Note: The Global Times has expressed a different opinion about what happened. Please see this post and the ensuing comments.
Nine days ago, Hu Xijin, the editor in chief of The Global Times, assembled all of the Chinese staff into the paper’s large conference room and shut the door. As is nearly always the case with such meetings, the expats, known as “foreign experts,” were not permitted inside.
Hu had a direct and simple order for his
shock troops staff: They were to go to their desks and seek out any Chinese comment threads, any discussions on Chinese BBS’s and portals and blogs — any discussion on the Internet at all — about the detention of Ai Weiwei and counter them with the party line, as expressed so clearly and ominously in a recent Global Times editorial, namely that Ai Weiwei is a self-appointed maverick who deserves to be detained, and who is being used by hostile Western powers to embarrass, hurt and destabilize China. This was not a request, it was a direct order. It was compulsory.
This tells us quite clearly how determined the party is to get its message out about Ai Weiwei, even if it’s in gross violation of journalist ethics, if not downright sleazy. It adds a whole new dimension to the concept of the 50-center.
I’ve avoided Ai Weiwei, mainly because I’m on vacation and my Internet connections have been remarkably dodgy, which I attribute to Ai Weiwei, or at least to what he stands for. The CCP has to stifle voices of dissent when it feels vulnerable, and the Internet is always the first place they clamp down.
I’m sitting in a hotel in Nanjing and will try to make this a brief post, although I am brimming with thoughts on the topic.
The Global Times showed its truest and most sinister colors with a now infamous editorial warning that Ai Weiwei was about to hit a “red line,” and if//when he does he is asking for trouble. This was a not-so-veiled threat to all Chinese activists. The CCP is on the march, my friends. They’re kicking butt and taking names, and they’re coming for you.
It is reckless collision against China’s basic political framework and ignorance of China’s judicial sovereignty to exaggerate a specific case in China and attack China with fierce comments before finding out the truth. The West’s behavior aims at disrupting the attention of Chinese society and attempts to modify the value system of the Chinese people.
Ai Weiwei likes to do something “others dare not do.” He has been close to the red line of Chinese law. Objectively speaking, Chinese society does not have much experience in dealing with such persons. However, as long as Ai Weiwei continuously marches forward, he will inevitably touch the red line one day.
The West ignored the complexity of China’s running judicial environment and the characteristics of Ai Weiwei’s individual behavior. They simply described it as China’s “human rights suppression.” “Human rights” have really become the paint of Western politicians and the media, with which they are wiping off the fact in this world.
This is disturbing on so many levels I don’t think I need to drill down. It speaks for itself. It’s nauseating.
Instead, I’d like to talk about a meeting i had with a senior editor of the GT just 48 hours ago. She is urbane, sophisticated, educated, talented and a truly wonderful person. She also epitomizes the archetype of the sophisticated, urbane, educated Chinese who insist on toeing the Party line at all costs. I believe — I know — that this is completely sincere. But it’s also quite frustrating. “Getting through” to such a person, especially when it’s a good friend you admire, is infinitely frustrating when they seem to put up seamless, airtight mental barriers that you simply cannot break through.
I paraphrase, but with accuracy:
“Why doesn’t the West see that we do things our way in China? We have 1.3 billion people, all those mouths to feed and to protect through a harmonious society. You don’t have this situation. You are developed and your populations are small. Human rights doesn’t mean to the West what it means in China. Most Chinese support Ai Weiwei’s detention. They support Liu Xiaobo’s detention. He is a criminal trying to impose Western-style government on a society that doesn’t want it. Why won’t the West understand how humiliating it was to award the Nobel Prize to someone we put in jail, a man who is a criminal to the Chinese? How should we feel? How should we react?”
This led to a very long conversation — over an hour — in which I explained that if only China would actually engage in a dialog about these issues with the outside world instead of sabre-rattling and always sounding like a misunderstood and petulant child, maybe then China would advance its cause and help people outside China understand what China is really all about, how human rights are seen through Chinese eyes.
I specifically pointed to the Ai Weiwei editiorial.
“Don’t you realize the entire expat community here in Beijing and many others around the world are buzzing about this editorial, shocked at its belligerence, its snide and strident tone, its implied threats and its undercurrent of violence? Maybe, as you keep saying, the West truly doesn’t understand China. Well, you are focusing now on soft power. The Global Times itself is actually an outgrowth of China’s thirst for soft power, for global reputation and respect. And look at how you’re failing. You are driving away foreign talent and making China look worse, not better — in precise contradiction to the paper’s stated goals. If your media and leaders could articulate China’s point of view as clearly and calmly as you just did in this conversation maybe then China could get somewhere in fostering understanding. But railing against Ai Weiwei at the top of your lungs — a man seen as an artist and a celebrity — is exactly what you should not be doing. Why not throw the West a bone and let him go, declare an amnesty and then explain why he was detained in the first place.”
This evoked quite a response.
“Let Ai Weiwei go? But Richard, how can we do that? How can China admit to the world it is being defeated, it is bowing to international pressure and not doing what is right for China? How can we humilate ourselves like that?”
I said it’s been done before (look at North Korea surrendering reporter “spies” after Bill Clinton paid them a visit). In an instant, it would force a new dimension to the issue, and show China was willing to be less hysterical. And I said China appears hysterical, becoming increasingly strident, and that nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the direction the Global Times is taking.
This was, as I said, a long, polite and serious discussion. I never experienced anything quite like it before, because despite the mental barriers I referred, to, she genuinely wanted to hear my opinion and to learn how the West sees China, and I think she actually “got” that the GT, even if they’re right, is scaring people away and damaging its own cause with readers who are not Chinese. She actually said she wanted to discuss my argument with her superiors. (And no, I am not so vain or arrogant or naive as to believe my little talk will change the shape of Chinese journalism.)
All of this said, the detention of Ai Weiwei and many other activists who have the misfortune of being nameless and faceless to us is unpardonable, and self-defeating. I know, they were sending a message to the people of China, not to Americans 10,000 miles away. But again, they say they want soft power, they say they want to be a global superpower, they say they want fair treatment in the media. Well, sorry, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t repress with one hand and paint a picture of a happy harmonious rules-following society with the other. Detaining Ai Weiwei was the worst thing you could have done, trumped only by your idiocy in attacking him in savage, ugly, deranged editorials.
Go out and do your thing, Global Times 50-centers. While a lot of people will be fooled, enough will see through the propaganda. I admire the young aspiring journalists I worked with there two years ago. If any of you are reading this (which is not very likely), I urge you to think for yourselves, and understand that while journalists have several roles, astroturfing message boards isn’t one of them.
I am delighted to read that the GT editorial has sparked “scorn and ridicule” among much of China’s Twitterati and social media users. I am glad to make my small contribution to this much-deserved scorn and ridicule.
Update: Be sure to see Lisa’s post that has a lot to say on this topic. And sorry for all the typos in the first version of this post. I never wrote a post this fast.
Update 2: Please be sure to see James Fallows’ new post on this topic, which kindly cites my own post.
Looks like my post has been translated into Chinese.
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.