Protest: April 2008 Archives
At the Danwei Plenary Session last month, moderator Jeremy Goldkorn issued a proviso before the discussion began: he would be referring to the western media and the Chinese media, even though "western media" is not, by any stretch, a homogeneous creature. One of my good friends, and sometimes contributor to this blog, has complained vociferiously that "the west" doesn't exist and should, at the very least, be defined before discussion can continue.
Traditionally I have overlooked this. To me, "the west" means white, English-speaking countries: Europe, the UK, Ireland, Australia, United States, Canada. Perhaps it's also a code-word for "colonial" powers (although it doesn't fit each of the countries I listed). Chinese people I have met have told me that media from these countries - and the power they hold as a collective - is unduly influential on a global scale; thus the campaigns against networks such as CNN over their news coverage.
"The West" is now the bogeyman to the Chinese: "The west" was responsible for past humiliations, "the west" is ruining the torch relay, "the west" doesn't understand Chinese culture. In fact, in a previous post, we get a psycho-analysis of a western mind.
This is all fine and good, but overlooks some glaring omissions which came to light this week. First, to blame "the west" for the FT movement is ridiculous; the Tibetan Government-in-Exile is based in India, for starters, and last I checked it wasn't a card-carrying member of the west. Nor is Japan part of the definition of "the west" that I offered above, and look how they handled this past weekend's torch relay stop in Nagano:
Protesters hurled rubbish and flares Saturday at the Beijing Olympic torch and brawled with Chinese supporters in a chaotic Japanese leg of the troubled round-the-world relay.
At least four people were injured in the scuffles in the mountain resort of Nagano, where more than 85,000 people packed the streets including Chinese students who turned the town into a sea of red national flags.
After relative calm elsewhere in Asia, the torch met at least hundreds of protesters here ranging from Buddhist monks and pro-Tibet demonstrators to nationalists, who provocatively waved Japan's old imperial flag.
Protesters threw trash, an egg, a tomato and flares as the torch was paraded through the streets despite more than 3,000 police guarding the route, who had raised security to a level usually accorded to Emperor Akihito.
The torch, which was run through Seoul on Sunday, didn't fare much better:
The Olympic torch relay has met with more protests and scuffles on its latest leg in Seoul, the capital of South Korea....
...One human rights demonstrator tried to rush at the torch shortly after the run began from Seoul's Olympic Park, in an attempt to hinder the relay.
South Korean policemen rescued a man after Chinese students attacked him during the torch relay.
To be fair, the report from Al Jazeera says that pro-China demonstrators vastly outnumbered the people protesting Chinese government policy. But the conclusion remains the same: people feel angry enough about China's policies that they are compelled to turn out and protest the torch relay.
There will be conspiracy theorists, probably in this comments section, that will say India, South Korea, Japan, et al have all been influenced by the west, are "slaves of the west", or whatever convenient excuse people choose to create. But the bottom line is the FT movement - and the backlash against the Chinese government (not the people, I'm at pains to add) - is far from a western phenomenon.
My colleague at Tianjin Television asked me over the weekend why "westerners" like the Dalai Lama so much. My response was that the Dalai Lama is, largely, respected by people in countries all over the world. China is the lone country which continues to demonize him. I suppose there is a possibility that China's assessment of the Dalai Lama is correct, but I doubt it.
What I'd like to know is how "the west" is defined in China, and how China feels about fellow Asian countries also protesting the torch. Because this time, France had nothing to do with it.
Mind you, neither did Carrefour.
Perhaps not the best way of communicating your ideas to the French people. It's not hard to imagine how Chinese people would react to having symbols of their World War 2 occupier added to China's national flag or the moral integrity of China's national heros slandered. Somebody needs to relearn that "do unto others" principle- and no, it does not end with "....before they do unto you".
A commenter on the previous blog pointed us to the photo (from Japan Probe) and this article in the Daily Yomiuri, which claims torch protests in Japan could draw even a more vile response from China:
"Reaction [in China to protests in Japan] would be huge in comparison to the reaction against protests in France," in which Web sites called for a boycott of French products sold at Carrefour stores, an international issue expert said, pointing out that negative feelings toward Japan remain strong in China due to historical issues.
A man in his 30s who runs a Web site that is popular with many Chinese "patriots," told The Yomiuri Shimbun, "Chinese people won't forgive [Japan] if the Japanese do the same things as the Americans and Europeans, such as making distorted reports about the Tibet issue."
With Japan and China's conflicts in the recent past, no doubt protests along the Japanese torch route would lessen the attention paid to France.
It's amazing how things can shift from sublime to concerning in a matter of hours. Saturday afternoon marked a curious shift in my mindset when it comes to personal safety here in this country.
A friend who has lived here for years suggested to me at one point that I should actually register with the Canadian embassy. He is a Chinese-Canadian and was living here in 1989, and says the registration was very handy at that point, because the embassy was able to transmit information about where and when it was safe to walk around the streets, given what was happening. (One has to remember that the protests that summer were not isolated to Tian'anmen Square) I never gave much thought to registration for a number of reasons, not the least of which being the gigantic headache that dealing with the bureaucracy would cause, but mainly because it seemed a bit melodramatic, given that I've never really had any inkling of concern for my own safety in this country. However, this weekend did make me take stock of the realities of the situation foreigners face in this country.
We are guests in this country. Though we may have residence and can live and work legally, we are foreigners. Unlike other countries in North America or Europe, where you can hold dual citizenship, China is - for lack of a better term - for Chinese. If one wants to obtain a Chinese passport, one has to either be born in this country or give up your own citizenship in your country of origin. As such, it gives China a somewhat homogeneous distinction and creates a natural divide between the Chinese and laowai. And so when my friend received a troubling SMS on Saturday, one couldn't help but be a bit concerned.
The SMS my friend - a French-Canadian - received was a warning that an angry protest was taking place outside a French-language school in Sanlitun, and that he should stay away from the area because the demonstrators were chanting 'kill foreigners.' My friend, being a professional photographer, couldn't pass up the opportunity to see what was happening and hustled down to the area. Upon arrival, he got back in touch with another friend to relay that there was little in the way of protest left. But still, the dye had been cast. The information was in the wind that an anti-foreigner protest, with violent underpinnings, had taken place. It wasn't long afterward that another friend of mine, who has been in this country about as long as I have, asked me, in all honesty, if I thought this anti-foreigner mentality was going to spread. And the only response I could think of was, 'ya.'Right now, for reasons that still sort of boggle my mind, Chinese anger is being focused on the French. Sure, the images of the protester trying to grab the torch out of a disabled Chinese girl's hands in Paris are disturbing and can easily generate anger, even among non-Han Chinese (I am amongst those who was appalled by that). But to blame an entire ethnicity and nation, the French and France, for the actions of one man or group doesn't make much sense in my mind. But it sort of typifies what has been brewing here in China for the last month or so. And, in some respects, I can understand it. For more than 150 years, foreigners have been screwing with China. From the Opium Wars to the Japanese invasion to the Cold War, foreigners have been poking China with a stick, trying to either dominate, subjugate or dictate to its people. So when the latest finger, AKA: the torch protests, gets stuck in China's eye, it's bound to conjure up anger. But what I fear is happening is a transmutation from understandable 'patriotism' to blind rage aimed at anything that even smacks of the perception of anti-China.
I'm not French. I'm Canadian. But, at the best of times, the Chinese have difficulty distinguishing one 'Western' nationality from another. As such, while the French may be the target, I fear anyone who might be deemed by an angry Chinese population as French, could become a target for frustration ventilation. Do I envision being whisked out of the capital al-la Saigon, 1975? No. However, part of me is now wondering if heeding my friends advice about registration isn't such as bad idea after all. And if I'm thinking like this, I have to wonder just how many other people around the world are pondering the same thing, particularly when it comes to possibly travelling here for the Olympics.
We're exploring the possibilities of doing a regular podcast here on ZHN, like other ones we've worked on in the past. Until then, this will have to do.
I've been getting an increasing number of requests to appear on radio shows in Canada to discuss China's reaction to the Tibet mess, torch protests, and looming Olympic games. I appeared on the nationally-syndicated Adler Online during Friday's program, and will guest on Hamilton and Toronto's Ben Guyatt Show and Victoria's Al Ferraby show this week.
You can download the mp3 for the Adler spot below (13 MB). As you'll hear in the interview, Charles Adler, the host, says that the west sorely lacks information on how the Chinese people feel, and more importantly, why they feel that way. It's a substantive interview, one of the longest segments on the program I've done.
The torch relay mess is also having an impact on the Vancouver Olympic Games, scheduled for 2010. VANOC, the organizing committee, has announced it will have an extremely short torch relay or none at all. Right now, it is considering going to London, Paris, and Vimy Ridge (where Canadian soldiers were instrumental in a World War I battle). It may also tour the United States. Canadian Olympic officials are seeking to avoid the fiasco China now finds itself a part of.
The Adler interview, however, focuses mostly on China. He asks genuine questions in trying to understand why China feels the way it does. I think many in the west are perplexed with China's reaction to concerns about Tibet. He asks whether the protests have prompted the Chinese people to put pressure on their own government for policy changes in Tibet. The question is completely understandable from a western perspective, but completely absurd if one has spent any time in China. It's this kind of information - and culture - gap that needs to be bridged. But I feel like many (not all) western media outlets are making a genuine effort. At the very least, reportage of China's point of view has increased. Conversely, China still refuses to report on any of the reasons why Tibetans may be unhappy.
I often feel like the Chinese press criticizing western media on bias is like a 400 pound man telling a 250 pound man to lose weight. Sure, the guy needs to shed a few. But the criticism is coming from an odd source.
You can download the Adler interview here:Adler Online - Cam MacMurchy - April 11 2008.mp3
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.