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Big Brother, Tibet, and the Sichuan Earthquake

May 26, 2008

By Andreas Ni, a writer living in Shanghai
By Minivan News
May 23, 2008

Shanghai -- Tight media control of the unrest in Tibet has been
followed by what, to some, looks like far more open coverage of the
devastating earthquake in Sichuan province. Is this a change in
China's media strategy, or just a short term change in tactics?

This question stands out in view of Chinese public opinion in the
latter phase of the Tibet crisis. Much to the consternation of the
Western media, Chinese people worldwide lashed out against its
allegedly biased coverage of the Tibetan riot. Throngs of Chinese
expatriates and students took to the streets, protesting the
prejudice they perceived in Western media reports. Angry youngsters
even founded Web sites such as anti-cnn.com to express their outrage.

Western reporting, once commended for its veracity, now seems
discredited across China, although sympathetic coverage of the loss
of life in Sichuan may have redeemed the Western media somewhat. Even
Chinese liberals admit that Western journalists blundered badly in
Tibet, using cropped images and false captions as evidence of China's
heavy-handed rule.

One sarcastic posting on China's popular Web portal Tianya even went
so far as to say that "CNN is of the same ilk as CCTV (China Central
Television). Both talk grandiosely and profusely about impartiality.
Ironically, both turn out to be hypocrites."

One can argue that this trend bodes ill for China. But pessimism is
misplaced. Much of the Chinese wrath is directed at biased reports,
not at Western media in general.

And when one looks more closely at how Chinese responded, both to the
unrest in Tibet and the Sichuan earthquake, one sees tangible signs
that the Chinese are embracing a greater degree of free speech.

Despite a news blackout during the riots in Lhasa, for example,
Chinese Internet users managed to dodge the country's censorship.
Much as they loathed domestic publications for blindly following the
guidelines of Xinhua, China's state news agency, they were similarly
contemptuous of Western media that mishandled the story.

As a result, those Chinese who use the Internet as a source for news
awakened to the fact that no account ­ Chinese or Western ­ is
flawless. Such skepticism, which is a fundamental attribute of the
democratic mind, may have played a role in pushing the government
toward more openness in Sichuan.

Indeed, the fact that many school buildings were flattened in Sichuan
prompted an outcry from 'netizens,' who grilled local officials about
whether it substandard building codes or even a notorious "toufuzha
construction scandal," namely, jerry-built projects, that had led to
the disproportionate number of dead pupils. Under mounting public
scrutiny, government officials felt compelled to promise that those
responsible will be brought to justice.

Unlike in the past, when Chinese Internet users passively received
information, years of exposure to concepts such as human rights and
democracy have emboldened them to challenge entrenched yet dubious
views, even if it means iconoclasm.

Chinese audiences are as fed up with the glowing encomiums broadcast
by CCTV as they are with the simplistic, context-free reporting of
Western media. Caught in the middle, Chinese increasingly sift for
the truth on their own.

Many, indeed, tried to present to the outside world their own version
of the Tibet story, rebutting the orthodox narrative ­ be it Chinese
or Western ­ and posting comments and footage on YouTube and the
BBC's bulletin board. Moreover, due to their repeated queries for
explanation, a few Western media outlets eventually owned up to their mistakes.

After China's government became aware that independent grassroots
movements could convince ordinary Chinese where government propaganda
had failed, it lifted its initial ban on reporting on Tibet.

"Net nannies" -- as China's Internet censors are often dubbed --
blocked sensitive articles less frequently. China's government has
apparently begun to appreciate the limitations of cover-ups and
stonewalling, and perhaps also the merits of allowing some room for
free speech.

This thirst for unbiased information highlights the dramatic change
that the Internet has brought to China's political landscape.
Nowadays, the government no longer monopolizes information and the
right to process it. Insightful bloggers attract considerably more
clicks than do official mouthpieces. A "virtual civil society" is in
the making.

But can Web activism mature into a full-blown campaign for free
speech without being manipulated by the government or blindfolded by
Western media? The answer may prove to be mixed.

Admittedly, the fierce popular backlash against Western media was
partially motivated by nationalist ardor, which played into the
government's hands. The Internet can foster more demagoguery than
sober analysis. But the best way to prevent this is to create an
environment in which opposing views can clash freely, enabling truth
ultimately to triumph.

On the government's part, the more open media in Sichuan may be mere
posturing to appease critics after the Tibet upheaval and the scuffle
over the Olympic torch. The government's willingness to address
squarely questions about shoddy infrastructure will be a key test of
the genuineness of its supposed new found tolerance of freeish speech.

Although free speech is no panacea for China's woes, only when it is
established will the country's progress be sustainable. Despite the
watchful eyes of Big Brother in Beijing, the Internet is sowing the
seeds of free speech in China. That may be the most important lesson
of the crisis in Tibet and Sichuan.

Andreas Ni is a writer living in Shanghai.
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