Business Standard Column
Andreas Ni / Shanghai June 24, 2008, 0:56 IST
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 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.