December 6, 2015

China and Media Bias:
Guilty Until Proven Guilty

Mistrial by Media

It is often said that obfuscation is the purpose of journalism. And when China is involved, journalism gets reduced to a free-for-all orgy - wherein the journalist knows that absolutely anything will be believed as long as China is being portrayed as the villain.

It all starts with the Presumption of Guilt. Nothing that China ever does is enough. A few examples:
  • China is criticized for corruption - and for eradicating corruption
  • China is criticized for increasing the strength of its military - and for reducing the strength of its military
  • China is criticized for developing Tibet - and for not developing Tibet
  • China is criticized for not winning Nobel prizes - and for winning Nobel prizes.
  • China is criticized and ridiculed for mining disasters - and for rescuing people from mining disasters.
Here is how the threads are woven:
  1. Corruption: Criticism of China's corruption - real or exaggerated - is as widespread as the corruption itself. So it is hardly surprising that Xi Jinping initiated a historic campaign to eradicate it. The person in charge is Wang Qishan, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee - so important is the campaign. Its scope has surprised even the most ardent of China observers and has been welcomed by Ordinary Chinese.

    Unlike Indian politicians, Chinese leaders have actually
    done something about corruption - rather than just talking about doing something about corruption. The crackdown tackled draft in high places as well as lower ones - the proverbial "tigers and flies". People who once seemed untouchable were sent to the proverbial gallows. Even overseas Chinese have not been spared.
    Such disregard for hierarchy is unprecedented in the developing world. Some 414,000 officials have been disciplined and a further 201,600 prosecuted for infraction in court. At the heart of the drive is a sustained effort to
    reform the very culture of the party. The matter has become so serious that it has lead a few to suspect that it might effect the Chinese economy. And yet the campaign seems to show no signs of slowing. One would have assumed that at least this move would be welcomed by the world's press, as it was by the Chinese people. Surely, this is a step in the right direction? After all, what could be wrong in trying to reduce corruption? 

    But old habits die hard. Sadly (and perhaps unsurprisingly), the campaign has been ridiculed by multiple western newspapers, with many likening it to a Stalinist purge. It has been dismissed as a consolidation of power within the Communist Party's ranks. From The Economist
    againZhou Yongkang may well have been corrupt. His real problem was losing a power struggle.

    China does to reform its government is cast as a power struggle, while everything a 'democracy' does is not - the underlying assumption being that power struggles don't exist in a democracy.

  2. Tibet: Another case is of China's autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang - with Tibet being the favorite (and undeserved) darling of western minds (the ultimate irony being that the so-called 'Shangri-La' is not located in Tibet at all). If China had neglected Tibet and Xinjiang - as India gladly does to its poorer regions - it would be accused of neglecting its minorities and giving preference to Han-dominated regions. And if China chooses to actually develop those areas and build infrastructure (which, unlike India, it does) - it is accused of buying Tibetans' loyalty in return for a higher standard of living.
    If China wouldn't have promoted Tibet as a tourist destination, then it would've been accused of promoting only 'Han' culture. The reality is that it does promote tourism and development in Tibet and Xinjiang, for which it is then promptly accused of destroying its environment and ecosystem (Thankfully, the propaganda has not deterred tourists: 12.9 million of them visited Tibet in 2013, more than India's top four states combined).

  3. The Nanjing Massacre: Yet another favorite of the western press is the Nanjing massacre. While largely indifferent to the tragedy itself - much like their attitude toward the Opium Wars - the aspect that receives almost universal attention is the portrayal of Japanese in everything from Chinese textbooks to Chinese pop culture. Regardless of the sufferings China has endured, it is always wrong because it doesn't tell its people about the Great Leap Forward.

  4. Military Reforms: The Economist, my favorite newspaper, is unhappy that China is reducing its military. Apparently, China's military cuts make it "even more frightening" to its neighbors! Perhaps it should try increasing its military strength - maybe that would assuage its neighbors.

  5. Ignoble Pursuits: China is often said to have a 'Nobel complex'. While often conveniently portrayed as not caring for institutions dominated by the west, China is equally often said to revere them - depending on what suits the journalist's agenda. Apparently, China wants to win Nobel prizes desperately, but cannot. Sometimes it is not creative enough. Sometimes it is the Chinese education system. And sometimes it is some other excuse that the journalist can uncover. 

    Even when a Chinese does win - as Tu Youyou did recently - he or she is 
    labelled an 'outlier'. The winning of the Nobel prize is attributed to solely being an outlier who rebelled against state-led authoritarianism. This is precisely the same argument that is often applied to Li Na's success.

  6. Mine, all mine: China's mining disasters are often a source of glee and schadenfreude to the western press. And so are the rescues of miners from mining disasters... 

And there are countless such examples. Such rape of journalistic ethics is central to most western journalists' reporting and analyses - who need to do something after all to justify their salaries and research grants. A negative portrayal of China is the ultimate aim, the story itself merely a prop to support the cause. Exceptions do exist, but their voices are smothered by the crowd.

Haters gonna hate

It is almost as if such misinformation was institutionalized - as if there was some unwritten code of conduct among journalists that directed reporting everywhere - from mocking China's military parade to outright lyingAs China rises, journalistic standards will surely fall even lower. 

Thankfully, more and more people - including average Chinese - are recognizing and analyzing such reporting (the sheer popularity of Anti-CNN is just one example). Amidst all the lies however, one thing is abundantly clear: media bias has evolved from being an irritating side effect of press freedom to being the very core of it.