I have been out of China for a week and away from internet contact most of that time, including the last day-plus. So I am behind the curve on the Iranian drama in general, and the way it's playing in China in particular. But in response to a number of requests for tips on how to judge the reaction of China's officialdom, media (controlled by officialdom), and populace, here are some guidelines.
1) Never underestimate the ability of the Chinese media to steer attention toward -- or away from -- stories both domestic and foreign. Over the past six weeks, as H1N1/swine flu has been waning as a front-line concern in most countries, it has been end-of-days news inside China. And right now -- Monday evening, June 22, China time -- when Iran's fate is dominant news in much of the world, it's a second- or third-tier item in the official Chinese media. The current front page of People Daily (in Chinese, here) has Iran as a fairly minor news item. English version of People's Daily Online, here, currenty shows the same understated play.
2) It is worth remembering that the elements of the Iranian story that give it such drama and importance in much of the world are less automatically resonant in China.
One part of the narrative -- a massed populace standing up against state power -- is obviously anathema to Chinese authorities. And many of the other themes are also less immediate and compelling to ordinary people in China than they would be in North America, Europe, or parts of the Islamic world.
To most Westerners, everything about this story matters. It involves a people's struggle to make their voices heard; it follows other "color revolutions" in former Soviet territories and indeed popular movements for democracy and rule of law in Asia and Latin America from the 1980s onwards; it potentially marks a crucial moment in the evolution of modern Islamic society; it can have war-and-peace implications for US foreign policy and Israeli actions; and so on. Ordinary members of the Western viewing audience feel a connection to these themes. I assert that they seem more distant to ordinary people in China -- even if the themes were featured on the news. People's own problems, and their business problems, and the country's problems, are enough to worry about.
3) The Chinese publications that are explicitly aimed at foreign readers, the redoubtable China Daily and its new complement Global Times, have taken a predictable but still interesting line. Right now the China Daily is, like the People's Daily, underplaying the story altogether. The new Global Times, generally seen as taking an edgier and more adventurous approach to advancing telling China's "soft power" presentation of its official perspective worldwide, went with this as its lead item today:
The themes of "outside interference" and "victimization by Western powers" are comfortable, reflexive positions for the Chinese government's foreign policy establishment to take, so are the natural positions here.
4) I don't think anyone in the foreign media has any clear idea of what the Chinese leadership really is thinking about Iran and its implications.
5) I have lacked online time to follow up on the Chinese blog world but welcome submissions by readers, which I will share.
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