The Ugly Chinese

On his blog for the Washington Post, former Post Beijing Bureau Chief John Pomfret writes about the failures of China’s “soft power” efforts as the government propaganda machine changes tack.  In the International Herald Tribune, Howard French also writes about government propaganda efforts in the face of angry protest against Western media coverage and foregin support for Tibet.  Both are good articles.

The Ugly Chinese

Move over ugly American, make room for the ugly Chinese.

In Seoul on Sunday, groups of Chinese students accosted protesters demonstrating against China’s treatment of North Korean refugees and Beijing’s policies in Tibet. The attacks by the Chinese occurred as the Olympic torch wended its way on its seemingly never-ending journey around the world. The South Korean government was justifiably angry. China, after initially denying the events occurred, has now taken steps to still the waters. But the damage has been done. China’s angry youth – called "fen qing" in Chinese – are ruining their country’s reputation around the world and spelling the end of a decade-long honeymoon that the world has had with China.

The flare-up was the latest deeply troubling and profoundly weird event to mar the globe-trotting journey of the torch, which the Beijing government has dubbed "the sacred flame." (Remember, these dudes are officially atheists.) Before Seoul, we had Chinese cops in blue and white tracksuits manhandling demonstrators in Paris and London; we had a Chinese woman in the United States who participated in a pro-Tibet protest being identified on a listserv run by Chinese students; now her parents are on the run in China and her high school in Qingdao has revoked her diploma; and we’ve witnessed the incessant hounding of Tibetan and other speakers on US campuses by Chinese students. In cities around the world, the Chinese embassy has fanned the passions of the "angry youth" by encouraging them to demonstrate, handing out T-shirts and flags.

While I have no problem with displays of patriotic feeling, the only thing these "angry youth" are accomplishing is turning the world away from China. And they are not alone in this ill-fated effort to get China’s point across. China’s propaganda machine is also seriously in need of repairs.

For a few years there, the tone adopted by spokespeople of China’s government was downright suave. Background briefings. Check. A quiet drink with journalists. Check. Even a bowling event without a government minder. Check. But these days, it seems like someone has disinterred Cultural Revolution propagandist and Gang of Four member Zhang Chunqiao and put him at the helm.

After the March riots in Tibet, the Tibetan government proclaimed a "people’s war" against "splittism" (somebody should really tell them to lose that word) and the party boss there called the Dalai Lama "a jackal clothed in a monk’s robes, and a vicious devil who is a beast in human form." A few days later the Ministry of Foreign Affairs called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi "disgusting." And the amazing thing was the Chinese expected to be taken seriously.

Finally, there’s China’s "ship of shame" – packed with arms for the government of Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe – on its own troubled journey to first South Africa and now Angola. In both places, dock workers refused to unload the weapons. It’s a coincidence but also a bad one because China has been focusing a lot of diplomatic capital on improving its ties to Africa and the rest of the Third World.

What does this all mean for China? To me, it means the end of an era of China’s "soft power."

For the past decade, China’s "soft power" has helped fuel Beijing’s rise by attempting to assuage fears of an expansionist China. Whether it be the establishment overseas of hundreds of language-teaching Confucian Institutes (there are more than a dozen in the US), the pay-out of millions of dollars to favored academics, preferential trade deals, or smart financial and foreign policy, China’s "soft power" has been a key cog in the wheels of Chinese diplomacy. Josh Kurlantzick published a book on it last year. In 2003, Jane Perlez of the New York Times wrote a series of pieces about the issue – her general thesis being that the Chinese were beating America at its own game. Public opinion polls among Southeast Asian nations earlier this year put China ahead of the Japan and the United States as the country currently considered the region’s most important partner.

But now across the globe China is dropping in the polls. And it’s not due to lack of contact with the Chinese, people who are polled say, it’s because we’re getting to know them better. Even before the latest developments, a fear of China was rising in the West. Polls taken before the events in Tibet showed that 1) in Europe, China has overtaken the U.S. as the biggest threat to global stability in the eyes of Europeans and 2) in the United States, China has replaced North Korea as one of the top three U.S. enemies – after Iran and Iraq.

All this should provide someone in China’s government cause to ponder. At the very least, it has prompted some leading Chinese intellectuals and artists to speak out. Speaking in Sydney earlier today, Chinese artist and architect Ai Weiwei, who helped design the "bird’s nest" Beijing National Stadium for the Olympics, criticized China’s government for encouraging "nationalist sentiment." Ai criticized the nationalists as well.

"It’s blind; it’s sentiment without a clear intellectual concept. It’s crazy, what they’re so excited about," Ai told reporters in Australia.

It’s sadly ironic that during a week that began with Chinese students rampaging through the streets of a foreign capital beating demonstrators, the man who gave the world one of the most incisive critiques of Chinese culture died. Bo Yang, the great Chinese philosopher, writer, former political prisoner and author of one of the most incisive critiques of Chinese culture, passed away on Tuesday in Taiwan. The native of Hebei-province long railed against the type of group-think evidenced by today’s "angry youth." The title of Bo’s best known work? "The Ugly Chinese and the Crisis of Chinese Culture."


A step forward? Chinese media report a single Tibetan death

By Howard W. French
Thursday, May 1, 2008

SHANGHAI: A milestone of sorts was reached on Wednesday with the reporting in China’s carefully controlled media of the death of a Tibetan in a clash with Chinese security forces.

Estimates by Tibetan advocacy groups and international human rights groups of the numbers of Tibetan dead have ranged from scores of victims to the hundreds.

Remarkably, though, this was the very first such report of a Tibetan death since the outbreak in early March of demonstrations by Tibetans in their "autonomous region" and in the surrounding provinces where Tibetans live in large numbers.

A rolling thunder of nationalist anger has swept China in recent weeks, as Chinese have seethed over the demonstrations that have greeted the Olympic torch on its circuit around the world.

Given little context for understanding why foreigners should be moved to demonstrate in the first place, Chinese counterprotesters and countless voices in the media and on the Internet have reduced the entire matter to the realms of prejudice and anti-Chinese sentiment.

This effort has been advanced tremendously by the prominent use of a quote by the ever-gruff CNN commentator Jack Cafferty. Speaking about China at the time of the San Francisco leg of the torch relay, Cafferty described the Chinese as "basically the same bunch of goons and thugs they’ve been for the last 50 years."

Amid the predictable uproar, Cafferty issued a clarification saying that his comments were aimed at the Chinese government and not the people, but this has made little impression here, particularly among the campaigners for whom the original quote, without that context, was simply too good to let go of.

Many Americans will still be unaware of what Cafferty said, while few Chinese who follow the news could have missed it. Americans are used to sharing jaundiced views of politicians. One of the more venerable expressions in the political culture, after all, is "throw the bums out," meaning to vote despised politicians out of office. Chinese, of course, have no such option.

The heavy amplification of Cafferty’s words here and the belated admission of a Tibetan death, albeit a single death ascribed to a gunfight, however, share more than a purely coincidental association. They form part of a much larger phenomenon acknowledged by Chinese journalists who work within the system: an information war being waged to channel opinion and nationalist sentiment in this country.

Earlier this month, an editor from a Beijing newspaper told The South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong newspaper, of a notice circulated by the Chinese Communist Party calling for an "unprecedented, ferocious media war against the biased Western press."

Another editor, who confirmed the directive, said in an interview this week: The Cafferty incident "is being used to demonize the Western media, reducing their credibility here. It’s a good opportunity for the official media and for the Communist Party."

As "wars" go, this is one that relies on a particular asymmetry that depends upon keeping people here in the dark about all sorts of details. The public asks "why is the West brandishing Tibet to demonstrate against us" because it genuinely has little information about events, whether recent or more distant in that part of their country, save for a carefully pruned and officially sanctioned story line. While the Western media are accused of bias for supposedly giving short shrift to violence committed by rioting Tibetans in Lhasa on March 14, there is no mention in the Chinese media, not even at the level of allegations, of the deaths of numerous Tibetans in the ensuing crackdown. Tibet, meanwhile, has been closed to outsiders, enhancing the asymmetry.

Recent Chinese press accounts have endlessly reminded the public of Beijing’s beneficence in ending "slavery" in Tibet and lifting Tibetans out of dire poverty since then. There has been no mention of the cultural, religious or environmental costs involved or almost anything else as seen from the perspective of Tibetans, many of whom fear forced assimilation and the destruction of their religion.

Tibetans in Lhasa and elsewhere report that their homes have been invaded by security forces searching for images of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader. At monasteries and temples all over western China, "re-education campaigns" have begun to force monks and others to recite the official line on Tibet, that the province has essentially always been part of China, and to renounce the Dalai Lama as a villainous "splittist."

The re-education drive is uncomfortably reminiscent of fumie, a practice in Japan’s 16th century campaign against Christians, in which those who were suspected as believers were forced to trample on images of Jesus.

The Chinese public has been ill-prepared by its media to understand the Tibetan perspective. Indeed, the feeling that is being encouraged is that it is only the authorized domestic viewpoint on Tibet or on the Olympics that matters, and anything else is anti-Chinese.

There was an interesting twist to this unfortunate story last week, when the Olympic torch visited Seoul and modest numbers of Korean protesters turned out. Among them were the usual pro-Tibetan voices, but also Koreans who oppose China’s forcible repatriation of North Koreans who are found illegally in China.

These protesters were swamped by Chinese students, who are legion these days in Seoul. According to local media reports, the Chinese counterdemonstrators behaved aggressively, kicking Koreans and throwing stones and bottles.

One might call this inconvenient stuff in the midst of a media war in which Western protesters had been upbraided for barbarous, anti-Chinese behavior, so this news was given little play here in China.

Facing international journalists, however, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, had an answer. Protesters who sympathize with Tibet, she said, "go against the concept of the Olympic spirit, of peace, friendship and progress." By contrast, she said, the "original idea of the Chinese students was kind and friendly," adding that they just got a little carried away.

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One Response to The Ugly Chinese

  1. Yvonne says:

    "While I have no problem with displays of patriotic feeling, the only thing these "angry youth" are accomplishing is turning the world away from China. And they are not alone in this ill-fated effort to get China\’s point across. China\’s propaganda machine is also seriously in need of repairs." – I totally agree with this. Though I am not sure what "angry youth" really means, I think it is time to stop being "angry youth", blindly driven by the so-called nationalistic sentiment, and start being "sober youth", who not only love his/her own country, but also maintain an open mind and ready to welcome opinions from all perspecitives. It is easy to criticize, to attack and be completely emotionally charged. But it is a state of art to always keep the balance between emotion and reason, between sense and sensibility.

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