CDT Interview Series: Chinese Journalists Talk About the Olympics, Tibet, and Cross-Cultural Understanding (1)

[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 first of four interviews follows.]

Interview with a Chinese Journalist – by Meredith Godwin

This interviewee is an investigative reporter working for a national publication.

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

Journalist: The main purpose of the Olympics for the Chinese is to use it as a chance to reveal the huge economic achievements of the past 20 years to Westerners.

CDT: What’s your view on the protests around the Olympic Torch – as a Chinese, how do you see that? If you’re talking to someone protesting the situation in Tibet, or Darfur, or China’s human rights record, what do you say?

Journalist: About the protests, I think there are lots of misunderstandings and as a Chinese, personally, I wish for the torch to pass peacefully. But in the history of the Olympics, when the torch passed through different countries, protests have actually always happened. So when China accepted to be the host of the Olympics, they should have also been prepared to accept the protests, not to overreact about the protests.

The Tibetan protesters, I think it’s understandable that they have their anger and dissatisfaction about certain ways of China. But, toward the violent event against the Olympic torch, for example, attacking the disabled girl in Paris, I think this should be denounced. Also, towards all protesters, they should all be looked at differently because there are different groups and they have different demands and different interests. For example, a lot of protesters in the United States are actually exiled members of the Tibetan government, and their demands as protesters is asking for independence which is very hard for all Chinese to accept. But, some of the protesters within Tibet, those people, are asking for more religious freedom and the real, genuine autonomous rights, so those demands, I think, are understandable. There is some background about how China governs the Tibetan area. A lot of Chinese people think that the government gives a lot of economic aid to the Tibetan minority but in fact, when they distributed all these resources, it was very unevenly divided, in fact, some poor Tibetans did not receive these resources, that is why they feel dissatisfied and feel they are treated unfairly.

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? What news sources do you trust?

Journalist: There are so many different reports on Tibet, some among the Western media do have a biased style of reporting on this news, but also certain among the Western media neutrally reported this event. As a Chinese in China, it is impossible to have full access to all the information reported by the Western media, so they would mistakenly take it as all biased Western reporting. That is what caused the misunderstanding. And I think the Western reporting is missing three parts, one is that some Chinese protesters are unsatisfied by the Western media who intend to set the agenda for reporting about Tibet, exaggerating the government suppression of peaceful protests. The second thing that is missing is that some Chinese protesters are mad because of stimulating headlines, like the French newspaper with a Western influence, like the Figaro and Le Monde with headlines like “Catastrophic Torch Relay in Paris” and “A Slap on the Face of China.” I think these two headlines are very stimulating and it is not objective reporting.

I think The New York Times reporting is more neutral than others. Print and magazine media may be more neutral than TV, because of different speeds, it (print media) is slower but more correct. Some of the Western media reports broke that bottom line that is not accepted by the Chinese, which is calling Tibet an independent country. That is the bottom line, the Chinese can’t accept it. Some Western media emphasized the “Free Tibet” slogan and the anti-Olympic voice while suppressing or eliminating the voice for the Olympics. There was also a lot of anger towards the anchorman for CNN, Jack Cafferty. His words triggered large-scale protests by Chinese at the CNN Los Angeles bureau on April 19th.

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?

Journalist: First of all, no matter where the reporter is from, China or the West, it is very complicated issue to report, so first they should read a lot of background information about the history of the relationship between Tibet and China. But it is really hard for you to master the history because a large portion was not exposed before. So someone could go to Tibet and read about the history, but still probably not know the whole picture. Even the parts of history that are recorded and you can read may not be the true picture, it could be a false picture, or manipulated.

You can only take the information you read as the input of the source. You have to pay attention to where the news is coming from and what benefits that group hopes to gain. Besides written materials, when you are doing interviews, you have to look for the two conflicting sides, the Tibetan and Chinese sides. But you also have to go beyond the two sides to find the third party or the fourth party, giving a full conclusion on the event. You should also look for academics, with more independent and critical ideas and opinions. I think that as a journalist reporting about such a complicated event, you should take a very serious and cautious, investigative approach to reporting. You should take more time, rather than taking short-cuts while reporting, in this way you have more time to develop a thoughtful report. You should avoid more subjective, misleading, and judgmental opinions and instead review the whole picture of the complicated conflict. You have to choose objective facts. If you focus on the conflicts between both sides and carefully pursue the reason of the conflicts, you can feel assured that both sides will keep silent over what you published.

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? In your view, what action is the most effective?

Journalist: There is nothing wrong with patriotism, patriotic conduct can be found in every country, but we should guard against the narrow nationalism and extreme nationalism.

The nationalistic feeling is a collective emotion including both humiliation and arrogance. The humiliation inflicted upon the Chinese in the past dozens of years was mixed with the pride gained from the past 20 years’ high economic growth rate. Whether it was hosting the Olympics or the re-entry into WTO, China aspired to be recognized by the international community. Once they failed to be recognized, the nationals became angry more easily, because of feelings of insecurity. Then, they tend to be unreasonable and extremist.

On the other hand, throughout history,the cyclical nationalistic waves after mid-1990s seem to be a forced transformation of social democracy and political pursuit under the post-Tiananmen political pressure. The government also relies on the nationalistic urges of the masses to divert the domestic attention from the social conflict and dissatisfaction against the government.

Nationalism feeds constantly on mass media: the traditional nationalism influenced by books and traditional media developed into the “online nationalism.”

We should be alert to the nationalistic feelings stimulated by the Internet. Internet is a double-edged sword. The public opinion can get spread more extensively, more swiftly in an Internet era than in a traditional context. But on the other hand, once utilized by the extremist nationalism, patriotism will be sent to a dangerous situation.

Extreme nationalism, in a highly censored information environment will result in net mobs, who will resort to an emotional response when stimulated by the internet media. They will resume the cultural revolutionary-like slogans and demonize the dissent. They even go to extremes to break the moral and legal bottom line to endanger such civil liberties as privacy and reputation. The historical role of Chinese media in triggering nationalism needs careful examination.

Being “patriotic,” while loving their people, and not loving only the “Han nationality,” but rather people at large.

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?

Journalist: There is an obvious gap in ways of thinking between the Western world and China. Both sides need to talk to each other deeply and understand where the bottom line lies for each other.
China used to focus on the economic achievements and eagerly seek to show to the outside world and western world more care about human rights, freedom of religion, and social value. Both sides just speak their own words, without paying attention to the other’s points of view, rooted in different historical backgrounds.

On the western side, they should not use stimulating words to touch the bottom line of Chinese. They should do more research into complicated issues happening in China and not make judgments so quickly. Now, China is just like a person with an internal, psychological issue, easy to be angered, especially if the Western world uses stimulating critiques.

Reflecting about China: If a person can’t have the right to say “no” within the country,how the country can say “no” to the outside world? In order for our “No” to be effective, we should be empowered to say “No.” Without citizenry pride we cannot enjoy national pride. We can deliver our protest to the listener’s ears, but not necessarily to their hearts.

Nationalism in any country is liable to be taken to extremes, but we could not harvest healthy nationalism without combining it with progress for national independence and the social system of freedom, democracy, and rule of law and the improvement of human rights as well.

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