China Media- By Will James

Barely a day after ethnic riots befell the city of Urumqi in China’s Western frontier in early July, competing narratives began to emerge in Western and Chinese media. The New York Times painted the rioting Uighurs – a Muslim ethnic minority in Xinjiang province – as victims of government-sponsored colonialism by Han Chinese, the ethnic majority. On the other hand, Xinhua, a media outlet owned by the Chinese government, reported the riots were masterminded by the World Uighur Congress, a “separatist” conspiracy.

Sometimes it got contentious. On July 13, Xinhua ran a story headlined, “Biased Xinjiang riot coverage refuted,” which excoriated the Wall Street Journal and other Western outlets for allegedly siding with the dissenters.

More than a month later, Gao Song, a journalism student at Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University, summed up his view of Urumqi in an email. He accepts the government’s version of what happened there. “The answers are the same with the national government,” he wrote. “Because we got things from it and we believe it.”
And he rejected the Western coverage outright. “I’m really tired about reading it,” he wrote. “Some are totally wrong from the truth. Just seek truth from fact, journalists!”

When asked if he read any Western coverage of the riots, one of Gao’s peers at Tsinghua, a journalism major named Spring Guo, wrote, tongue-in-cheek, “It’s unnecessary to read such fugly rubbish.”

Their views are representative of a new strain of nationalism among some young Chinese today, fueled in part by a sense of unfairness and victimization at the hands of Western media.

In Mao Zedong’s China, nationalism was founded a Marxist worldview, opposing imperialism and manipulation by foreign powers. As recently as 2001, nationalism in China manifested itself as flare-ups against what were considered sovereignty-undermining conspiracies by the West, when a U.S. spy aircraft collided with a Chinese jet off China’s coast, or following the accidental bombing of a Chinese embassy by the U.S. in the 1999 war in Kosovo. But now, Chinese nationalists are fighting an image war. They’re battling what they consider defamatory – at least biased and at most deliberately slanderous – Western media coverage.

“Nothing will piss off the Chinese nationalists more than bad coverage in the Western media,” said Peter Hays Gries, the director of the Institute of US-China Relations at the University of Oklahoma. “The feeling is that China’s being unfairly depicted in these Western media forces, and that China’s being denied its rightful place in the community of nations.”

When did China start to feel like the victim of a smear campaign? Gries, who studies Chinese nationalism, saw a turning point in the Tibetan protests in Lhasa preceding the 2008 Olymics in Beijing. Chinese bristled when CNN, shut out of Tibet like all other Western media, used stock footage of a protest in Nepal during a story about the Tibet protests. Some saw it as evidence of a media conspiracy against China. Someone founded a nationalist website in response,
“That incident was really seized upon,” Gries said. “The Chinese said, ‘Look, we’ve always been skeptical of our own media, but also had faith that the Western media was free.’”

There’s no data on the prevalence of nationalism in China, or vexation with Western media. But there’s some evidence that China’s people are exceptionally gung-ho about their county. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center asked the people of 24 nations, “How satisfied are you with your country’s direction?” This year, 87 percent of Chinese people said they were satisfied, more than any other country polled. In comparison, 36 percent of U.S. citizens said the same about their country.China again emerged as the proudest country in a poll by the BBC World Service in February. An overwhelming 92 percent of Chinese said their country had a positive influence on the world. (Just 36 percent of the rest of the world saw China as a boon).

This pride underlies the Chinese’s sense that the world is getting them all wrong. Their own narrative of China – of an ancient civilization that picked itself up and after centuries of humiliation and exploitation at the hands of imperialist powers – conflicts sharply with media reports that may show the Communist Party or its constituents in a less heroic light.

“The government has made great progress that we live a much better life, which is really unbelievable,” wrote Guo, the son of middle-class parents from Shanxi province. “Many other countries, especially American, always point their fingers towards China.”

Tibet is probably the most glaring example of dueling Chinese and Western narratives. After riots paralyzed the Tibetan city of Lhasa in the spring of 2008, civilian Chinese launched what blogger Jeremy Goldkorn deemed, possibly, “the world’s first international user generated propaganda war.” They were acting on their sense that the Western media shamelessly cast the Chinese government as oppressive villains.

On March 19, 2008, a user posted a video called “Riot in Tibet: True face of western media.” The video showed photos and video clips from German, British and American media, pointing out where they were allegedly edited or mislabeled in order to portray a violent crackdown by Chinese forces against peaceful Tibetan protestors. The video claimed to expose instances where the media outlets misidentified Nepalese forces as Chinese, or cropped out evidence of violence on the part of the Tibetans. Text toward the end of the video reads, “These western media should be shamed for the fake reportings they’ve made purposely.”

Some youth, while nationalistic, have a more nuanced view of the media situation. Li Xue, a journalism graduate student at Tsinghua, was on a university tour on the outskirts of the Gobi desert when Urumqi erupted this summer. On long bus rides between the arid outposts of Western China, she happened to debating with some American journalism students who were on the trip. To Li, it’s not malevolence but ignorance that taints Western coverage of China – a gilded view of the Dalai Lama, who the Chinese regard as a sort of separatist criminal mastermind, the image of government policy in Tibet as imperious and unwelcome rather than modernizing and beneficial, as the Chinese see it.

“We criticize China, but we defend it more,” Li said to the Americans. “Because we think that China is now experiencing unfair critics in the world now, like the human right thing and the Tibetan thing. Some people outside China say that Tibetan people are suffering because the Han people are invading their culture, their living areas, but actually do you ever hear Tibetan people other than the Tibetan people outside China say about something like that?”

Certainly, Western media has messed up in its coverage of China. Germany’s RTL Television, one of the outlets attacked in the “True face of western media” YouTube video, apologized for showing images of Nepal during stories about Tibet in March 2008. Gries speculates that, more insidiously, Western stereotypes of communism color media reports about China’s government and society.

But, on the Chinese side, the sensitivity to bad press comes, in part, from a deep national consciousness of what the Chinese call the “Century of Humiliation” – the period of war and Western and Japanese imperialism beginning with the First Opium War, against Britain, in the 19th century. It left some Chinese, across generations, with the sense that the world is out to get them.

“We Chinese people had suffered hundreds of years,” Guo wrote. “About 20 countries robbed China in the past 200 years.”

When asked about his view of the Urumqi riots, Guo wrote, “The victims were the innocent people in Urumqi, and the aggressor were the people who did the bad things, and also their supporters…I am sure the American must be the number one supporter of the terrorists.”

Guo aspires to someday be a spokesperson for the Chinese government.