Saturday, April 12, 2008

Why the media is playing into the Chinese government's hands

It is difficult to determine how language develops when stories are covered by the media, but perhaps too many underestimate its importance. It is particularly important with the coverage of the Olympic torch relay, because whilst protestors are typically concerned about human rights, and the Chinese government's oppression of political opposition and free speech, the news media has characterised the protests as being "pro-Tibet". In smaller numbers have been those waving the flag of the People's Republic of China, and have been called "pro-China". The implications of these two phrases should not be underestimated.
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The Beijing government is milking this coverage for all it can, playing the nationalist card. This card is particularly strong for Chinese, because, unlike Marxism (which has little genuine currency left in China or amongst Chinese worldwide), focusing on Chinese identity and implying that those who protest the games are "anti-Chinese" can foment a great deal of animosity. Yet I doubt if any of those protesting the games are anti-Chinese at all.
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The protestors against the Beijing Olympics are variably in favour of greater political freedom in Tibet, some believe in Tibetan independence, but the overwhelming message is that the Beijing government should provide some outlet for Tibetan grievances to be heard or at least expressed. The phrase "pro-Tibet" implies the Chinese government is "anti-Tibet", which is slightly silly. The Chinese government happily hangs onto Tibet for a whole host of reasons.
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The truth is more that the Chinese government is "pro Han Chinese" and, like most cultures around the world, does apply an element of cultural arrogance and patronising attitude towards ethnic minorities. In short, Tibetans should be damned pleased the Chinese Communist Party "liberated" China and has given them electricity, roads, hospitals etc. That is what Beijing is trying to sell, and with some justification argues against Tibetan Buddhist feudalism. Beijing's line on Tibet needs to be understood clearly for what it is:
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- Tibet is part of China, always has been. If you argue for Tibetan independence the fear is that China will splinter as CNN reports Hu Jintao saying. Don't forget China was far from unified before 1949, and a China that is broken up is weaker than a unified one, well for those in power in Beijing anyway.
- Beijing believes, quite strongly, that other powers (Japan, USA and other neighbours) would support the disintegration of China, purely for geopolitical reasons. This is due to an inherent xenophobic view of the world burnished into Chinese political thought based upon experience with colonialism in Shanghai and Hong Kong and Japan's invasion and occupation. Beijing and the Communist Party in particular strongly believes the rest of the world fears and opposes a strong China, and that supporting Tibetan independence is one way of achieving this (the aggressive attitude towards Taiwanese independence has a similar motive).
- Beijing believes, with a grossly patronising attitude, that Tibetans should be grateful for rule from Beijing and what has been materially delivered to that rather cauterised province (historic Tibet has had a good chunk of its land incorporated into Qinghai province). As Tibetans are arguably materially better off than they were in the 1950s (which frankly wouldn't be very hard), they should be grateful and stop ruining a sporting event that China as a whole should be proud of. They want Tibetans to be conscious they are part of the Chinese nation, and isn't that a great thing.
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So Beijing treats protests about Tibet as being a foreign inspired plot to weaken China, and its media is full of this line. Calling the protests "anti-Chinese" plays into its hands. This is why those who protest should acknowledge what the real problem is and the real solution - the problem is not China governing Tibet, it is its governance. That problem isn't just Tibet, it is all of China barring Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.
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The Chinese state media, which today has global TV and radio broadcasts, and multiple websites, is constantly portraying the protests as being "anti-China", and the lackeys who wave the blood stained flag of the People's Republic as "pro-China". Western media should abandon such terminology - nobody is protesting against the "Chinese nation" or "Chinese people", they are protesting the one-party state authoritarian rule of the Communist Party of China. Unfortunately the protestors have rarely made that clear and coverage of them has not helped.
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This coverage is why some protests have started emerging in the West that are "pro-Chinese".
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So I call about protestors to abandon the calls for Tibetan independence. The call should be for all of China to have fundamental political freedoms. This means freedom of speech including freedom of the press, and for prisoners of conscience to be released. It is about allowing criticism of the Communist Party. It should also be about China stopping its support for Myanmar and Sudan's fellow dictatorships, and its sending of North Korean refugees back to almost certain death in gulags. However, one thing at a time.
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The message needs to be loud and clear. There would not be protests against the Beijing Olympics if China's government opened dialogue with the Dalai Lama, opened up Tibet to the sort of freedom of speech that exists in Hong Kong, and stop arresting political prisoners. China is the third largest economy in the world if you don't count the EU as one entity, there is much to be proud of in raising its peasant economy to an industrial power - but in the 21st century many fear the Olympics will shine a light on all of this, while ignoring the executions, torture and oppression by those who rule China against those who oppose what is done to them. This message is blurred by those who paint this as being "pro-Tibet" and "pro-China". Nobody is anti Tibet or anti China, and those who are "pro-China" are actually pro Chinese Communist Party rule. If this was 1936 and Germans were flying Nazi flags would they be pro-German or pro-Nazi? China's government and many Chinese may not think there are parallels with the 1936 Olympics - but while China is ruled by a single party that executes those who challenge its rule, it is difficult to avoid the link. Not since Moscow in 1980 have the Olympics been held in a dictatorship.
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In an age of soundbite news reporting is it too much to ask for simple slogans like "pro-Tibet" and "Pro-China" to be done away with and instead call them "Tibetan independence" or "human rights campaigners", and "pro Chinese government". Being anti Chinese Communist Party is not anti Chinese.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well said =)