Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Shouting at the Rashô-gate

I think it can be called an understatement to say that I am kinda fed up with a certain group of Chinese hacking away at the western media and it's so-called biased reporting with respect to the Tibetan uprising of the past weeks. I shed my catholic belief long time ago, but these words I still strongly underwrite: "Let he who is without sin throw the first stone" (free after the Gospel of John 8: 1-11). If anyone can consciously make the case that China can outdo the western press in truthfulness, I stop writing right here right now, but the official media are commonly agreed -also by the Chinese themselves- to be the mouthpiece of the CCP and thus not exactly a source of reliable reporting, and the ones that have tried to bring a more indepth view (which in this context is often synonym to "antagonistic" to the official Partyline on a number of hot issues) have been walking (and often crossing) a very thin line. So I have no need for a bunch of "angry young men" shouting that the western press has been doing injustice to China - I know myself that that is a fact in certain cases and I know it because I have access to a plethora of sources that will tell me there is more than one side to a certain issue ... and so do most of those that are the noisiest: the foreign students. So please stop shouting about how bad your feelings are being hurt and save your energy for bringing your own media and press up to standard, so you won't have to shy away in the future when someone from outside China asks for some unbiased reporting from within China.

I know this is a bit of a rant, but I found a good antidote in the comments section of J. Pomfret's article "China Bashing: It's Back". It's a very long comment thread and I haven't read it all (far from that even), but I found a person writing under the nick Wu Wei making some very reasonable statements on this media bias. For starters:

U see, the problem is that Journalism is NOT a science. So it is impossible to really make any conclusion based on universal laws. We make our judgments based on our emotion and our value systems. So it is inherently biased. When two people may not even be able to agree on what bias is in Journalism, it is really pointless to quantify it.

Journalism is not a science ... wow ! I couldn't think of any better way to put it. As long as people are involved in the production process, there is bound to be bias and even mistakes. We just aren't perfect and we ARE for a good deal defined by the environment we live in and the value systems that are imposed onto it. Before someone mistakes these words for a meaning that is not there, let me be very clear: I am NOT making any statement on a certain set of values being superior to another one, I am just saying that diverging views can not, in any way, be avoided and that any journalist is always under the influence of a specific part of society at a specific moment in time. Good journalists will try to break open those boundaries and try to put themselves above those limitations which are inherent to their roots, but it is not easy.

With regard to the issue of media bias, it's clear that the Western media can and does present things in a biased manner, and when it comes to international affairs this bias often reflects the Western democratic point of view. That is unsurprising, and frankly I'm not very concerned about it; we all seem to acknowledge that there will be some bias intrinsic in any account of a given event. We shouldn't feel because of this that there is no truth and hence all points of view have either equal validity or no validity--that depends on a given source’s journalistic integrity, and I believe the Western media does best Chinese state-run media in this regard. Rather, we should use an understanding of a given source's bias to place it in a social context in order to better understand the main population to which it addresses itself. However, having an identifiable bias is different from issuing false reports or flagrantly ignoring inconvenient facts. That is what the public must watch out for, and the only way to do that is seek out multiple news sources on a regular basis and to challenge one's assumptions.


Wu Wei is making the point that bias will always be unavoidable to a certain extent, but on the other hand needn't have us overly concerned either, as long as we are mature enough to recognize that it exists. He / she is not blind for the extreme end of bias, which is knowingly distorting the truth. I am very much aware that this happens and has certainly happened in relation to what occurred in Tibet. But as a sidenote to this, I just can't refrain from making the remark that closing the area off for foreign journalists is not going to help China in any way to get the story of what is really happening out. If some in the Western world are constantly on the lookout for a stick to beat China with, then China is offering it time and again on a silver platter to those people, by preventing the media from doing their work. If you give the impression you got things to hide, then you'd better be prepared to roll with the punches as well. To be sure: all nations, every country has got things it rather wants to stay hidden. The ability of the media to bring those out in the open and the way it is being dealt with in the aftermath, are indicative of the maturity of a country. Western governments are getting punched all the time, for they indeed also have lots they'd rather keep in the shades (CIA deportations of "suspects" to non-American countries for torturing, arms sales to countries under embargo, cruelties committed in a colonial past: sounds familiar to anyone ?). It's the press that brings these things out in the open and makes the heads of state their worst nightmare come true, but at the same time it strengthens the foundations on which society is based. It is the most direct way to make sure that something is entered in history and history is (ideally) what we learn from to prevent us from making the same mistakes again. I hope China is on the way of realizing this and will over time learn to come to terms with it, but in the meantime the shouting crowd of youngsters are doing their country a disservice.

 Let me once again refer back to one of the greatest humanists of our time, an idol of mine that I have been "propagating" here a couple of times already (here and here): Akira Kurosawa. Strange as it may seem, but even on this issue of bias he seems to have had something to say, notably in his 1950 masterpiece that won him (and by extension the Japanese cinema) wide international acclaim: "Rashômon" (The Rashô-gate). The movie brings the story of the rape of a woman and what seems to be the murder of her husband, but told from four different angles: a priest who claims he saw the samurai and his wife on the day the crime happened; the rapist; the wife and (by way of a medium) the dead man. All these witness accounts have the same facts at the basis, yet diverge widely from one another AND all seem plausible in their explanation. The director leaves it up to the audience to decide on what's the truth, thereby seemingly implying that there is no such thing as an absolute truth.


With regard to the Tibet issue, China will not be as black as it (sometimes) may be depicted in certain western media and it for sure is not as white as it depicts itself in it's own media. So if we agree that the truth will always be the composite of a story told from different angles, can we then now please stop the shouting and let the media do their work ?


Sunday, April 27, 2008

A Complex World

It's a complex world we live in and though of course it is not anything new I was confronted several times with that thought in the past couple of days. Just take this for instance: with our world's growing focus on the effects of global warming, on seeking to reduce greenhouse gases and CO2 emissions..., we start to look more and more for environmentally friendly technologies and models for sustainable development, so enters the currently best alternative to our dependence on oil to make our cars take us wherever we want to go: biofuel. We're not quite there yet, but it's supposed to be one step in the right direction. But is it really ? Because of the success of the biofuel crops, other crops get neglected and before we know it, the more vulnerable places on this world have another famine in the making. So shall we choke or starve ? Indeed not an easy choice.

Or what to think about this ? About two weeks ago, my colleague was telling about the solar panels he had installed half a year ago on his roof, and how, after a sunfilled weekend, it had been the first time he had actually produced more energy than he needed so the overproduction gets sent onto the nations' power grid and no energy gets wasted. Sounds beautiful ? It does but think again. About two days later I heard a representative of the incumbent energy supplier explain on the radio that the success and growth of new environmentally friendly energy systems such as solar panels started to become a problem, because the national power grid was at it's maximum capacity and couldn't take all the new energy that was infused onto it by all these households that were under the impression they were making a contribution to making our planet a place that might actually survive.

No fact seems allowed to be taken for granted anymore and adding to the complexity in this confusing world is ... China. As if the French had a monopoly on people who could foresee the future, there was next to Jules Verne -who took us for a trip of twenty thousand leagues under the sea more than a century before Jacques Piccard would steer his bathyscaphe "Triëste" to the deepest point on earth, the Marianen Trench- that other Frenchman of worldfame, Napoleon, who predicted that "Lorsque la Chine s'éveillera, le monde tremblera" (When China will wake up, the world will tremble). Nobody will argue the fact anymore: China HAS waken up and the world is just dressing up to go and attend it's welcoming reception as the new kid on the block is hosting the Olympics ... the single biggest spor ... euh ... geo-political event in the world since it was assigned to the Middle Kingdom in 2001.

Shall we tremble ? It is not so difficult to see where the unease of the Western world with respect to China is coming from. Like it's very symbol, the dragon, China is a hybrid creature of the capitalism we have grown up with on the one hand and communism that we have been told was the enemy on the other hand. It just doesn't fit in a Cold War model, so you can't attack it like we used to see with the USSR (remember some slogans like: "Rather a nuclear missile in my garden than a Russian in my kitchen" ?). Okay, then let's go for the engagement model. But what happens when you engage a giant ? People see their jobs being taken away and handed over to Chinese who, after some trying, succeed in producing roughly the same quality as we did here, only at a fraction of the cost, and all because of the very system we have all been very happy with while all went well for our side: capitalism. We brought the gospel of capitalism to China and now China is outdoing us at our own game. It's difficult to grasp when you actually have to face the facts, it's actually quite ... complex.

The Chinese reality is evading us at every level. For years we have been predicting the decline of their economic model, for too much too fast. Still, the double digit growth is still on the tables and voices claming an imminent collapse have become increasingly rare. So could it be that China has developed a system that actually might work ? The problem with being the first is that you can't prove it until it has existed long enough to be able to withstand any further scrutiny. As for now, we still don't trust China will be able to sustain what it is doing right now, for it hasn't been done before. Not in a country of this scale. So now we tremble, for a collapse of the giant has become just as frightening as it's further strengthening. We can only hope that, as "capitalist roaders" amongst each other, in the end we will be able to find a modus vivendi ...

Pierre de Coubertin may turn around in his grave, but for this year's host of the Olympic Games, it is NOT about participating, it's all about winning. It's up to the rest of the world to decide how to deal with it.