Is the World Against China?
BU prof and student leader examine claims of media bias
Last week, a BU Today article about the tension between the Chinese government and Chinese citizens and visiting foreign journalists received a record number of comments — 32 in one day — and almost all of them supported the charges of bias by the journalists. The story was an interview with Anne Donohue, a College of Communication associate professor of journalism, who talked about the controversy over Western media bias in the coverage of unrest in Tibet and the reaction of the Chinese government (see http://www.anti-cnn.com/). Donohue, currently in Beijing on a Fulbright teaching journalism at the People’s University of China (also known as Renmin University), noted that some Western journalists covering the unrest have been threatened and talked about how her students view the issue and the role of journalism in Chinese society.
In their comments, some readers told us to “shut up.” Some argued that by publishing a professor’s perspective on a controversial issue we were “bringing politics into the classroom,” thereby “ruining the peaceful community at BU.” Most people commenting, however, were simply angry that we presented only one person’s viewpoint and urged us to let other voices be heard. Consequently, we sought people in the BU community who could offer a different perspective, and settled on two: Aimin Yan, a School of Management professor of organizational behavior, and Angela Chung (CAS’08), president of BU’s Chinese Students Association.
Yan was born in Manchuria in northern China and lived there for three decades before moving to the United States more than 20 years ago. He is the director of SMG’s International Management Program, which every year brings an international group of graduate students to China for a summer of intensive course work. Yan says he reads both Chinese and American news media every day; he recently e-mailed an open letter to SMG colleagues, calling anti-China protests of the Olympics and the response of some Chinese to boycott companies accused of supporting Tibetan independence “a game that has no winners.”
Chung is majoring in international relations, with a minor in East Asian studies. Her family is from Taiwan, and although she was born in the United States, she spent the first two years of her life in Taiwan and returns often. We asked both of them, in separate interviews, about the Western media’s coverage of China and the Tibetan unrest. As with all Q&As we publish, this piece is limited in its scope and claims of authority to the viewpoints of those whom we interview.
BU Today: Are the Western media doing a decent job of covering the unrest in Tibet and the Chinese government’s reaction?
Yan: In general, whatever you report, people are selective. My feeling is that because of political system differences and ideological differences, we see things from different angles. And everybody is biased. In my view, most media take a balanced approach, but still, the recent protests by Chinese people against coverage by CNN does have some merit to it.
Chung: I think they’re doing a very bad job of it. I just don’t think they’re covering it fairly. The headlines you see are “Brutal suppression of monks’ protest,” but most of the people in Tibet are not monks, and I think that’s a very common misperception — that Tibetan culture is based on Buddhism and so it’s a peaceful country. I want to say that I’m actually in favor of Tibetan independence, but in Tibet, there are a lot of radicals who are injuring Chinese civilians. For instance, most taxi drivers in the area are Chinese, and people are pulling them out of cabs and beating them up, and people are setting fire to Chinese businesses. So the violence is going both ways, and I think the media just makes it out as a black-and-white issue of innocent monks wanting their freedom and the terrible Chinese police just beating them and killing them.
What are some of the biggest problems with this coverage?
Yan: For example, they cut pictures of local Tibetan people throwing stones at police vehicles. At the same time, I was personally pretty angry with CNN commentator Jack Cafferty, who said Chinese goods are trash and Chinese people are goons and thugs. I feel offended personally.
Chung: They’re labeling photos from Nepal and India as China. That’s an enormous mistake. It’s not like mixing up Shanghai and Beijing. I also think that the word choice that people use is suspect. For example, “brutal suppression.” What does brutal really mean? What if Hawaii decided to declare independence and Hawaiians decided to burn down businesses and kill innocent civilians? I assume that we too would send in our police and arrest them and take them off to jail. Only 50 years ago, when African-Americans protested for their rights, police sprayed them with fire hoses strong enough to strip skin. I want to emphasize that I’m not saying that the Chinese government is innocent of crime, but I think it’s wrong to just make blanket criticisms of China without understanding their situation. In studying international relations, we learn that part of trying to make the world a better place is understanding how a country works and why they are acting the way they are. We can’t just say a country is evil.
Do you think there’s a deliberate effort by Western news organizations to deceive readers and viewers?
Yan: I don’t think so. As I said, we come from different cultural, political, and ideological backgrounds. We see things differently. For example, my colleague in the College of Communication talks about conscious skepticism among her students. And that’s a foreign term in China. From an American perspective, every reader and writer should have that, but in China they don’t get that. It is somewhat related to the government-controlled media, but in 5,000 years of Chinese history, it has not been a big part of education.
In other words, here in the United States, it is a very, very important mission for the media to report what the government does wrong. Anti-government is too strong a word, but basically the Western media has that mission to reveal anything that goes wrong with the government. In the Western media business, if you simply report that the government did this for us, it’s two sentences and you’re done, because not a lot of readers are interested in reading this. But in China, people basically don’t have that mind-set. They are used to hearing that the government did this and that for us. When you touch a subject that they dearly care about, you can make them very, very angry.
Chung: I don’t think it’s a deliberate conspiracy to make people hate China. But in this case, you can feel that the world has chosen a side and that the media is fanning those flames. What sells newspapers and magazines are stories and pictures of brutality. I think the media has picked up on world sentiment and is amplifying it. Media is a business, too, and right now, because the world has a certain opinion, they’ll profit from reinforcing that opinion. It’s definitely not accidental. I think they know those photos are of the wrong location, and they just label it wrong anyway.
Chinese reactions to foreign media coverage seem particularly intense in the run-up to the Olympics. Does distrust or anger over Western media coverage of China have deep historical roots?
Yan: I think the Western media in general are culturally blind. They do not consider the culture of the Chinese. Their perspective is very much superficial. They try to make sense directly from an American perspective without looking at other angles. In every country in the world there are irrational people, but if you look at irrationality from different perspectives, it is culturally based. For example, my colleague from COM described her students at the university in Beijing as not very rational. But if you look at it from their perspective, it’s a perfectly rational thing to be angry with the media and then start a debate or argument with their Western professor.
Over a long period of time, I think that every time I’ve read something reported about China, about 80 percent of the time the story has a negative tone.
I think in the West, especially in the United States, whenever we talk about foreign countries, we try very hard to separate the government, the regime, from the people. And on some issues that makes sense and on other issues it doesn’t. For example, if you talk or write stories about issues in China like human rights or pollution or poor-quality products, well, that’s about the Chinese government, and the Chinese people don’t react that strongly.
For example, the bad quality of Chinese exports to the United States. I think the Chinese government and manufacturers should take responsibility for that, but interestingly, ordinary Chinese people think that too, because they are also consumers. But with the Olympics, it’s different. People in China have been waiting for this for so long, and in China they are everybody’s Games. I can tell you that every Chinese person is really enthusiastic about them. When the International Olympic Committee made the decision to grant Beijing the Olympics in 2001, I was in Shanghai, and all the nine Chinese students in the IMP class came to see me and negotiated for class rescheduling so that they would be able to watch the “historical moment,” in their words. And so, at this point, with stories of protests around the Olympics, trying to differentiate between criticizing the government and criticizing the people doesn’t make sense.
Chung: I don’t think it’s ever been as serious as it is now. I know, of course, that reporting that the Chinese government is doing good things is not going to make news, but I think it’s only recently that people have been really angry and disappointed with the negative tone of the news coverage, especially coming from the West, which prides itself on fairness and equality. It just seems that it’s very hypocritical, because they’re not being fair in this situation. A lot of Chinese people believe the media are just doing this because China is a rising power and the world spotlight is on China now with the Olympics.
Have reports of threats made to Western journalists covering China been overstated?
Yan: I think so. The headline from your report last week really reflects something. “In China, Western journalists feel challenges and threats.” Threats from whom? A small number of irrational people saying things on the Web. We see that all the time, in every country. But the headline tells people, wow, this is a huge event. Of course, that’s what the media do.
Chung: I would say that there are radicals in every group. I guess maybe there have been threats, but I don’t think that’s how Chinese students or the Chinese people feel. Nobody I know is actually wishing bad things on people who report bad news. It’s always the loud radicals whose voices get heard in the news, and then people who don’t know any better assume that all Chinese are like that.
Chris Berdik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments