More on the Western media and "beating up" on China

Provoked in part by China's reaction to the world flu threat, a rich flow of responses about the country's sensitivity to outside criticism, its responsibilities as a major world power, the current state of its public morals, and the rest. In response to this recent message asking for greater Western "understanding" of China and saying that outsiders go much easier on Indian than on China, an eloquent reply from Xiaoxiao Huang:

I am also an overseas Chinese, but I don't share the sentiment the Chinese reader has shown in his two messages to you. I'd like to share with you my opinion of his take on the role of the media, and China's human rights issue.

I am always suspicious of the whole concept of a united "Western Media" against China as if Fox News, Le Monde, and Süddeutsche Zeitung were controlled by a multi-national Central Propaganda Department. As a Communications major, my understanding of the news media is that they should truthfully report and inform to the best of their knowledge. It is not the job of the Western media (or media of any origin) to "encourage" and babysit a foreign country. Maybe it's time that the Chinese try getting used to the fact that every Western country is "unique" as well, some of them believe in things that we do not believe, and it's OK.
The reader suggest that the Western media "tolerate the minor human rights problems and individual sufferings". I'll bet that this reader's rights have never been violated before. Based on the message of the reader (that he was financially able to support himself to go to the West and has stay "several years" so far), my guesses are that he's from a comparatively well-heeded family; he lived in a secured environment when he was in China; and he's not even remotely close to anyone who had been beaten to death because of police brutality (or any other kind of human rights violation). It's very ironic to see such comment shortly after push-ups became suicide-inducive in Guizhou, and the game of "Eluding the Cat" became lethal in Yunnan. I wonder how many people have to die for ridiculous reasons before the reader could realize that the real problem is not that human rights issues are "minor" in China, but that they are too remote to have an impact on him.

We're used to talk about what "the Chinese" think based on what we see on the Internet. A recent study by CNNIC shows that China has 300,000,000 netizens. A lot. But China also has a huge population of 1.3 billion. So those who can afford to access the Internet were less than a quarter of the population in the first place. And of those who do have access, the majority of them live in urban area, hence, in general much well-off than the rest of China (and pretty indifferent to the rest of China as well).

Since China has a huge population, tightly controlled domestic media, and usually very successful propaganda schemes, it's very easy to be completely ignorant of the suffering of many fellow citizens and call a big issue "minor" simply because one is not personally affected by it. I see that the U.S has some human rights issues of her own. But no concerned American citizens would think that the "minor" problem of sexually abuse an Iraqi prisoner (not even a "fellow citizen"!) in Guantanamo is "tolerable".

On the India analogy. India has two things that China desperately needs: democracy and transparency. It'll be very strange for the Western media to "misunderstand" China and be "hostile" toward her, if China happens to have either.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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