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Special> Lhasa> Opinion
UPDATED: May 8, 2008  
If It's China, you Need to Send Only Bad News
The furor caused by the negative reporting about China compels me to add my lamentations here

I have long realized that when it comes to reporting about foreign and different countries, many or even the majority of Western news writers cannot be trusted.

I came to this realization after many years of experience of living and writing in Asia - after consistently reading news stories or news features in the mainstream Western media of places I know well in which the reports would depict a skewed or distorted representation of reality.

This detachment from the situation or ethos on the ground is surreal, and it has plunged to lower depths in the coverage of the recent Tibetan riots and their aftermath.

I don't cover news, and neither do I normally write about politics; I write travel in its widest definition, and that means finding human or development stories in travel destinations.

But the furor caused by the negative reporting about China compels me to add my lamentations here.

As I said, biased reporting is not limited to China, but China is now constantly in the news, and as such it's getting a large share of garbled reporting, and this reporting is now generating divisions.

It seems that whatever the story it is spun into an attack on China. Let me mention some examples. In the past year I have researched nature conservation and eco-tourism in Sichuan province's mountains (as well as Gansu and Shaanxi provinces to a lesser extent), and I found a massive conservation effort involving the proliferation of nature reserves, the connecting of these reserves by wildlife corridors, the reforestation of marginal agricultural land on slopes, and the opening of reserves for ecotourism.

Then I read an article in a big news magazine analyzing the recent increase in the environmental budget in China; the article asserted that most of the budget is devoted to the attempts to stop the expanding deserts of the north - but the author failed to notice the ambitious conservation schemes taking place in Sichuan, Gansu, and Shaanxi.

I also read an article in a British left-leaning news magazine in which the author first acknowledged that tree-planting was taking place everywhere in China, and then went on to focus the rest of the article on availability of illegally-felled Indonesian merbau wood in some timber yards in Shanghai.

In both cases above, these articles are insidious in their omissions. No balance is achieved; the articles are partial. The article in the British magazine - a magazine that pretends to be a force for social justice - follows a pattern of articles written by a correspondent who constantly attacks China (the title of the article is "Plant a tree - then import illegal timber").

A fair article in that British magazine would have been one that establishes the illegal availability of merbau wood, expanding into a report about what the authorities are doing to stop the trade, why they are failing in certain cases, and then exploring what more needs to be done.

That would have been a balanced and constructive article; the article as it stands simply ties together two unconnected stories - reforestation in China and availability of illegally-procured wood - to become a rant against China. This is a form of crude sensational journalism.

And sensationalism begets more sensationalism, as I found out when I wrote a story for a travel magazine.

My piece was a personal take on the experience of a Westerner eating in China, recounting my initial aversion to and eventually acquired tastes for things like intestines, ducks' tongues, ducks' heads, and so on (all strange foods for a foreigner), and then also about my fumbles with using chopsticks to eat a fish cooked whole, having to pick out the meat without swallowing the bones.

But the editor wanted me to add that eating in China was potentially risky due to unsafe food; this was at the height of the food-scares last year when stories of unsafe Chinese food and products were also blown out of proportion in the Western press.

I told the editor that this wasn't appropriate as the only potential risk from eating fresh food in restaurants in China could be mild food poisoning caused by relatively-lax (as compared to developed countries) hygiene standards.

Now the laxness in hygiene practices is common to all developing countries. But if I had to be writing an article about eating in Thailand, would the editor have asked me to add that there was a potential risk of food poisoning? No, he wouldn't, so why single out China for this sensationalism?

Because the editor believed the sensationalist stories he had read in his country, and he wanted to tie my article to this news to make it more news-relevant, but I refused to be sensationalist - and the editor refused to publish my article.

So why do many Western journalists have a prejudice against China? There are many inter-related reasons, some historical and some cultural, that cause prejudice.

These include residual feelings of superiority and racism (which causes Westerners to be unconsciously suspicious of the intentions and products of different peoples), cultural and political ignorance (which causes journalists to riddle their writings with misinterpretations and erroneous assumptions, or miss the real issues), and notions of imperialism (which leads to the conceit that there is only one truth as pronounced by the West, and that anyone who's different is therefore wrong).

When it comes to China, these feelings generate an apprehension of China's rise. And these premonitions give writers and broadcasters -many of whom would not have direct experience of working in China - a kind of blinkers that make them see China unfavorably.

With Tibet, the prejudice is compounded by a peculiar romanticism. Many Westerners have warped views of Tibet: they see Buddhism as some kind of enlightening philosophy and Tibetans as an innocent people who are incorruptible and peaceable.

As such Tibet becomes a "Shangri-la" - the embodiment of utopia - and the Chinese the usurpers of that idyll; these are predilections that have been reinforced by a spate of Hollywood films.

And this has led us to a situation where whatever the Tibetan exiles pronounce is treated favorably, and whatever the Chinese government says is treated with suspicion.

It is in this context that the Dalai Lama's politically-motivated propaganda about "cultural genocide" and "environmental destruction" in Tibet is believed.

But if journalists had to look beyond their prejudices, they will find that there is no conscious attempt to stifle Tibetan culture.

They would instead realize that the Chinese central government's policies toward Tibetan minority (such as free education, exemption from the family-planning requirement, the allowance to carry daggers, quasi-free housing for nomads, and so on) are actually generous.

And they would see that one of the biggest environmental problems in Tibet is the degradation of grasslands by herdsmen's yaks, these herds are a waste of resources from the logic of environmental sustainability.

But the big picture is now obscured by rhetoric, such as the following leader in a national British newspaper: "the [Olympic] torch should be given a rest until the Games; insisting that it is paraded through Tibet will only go down as a further act of cultural imperialism."

I fail to see how the Tibetan leg of Olympic torch's relay is an "act of cultural imperialism".

Since the Olympic torch is not a Chinese export, and doesn't even belong to China but to the international community, and since Tibet is Chinese territory, there is no logic in that statement. It simply serves as an insidious anti-China comment.

China needs to be patient in the face of such unfairness. Last year China opened its doors wider to foreign journalists, and in many cases instead of constructive coverage, the news reports have been insulting.

Yet the government should not succumb to the instinct of closing up, as this would add credence to the allegations that the government has something to hide.

Closing some doors will not turn the tide of bad news. Instead, China must continue steadfastly in its path of opening up, and become more sophisticated - and more forthcoming - in the way it puts its message across.

And then, as more people interact with China, and as China's policies yield positive results (in Africa, for example, there are indications that China's aid is working in ways that Western aid did not), a critical mass of Westerners would realize that China is a force for good. When (not if) that happens, the perceptions - in public opinion and news reports - would shift in China's favor.

(The author is a Maltese travel journalist)

(China Daily May 7, 2008)

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