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China, bias, misunderstanding

In putting together the Global Voices summit, the program sometimes ends up changing to reflect recent events. We added a panel a few weeks ago focused on the Chinese blogosphere and issues of bias, misunderstanding and miscommunication. It’s become very clear to those of us who watch blogopshere conversations that there’s a great deal of anger in China about percieved media bias in the US, and deep misunderstanding between Chinese bloggers and western human rights activists.

My co-founder Rebecca MacKinnon, a former CNN bureau chief in China and an expert on Chinese media, offers us a timeline on the incidents that have led to these discussions of bias. With China hosting the 2008 Olympics, there’s been a western expectation that China would be more open in terms of media, and that human rights situations would improve. On March 10th – the anniversary of the Chinese army march into Lhasa, a day that’s remembered with protests every year that remember Tibetan people’s resistance against the Chinese army – protests turned violent, sparking clashes between protesters and police.

Rebecca points out that there are very different ways to understand these protests. Western activists tend to feel, “the Chinese are denying Tibetans basic rights and opressing them.” Han Chinese tend to offer reflections like, “These ungrateful minorities – look what we did for their economy! We built infrastructure and sanitation for them and this is what we get?”

The violence in Tibet helped give support to movements to protest the Olympic torch passing through cities around the world. Western rights groups expected that Chinese people would be grateful for these protests against their “government oppressors”. Instead, they were deeply angry over percieved media bias in American mainstream media. This anger became most visible at Anti-CNN.com, a site designed to challenge narratives in Western media about China and to check facts reported in those media. Text on their front page is instructive in understanding their motives: “We are not against the western media, but against the lies and fabricated stories in the media. We are not against the western people, but against the prejudice from the western society.”

Anti-cnn got its name because commenters there revealed that a photo shown on CNN – which showed Chinese tanks in the streets of Lhasa – was improperly cropped from the original AFP photo… which showed Tibetans throwing rocks at those tanks. Writers on the site did excellent fact-checking, discovering cases in which photos of Nepali soldiers beating Tibetan protesters were mischaracterized as Chinese soldiers abusing Tibetans.

Is it possible, Rebecca wonders, that instead of preventing cultural disconnects, the net is capable of ampifying them?

Rebecca shows us maps generated by Dave Lyons of the Mutant Palm blog that show weblinks to the Athens Olympics site and to the Beijing Olympics site. They point out that there’s two separate clusters of people linking to the Beijing site – a cluster of Chinese blogs centered on certain media outlets, and everyone else’s blogs centered on other sites, suggesting two isolated conversations.

Some activists made efforts at trying to break down this echo chamber – she points us to an instructional video on YouTube designed to help Westerners talk to Chinese users on Fanfou, a twitter-like site, and engge in conversations via Google Translate. It’s not wise to come in with the perspective, “If only we could break down their wall and give them the information, they would be free.” (This statement gets a lot of laughs from the audience.)

There’s a systemic problem with getting alternative voices about subjects like Tibet from China. It’s difficult to post about the Dalai Lama without being effectively filtered on the Chinese-hosted internet… which means it’s hard to see these perspectives online.

John Kennedy, GV’s China editor, argues that anti-CNN was amazingly effective in critiquing western media coverage, and that there aren’t very good responses to their critiques – CNN didn’t offer an apology for their photo-cropping decisions, which made bloggers even more angry.

“How different are the Chinese views on Tibet? I don’t know, and we don’t know,” Kennedy offers. “If you’re not in a dialog with Chinese bloggers, does your opinion matter? Some people in China are really pissed off – how do you talk with them?”

Kennedy points out that he’s sometimes accused of picking the most extreme voices in the Chinese blogosphere and amplifying them. He offers a counterexample – a surprising post about Chinese bloggers finding common cause with Burmese monks, a subject that challenges perceptions about Chinese bloggers as supporting authoritarianism.

Isaac Mao points out that biases come from the absence of information. We need to understand that there are interlocking layers of media. There’s official media – words directly from the government. There’s professional media – which often critiques official media and helps interpret it. Now, we’re seeing the rise of grassroots media, which has emerged very quickly in China and now challenges these other narratives.

I offered an observation and question from the crowd: There are a lot of situations where we end up with cultural misunderstanding and failure to communicate due to a failure to consider the audience of remarks. Sermons Reverend Wright offered to his congregation were understood very differently by the reporters at ABC news than they were by his congregants… and this almost cost Obama the democratic nomination. Comments made by Jack Cafferty on CNN led to a law suit from Chinese citizens… it’s unlikely that Cafferty thought of himself speaking to a Chinese audience while speaking to his viewers. How often do we misunderstand because we’re not part of the intended audience for something?

Xiao Qiang offers the example of Chinese party secretaries writing about the Dalai Lama as “a wolf in lambskin”. This was pretty routine when talking to other party members – once translated into English and promoted worldwide, it led to outrage and a PR disaster.

Xiao offers the hope that projects like Global Voices can help build bridges of cultural understanding. He offers a story about Tang Danhong, a Han woman who’s lived in Tibet for ten years and has been writing epic poetry to try to encourage understanding and build bridges between groups:

Yes, I love Tibet. I am a Han Chinese who loves Tibet, regardless of whether she is a nation or a province, as long as she is so voluntarily. Personally, I would like to have them (Tibetans) belong to the same big family with me. I embrace relationships which come self-selected and on equal footing, not controlled or forced, both between peoples and nations.

8 thoughts on “China, bias, misunderstanding”

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  2. >> Han Chinese tend to offer reflections like, “These ungrateful minorities – look what we did for their economy! We built infrastructure and sanitation for them and this is what we get?” <<

    I have heard and seen this sentiment from several sources in recent months, including a friend who’s living in China currently. I find it deeply disturbing, in a way that makes me … the mental equivalent of queasy. Because it echoes a strain strain of Israeli right-wing thinking I remember from the 80s, that was pretty common in the 70s too from what I’ve read: Israel brought infrastructure and functional government and personal rights and freedom of the press to the West Bank and Gaza, etc. etc.

    It’s not false, exactly. It is a sort of bubble mentality that dehumanizes people in an unseeing, patronizing way. It is a banal evil, in my opinion, but the people who indulge in it are often very good people who would be surprised by what they’re indulging in if only they could see it.

    I don’t know how deeply the similarities run, but this is what it reminds me of, and why I react so violently (internally) to Chinese views on Tibet. Partly, perhaps, out of a mild association guilt: my country, or a particular cultural strain within it, did the same thing, and it has contributed to the country’s deterioration. Yet because it is in a sense true, I found it partly convincing for a time, and I remember that.

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