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Big Brother, Tibet and the Earthquake

June 25, 2008

Andreas Ni
Business Standard (India)
Shanghai June 24, 2008

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 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
scepticism, 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 monopolises 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 ardour, 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. Project Syndicate, 2007.
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