Sunday, October 08, 2006


The Chinese people I know couldn't be described as barbaric or inhumane. Far from it.

China is not a place where you routinely come across random acts of violence towards other people - in fact the streets of Hangzhou are undoubtedly vastly safer than the streets of Liverpool.

I still believe that the average 'westerner' probably doesn't have much of a view on the Chinese as a people although this will change as China's growing economy means it attracts more and more media attention. So, with all this new found attention, why does China do little to stop the western media portraying an image of China as a barbarous and uncivilised place where life is cheap and unrespected? China does do a fine job of presenting just enough material to the outside world to allow itself to be portrayed that way - mostly by not even thinking about it.

No country stands in isolation on the modern international stage and China could do well to start taking account of critical opinion from other quarters. So why isn't China more responsive to these criticisms and why do some things seem to be getting worse?

This week I've come across some great examples (in no particular order) and it seems unlikely that these things fall under the oft-used (by many countries) category of "“how dare foreigners tell us how to run our country. We'’ve been running it this way for (insert time period here) and we're not going to change just because outsiders tell us to"” -– all of the things highlighted below are new phenomena that are being held up by foreign media as examples of China'’s '“barbarism'.

1) Shanghai Zoo's Animal Olympics
This is only the 4th annual event and is attracting headlines such as "China's cruel animal Olympics reach new heights".

2) Changchung Wildlife Park
Shoving a goat into a cage with a lion and a cow into a cage with a tiger to 'hone their hunting skills'?

3) Selling the organs of Death-Row inmates
Again, organ transplantation is too new to make this a 'cultural' issue.

4) Execution Buses
The figures bandied about by the media are that China executes more criminals than every other country in the world put together. Faced with external concerns that some of these may be unjust, this is clearly a PR disaster in the making, let alone compounding it by creating a "“Death Bus"” brochure that can get into the hands of the foreign media. Anything that enables the finger to be pointed to say that the process is being changed to make it even faster and therefore more likely to be open to injustice is surely not worth it, whatever the internal justification for doing so (Sky actually claims it is to speed up the organ removal so that just compounds the PR problem).

It seems entirely incongruous that parts of the government clearly care a great deal about China'’s image - there's an awful lot (and certainly billions of dollars) riding on the Olympics to bring a positive spin to China's 'face' - yet doesn't seem to focus on curbing things that get reported negatively. With this increased positive attention comes a large number of journalists looking for a sensational story.

There'’s been a lot of flak in recent years about the roles of spin doctors in the west, but is that exactly what China needs now? Perhaps China really should sign up a good PR agency so that they can start pointing out that when it comes to a evaluation of the facts from the perspective of non-Chinese, you can't hide behind "culture" and "tradition". Trying to get Chinese tourists to behave considerately is a small step in the right direction.

Like so much in life, perception is king. China could do worse than to start off by cutting down the amount of ammunition it hands to the foreign media to enable them to do it harm. Fair enough to tell the US that China'’s currency valuation is an internal affair and they won'’t back down to external pressure - that'’s the job of government - but death buses, honestly...…


Meursault said...

Interesting points, but I have to disagree that China needs more spin to solve its problems. "Spin", in the form of endlessly positive articles and exaggerated statistics pouring out daily from China Daily, CCTV, and Xinhua, has been taken to such ludricously extreme levels that nobody can possibly believe it anymore. China tries to radiate nothing but a positive image, and this is where its propaganda fails in the eyes of cynical westerners raised to analyse everything they read. What China needs more than anything else, is honesty. It is only when westerners can feel assured that what they see in the Chinese media has more than some small token of truth, that they will begin to accept "positive spin".

HistoryElephant said...

Whilst China can make moves in a more positive direction and could specifically target at least some of the things on your list, it ultimately faces the problem that it is a one-party state, with all the corruption and menance that goes along with it.

You can't trust the media unless there is a free press; but if you had a free press it would hold the government to account (especially on corruption) and undermine its slim claims to legitimacy.

The things you would like to see are features of liberal, democratic institutions; but for the communist party to maintain its position, it necessarily has to be a coalition of decidedly illiberal and undemocratic forces - many of whom won't 'get' the point you're making.

dB said...

OK, I concede that spin isn't the answer but it genuinely wouldn't be a bad idea for someone, such as the Spiritual Civilization Steering Committee of the CCP to look at some of these items that are attracting the most criticism and get them to stop.

Ideally is that they would get them to stop through education (and I don't just mean another pamphlet) rather than enforcement but that's probably too much of a leap of fantasy.

ChinaLawBlog said...

You definitely raise some interesting points here. Reminds me of how Americans love to attack the Koreans for eating dog meat, to which the Koreans respond by pointing out America's poor treatment of the homeless. So much comes down to one's perspective.