Turning China into a whipping boy
A debate about the Olympics sent out a clear message: Britain may no longer be Great, but at least we aren’t China.
Last week, the London-based Frontline club, a self-styled bastion of journalistic integrity, held a panel discussion entitled ‘Boycotting China’. According to the accompanying blurb this was to be a debate over whether we in the West should boycott China, be it a refusal to take part in the Beijing Olympics, leaving anything ‘made in China’ on the shelves, or, vainer still – the politicians’ favourite – spurning the Olympics opening ceremony.
That at least was what was advertised. Yet when the chair, journalist and broadcaster Isabel Hilton, received a unanimous ‘no’ from all the participants on the question of a boycott, this allowed a fortuitous change of focus. What now seemed to be at stake was the justification of current Western attitudes to China. Or, as Hilton, echoing a CN Daily headline, put it, ‘does the West love to hate China?’
On the one side then, advocating and, occasionally, hailing the recent explosion of animosity towards China – the Olympic torch protests were ‘heartening’, announced one of them – we had the London director of Human Rights Watch, Tom Porteous, the Guardian’s Simon Tisdall, and the chair herself, Isabel Hilton. And on the other side sat the recipient of their barely repressed wrath: Liu Weimin, a representative of the Chinese Embassy. As Communist Party apparatchiks go, this was one disarmingly charming man.
It was the fifth, and final participant, however, the BBC China editor Shirong Chen, who first touched upon a central issue in the debate: the scarcity of information, let alone knowledge, about China. This was especially true in the case of the protests in the Tibetan capital Lhasa last month. When there is a conflagration of a highly political nature, he said, China shuts down media access; officials are unavailable for comment, news channels go dark, and Western news agencies’ output is heavily censored.
Chen does have a point. The oppressive ruling regime in China is without doubt partially responsible for perpetuating Western ignorance. Its lack of openness invites suspicion and speculation. But at the same time, Western media outlets do not help. The ignorance sometimes seems almost wilful, as if the absence of knowledge is taken as a license to think the worst, to fall back upon caricature and prejudice.
In the BBC’s case, Chen recounted, they recently published a picture of some figures in military garb standing over a wounded person with the caption: ‘There is a heavy military presence in Lhasa.’ The implication was clear – here was yet another example of military brutality. Except it was not. As was later discovered, the military figures were actually helping the wounded person into an ambulance. More shocking still was the case of an agency picture purporting to show ‘Chinese police beating Tibetan protesters’. News outlets across the globe republished the picture and caption oblivious to the fact that it actually showed Nepalese police beating protesters in Kathmandu. Little wonder the Chinese ‘Department of Propaganda’ perceived a Western conspiracy.
While the examples above are undoubtedly mistakes, they are mistakes born of a breathtaking ignorance. Moreover, this lack of knowledge underpins, indeed is the precondition for, the moral posturing that typified the recent pro-Tibet Olympic torch protests.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the contributions from Tom Porteous of Human Rights Watch. Tibet, he declared, is a crisis about human rights and ‘we will use the games to draw attention to it’. In response to a criticism from the floor that his approach ignored the complexity of a particular situation, he continued undeterred: ‘Yes, Darfur and Tibet are complex moral problems with historical background, but there are also simple moral issues to be resolved.’
A young Chinese man picked upon the mantra of human rights and accused Porteous of sounding like an ‘eighteenth-century missionary’: ‘Do you not think that there’s a slight possibility that people might want to choose to live a different way of life?’ he asked. Porteous responded by asking ‘who wants to be tortured?’ This was not a belated attempt at audience participation. But nor did it persuade the Chinese Embassy representative. Of course there are universals, Liu argued, but it’s only the Chinese people themselves who can decide what is in their interest, just as the British, French, and Americans did theirs. ‘Any kind of imposition of [an external] will is not going to work.’ Quite. As numerous instances of ethical foreign policy, in particular the Iraq War, have shown, simplicity of intention does real violence to the complexity of others’ lives.
This transformation of ignorance, in which the Western media are complicit, into simplistic black-and-white moralising was striking. Their sense of moral entitlement, if last week’s speakers are anything to go by, rested on ignoring anything that looked complicated, such as the small matter of the actual politics of another country. Each time someone raised some historical counterpoint to Western blandishments regarding Tibet – for example the British Raj granting China sovereignty over Tibet in 1905 – Hilton would respond with ‘don’t go there – it’s very boggy’. But another country’s politics are always ‘boggy’.
With each of Hilton’s barbs or Tisdall’s dismissals, it was as if we were watching a displacement activity, a cathartic venting of spleen – we’re not great in Britain, but at least we’re not China, they seemed to say. In the minds of Western commentators and activists, China seems to exist as something other than China, that is, as an object of moral opprobrium. And it is this ill-informed sanctimony – ‘shame on China’, bellowed the London Free Tibet protesters – that the Chinese see as ‘China hatred’. The Chinese experience such projections as an imposition – indeed, as their objectification by the West.
Hence, in response to the accusation that it was the Chinese propaganda machine that had cultivated current Chinese resentment of the West, through selective and biased reporting, Liu pointed out a contradiction to this line of reasoning; although many Chinese were furious about certain Western portrayals of Tibet, many Chinese living in the West, with full access to the media were even more so. The Chinese state broadcasters did not broadcast the protests at the Olympic torch relay, not because they feared the scales would fall from ordinary Chinese people’s eyes, but because it would make people more furious.
This necessary union of ignorance and moralism is pernicious. It is not as if the panellists, occupying the media positions that they do, were not capable of giving more nuanced accounts or reports of China. But as Hilton argued, explaining the history of British colonial involvement in Tibet would be near impossible alongside the latest gossip about Beyoncé. Simon Tisdall joined in, stating that there’s certainly no point in doing it in the Daily Mail. It seems their contempt for China is matched only by their contempt for the British reading public.