I have always been interested in China, but it was only in 2007-2008 that I first tried to acquire a deeper knowledge of it. At that time, I relied upon Western media for information. I read news and magazine articles about China, and in this way my first impressions about the country were formed. The result: I hated China and was afraid of it. Small wonder, since all news seemed to show that China was an aggressive Communist regime, ready to conquer the world, impoverishing other countries through its unfair economic competition, repressing Tibet and Xinjiang, aggressively aiming to annex Taiwan, and exploiting Africa. China became one of my nightmares, and the idea of the decline of the West – and that this decline was being caused by an evil dictatorship -, was unacceptable to me.
Shortly before the Beijing Olympics, however, I began to get tired of the media coverage of China. I wondered: what do I actually know about China? What are TV channels and newspapers actually teaching me? Have they improved my knowledge, or just created in me prejudice?
I realised that the way in which many Western media portrayed China had nothing to do with China itself; it was rather the reflection of the fears and the political viewpoints of Western commentators, and the absolute negation of everything that could contradict Western perceptions of international powers relations and political philosophy. I stopped relying on Western media and began investing more time in books and in direct dialogue with Chinese people.
Two articles I read recently reminded me of why I made that decision.
The first of them was written by historian and sinologist Jeff Wasserstrom about the May 4th Movement of 1919. When I began to read the article, it soon became clear that it was not about the May 4th Movement, but actually about the June 4th Movement of 1989 (the Tiananmen Square Incident). The article drew a comparison between the freedom Chinese students enjoyed in 1919 and the crackdown of 1989 that deprived the students of their freedom to protest. Once again, the average reader doesn’t learn much about Chinese history, but about how bad Beijing’s government is.
The second article dealt with a rally organised by the Guomindang in Taipei. The journalist who visited the rally did nothing except criticising and belittling the Guomindang and its supporters. At one point, he writes that many Guomindang sympathisers weren’t nice to him, “as is often the case whenever I encounter deep ‘blue’ or pro-unification groups, who somehow seem to sense my liberal and pro-democratic inclinations and accompanying disdain for authoritarian China.” (note)
And this leads us to the main question: how is journalism different from political activism?
Now, I am not criticising the right of journalists or analysts to express their view, which is entirely legitimate. I am questioning the ability of the media to present dispassionate analyses and provide information about certain topics. In the case of China and everything that is related to it (such as the Guomindang), many journalists and analysts behave as if they were more or less consciously acting within a Cold War scenario in which the media are the left arm of politics. The media’s purpose appears to be that of depicting China as an enemy and of putting as much pressure as they can on China and pro-China groups in order to discredit them so much that in the end they will have to change.
But is there any alternative to this? Why shouldn’t journalists interpret the world according to their own political views, most especially if their political convictions include freedom and democracy?
I believe that there is an alternative, and this alternative is best explained by referring to American anthropologist Ruth Benedict. Her masterpiece, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, dealt with Japan at a time when Japan was indeed the enemy of the United States, i.e. during World War II. That would have been the most obvious occasion to write a book that proved how bad Japan was. And yet, that’s not what Ruth Benedict did.
She did not depict Japan as an enemy, although she would have had enough reasons to do so. What she did, was to try to see the world from the Japanese perspective in order that her readers could understand more about Japan. Her book was political only in the sense that it was thought as a guide for politicians who, armed with a deeper knowledge of Japan, would be able to make their political decisions in a more conscious and competent way. Obviously, Benedict wasn’t a supporter of Japanese militarism and aggressive expansion. But she didn’t make the mistake of pretending to be writing about Japan while actually conveying her own political and moral convictions; what she wanted was more knowledge and more understanding of Japan, not a political verdict on Japan.
Similarly, what is the point of repeating over and over again how bad China is, when most people in the West know little or nothing about China? Are the media really doing their job if they do not contribute to improve people’s knowledge and understanding of China, but rather aim only at strengthening people’s belief in the superiority and righteousness of their own political and moral system?