Send Howard French Back to Africa

I have found Howard W. French consistently disappointing when it comes to reporting China for the New York Times. In Wikipedia terms, he’s not very NPOV. He paints the Mao Zedong Wiki article as a reflection of government censorship, when really there’s alot more going on here he chooses to ignore. He says that on the Chinese version of Wikipedia, “Mao Zedong’s reputation is unsullied by any mention of a death toll in the great purges of the 1950s and 1960s, or for what many historians call the greatest famine in human history.” He goes on to describe how a debate on the Talk page includes Manchurian Tiger saying: “”If anyone can prove that Mao’s political movements didn’t kill so many people, I’m willing to delete the wording that ‘millions of people were killed.’” Rather than contribute to encyclopedias, those who wish to pay tribute to Mao, he added, should “go to his mausoleum.”"

I’m sorry, is that or is that not a mention of a death toll?


Now I’m willing to concede alot of people don’t read Talk pages on Wikipedia, and that’s their failing. That’s sort of like reading about Wikipedia in the New York Times but not actually looking at Wikipedia. Howie claims the distorted history of the Mao entry “is reinforced by the blocking of foreign Web sites, and by the conformism of the carefully censored mass media. Alternative viewpoints are sometimes available, but usually only to a restricted circle of people who have the means and determination to seek them out.” If you go to the entry itself, you’ll find the same Mao Zedong page also links to Jung Chang and Peter Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story, which isn’t exactly Party line material. There’s also a link to a BBC Chinese article – the BBC News is blocked in China. Not to mention Andrew Lih suggests that the blocking of Wikipedia itself hasn’t decreased the number of new users, presumably from the Mainland. If anything, Wikipedia is precisely where you’ll find those Chinese netizens who are determined to circumvent the firewall.

The Talk page is quite long, with numerous back and forth about the Cultural Revolution and POV issues. Howie doesn’t bother to point out that here you have real debate over what the history is (I’m sorry, was there a global forum to do that for Chinese people 20 years ago? 15? 10? 5?) and people who are genuinely concerned about POV. Joseph Wang at Twofish also reports the Great Leap Forward article does indeed mention death tolls. Given French’s previous articles on Chinese textbooks, which omit such discussions entirely, wouldn’t it be more insightful to point out that debate and information that doesn’t reach the schools is coming in, slowly but surely, through Wikipedia and the Internet?

To Howard French, “the differences highlight the resilience here of a system of information control whose reach goes well beyond simple censorship”. Since the Chinese version of Wikipedia has been more or less blocked in the Mainland for most of its short life, I’d say that 1) it’s a little early to be claiming that it highlights anything in particular so far and 2) alot of the people on both sides of the rather lively debate on Zh.Wikipedia aren’t on the Mainland, Howie. There are Chinese speakers abroad, living in the Free West, who are defending Mao – Peking Duck gets its share of nationalist trolls from the U.S. and other nations, and those who have the time to spend hours provoking meaningless arguments here are, I guarantee, some of the same ones who will mercilessly police Zh.Wikipedia for anything straying from doctrine. And to understand why, you have to go past the kneejerk “brainwashed” explanation, and you have to start thinking about how national pride, insecurity and historical revisionism are linked together and exist independently of the government. The PRC could vanish tomorrow, but these issues with history wouldn’t disappear, because it’s such a big complication to modern Chinese identity. For alot of these guys (and probably far fewer girls, by my reckoning) who defend anything and everything Chinese, from Mao to the Qin Emperor, denigrating Mao = denigrating China = denigrating the entire history and people of China for all time. This is not a completely alien idea to grasp; for some people, to denigrate Bush = denigrate the troops = denigrate America. It’s more or less the same monstrous insecure need for an airtight, consistently morally superior self-delusion.

Edit Wars happen on the English Wikipedia all the time. I’ve even been in one about Otto Reich – I reinserted language about the former Reagan and Bush Administration official’s involvement in Iran/Contra as head of the Office of Public Diplomacy, only to have it repeatedly deleted in its entirety by an anonymous user in Washington D.C., who felt the only content appropriate was Reich’s official State Department biography. I’m not an experienced WIkipedian, but I knew the three revert rule. Constantly reverting back and forth is pointless and helps no one, so Wiki etiquette says someone ought to be the grown-up and quit reverting things. Eventually, the page was restored. It does not take much to imagine exactly the same thing happening to the Mao page – it appears to have been locked down because of precisely this.

Nationalist edit wars are also no surprise at any Wikipedia. The English version has a list of Lamest Edit Wars. The first nine are all ethnic/national feuds about people such as Nikola Tesla, stating “Born of Serbian parents in a part of Austria-Hungary which is now in Croatia; so was he Serbian? Croatian? Austro-Hungarian? You decide! But don’t forget to leave an edit summary saying how pathetic it is to choose any other version…” French spends his entire article placing the blame for the nationalist historical feuding of China entirely on the shoulders of the PRC government, but I don’t think the Austro-Hungarian government is involved the edit war on Tesla. Identity politics can be tapped by the State, but it doesn’t ever fully control it. It has a life of its own.

While Howie tends to put all the focus on the government being the source of the problem, I was a little surprised to find Wikipedia watcher Andrew Lih place it on cultural values:

Which brings me to a question I ask all the time – with Chinese culture holding up first and foremost the values of “harmony” and “prosperity,” where does that leave the pursuit of the truth? I don’t ask this question rhetorically – when teaching and lecturing about the media around Hong Kong and China, I often wondered about this because that is the essence of journalism – the pursuit of the truth. What motivated Chinese students to study journalism? Why would Chinese journalists want to practice their craft better? What Chinese traditions fuel the motivation for better journalism, and for open and honest reflection on history?

As a product of a Western Judeo-Christian environment, I come from a very different angle than the Chinese in the region. My belief in a vigorous and free press is a belief that it is a necessary condition for a functioning transparent liberal democracy. One may wish this was a universal endeavour, but it is not. It depends greatly on prevailing societal values.

As for understanding these Chinese values, Taoism and Confucianism provide a starting point, but neither are actively interpreted or dogmatically adhered to in contemporary culture. They provide a backdrop for the modern Chinese social and work ethic, but they are not adequate in themselves to predict the emergence of a bold quest for the truth. Buddhism is centered around the individual, rather than the functions of society, and is not very instructive in this area either.

So I do ponder this question. A lot.

What it means for a Chinese Wikipedia, and what it means for China.

Well, I don’t see this as a Confucian issue. I see the defensiveness and reluctance to confront it head on as a one stemming from nationalist insecurity that sees modern Chinese history as a laundry list of humiliations. This existed before the CCP, and it will last quite a while without it as well. This is not a result of Chinese values, or a North Korean style vacuum of information. Not on Wikipedia, anyway. This is about the incredibly slow, painful and difficult process of reconciliation. For that reconcilation, there needs to be dialogue, debate and confrontation about what that history means between Chinese people themselves.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 5 Comments

Peking Duck wrote:

> I see the defensiveness and reluctance to confront it
> head on as a one stemming from nationalist insecurity
> that sees modern Chinese history as a laundry list
> of humiliations.

I think this is an important point that I often remind others of, but didn’t include in this context. Looking at your history honestly will happen when you’re confident enough to think you can survive it, internally and externally.

November 30, 2006 @ 7:03 pm | Comment

Dave wrote it. He is not The Peking Duck. (Actually, he’s better than TPD, especialy nowadays when I can’t take the time to write marathon-length posts. Thanks, Dave.)

November 30, 2006 @ 10:08 pm | Comment

Howard French is so full of shit. The writing on the Taiwan sections is particularly stupid since it is so completly off topic but he conflates the issues together anyway. He treats the settlement of Taiwan in the pre-historic era by malayasian aborigines as somehow contradictory to the PRC’s political claim to Taiwan even while the claim itself has nothing to do with it.

Not to mention the numerous political issues of the Okinawan shipwreck in 1871 which he knows absolutely nothing about except for the 2 sentences written on the English version of Wikipedia.

I have to stop reading or otherwise my blood pressure will go through the roof.

November 30, 2006 @ 10:26 pm | Comment

@Jing: I am not informed enough on Taiwan related history, though certainly would like to be. But I think French draws the wrong lesson to fit a narrow political perspective. The real questions are things like:

* If Mainlanders can’t access this page, why aren’t alot of pro-independence Taiwanese inserting shipwrecks and Malaysians into it?

* Likewise, are Taiwanese inserting shipwrecks and Malaysians into the English version? If not then who?

* What the hell does government textbook censorship have to do with this? What evidence is there of a direct connection between State doctrine and what some netizens write/delete in their free time? French assumes an unproven connection, with the implication “but you knooooow they’re doing this because they’re eeevvuuuuul”.

And looking at the Taiwan page, it links to a whole separate page on Taiwan’s aboriginal history. Now, I might be reading this wrong because it’s late and I’m seeing a whole lot of traditional characters that I’m used to, but French says the page suggests that Han started explored Taiwan in the 3rd Century. Guess what? The English Wikipedia entry on Taiwan says the same thing! Both have about a paragraph on pre-1624. And my favorite part? The English version mentions Zheng He may have visited. The Chinese one? Not a word. Now either French is going to have us believe there’s a Chinese Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius plot going on and their reality is taking over the English speaking worlds, or the man is just grasping at straws.

The article continues to be updated as well. Perhaps Howie should write about how Wikipedia encourages evolving historical debate and discussion, rather than attempt a paranoid hackjob of Borges.

This is what happens when a correspondent has poor Chinese skills, poor Wiki knowledge, rushed deadlines and narrow political agenda.

Jing, buddy, pass me that blood pressure medication will ya? On second thought, where’s Ivan? I need a whiskey.

December 1, 2006 @ 1:15 am | Comment

Thank you. I thought I was the only one. I would read so much about Howard French this, Howard French that, I thought I was missing something. I did a post a while back on the best media on China and got some heat for ignoring the NYT. It just has always felt to me that the Times’ China stories are late, almost as though the Times is of the view that it isn’t news because it hasn’t been in the Times yet.

December 4, 2006 @ 12:48 am | Comment

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