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.