CDT Interview Series: Chinese Journalists Talk About the Olympics, Tibet, and Cross-Cultural Understanding (2)

[Editor's Note: Since March, a series of events including unrest in Lhasa and protests following the Olympic torch relay, have brought to the surface a clash between nationalist elements of the Chinese public and international critics of China. Because of tight control by the propaganda department, the issues of Tibet, foreign criticism of China's human rights record, and nationalism are not allowed to be publicly debated in the Chinese media. But what do Chinese journalists really think about these issues? In an effort to gain a more nuanced answer to this question, CDT interviewed four working Chinese journalists. Most of the interviewees prefer to remain anonymous. They are all based in Beijing and work in various national magazines and newspapers. CDT has not edited their responses. The second of four interviews follows. The first interview is here.]

Interview with a Chinese Journalist, by Rhyen Coombs

This interviewee is a senior editor of a national publication based in Beijing.

CDT: How do you feel about the Olympics being in Beijing? What does that mean for the Chinese people?

Journalist: Many of my friends object to the Olympic Games, because they think that it’s just a show, a commercial activity. It wastes a lot of money and it’s not in the Olympic spirit, because it’s over-commercialized. But from my point of view, it’s really an opportunity for the outside world and China to communicate. The Tibetan issue is kind of representative of this opportunity, because if there were no Olympic Games, nobody would care about the Tibetan issue. Inside China, they don’t know the tension in Tibet. So it should be a chance for China to communicate with the outside world.

But this time, it seems, it’s not so successful, judging by the consequences of the Tibetan riots, as Westerners and Chinese have assaulted each other. There’s no dialogue. People appeal for meaningful dialogue between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government, but there’s no dialogue in the media or in society. This should not be a conflict issue. So I hope both sides can reflect and still do something to communicate before the Olympic Games. I think they should serve this purpose; if not, it’s a fruitless Olympic Games. That’s my way of thinking. But maybe that’s the same as what most Chinese people are saying. It’s a chance to show off their economic growth, because they’re proud of what China’s achieved in the last 30 years. And they think the outside world doesn’t know us. But that expectation may be too high and unrealistic. So when the outside world criticizes China, they feel hurt.

CDT: Are you surprised by the way people in China have responded to Western media’s criticism of the situation in Tibet?

Journalist: I’m not so surprised. Historically, you can see this mindset among the public. For example, in 1999, when the U.S. army bombed the embassy in Yugoslavia, there were similar events. But this time, it’s much more complicated. I try to be impartial, but I’m afraid that I’m not, though I try to be fair about the different feelings on the two sides. FIrst of all, for the Chinese public, they have certainly been influenced by their education of history, ideology and patriotism. Most of them didn’t go to Tibet and don’t know very much about the reality there. The second reason, I think, is very important — China has no real civil society. The only overwhelming organization in China is the government. The media might be a semi-NGO, but most of the media is also connected to the government. So the way Chinese organize and respond to the Western world is quite different from the Western world.

I went to San Francisco when the Olympic torch came through, and I could feel the difference between the two sides. Most of the pro-Tibetan people are organized by different groups. They have the experience. They know how to demonstrate their opinions. But for the Chinese, it’s a mess. We must admit to the difference. In domestic China, there are no NGOs, no civil society. And so the feeling is, in a way, not well expressed.

Take the student at Duke University, for example. They assaulted her family. They called her a traitor. The reason behind this is that people aren’t used to expressing their opinions properly. I think if you look back to the 18th century in France, you see the revolution there was the same. But maybe a more basic reason is a lack of understanding between the West and China. I don’t want to say Western media is biased, or is misleading the public on purpose. It’s not true, and bias is too strong a word. But there have been some problems in the coverage. I didn’t follow every article in the media; I follow the Washington Post and the New York Times, pretty much. As a journalist, I can feel their effort; they try to be impartial, but the danger is in the details.

It’s not about the particular report they wrote and presented to the public. It’s about the deep-level context. I don’t know how much coverage of Tibet has been in mainstream Western newspapers for the last 10 or 20 years. I think it’s less than in China; in China, it’s propaganda – there’s always something about Tibet. But because China and Tibet have such a long, complicated history, you can’t judge it in a very short story. Most of the stories just cover the demonstrations, the torch relay, and the protests. They only mention some words, such as — where is Tibet, who is Dalai Lama, what is their position. This kind of summary is over-simplified. Each judgment, each word you use, has a deep meaning, has a huge background. How could the public understand all of this context based on such limited coverage?

Take, for example, the freedom of religion in Tibet. It’s too easy to say we should give freedom of religion to Tibetans. There’s a very complicated history; there was no freedom of religion in Tibet, even before China invaded. “Invade” is another kind of word with controversial meaning. But at that time, only Buddhism was the religion in Tibet. How about the Muslims? And how many young people still stick to the classic Tibetan Buddhism? We don’t know.

All of these issues can’t be summarized in a single word. When the New York Times and Washington Post report on something inside the U.S., people have context. Even if the media simplifies it, people can grasp the meaning they’re trying to convey. But for China, for Tibet, people don’t know the context. So there will be misunderstandings. I wonder if the mainstream media in the U.S. and the U.K. have the ability to cover the rest of the world impartially. It’s not a problem of willingness – I think they have the will. It’s about the ability. How many reporters do they have? As far as I know, Washington Post only has two reporters in Africa, and Africa has around 50 countries. They aren’t concerned with all of the countries; only when there’s a big issue or rebellion to be addressed, do they go there. So how can you grasp the feeling of the local people?

CDT: So, do we need more reporters? Do you think that would help?

Journalist: I don’t know. I can’t say I understand China, even though I am Chinese. The knowledge of a journalist is always limited. But you must try to give more attention to the context. Even though media doesn’t have the ability to reflect the complete reality of the world, Western media does have a huge influence on the public opinion and the decision-making procedure. For the last 50 years, Chinese media has assaulted Western countries, always criticized the Western government. But nobody cared. Why? Because they have no influence, and people in the Western world know that’s propaganda you can’t take seriously. The Western media’s influence is much more serious. But this time, when the Chinese criticized Western media, I think people in the U.S. did try to understand what had happened. This reflects a change, because China is now important. You can’t neglect it. Before that, during the Cultural Revolution, you could just summarize it; you could say it’s a dictatorship, and people would understand. But now, we really need a meaningful dialogue – not only between Dalai Lama and the Chinese government. We need it ourselves, between ordinary people.

I don’t know how to improve the situation. For Western media, I can understand why there’s been so little coverage during the last year about the Tibetans. I also work in media, and I know this is a dilemma. I know you can’t cover everything when there are many important issues. But if you don’t have the ability to cover it every day, how could you judge on some serious issue? How could you get the full meaning and understand in society about the issue in such a short time? Maybe the Internet should play more of a role to change that. Maybe there should be some cooperation between Western media and local media in China, so they could share – sort of outsource – coverage. This may also be a way to cover other countries, because there are so many cultural and language differences.

I just try to stress the importance of context, and for Chinese people as well. They can’t tell the difference between government and civil society in the West. I think the U.S. government has been very unwilling to criticize China this time, and is sending a very weak signal to the Chinese government, because they have so many issues to collaborate on. The government doesn’t want to bring this up or fight for the Tibetans. But civil society doesn’t have this concern, and Chinese people can’t tell the difference. They’re just anti-America, including anti-American government, society and media. It’s seeing things the Chinese way.

But I also don’t know what the Western mainstream media conveys to the public about the Chinese government. You see the CNN commentator [Jack Cafferty] criticize the Chinese government, saying it has basically been run by the same thugs and goons for the last 50 years. I don’t want to judge if he was being racially discriminating, or if he was just criticizing the government, or the people in China. It’s really misleading. Today’s China government is different from a traditional dictatorship. We must admit to that reality. I know many senior officials, and they are not so close-minded. Many of them were educated in Western countries and can speak fluent English much better than me, so how could you say they are the same people as in the last 50 years? Many, many senior officials are trying to transform China into an open society. Certainly there are also many, many corrupted officials; even some open-minded officials are corrupt. That’s an institutional shortcoming, a disadvantage. But there’s also a willingness to be open. The reality is still not that good; China does not have a Gorbachev, like in Russia. But what is the image ordinary readers in the U.S. get from the media about the Chinese government? It’s too simple to say “dictatorship.” There’s always some gray area in the spectrum from democracy to dictatorship. Even though there’s no freedom of speech or religion or demonstration, most common Chinese people can’t feel the pressure from the government in their daily life, as it was during the Cultural Revolution, or today in North Korea, or under other dictatorships. I think the Western media is trying to do something good in spreading the ideas of democracy and freedom to China. But we also should face the realities, and not just oversimplify.

CDT: It sounds like you’re saying the average person in the U.S. has a distorted view of the Chinese government, and the average person in China sees the U.S. in the same way.

Journalist: Yes, that’s the problem. Even in open societies, it’s not that easy to get the truth or to avoid brainwashing, because ideology simplifies and summarizes complicated issues. It always endangers reality. So the point is, how do you know the truth? It’s better to help people think more critically. Even in China, if you are a critical thinker, you can find some truth. Even in the U.S., where there is plenty of information, if you’re close-minded, you cannot find the truth. Freedom of information and freedom of speech can make people more critical thinkers, and China should learn that from the West.

CDT: When you read the news — for example, on the Tibetan issue, or the nationalist protests — what do you read, and how do you decide who to trust?

Journalist: First of all, the first thing I do is to go to the website of the Tibetan government in exile, and try to find their statement. Because I was not familiar with the Tibet issue beforehand, I don’t want to be misled by either path. But the website of the exiled government of Tibet is also propaganda. I am interested in both the Chinese side and the Tibetan side. I tried to read some books on Tibetan history, and analyze the situation for myself, based on what I learn, and use some common sense. I just don’t know what happened on that particular day of the riots. Maybe the demonstration was organized on purpose to try to take advantage of the Olympic Games. I can certainly understand that. But if there was a conflict before the riots, we don’t know. The Tibetan people said the policemen arrested some people before the riots, but the Chinese government denies it, and it’s hard to say. I think the Chinese government is very careful about this issue this year. Even if I was a cruel official and had no humanity or feelings, I would think about the consequences if I cracked down on the demonstration.

CDT: If you were in China now, and you had the ability to go to Tibet, how would you report it?

Journalist: I think that the first thing is, we should disclose the history, the reality. We must not just focus on the particular event, because it has a deep root in the public. We should spend much more time investigating the real feelings of the Han Chinese and Tibetan Chinese in the region. Also, as a native Chinese, I believe we must focus on the resolution, not just the criticism. I think that’s the difference. I can understand how, as a foreigner, you have no responsibility to provide any resolution or solution. But the Chinese must focus on that, because it affects our daily life. So I would try to be more sympathetic with both sides.

CDT: What do you say when this subject comes up, like during the protests in San Francisco in April? If someone were to come up to you and challenge China’s human rights record or the situation in Tibet, and get very upset, what would you say?

Journalist: The first thing I’d say is to calm down! It’s no use to be so angry, to be so emotional, because it’s not the way to solve the problem. And then I would just try to communicate, to exchange the information on both sides. I don’t want to simply stand on one side. Because you don’t know the truth right now, or you don’t know the total truth, the full truth. Everybody knows a part of the truth. But the point is – what’s the total truth?

CDT: What do you think is going to happen with this anger at Western media, and these nationalist protests that are happening in China? Where is it going to go?

Journalist: I think the feelings are temporary. I think nothing will happen. I think it all depends on what will happen in the future, if another serious situation triggers it. Since China has no NGOs or civil society, people are not organized very well, and they have no distinct goal. They have no method to execute their will. You can see that there’s a huge underlying energy in the society. But if I analyze what has happened in the last few months, I think government propaganda has played a very important role in triggering nationalist sentiment. If they didn’t focus on the torch relay in Paris, and the disabled girl, maybe there would not have been the protests against the French. Another factor is the response of media in other countries. For example, if CNN hadn’t said the Chinese are basically the same bunch of goons and thugs as in the last 50 years, I think the anti-CNN sentiment would have passed by very soon. But it seems now that people are dealing with Chinese nationalism much more carefully. The Chinese government is more cautious to play the nationalism card, and the Western government and media are also taking it seriously. But the reality is that there’s no organization among the people.

CDT: In April, journalist Chang Ping [aka Zhang Ping] wrote an op-ed, How To Find The Truth About Lhаsa. He was attacked by Chinese nationalists who labeled him a traitor, and recently fired. What are your thoughts on what he wrote, and the response?

Journalist: First of all, I am so sympathetic with what he said. I also appreciate his courage to see things more objectively, and try to direct the public emotions to be objective. But I don’t know how to evaluate the consequences, the result. Maybe it’s been positive. In China, there’s recently been a turn from the strong nationalist sentiment to a somewhat more complicit attitude. There are many, many other intellectuals trying to deflect the nationalist sentiment; Zhang Ping is only the precursor. He is the bravest journalist in this case, and unfortunately, the first one is always the one people who attack. There’s always a demand for somebody to stand up, to say something. But for the first one, it’s the most dangerous. So I think he did a good job.

I think there already have been other people to criticize nationalism. They are more tactical. Zhang Ping tried to be tactical; you can see there are many things between the lines. But it’s also about timing. Timing is the most important. Still, even though he was fired, I don’t think he will endure further pressure from the government. Maybe after the Olympic Games, he will find a job, and go on doing what he always does. China now, even though there’s no freedom of expression and speech, is not so terrible as North Korea. So there’s some room!

CDT: How do you do think we can begin to bridge the cultural and political gaps between the West and China? What would be a first step?

Journalist: I think the first step is being willing to try to understand each other. For Chinese media, they can do something to introduce more complicated understandings of Western society. In China, there is an inclination to oversimplify the Western image. As I’ve mentioned, people don’t know the difference between Western civil society and the government. Most Chinese know that, in Western democratic countries, there is a difference between Congress, the government and the courts. But how do they operate? How do they run? It’s still very simplified. I think Chinese public intellectuals should do more translation of works from Western society. But now that China is becoming over-commercialized, scholars don’t want to do the labor of translation, because it’s not very profitable.

For media, there’s always an inclination to decide the conclusion before you investigate enough facts. The same is true for Western media. If they really want to get the support from the ordinary people in China, I suggest that they do much more research. Finally, there is a demand, because of globalization. Before 2001, before it joined the WTO, China was still a very closed country. Its role was not so prominent in the world. But there has been a huge transition since, and now there’s a real demand for China and the rest of the world to re-recognize each other.