ireland) and Canada (Quebec), Spain (Bask), and other European countries who are not “so friendly” to China, as a counter action against those hypocritical activities aimed at derail China’s peaceful rise!

    A Shanghai resident.

  9. Pingback: Savage Minds: Notes and Queries in Anthropology — A Group Blog » Chinese Reactions to Western Media on Tibet

  10. @sun bin
    Not exactly. If you try to refresh the site some minutes after the first failure, it will be accessed and loaded smoothly. I am not sure why G.F.W makes such mistakes(?), but people can access these videos without tor or proxy.
    And one thing would help explain why there are so many views and comments is that breaking through the G.F.W is nothing new or difficult for anyone who wants to do so. Ask a Chinese netizen, I am positive that you will get several ways.

  11. @Ethan
    Thanks for such an interesting analysis. 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.

  12. Pingback: Global Voices, angry on Tibet coverage by media, does the same to Iran - sadly « Skunks’s Weblog

  13. Pingback: Bridgeblogging Chinese anger over perceived media bias « Our Cultural World

  14. To Quixote: “Just because ordinary Han Chinese citizens share their government’s attitude toward their empire is no reason to condone it, and I’m not surprised generally unbiased media like the BBC aren’t doing much condoning…Patriotism is not the best source of good reporting, even when it comes from citizens in blogs.”

    My response: just because Tibetan Chinese citizens do not share their government’s attitude toward the country’s unity is no reason to kill innocent people, and I fully support the Chinese government’s attempt to restore stability to the region. Desire for indepence is not the best logic for violence, whomever it comes from!

  15. Pingback: Tibet Protest Open Letter « deathpower

  16. To Tibet Protest Open Letter « deathpower

    Correction: People who ever lived in China, no matter he/she is western or Chinese, see things about China different from you. Because we not only hear or read, we actually see things from our own eyes!

    I apologize for my English here, since it is my second language. But so it is for HH Daila Lama.

  17. I am a Chinese citizen who moved to America at the age of nine. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and was educated by the most liberal minded protest-happy people you’ll ever meet (I graduated from UC Berkeley). I am also very angry at the fact that western media is spewing lies when they know so little about China and its people. Posting pictures of Indians and Nepalese soldiers and passing them off as Chinese is really ridiculous. What pisses me off more is when I try to tell people that the Tibetans were not peaceful protesters I get vitriolic responses of “You are brainwashed by the Chinese government”. It’s the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. I think it’s sad that Americans believe that there is no propaganda in this country, and protest against things they know nothing about.

  18. Pingback: serendipityoucity :: Propaedeutic Enchiridion :: April :: 2008

  19. yes, I agree that it would be very interesting to have the Chinese government fund the Irish Republican Army. Let’s give Brits a taste of their own medicine. Yeh!

  20. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » Video Night at the Berkman Center

  21. are you really objective?

    The biggest problem here is that while Westeners are claiming themselves to be open-minded, they are not open to the possibility or the reality that Western media is biased. Westeners feel a right or obligation to protect Western media…and therefore, their first reaction is that Western media is not biased…especially when confronted by non-Westeners. It is not human nature to admit that one’s side is wrong.

    Here’s a fact: no Westener or Western media have outright questioned CNN’s intentions in cropping images to distort perceptions or when European media used violent videos/images in Nepal and claim they occurred in China…I haven’t seen a lot of westeners admit to this huge err in journalism, nor have i seen these questionable media outlets apologize for their misreporting.

    If you really wanna be objective…you have to be open to all possibilites — including the possibility that the West is actually on the wrong here. But that’s a tough pill to swallow, isn’t it?

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  27. Here I want to briefly look at passages from two recent articles about President Obama that will illustrate this point in a crystal clear manner. The first short passage is from an article by Jonathan Chait in New York magazine in April, 2014. The second is from one by Elizabeth Drew in the most recent edition of The New York Review of Books. First the Chait article – here’s the passage:

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