Westerners must look at China in all its diversity, including voices of reason, writes Antony Loewenstein
During last week’s Global Voices Citizen Media Summit in Budapest, Hungary, where I presented a paper on the role of the internet in repressive regimes, there was much discussion about web issues in this Chinese Olympic year. The main conclusion was that the West fundamentally misunderstands the realities of the issue.
Take Isaac Mao, a leading blog pioneer in China. He didn’t deny the reality of major governmental filtering of sensitive material but questioned the response of Western elites to it. “We don’t have professional media in China”, Mao said. Propaganda is the name of the game, but the web is changing the rules.
CNN was accused of showing bias against the Chinese people during the Tibetan protests earlier in the year. A website, anti-CNN.com, was established to counter these perceived inaccuracies. Mao said that CNN, after the ferocious attacks, altered its coverage to better reflect the sensibilities of the Chinese people. Nobody knows if CNN was deliberately smearing China – Hong Kong academic Rebecca MacKinnon said that it might just have been the work of lowly interns at the station – but many speakers, including Mao, said that the West’s obsession with freedom of speech was often distorting our understanding of the situation.
Mao told the 200 activists, dissidents, human rights campaigners, bloggers and journalists from dozens of countries around the world, such as Kenya, Singapore, Iran, Yemen and Pakistan, that in many parts of the world the rule of law and ending corruption were far more important values.
John Kennedy, the leading translator of Chinese blog posts for Global Voices, said that it was important for Westerners to understand that the Chinese blogosphere wasn’t homogenous and displayed far more opinions than many thought. How much do we really know about general Chinese attitudes to Tibetan self-determination? Is the perception of Chinese netizens being thin-skinned really accurate and different to Westerners being attacked by another society and reacting accordingly?
While leading US-based dissident Xiao Qiang argued that the internet this year had played a key role in pushing ideologies and opinions to the extreme, Kennedy reminded us that many Chinese bloggers sided with the protesting Burmese monks in 2007. In other words, it all depends on who is pushing the authoritarianism.
Former CNN journalist Rebecca MacKinnon talked about a study conducted by Dave Lyons on his Mutant Palm blog. It shows how, compared to coverage of the 2004 Athens Games, “practically none of the sites that exist in China, written in English, are linked to or from the major English Olympics sites outside China. China may be coming out to the world this Olympics, but apparently their webpages haven’t.” We ignore Chinese voices at our peril.
Of course, with just over one month until the start of the Beijing Games, China continues to harass dissidents while imposing onerous visa restrictions on visitors. Most China experts at the Budapest conference told me that Beijing would now be expecting fairly negative global press coverage over the coming two months, considering the PR disasters in 2008.
We have to find new ways to better communicate with Chinese netizens and not ask, as MacKinnon said, “who is more brainwashed?” The emergence of websites with “alternative” versions of reality – the Chinese view and the Western-approved version – is a worrying development for a medium that should unite, rather than divide, people.