Unraveling the torch relay 'conspiracy'
There's been a lot of discussion on this blog and around the blogosphere in general about the protests surrounding the torch relay. And I have noticed an increasing amount of comments from people (mostly Chinese I'm presuming) who are now starting to contend more and more that there is some sort of larger-scale conspiracy taking place to sully China's image ahead of the games, and that it's the 'West' that is trying to hold back China as a rising global power. And, to a very small degree, there may be some validity to part of this contention. Allow me to give you a thumb-nail sketch of what is most likely happening on the ground in San Francisco in advance of the torch relay there as an example of how this could be argued.
First off, let me point out that there is no sort of broader-scale Western government conspiracy taking place to darken China's image. Unlike here in China, the Western media is not controlled by the government. Media outlets in the West are free to report on anything they wish. And in fact, if any government organization even hinted to the media that it should be covering these protests, it would be a way bigger story than the actual protests themselves. Where the conspiracy aspect comes in is from the very small minority of people who have an axe to grind against China, or are - what I would deem -- 'professional protesters' who feel obligated to get behind a cause because they think it's the right thing to do and the media that covers the events.
When I use the term conspiracy, I use it in this dictionary-based context:
Conspiracy: The act of conspiring.
Conspiring: To act or work together toward the same results or goal.
Other definitions of conspiracy include the terms 'evil,' 'illegal,' or 'wrong.' I'm not going get into the debate of whether or not the torch protests are any of the adjectives listed. But I will say that these protests are - in effect - a conspiracy, as in the fact that it's more than two people or groups getting together to push or be involved in a cause.
Activist groups in the West have learned how to use the media very well over the years. Unlike in the 1960's in the West, where groups of people would use grassroots methods like posters and word-of-mouth to tell people about some type of protest or march, today activist groups are experts when it comes to public relations. I can guarantee that the media outlets in San Francisco have already received dozens of news releases from various organizations, telling the media that they will be at location X at time Y, and spokesperson Z will be available for interviews. These groups will also have set up transportation strategies to bring as many people as possible to the protest, and will have worked days in advance to create signs and banners. They will also have outlined a strategy to create the greatest amount of media coverage possible for themselves, by putting their most colorful and boisterous members in the direct line of the cameras, and will generally throw their full support behind the most militant in the group who are willing to even break the law to get the media to cover their protest. Anyone who thinks these protests are spontaneous events is truly naive.
As for the media's coverage of the events, here's what's likely happening. Depending on the resources that any given media outlet has available (AKA: reporters, cameras, etc) they will likely be at the locations designated by the protest organizations an hour to two hours in advance, and may have pre-planned coverage mapped out. Many reporters, during this time, may also be engaging in 'off-the-record' discussions with protest organizers about what their plans are, in an effort to maximize their coverage and get the best possible sound and video. This is not to say that the media agrees or disagrees with the message the protesters are putting out. For the media, its contact with the protesters is merely a way of getting the job done more efficiently. Because of the competitive nature of the media industry in the West, there is intense pressure on reporters to get the best possible coverage to try to 'one-up' the competition. And it's because of this media culture in the West that the minority gets the majority coverage. If there were no protests surrounding the torch relay, the media coverage of the event would be much more minimal. Resources would likely be reallocated elsewhere to other more interesting and attention-grabbing stories. Activist groups have learned this, and have tailored their efforts accordingly.
Noting all this, one could argue that a conspiracy of sorts is taking place: A conspiracy by the protesters to get their message across, and a conspiracy by the media to get the best story possible.
But the one thing that I hope the Chinese understand is that the people protesting the torch relay represent a narrow minority in Western society. I'm using my own figures here, but I would presume that of the 7.2 million people who live in the San Francisco Bay area, about one percent - at most - of the population will turn out to protest the torch relay. Of the remaining 99 percent, I would say that 95 percent have no or little interest, one way or the other, in Tibet, the torch or the Olympics in general. So while the concept of a conspiracy may be in play in a dictionary-based form, the notion of a broader anti-China campaign is simply just not the reality.
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