Jiang Zemin and Western Media Bias

Nowadays I don’t bother much with the antiCNN clones — sites that are obsessed with the notion of Western media bias against China and that will go to whatever lengths necessary to prove it, even when it doesn’t exist. The topic is a fenqing’s wet dream, combining all the elements that make them thrive: The West (and usually that means the US) behaving as an unrestrained bully. China being victimized by former imperialists. China scorned and mocked and denied its greatness. A veritable conspiracy, rooted in the US, to suppress China and do it harm. This toxic brew makes this topic irresistible to fenqing; it washes over them with a sensual delight, confirming all of their accusations and justifying their outrage, accelerating their fervent nationalism and giving them a big high. And it’s highly narcissistic. It’s all about us. The world is against us. Our feelings are hurt. We are great and the world wants to keep its foot on China’s throat and keep us down. Yes, it’s intoxicating, and titillating. So much so that entire sites — entire lives — are dedicated to it. Each confirmation (usually imagined or exaggerated), like pornography or heroin, adds to the addiction and makes the victim thirst for more. There is no clear thinking in this intoxicated state, no rational thought, only the exuberance of an orgy of self-righteousness and self-pity, wrapped in a cloud of indignant rage.

I’d like to point out one post on perceived media bias against China and examine just how this process works. It’s a post attacking James Fallows for — and I quote — “regurgitating a provocative WSJ piece essentially rumor mongering Jiang Zemin’s ‘death.’” (Fallows’ innocuous article is here.)

After a few opening lines of praise for Fallows we get the stab in the back (“His perspective and narrative can be horribly wrong though about China”). And then he is condemned for writing these highly uncontroversial words:

For the past 24+ hours, anyone following various social-media feeds* about China has seen rumors, then official denials, then silence, about the possible demise of former president Jiang Zemin, shown in his prime at right. Jiang would turn 85 next month.

This incredibly innocuous observation, with no point of view or bias whatsoever, is cited as being insensitive. The blogger follows it with one of those assertions that make you roll your eyes in disbelief:

I would add, the hysteria as demonstrated in some Western media over this non-news is just mind-boggling.

Alright. This is one of the fenqing’s direst sins: the straw man allegation. Let’s take a look at a search of Google News for Jiang Zemin. Go there now, and tell me, where is the “hysteria” of the Western media on the topic? I’ll tell you: There isn’t any. None at all. Nothing at all “mind boggling.” Zero, zip, nada. Oh, maybe if you dig deep enough you can find an example of something you can argue seems a bit over the top, but I doubt it. Maybe you can find an excessive headline in Epoch Times or a pub like that. But the mainstream Western media, like James Fallows, have nearly all covered this story from one perspective: This is a story about censorship. It is not the West that has promulgated the idea that Jiang may be dead. It is Chinese people on China’s microblogging sites and other social media networks and on portals. And the Western media are commenting on this because the CCP is working overtime to delete all such references, and that is news.

In fact, this story exists solely because the Party has practically forced it onto the news pages by frantically deleting posts and messages and comments. Most of the Western stories covering this are about the CCP’s silence and their reaction online. This is not about Jiang Zemin, who is barely mentioned in these stories (because for now there’s nothing to report about him). These are stories about how China’s Internet works, of how creative Chinese Netizens can be, and how determined the CCP is to stamp out anything that goes against the party line.

So to reiterate, there is not a single Western article I could find that was in any way, shape or form “hysterical.” None. Straw man, pure and simple.

But let’s get back to the main source of the blogger’s anguish, Fallows’ “regurgitation” of a WSJ article. It must be awful stuff, no? Here’s exacty what they quote Fallows as saying:

An item two hours ago in the WSJ’s China Realtime Report illustrates the extreme heavy-handedness of the news control. For instance: Jiang’s name in Chinese is 江泽民, with the first character, 江, being his family name. That character, jiang, literally means “river” — and in the past few hours, any search for info about China’s big rivers on Sina Weibo (China’s Twitter counterpart, the real Twitter being blocked in China) comes up empty. As Josh Chin of the WSJ says:

In addition to “river,” the company has also blocked searches for “death” in various iterations as well as “301 Hospital,” a reference to the People’s Liberation Army General Hospital in Beijing where top leaders are often treated.

Beyond blocking searches, the service’s human censors have also been busy hand- deleting posts that mention the former leader.

Chinese microbloggers have employed a variety of tricks in an apparent attempt to get around the blocks. With Weibo censors blocking searches the word for “hung” (挂了), a common Chinese euphemism for death, users have been circulating an image showing an empty set of clothing hanging out to dry, pants hiked up to chest level the way Mr. Jiang preferred.

So now we all see what Fallows has “regurgitated.” Your typical Grass Mud Horse story about Chinese netizens coming up with creative code-names to evade the censors. What on earth is wrong with this? Why do they need to put up an entire post with the headline, “James Fallows should know better speculating someones death is cultural taboo”?

Always eager to suck the CCP’s dick support their government, the blogger goes on to say, with a straight face:

“I would not be surprised if people running the Weibo service were suppressing the rumors out of respect for Jiang. In fact, Chinese laws forbid citizens from spreading false rumors.”

Ah yes, the benevolent and protective leaders saving us all from false rumors. I wish I could count the number of false rumors that ricochet around China’s Internet ever day (just as in America), and the CCP does not go into overdrive to smother them. Only when it has something to hide or to fear. Period, full stop.

Our pugnacious blogger ends his post with a sagely question, “Imagine Chinese media outside Reagan’s home while he was ill asking “is he dead yet?””

Hate to tell you this, buddy, but reporters of all nationalities congregate around the homes or hospitals that house the critically ill super-famous like Reagan, and these reporters ask constantly whether there is new information, whether the person is dead yet, etc. Chinese reporters are absolutely free to do this. It may not seem tasteful, but that’s how journalism in a free society is, though I wouldn’t expect you to know about that.

Maybe this isn’t the worst example of fenqing making a storm in a teacup, seizing on a non-story and finding all kinds of implications that aren’t there. But it stuck out at me, maybe because I hold Fallows in such high esteem and I could find nothing to criticize in his post. I also urge you to go read the original Wall Street Journal article the blogger tars as “provocative” and tell me how this story in any way meets that definition. It simply reports what’s happening, and if you see anything there that’s awful or provocative please snip and paste it in the comments. I’m really curious.

Here’s the bottom line. Is there Western media bias against China? Absolutely. But here’s the secret, that I as a former reporter can state as a truth: All reporting about just about everything is biased. There is no person or nation or thing that is covered in the news that is always covered fairly. Every single person in politics in the US and just about every other free country will tell you the media treats them brutally. Ask France about Western media bias against them during the buildup to the Iraq War (remember Freedom Fries?). Ask any Arab nation what they think of Western media bias. Everyone’s hysterical about media bias. Hop around the US political blogs — all they are about is how the media distorts the news.

Maybe China feels there is more media bias against them because in recent years the flow of stories on China has exploded from a trickle to a tsunami, so there’s simply more likelihood of biased reports. But what they need to understand is that this bias is universal. And, hard as it is to believe, some of China’s own newspapers and other media are biased in their reporting. And we don’t make a big deal about it because it is universal, it is ubiquitous. (Although China’s media biases can’t be compared with the West’s.)

And I’m not saying journalism is bad. Far from it. There is a lot of great journalism out there. Good reporters always strive to tell the whole story, free of bias. Many succeed. But in the life of a story, from conception to publication, lots of things can happen, mistakes can be made, copy editors thousands of miles away can write bad headlines or cut the story in half, excising the most important part. And yes, there’s often bad journalism, too, stories that are written too quickly without enough facts and/or verifiable references. But again, these are spread out universally, covering all public figures and all nations. None are spared biased or mistaken reporting. The difference is, most are mature enough to realize that this is always going to be the case, and they don’t let it make them feel paranoid or inferior. This is just the way it is, boys and girls. You can always find media bias when you dedicate yourself to finding it, when it becomes a cult or a fetish. And yes, often it’s there, there really is bias. But that’s life. That so many young Chinese men are so invested in the notion that China has been picked out by some grand design to be mocked and suppressed and misrepresented says much more about these individuals and the environment that fostered them than it does about the Western media that, at the end of the day, is just doing their job the best they can.

Back to Jiang for a moment, the same blogger tut-tuts that things are different in China and the West should be more understanding.

First of all, Chinese culture has a disdain for publicly discussing imminent death of a family member. Chinese believe it is bad luck to discuss someone dying. It is disrespectful to do so too. Death is usually announced after.

The West may be fine talking about someone who is old, ill, and dying as if it is some kind of spectator sport. For me, personally, I much prefer the ‘Chinese’ way.

Dude, Jiang Zemin is a highly public figure and still (if he’s alive) a major political force in China. His death or serious illness would be major breaking news. China can’t on the one hand try to be a global player and on the other remain in a cocoon. The Western media have done the same speculation over Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and many, many other leaders. Is China so thin-skinned it can’t deal with this speculation? And again, most of this speculation comes from within China, and that’s what the media are reporting on. China can nip this in the bud with a single official statement. Instead, as usual, it handles it in the most ham-fisted way and leaves itself once more open to ridicule and derision. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Update: Let me give you the latest and most disgraceful example I’ve seen of media bias against China in recent days. It’s a shocker. And yes, it’s an op-ed piece and not a news piece, but the antiCNN crowd constantly conflates the two. Go here now and take a look at punditry at its very worst. (For more, read this superb blog post about it.) This is bias and ignorance at its worst. But I excuse it, because the media give us the best and the worst. Get used to it, because it isn’t changing.