Chinese students protest “biased” New Zealand media. “Unbiased” online Chinese media bans New Zealand netizen for questioning Chinese student protest. Irony ensues. . .
Anyone who has been following the recent Tibet riots will be familiar with the story. Peaceful protests in Tibet somehow become violent riots. China closes Tibet to the foreign media and issues hard-line statements about “splittists” and the “Dalai Lama clique”. The Chinese media report the story by dutifully repeating the government line. The foreign media report the story using the limited information and material available to them from both the Chinese and Tibetan sides. Chinese citizens are unhappy with the foreign media’s reporting of the story (or more specifically they have a gripe with the “western media”). A series of several cropped and incorrectly captioned photos and segments of news footage assumes enormous importance as a demonstration of western media bias. This material becomes “proof” that the western media is attempting to “paint China black”. Chinese students around the world protest. Exciting days indeed!
Gentle readers, it was at that point that your good narrator became involved, with ironic and entertaining results.
I heard that Chinese students in Auckland were planning to protest western media bias, and specifically New Zealand media bias. The New Zealand angle interested me because it was local, and because I had not personally noticed anything remarkable in the New Zealand media coverage*. Therefore I looked around for details on the planned protest, and found them at www.skykiwi.co.nz, New Zealand’s largest electronic media serving a Chinese audience. The protest was to be held on Saturday noon in Aotea Square here in Auckland.
Reading through the site and sensing the anger of these young Chinese I could not help feeling a little unease. I was reminded of the anti-Japanese protests (riots?) that I had attended in Shanghai a couple of years ago. That was the only previous occasion on which I had personally witnessed a protest by educated and privileged young Chinese. The day had ended with the Japanese consulate and numerous Japanese businesses seriously vandalized (in an interesting cultural aside, the mob ignored the beer fridges in the smashed up Japanese restaurants). I asked myself why privileged and educated young Chinese only ever protest foreign things. It appeared to me that they only ever become moved to express their views when the issue is Japan, or Taiwan, or Tibet, or some other perceived slight to China.
Rather than sit there asking myself this question, I went ahead and asked New Zealand’s Chinese netizens. I wrote a post asking a few things. I asked why their protests only ever targeted foreign things and never targeted their own government. I told them that I had attended the Shanghai anti-Japanese protest, and that at times it had appeared like a riot. I noted that Japanese in Shanghai had been too scared to leave their homes on that day and that numerous innocent business owners had suffered mob violence. While nobody had died or been seriously hurt in the Shanghai demonstration, were there not some parallels between the behavior of demonstrators (rioters?) in Shanghai and in Tibet? Somewhat provocatively, I asked if Tiananmen had simply made educated and privileged young Chinese too afraid to protest their own government. Finally, I asked when the Chinese media was going to ask the Chinese government to produce proof to back its allegations that the DL orchestrated the Lhasa riots.
The response was interesting. Various posters attacked me as a “foreign devil” (æ´‹é¬¼å) and a “foreign pig” (æ´‹è±¬). Others apparently believed I was a Chinese pretending to be a foreigner and called me a “fake foreign devil” (å‡æ´‹é¬¼). The thread I had started was swiftly locked and I received a disciplinary message. The message gave no explanation of why the thread had been locked, but did suggest that I was not welcome on the site and should leave. I do not know if the people who abused me also received disciplinary messages.
I started another thread to ask why my previous thread had been locked. Provoked by this stage, I sarcastically suggested that the protesters were just mindlessly trotting out the party line in the manner of the Cultural Revolution period. Specifically, I took the piss with a wisecrack about them being “good children of Chairman Mao” (æ¯›ä¸»å¸çš„å¥½å©åå€‘), and suggested the chairman might reward them all with a Popsicle (å†°æ£) if they organized a good protest. I knew that was likely to get an ‘interesting’ reaction. But really, if netizens call me a “foreign pig” and site administrators lock my threads and ask me to leave, all because I asked a question, how charming am I supposed to be?
The response was more abuse, then my account on the site was deleted and my IP address blocked. I was no longer able to even read the site without using a proxy. Of course having lived in China I am familiar with proxy servers.
I find this sequence of events hilarious. It took less than 12 hours for the NZ Chinese media most instrumental in organizing Saturday’s protest against bias in the western and New Zealand media to ban (probably) its only non-Chinese contributor. The crime was simply questioning the nationalistic tendencies of educated young Chinese. While the online Chinese New Zealand media was busy displaying its massive bias on matters Chinese, the “your views” section of the New Zealand Herald website was allowing Chinese overseas students to engage local New Zealanders in vigorous debate on the China-Tibet issue. I have no idea if the New Zealand Herald censored comments in that debate, but there is no question that the debate occurred.
Could there be a double standard?
Could the irony of this situation be deep enough for a pod of whales to go swimming in?
I attended the protest on Saturday and chatted with a couple of the protesters. The ones that I spoke to seemed reasonable enough, if (in my opinion) slightly misguided. My criticisms would be as follows:
First, they failed to identify any specific examples of bias in the New Zealand media. Yet their protest claimed to be (at least partially) a response to New Zealand media bias.
Second, they shot themselves in the foot by using some rotten examples to demonstrate western media bias. Most notably, one of their leading examples was the Fox News photo of Nepali police arresting a demonstrator, the caption for which read “Chinese troops parade handcuffed Tibetan prisoners in trucks”. It is obvious that the picture was incorrectly captioned and not a serious attempt to mislead. A person who believes the newspaper used the caption to trick its readers into thinking the Nepali police are Tibetan must also believe the newspaper wants to dupe its readers into seeing invisible trucks, parades of prisoners, and handcuffs. None of these things were in the photo. Why did none of these protesters have the mental facility to spot this obvious truth? Spotting this truth requires nothing more than elementary English and an open and critical mind. Do none of them possess this? To somebody like myself who has followed this story closely from the start, they were simply regurgitating the propaganda from the anti-CNN website. I think they could have done much better. You can find biases in the western media if you look, but few of the examples they presented fitted my definition of meaningful bias.
Third, the English copy of the flier they distributed was extremely difficult to understand and degenerated into illogical rambling in places. This was an unprofessional attempt at communication. Why had a native English speaker not edited it? The copy is almost too lousy to analyze so I am not going to seriously attempt that. Notably though, the flier stated that western news organizations had been unable to report directly from Tibet because of its geographical remoteness. The flier went on to state that the students were committed to ‘Freedom of Speech’, and framed ‘freedom of speech’ as a shared western and Chinese value. How is this professed commitment to freedom of speech consistent with ignoring the Chinese government’s vigorous restriction of foreign media access to Tibet? Why talk about geographical remoteness (surely a side issue), while ignoring tight Chinese controls over media access to Tibet (surely a major issue). Are they genuinely concerned with free speech and the truth, or are they merely concerned with China’s image?
Fourth, a general survey of the discussion on Skykiwi before and after the protest reveals far more discourse on feeling good about China and abusing things foreign than there is discussion and analysis of the issues they say they are protesting. For example, one common theme in the online discussion was to draw a parallel between their protest to the anti-Japanese protests (riots?) in Shanghai. Another characteristic was describing the event as an “(ethnic) Chinese rally” (è¯äººé›†æœƒ), not a protest against biased coverage of PRC government handling of the Tibetan issue by the western media. A further feature has been the protesters publishing long diatribes online that are expressions of Chinese nationalism and anti-western xenophobia, not genuine attempts to address western media biases. The failure of the protesters to identify concrete bias in the New Zealand media, plus their failure to critically analyze the media material presented by their own protest, also support my feeling that the protest was primarily nationalistic. Social anthropologists sometimes say that you should analyze what people do, not what they say they do. The protesters say they are protesting a specific grievance, but their discourse before and after the protest neglected the grievance itself in favor of simple nationalistic fervor. Of course, being motivated by nationalism is not inconsistent with being motivated by real grievances. However, I think a question should be asked about degree. To what degree are young Chinese protesters critical thinkers who analyze issues and respond rationally? To what degree are they uncritical nationalists primed to respond irrationally to all kinds of triggers?
Fifth, there was some odd amateurism, or even the hint of a conspiracy. The online discussion of the protest mentioned that a Tibetan who had recently returned to (or arrived in?) New Zealand from Lhasa came past to offer words of support. The posters mentioned that this Tibetan described Lhasa to them as a thoroughly harmonious place where all Tibetans feel 100% Chinese and are hugely contented with life. He also said he had been present in Lhasa during the riots, and knew for a fact that the disorder had been orchestrated by non-Tibetan speaking agitators from outside Tibet (who were presumably agents of the DL). Having made a special trip to express his support, the Tibetan seemed to then take his leave fairly quickly, maybe without participating as a protester. There was discussion on Skykiwi about how it was not safe to post the Tibetan’s photograph online because doing so could endanger his family back home. I am not quite sure how this works since Lhasa is said to be a harmonious place inhabited by contended people. The really interesting thing however is this. The sentence previous to the one requesting the Tibetan’s photo not be published provided his full name. How can the protesters be such amateurs? Wasn’t the same person who published the Tibean’s name supposedly concerned with protecting his identity? Maybe the Tibetan told them he was happy to be represented by a name but not by a photograph? Maybe he used a false name? But if the Tibetan hid his true identity from the protesters, could his whole agenda in approaching them have been a deceptive one? I assume the protesters are simply amateurs, but the whole scenario is weird.
Well that just about wraps up what I have to say about the matter of bias in the New Zealand Chinese media and the protests against bias in the western media. Comments are welcome. Abuse is not.
Update: Some follow up to all this is here – including death threats!
* Do not take that to mean that i think the New Zealand media coverage has been problem free. I have not even read most of the New Zealand coverage because I prefer to get my news on Chinese issues from specifically China oriented sources. However, I noticed nothing unusual in what I did read. I also note that the New Zealand Herald website appears to have allowed a free debate in its online comments section, which saw an exchange of views between those supporting and opposing the Tibetan protesters (and rioters).