CDT Interview Series: Chinese Journalists Talk About the Olympics, Tibet, and Cross-Cultural Understanding (4)
[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 interviewee is Jianqiang Liu, a senior investigative reporter of the Southern Weekend, and currently a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley.
CDT: How do you feel about the Olympics being in Beijing? What does it mean for China, for the Chinese people?
Jianqiang Liu: My personal feeling is I don’t like the Olympic games because I think it will waste a lot of money for the common people. The common Chinese people can’t get benefits from the Olympic games because they have to pay a lot of money to the government for taxes. Money comes in from all the provinces, but the central government gives most of the money to the Olympic games, to Beijing, and how could a Chinese person from Yunnan, Sichuan, and Shandong get benefits from the Olympic games? Chinese people are very poor in rural China and in Tibet, in Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou some children’s families can’t afford to send them to school, and the central government is giving a lot of money to the games. We just want to show the world we have the power to organize a huge party like this, so I don’t like it.
But I think this is just my personal opinion. The other members of my big family love the Olympic games because they think it is the first opportunity for Chinese people to host a festival like the Olympic games to show their warm welcome to the world. Other people think it is a good opportunity for the Chinese government to communicate with people from around the world so maybe it will help China’s government to open the door more and more. That’s very important because if you talk with foreigners more and more they will influence you—to be more democratic, to do something good, and to open the door, to learn something from the democratic countries—so it’s a good opportunity, and I think most Chinese people like the Olympic games. I’m not against the Olympic games because most of the Chinese people like it. I think most of the Chinese people see the positive side of the Olympic games, but for me I look at the negative side of the Olympic games, but I don’t know which side is better.
CDT: What’s your view on the protests around the Olympic Torch – as a Chinese, how do you see that?
Jianqiang Liu: I think that is their freedom, they can do anything to show their feelings, but I don’t think it is good for what they want—they want more human rights in Tibet but it’s not helpful. It will make the Chinese government and Chinese angry and China will control Tibet more tightly. Many Chinese people don’t know any Tibetans inside China, but from the protests they think , “oh, Tibetans want to be independent and they are very violent, they use violence in Lhasa, and some Tibetans rob the torch in Paris and in London so that makes the Chinese people hate Tibetans, so it’s very terrible. I think the future of Tibet, the future of China and the future of Tibet, depends on the understanding between Chinese and Tibetans—not fighting each other, but talking with each other and making friends. The Olympic games is just sports so it’s not only an event for the Chinese government, it’s a big event for most of the Chinese so why do they want to anger most of the Chinese? It’s very stupid, I think. I think it is very stupid, but I understand what they are feeling and they have the freedom to do this, but it’s not wise. It’s the Olympic games, it’s not politics, and I think most of the Chinese think “we just want to hold an Olympic games, it’s very peaceful, and it means friendship, it means peace, so why don’t you let us hold the Olympic games peacefully? I think that’s the problem. You have 365 days in one year, why do you protest the Olympic games? We have a lot of events in China. Maybe if you support “Save the Children”, it’s a better way. If you have money, some other ways to help the children in China, it’s a better way to let the people in China know “oh, you want to help us, not only to fight us, not only to suppress us.” Protest is not the only way to influence the human rights.
CDT: How do you think the Western media is portraying the situation? Is this biased? Distorted? How so? What’s missing? What would you recommend?
Jianqiang Liu: I think the BBC’s reporting is very good in terms of this piece—it’s objective, and I think it tells some truth. It uses a source from the Xinhua news agency and it quotes a source from the Tibetan government in exile, and a source from BBC’s chief in China—so I think it’s good. You know most of the western media didn’t use a source from the Xinhua news agency, but this one used it.
And the NYTimes editorial I think is not too bad, but the only problem is this one “the freedom of Tibet”. I don’t understand what this means, the freedom of Tibet? I think it means independence, and I think that is the problem with western media—it is biased. I think maybe 90% of the article is not biased, but it is when it reflects the western views or opinions on Tibet, they want freedom for Tibet—that means free Tibet or independence of Tibet. It is a big problem because you know the Dalai Lama doesn’t want the independence of Tibet, he just wants an autonomous region, which means Tibet is one part of China, they have one government just like Hong Kong. Honk Kong is very free, they have the freedom for everything—free speech, free press, free religion, and they have their own law system, but Hong Kong is one part of China. But if you have independence for Tibet that means that Tibet is another country, it has nothing with China—then that is quite different—it’s very different. If some western media still sees the issue as freedom for Tibet, it is not helpful for Tibet and the Dalai Lama, it will make the situation worse. The Dalai Lama always said, “I don’t want to be independent from China, I just want the genuine autonomous region”, but China’s government doesn’t trust him. Why? Because his friends from western media from western countries, they all are talking about freedom of Tibet, so China’s government doesn’t trust the Dalai Lama so they don’t want to talk with the Dalai Lama.
CDT: What news sources do you trust?
CDT: If you could write completely freely about this, If there’s no restriction for Chinese journalists to go to Tibet, what would you do? How would you report it?
Jianqiang Liu: This is a very good question. I think it’s the best question. If I have no restrictions, I would go to Tibet, I would go to Lhasa to talk to the people involved with the riots and ask them, why did you go to the streets? Why did you beat the Chinese people and the Hui people? Why are you not happy? And what do you want? What happened before March 14? What happened in the Temples? How did the government treat you before the riots? So in one word, I want to know the reason for the riots in Lhasa and in the other places in Tibet why the Tibetans are so angry. So I want to find out the reason, the real reason. I think there are a lot of articles on this issue and most of the western media said it is because they have no freedom of religion and they want the central government to talk with the Dalai Lama, and their culture was destroyed by the Chinese and they are very weak in their competition with the Chinese business men, but it is just guess, they are just comments/editorial/opinion not the facts, so they didn’t have the opportunity to do some investigative reporting. But I think they are not happy because they have no freedom of religion, and they are very disappointed because the Dalai Lama cannot go back to Tibet, but it is just a guess—I want to talk with them and let them tell me the truth—what they feel, what they really feel.
CDT: How do you see the phenomenon of rising patriotic fervor among among Chinese people in response to the situation in Tibet and Western criticism? Why?
Jianqiang Liu: I don’t like the protests in China because I think it is very stupid—the angry youth is very stupid. They went to street because they haven’t got enough information about Tibet. They just trust what the government told them that the Dalai Lama wants: to separate from China, so they don’t know what the Tibetans are thinking about—they don’t know what the Tibetans feeling about the government about the Chinese. I think in this the western media played a bad role because some of the reporters are very biased. For example the NYTimes is the best newspaper in the world, and if we they have 100 reporters on Tibet, maybe 90 are very good, but maybe 1,2,3 or 4 reporters have a bias and they give some wrong information and some of the Chinese people notice and they will spread it to the common people and it makes the Chinese people angry. And actually I was not happy with some of the NYTimes reporters because some of the articles were full of bias. In the beginning of May there was an article reporting a meeting in a Southern California University when some Chinese people argued with a Tibetan monk:
Students argue that China has spent billions on Tibet, building schools, roads and other infrastructure. Asked if the Tibetans wanted such development, they looked blankly incredulous. “They don’t ask that question,” said Lionel Jensen, a China scholar at Notre Dame. “They’ve accepted the basic premise of aggressive modernization.”
Then the reporter added another paragraph explaining that experts say that these foreign exchange students are from upper class families in China, so they are the ones benefiting from China’s development:
“That may be, some experts suggest, because the students whose families can afford to send them abroad are the ones who have benefited the most from China’s economic liberalization. ” and the reporter said: Tibetans have not received benefits from China’s development. But the foreign exchange students said, “Everyone can benefit from China’s development”. Then the reporter added another paragraph explaining that experts say that these foreign exchange students are from upper class families in China, so they are the ones benefiting from China’s development.
The reporter never mentions who these “experts” are, and furthermore this entire paragraph is not true—most of the foreign exchange students are from poor common families, they are only able to come because they receive scholarships—without these scholarships there is no way they would be able to come over here. The reporting doesn’t look like it is from a journalist, it’s more like analyis—opinion.
CDT: In your view, what action is the most effective for Chinese people to express their anger?
Jianqiang Liu: Going to the streets and demonstrating is not totally bad. I think the Chinese people have the right to go to the street to show their feeling, that’s good. But boycotting Carrefour is not a good idea because 99% of the staff in that shop are Chinese and most of the products are from China. You could boycott, but you can’t beat the people who shop there, and I think maybe the Chinese people should learn from the western people when they go to the streets—very peaceful, just shout, but don’t do something stupid. And if you think the western media is biased, you should point it out—read the newspaper, watch the tv, and tell the truth; you can’t just say they’re bad, but you have no evidence. I think most Chinese people don’t know what the truth is in Tibet.
CDT: What is the truth?
Jianqiang Liu: There are a lot of truths. You have to read books from the different sides, you have to go to Tibet—but most Chinese people don’t know any Tibetans and they haven’t been to Tibet. Their knowledge about Tibet is just from the textbook—“Tibet was is and will be a part of China, and the Dalai Lama is bad and he wants to separate Tibet from China”—that’s all they know. So if they talk with Americans with this kind of knowledge, of course it will be very difficult.
CDT: How did you feel about the protests in San Francisco?
Jianqiang Liu: It was very interesting, it was my first time to see the two sides argue. It’s very complicated. It is very hard for me to say clearly how I feel, but I think they both have the right to demonstrate, protest, and anti-protest.
CDT: Did you anti-protest?
Jianqiang Liu: No, I just watched and took pictures. I think they all have the right to protest, and I found the Tibetan protestors to be more violent. They attacked some Chinese students—I saw it, and it’s not good. I understand what they are standing for, but some of their methods—what they did is not good. I think Tibetans should get more friends with Chinese and it will help Tibet, but if you make all the Chinese people as your enemy, you can’t get what you want. Many of the protests just make more and more enemies.
Many Tibetans who are outside of Tibet think that Tibetans are treated poorly in China—that they are beaten, killed, or put in jail—but this is not whole picture. Yes, this does happen, but for most Tibetans it is better now than before. I have a Tibetan friend who went to Tibet and his opinion was not the same at all—you just have to go to Tibet, and you realize these claims are not true—many peoples’ lives there are good and happy. But there are monks there who follow the Dalai Lama’s teachings—they are not allowed to, and of course this makes them upset, and there are others with their own problems as well, but it really is not that 6 million Tibetans all want independence. It is necessary to really understand Tibet, but there are not people who go and try to understand.
CDT: What are the obstacles for Chinese and the West to listen to and understand each other? How do you think we could bridge the culture/language/politics gap and create understanding?
Jianqiang Liu: Many things—one is language, and you know in China we just have a little freedom of press, so the Western media and the westerners don’t believe the Chinese press. And I think another important reason is the communist party—the west just needs to hear this country is controlled by the communist party, and they assume that everything the country says is a lie—this is a kind of bias. Two years ago, I went to Columbia University and I talked with one producer from CBS. He asked me, “If the Chinese government announced the number of people who are affected by HIV AIDS, maybe 10,000, could you write down another number?” I told him, that’s what I do, that’s what I always do—tell the truth. We, journalists, often write numbers/statistics that are different from what the government claims, but the west doesn’t know—they just assume that we write exactly what the government says. I think a lot of journalists write the truth, a lot, but it doesn’t matter what we say because westerners have a bias. There are many newspapers that give the truth, even the People’s Daily has a lot in it that is true. Southern Weekend, Caijing Magazine—these are good examples. But Westerners do not believe it.
CDT: Why does China care so much about holding onto Tibet?
Jianqiang Liu: It’s the Chinese culture I think. I think for the past 2,000 years, a unified country is the Chinese people’s ideal. Unity is better than separation. In China’s history patriotism means fight against the enemy—the outside countries—and protect the country. This view is very important and deep for China.