CDT Interview Series: Chinese Journalists Talk About the Olympics, Tibet, and Cross-Cultural Understanding (3)

[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 third of four interviews follows. The first and second interview are here and here.]

Interview with a Chinese Journalist, by Jenny Chu
This interviewee is a reporter of a print media based in Beijing.

CDT: HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE OLYMPICS IN CHINA THIS YEAR?

Journalist: This summer’s Olympics is very, very important for both China and its people. It is not only a sports event. In the past three decades, China has been struggling so much to develop its economy and to reach out to the international stage. Now they want to make the Olympics a stage to showcase their achievements and development to the outside world, not only in the economic side, but also the political and the moral side. So it’s even more important than people outside can imagine. I am proud of the Olympics and of China’s rapid development.

CDT: YOU SAY IT’S A WAY TO SHOWCASE CHINA’S MORAL DEVELOPMENT,BUT SOME PEOPLE WOULD SAY THAT HUMAN RIGHTS PROBLEMS HAVE NOT BEEN ADDRESSED. HOW DO YOU RESPOND TO THEM?

Journalist: It is true. There are lots of human rights problems in China, but in recent years,the government has intensified its efforts to solve these kinds of problems. I think it’s a legitimate concern for foreigners and western countries to pay attention to these kinds of problems or even to criticize the Chinese government for it, butnI think the government itself is working hard to resolve it.

CDT: WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT ALL THESE PROTESTS? USING OLYMPICS?

Journalist: They can protest against these kinds of problems by other ways, but it’s not a good idea connecting them with the Olympics. The Olympics is supposed to be a sports event. I don’t agree with that kind of boycott.

CDT: IF YOU’RE TALKING TO A PROTESTER, WHAT DO YOU SAY TO THEM?

Journalist: I think these three things are separate things. For China’s human rights problems, it’s a good thing for them to pay attention to it. Under international pressure, I think it will be better for the government to pay attention and solve these kinds of problems more quickly. But for the Tibet issue,we should differentiate the free Tibet activists and local Tibetans in China. I think they are different groups. For the Free Tibet activists outside of Tibet, personally, I strongly oppose the issue of independence because Tibet is definitely part of China. But if what they claim is about more religious freedom in Tibet, I think that might be more legitimate. We should differentiate about what they claim. If I talk to someone who is concerned about these kinds of issues, I would suggest that they go to Tibet and China by themselves and use their own eyes and think about it themselves.

CDT: HAVE YOU BEEN TO TIBET YOURSELF?

Journalist: Not yet.

CDT: WOULD YOU LIKE TO GO?

Journalist: Yes, sure, especially after this rioting.

CDT: WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO THE PEOPLE PROTESTING FOR DARFUR?

Journalist: The Darfur issue is a very political issue, very complicated. I’m not sure if the Chinese government is right or not, but one thing I know is that China is desperately hungry for oil, for natural resources. I mean maybe for China there is no other choice.

CDT: WELL THERE ARE OTHER SOURCES FOR OIL?

Journalist: But that’s not enough. Even the U.S. invaded Iraq for oil. Some say it’s for liberation, but I don’t think so.

CDT: DO YOU FEEL THAT IF THE OLYMPICS WERE IN THE U.S. THIS SUMMER, PEOPLE BE PROTESTING THE OLYMPICS HERE FOR THE SAME KIND OF REASONS?

Journalist: I think they would. But for American people and the government, they get used to these kinds of protests. For China and the Chinese people, it’s a fresh thing. So that’s why they respond so excessively, so sensitively this time.

CDT: IN GENERAL, HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE RESPONSE OF THE CHINESE PEOPLE TO THE PROTESTS?

Journalist: Basically, they have their freedom to express their opinions about the boycott and other things, but personally, I think lots of people are going too far. I don’t think they know more about the whole situation or know what’s behind the Tibet issue or the others. They get one-sided information and try to draw conclusions by themselves. For example, they strongly criticized CNN and other western media. It’s true that CNN or other western media might have made some minor mistakes during their coverage, like CNN’s use of a picture on its website when they cut half of the picture out. It might mislead readers, but for me, it is a minor problem. However, some Chinese netizens easily made this kind of minor problem the whole picture. So they think all the western media are biased against China and Chinese people and therefore, they strongly criticize or even boycott CNN. I think it’s excessive.

CDT: HOW DO YOU THINK THE BBC AND NYT ARTICLES ARE PORTRAYING THE SITUATION?

Journalist: I have been following articles by the NYT and Washington Post. Basically their stories about the Tibet issue are impartial, not so biased as some people allege. But western media might have made some mistakes, like they mistake Tibet as a country. They use the word “country” to describe Tibet. I did notice that. They should be more cautious about that.

For this BBC article, I don’t think it’s biased because it also quoted what the Xinhua News Agency reported. It’s okay for me.

For the NYT, I don’t like the title. [“Terrorizes”] But it’s okay. As you mention, it’s an editorial. Journalistically, I think it’s okay.

CDT: WHAT DO YOU THINK IS MISSING IN SOME OF THESE NEWS REPORTS?

Journalist: The truth. After the violent rioting in Tibet, the western media were stopped from getting into the area to cover it. So all the information released was from the Chinese government. It might be true but not a normal or fair information flow channel. The so-called truth is all based on the government releases. Until now, what’s really going on during those rioting days is still uncertain. I mean, what the government says might be truth, but it would be better if there were multiple sources.

CDT: WHY DO YOU THINK THAT THEY BLOCKED JOURNALISTS FROM ENTERING TIBET?

Journalist: It was not a good idea, but the Chinese government got used to dealing with journalists that way. They might think that it would be safer or better for them to deal withthe situation. But for sure, it lacks transparency and freedom of information.

CDT: WHAT INFORMATION DO YOU THINK THE WESTERN MEDIA IS MISSING IN TERMS OF THE CHINESE PERSPECTIVE ON TIBET?

Journalist: Maybe they should go to Chinese Han people and listen to them more or give them the equal chance to speak out, and compare it with their interviews with the Tibetans. Basically, they also did it that way. They interviewed different groups of people and tried to figure out what caused the conflict between the Han and the Tibetans, both historically and economically. I think the NYT did a good job. Sometimes I even feel that they produce pro-Chinese government articles. They give a very deep and reasonableanalysis about the situation. Personally, I think it’s very good. But more that 99.9% of Chinese people do not read the NYT orget access to the NYT so they have no idea about them. They just attribute all western media to being biased — like the CNN commentator, Cafferty, who said that Chinese people have been thugs for 50 years. It’s very insulting.

CDT: IF YOU COULD WRITE FREELY ABOUT THE TIBET ISSUE AND IF THE REWERE NO RESTRICTIONS, HOW WOULD YOU REPORT THAT STORY YOURSELF?

Journalist: That’s a very hypothetical situation. In the foreseeable future, I don’t think it’s possible to realize that situation. But if it were true, I might go to interview the Dalai Lama face to face and tell the Chinese readers what the Dalai Lama is like and what he claims. I would also go to Tibet and interview the affected people and try to answer the unanswered questions and tell what’s really going on to my readers.

CDT: SO YOU WOULD WANT TO CREATE THAT DIALOGUE BETWEEN THE DALAI LAMA AND THE CHINESE PEOPLE?

Journalist: Yes, because now there are misunderstandings between the Han Chinese and Tibetans, between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama. So I think a good way to dissolve this kind of misunderstanding is to dialogue, to tell the truth.

CDT: AND YOU THINK YOU COULD GET AT THE TRUTH BY SPEAKING WITH THE DALAI LAMA DIRECTLY?

Journalist: At least there would be multiple sources of information instead of one-sided information. It would be more accurate, believable and credible.

CDT: DO YOU THINK TIBET SHOULD HAVE GENUINE AUTONOMY PROMOTED BY THE DALAI LAMA?

Journalist: To be honest, I don’t know too much about the”autonomy,” but I think that the Tibetans should be given more religious freedom and more cultural respect by the government and the Han Chinese. Tibetans might have lots of grievances based on the religious and cultural disrespect, but from the economic side, they benefited a lot from the economic development. Both sides, the government and the Tibetans, should be balanced between economic development and the cultural side.

CDT: WHY DO YOU THINK THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT IS SO AGAINST SPEAKING WITH THE DALAI LAMA?

Journalist: There is a historic reason. For almost three decades, the Chinese government has portrayed the Dalai Lama as a traitor. This kind of propaganda has a very strong influence among Chinese people. So even if now, the government might want to contact with the Dalai Lama, it’s not so easy to get back to the normal track, that is, get closer with each other. Dialogue with conciliatory gestures from both sides — they are doing this, but it takes time.

CDT: FROM THE TIBETANS I’VE SPOKEN TO, THEY DON’T HAVE FAITH IN THE RECENT TALKS BETWEEN BEIJING AND THE DALAI LAMA ENVOYS?

Journalist: But how much do you think that Tibetans here can stand upfor local Tibetans in China? I don’t think they can represent them. The Tibetan government in exile and exiled Tibetans in other countries might speak louder but I don’t think they can necessarily represent real Tibetans.

CDT: WHO CAN REPRESENT THE TIBETANS?

Journalist: Tibetans themselves in Tibet.

CDT: DO THEY HAVE A VOICE?

Journalist: They have no voice, but they are still themselves. I mean, here there are lots of pro-Tibetan Independence people, but real Tibetans in Tibet, China’s Tibet, don’t necessarily want to be independent from China. That’s the basic difference between them. They just want more freedom, religious freedom and cultural respect from Han Chinese. The current situation is that there is a very sharp disagreement between the Dalai Lama and the Free Tibet people. There is an organization called the Tibetan Youth Congress. The Dalai Lama cannot control that organization and they are labeled as a “terrorist group” by the Chinese government. I think they are the mainstream of Free Tibet group. I think you talked with some of them.

CDT: DID YOU FEEL MORE NATIONALISTIC WHEN YOU SAW THE TIBET PROTESTS?

Journalist: No. I have been trying to be calm and rational for this issue. Also, I talked with my friends and colleagues in Beijing. We do have some disagreements about this, but definitely I don’t think it’s a good way to use nationalism to respond. It’s a double-edged sword. It’s not good for both sides.

CDT: WHAT APPROACH WOULD YOU PREFER THE CHINESE TO TAKE?

Journalist: First of all they should figure out where this kind of nationalism came from. I think there are two reasons. The first is that the Chinese people have been educated by this kind of patriotism or nationalism in their textbooks, which teach how China had suffered from its past history. They tell about China’s humiliating history, being invaded by Japan and western countries. This kind of education easily gives its people an impression that they should fight against any disrespect or invasion. So people become very sensitive about these international issues.

The second part is that most of the so-called nationalists are young people. They have not experienced too much in their lives. They have not experienced frustrations about jobs, about bad treatment,and other injustices from the government side. So they think it’s legitimate for them to stand by the government unquestioningly and they regard this kind of nationalism as patriotism. I feel that patriotism is a positive word and nationalism is negative. Patriotism makes people like heroes, but nationalism is kind of a blind patriotism. Based on these two reasons, I think the effective way to deal with the situation is to release more truth and allow the information to flow freely and more freedom of speech and expression, or let the average Chinese people know it’s normal for outside people to protest. We should deal with it with confidence and tolerance and try to dissolve any misunderstanding between both sides.

CDT: WHAT KIND OF DISAGREEMENTS DID YOU HAVE WITH YOUR FRIENDS OVER THE NATIONALISM ISSUE?

Journalist: Two or three months ago, lots of Chinese people joined the campaign against the French company Carrefour which I think is unreasonable because Carrefour has nothing to do with the Free Tibet groups. When the Olympic Torch relay was in Paris, it was almost snatched by protesters, so Chinese people got very angry about that. Also, the French President, Sarkozy, refused to attend the opening ceremony. So both of these things made Chinese people very angry and they decided to protest. I told my friends, who are also protesting Carrefour, that it’s not good to connect a business company with politics, with the Tibet issue.

The MSN chat room is very popular in China and about 6million people added red hearts to their MSN icon, meaning they joined the Carrefour boycott. Also, I told my colleagues about the western media’s coverage. I told them we should not make a small part as the whole picture; we shouldn’t exaggerate the minor mistakes as a whole.

CDT: IF THESE PROTESTS HAPPENED BEFORE YOU CAME HERE LAST AUGUST,LESS THAN A YEAR AGO, HOW DO YOU THINK YOU WOULD HAVE FELT A YEAR AGO?

Journalist: I would be one of them, very nationalistic. This one academic year has been very useful, very meaningful me. I’ve changed a lot.

CDT: DO YOU THINK YOU WILL HAVE LOTS OF PROBLEMS WHEN YOU GO BACK TO CHINA TO LIVE AND WORK?

Journalist: Yes, there might be, but I’m going to try my best to overcome that. I love China and its people. It won’t be easy but I’m glad that I can stand from a higher perspective to view the situation.

CDT: WHAT ARE THE OBSTACLES FOR THE CHINESE AND WESTERN WORLD TO LISTEN TO EACH OTHER AND UNDERSTAND EACH OTHER?

Journalist: For Chinese people, they learn more about western countries than westerners learn about China, because more and more Chinese people study abroad and communicate with foreigners. Many western people are reluctant to voluntarily go to China and get access to Chinese people in order to communicate with them and learn about them. For example, two weeks ago,I spent a weekend in the countryside with an American host family. The family was very hospitable and are very good people. The husband in the family is a university teacher. He asked me, when the Communist government fell. That was his question. But it hasn’t fallen. The whole family knew little about China.

CDT: SO YOU FEEL THAT ONE WAY TO UNDERSTAND EACH OTHER MORE AT LEAST FOR AMERICANS IS TO READ MORE OR LEARN MORE ABOUT CHINA?

Journalist: They should share the responsibility to break the cultural or economical or political obstacles.

CDT: WHAT ARE SOME ASPECTS ABOUT CHINESE CULTURE YOU FEELWESTERNERS NEED TO KNOW FOR A BETTER UNDERSTANDING ABOUT CHINESE PEOPLE?

Journalist: First of all, they should differentiate between the Chinese Communist government and the common Chinese people. That’s very important. The second is that Chinese people are hardworking, honest, sincere and willing to communicate with others.

CDT: AND THEN VISA VERSA, WHAT DO YOU THINK THE CHINESE SHOULD KNOW ABOUT WESTERN CULTURE?

Journalist: For common Chinese people, they should know what democracy is. In a democratic society, it’s very common for people to speak freely. They might disagree with you but it’s okay. They might disagree with China, with the government, butit’s okay. It’s a normal thing tobe able to speak out. That’s freedom of expression. Chinese people should get used to this kind of criticism or disagreement from outside.

CDT: DO YOU THINK THAT IS ONE REASON WHY NATIONALISM WENT CRAZY BECAUSE THEY COULDN’T TAKE THE CRITICISM?

Journalist: It’s a very important reason because people have been used to one voice, the whole country has one voice. If there is a disagreement or a different voice, they feel uncomfortable, especially from a different voice from other countries. They feel that it is provocation or something like that. People tend to follow the government line, tend to stand by the government voice. They got used to that but when there is a different voice coming, they feel uncomfortable. So they should learn and get used to diversity.

CDT: YOU SAID THAT THE YOUNG PEOPLE ARE SOME OF THE MOST NATIONALISTIC RECENTLY, BUT THEN AT THE SAME TIME, THE URBAN YOUNG ARE ALSO THE MOST WESTERN. SO HOW CAN BOTH THOSE QUALITIES EXIST AT THE SAME TIME?

Journalist: It’s a very sad thing that for today’s China because it’s hard to define a specific culture or identity. There used to be Confucius. But now, Chinese people get more exposure to international society but it is also losing its identity, its own culture. It’s very sad. It’s hard to define what is Chinese culture now. Chinese scholars and Americans here always talk about today’s Chinese belief system, but we haven’t been able to figure it out. Money might be the belief system now. What we say is that China is losing its identity and there’s no replacement.

So the young people follow the western style. They are eager to show their fancy side and to be international citizens, but it turns out that they cannot find themselves. They are just in western brand clothes and they use fancy cell phones produced by western countries. They lose themselves. I think sometimes that frustrates them.

CDT: HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE OLYMPIC TORCH GOING TO EVEREST AND LHASA?

Journalist: That’s spectacular. It’s not an easy job but they finally finished it. Some Tibetans, especially the exiled Tibetans, might argue that the Olympic Torch should not go to the Tibetan area,but I don’t agree.