Archive for the ‘media’ Category

China is currently in a push to build international popularity and respect through “soft power” mechanisms like media and the arts. One prominent medium in this push has been film. But failed attempts like Flowers of War have shown a reluctance to move past black and white nationalistic angles. Chinese films, under the direction of chief censor State Administration of Radio, Film & Television (SARFT), dissect and remove anything that’s vulgar, politically unpalatable, sends the wrong social message or portrays the Chinese people as anything but heroic and exceptional.

Not coincidentally, when you ask someone in China what their favorite movie is, they probably won’t name a Chinese film. In fact, most of the time they’ll name one of two movies: Forrest Gump or Shawshank Redemption. The movies depict military defeat, racism, corruption and perversion of justice – some of the darker aspects of 20th century America. Yet the final products show nuance and complex characters that inspire and win international acclaim. In other words, they’re soft power victories.

But what if the US had had its own SARFT with similar social and political objectives?

I don’t believe Shawshank Redemption could have been made. An innocent man being sent to a prison with officials dabbling in corruption and murder would simply be untenable. However, I do think Forrest Gump could have been made…with some major revisions. So based on leaked censorship instructions and years of watching Chinese movies, here’s hypothetical American SARFT’s verdict on the film:

1. In the beginning it’s revealed that  Forrest is named after Nathan Bedford Forrest – former leader of the illegal terrorist “Ku Klux Klan” organization. This is utterly contrary to the theme of the film.

2. The doctor tells Forrest that his back “is as crooked as a politician.” Remove this statement.

3. When bullies throw rocks and chase Forrest there’s no indication that they were caught and punished for their actions.

4. The bullies’ truck has a Confederate flag license plate. This is an illegal secessionist symbol and must be removed.

5. Forrest is denied from entering a normal school because his IQ is too low, which his mother refuses to accept. This distorts reality. America’s education system wouldn’t allow any student to be placed where they don’t belong. Furthermore, Forrest’s mother sleeps with the principal in order to secure Forrest’s admission. This is vulgar and unrealistic.

6. When African-American students enter the University of Alabama, some white students make remarks like “coon” and “nigger.” This gravely harms America’s image and may have negative social effects.

7. Regarding the scene in Jenny’s dormitory where she places Forrest’s hand on her breast, the effect of the length, imagery and sounds of this bed scene are strong, and bring about strong harmful sensual stimulation to people.

8. When Forrest meets President Kennedy he says that he “has to pee.” This is very offensive and disrespectful toward an American leader. Furthermore, Forrest discovers a picture of Marilyn Monroe in Kennedy’s bathroom. This alludes to false rumors and gravely distorts history.

9. When Bubba is describing his family’s history of serving white people, it alludes to slavery.  This may gravely hurt the feelings of the American people.

10. “Playboy” is an illegal pornographic publication that shows a naked woman. It must be removed from the film.

11. When Forrest arrives to Vietnam, American soldiers are shown drinking beer and barbequing, not taking their duties seriously. This gravely violates history and harms the image of the American military.

12. Forrest exposes his buttocks to President Johnson. This is disrespectful and absurd.

13. The Washington DC anti-government “peace rally” suggests American involvement in the Vietnam War was unjust. The theme and tone of the rally must be revised so that it doesn’t oppose the government. It also depicts convicted criminal Abbie Hoffman. It must be adjusted so that he’s portrayed in a more negative fashion and not wearing an American flag shirt.

14. The “Black Panther Party” is an illegal organization. Its depiction may stir up animosity among ethnic groups and have negative social consequences.

15. The scene after Forrest meets President Nixon alludes to the “Watergate Scandal.” Remove.

16. Filthy words appear repeatedly in the film and should be deleted.

17. The Jenny character is overly-complex and sends mixed messages. On one hand she appears kind and elicits sympathy, but on the other hand she does illegal drugs and has loose virtues. Good and evil must be clearly distinguished.

 

Advertisements

At the 18th Party Congress over the past week a mysterious Australian journalist has been called on at official press conferences more than any other foreign reporter.

In each of these golden opportunities, she’s lobbed disappointing softballs like, “Please tell us what policies and plans the Chinese government will be implementing in cooperation with Australia.”

ABC caught up with the reporter, Andrea Yu, and found out that she’s not quite a foreign reporter, but works for the majority Chinese-owned AMG, which “has close links to Chinese government-controlled media organizations and supplies Beijing-friendly radio programs to community stations in Australia.”

So it seems she’s little more than a CCP shill at the congress.

I think this raises some interesting issues about foreigners working for state-sponsored Chinese media. Here were a couple reactions that caught my eye on Twitter:


With a notoriously competitive media landscape in the West, getting a foot in the door through Chinese state media is a route many aspiring journalists take. I’ve been there. Indeed, several fantastic China correspondents have been there.

But when you work for state media, at what point do you cross a line where your journalistic integrity is compromised.

Some people would say it’s the moment you do any kind of work for them. This was certainly the theme of much of the hate mail I got when writing for Global Times (where I was once accused of “prostituting myself to a propaganda rag”). The thinking here goes that foreigners lend legitimacy to these biased and often misleading organizations. Any reporting that they do, whether it’s flattering or critical of China, is strategically used in order to meet broader propaganda objectives.

I completely disagree with this assessment. Despite what a lot of people seem to think, official outlets like China Daily, Global Times, CRI and even CCTV push the envelope quite often and are full of great journalists. Having foreigners in these organizations makes that envelope get pushed even further and improves the entire industry. And if a foreigner, from the bottom of their heart, believes they’re being completely honest in their reporting – whether it’s flattering or criticizing the party line – then I can’t see a problem with that.

It’s true that if you print something supporting the party line in Global Times, it’ll inevitably be held to a completely different standard than if it were in New York Times, but that’s the breaks. I don’t think journalistic integrity has been damaged in the least.

But Andrea Yu seems to have gone beyond that as a complacent party shill. Her role was to give the appearance that officials were bold enough to take a foreign reporter’s questions, when in fact, they knew they’d be getting a chance to flatter themselves. In this sense, Yu caused people to be misled – especially the Chinese who will never learn about her connection to the government. This is the opposite of what journalism is supposed to be.

Yu seems to be aware of her role. She told Wall Street Journal, “[Officials] know my questions are safe … I’m representing a Chinese-Australian company, so I need to ask questions they want me to ask. Believe me, I would have other questions to ask if I could.”

So she’s laid down her sense of journalistic duty and restrained herself from asking what she and her viewers would actually like answered. She’s too eagerly fallen into her role as a stooge, and thus, compromised her credibility.

But it’s easy to sit and condemn from afar. Being in her shoes is undoubtedly a much stickier situation than it seems. Here’s an excerpt from her interview with ABC:

STEPHEN MCDONNELL: But what do you think about it though? Do you feel that you’re being used in that way?

ANDREA YU: Well, it’s been a bit difficult because there are layers. When I first entered my company, there’s only a certain amount of understanding I have about its connections to the government. I didn’t know it had any, for example. So I find out more and more as time goes on. It’s quite difficult as a foreigner, when you first, at least for me in the last month, to know exactly because you get told things not all at the beginning, so that side of it is challenging.

This comes off as kind of air-headed and oblivious, but I understand the point she’s making. Some of my experiences and those of several acquaintances at Chinese companies (not just media) were just like this. It’s not as if you’re told up front what your real job and unethical responsibilities will be. It comes in ways that aren’t immediately obvious and in steps so small that it’s easy to descend into something you’d never intended. What seem like opportunities (ie – covering the biggest political event in China) are in fact situations where you’re being exploited. By the time you look around and realize what you’re doing, you’re in too deep and it’s hard to climb back out without seriously disrupting your life.

Yu could put her foot down with her bosses and go with her journalistic instincts (like the intrepid reporters over at Chinese Teenagers News), or better yet, take her services to another outlet. But that’s much easier said than done. Imagine doing that with your own job. And then imagine it’s in an ultra-competitive industry where you’re not sure you’ll get another break.

As Tom Hancock pointed out, Yu is in the state media coal mines. I doubt she ever made a conscious decision to head down the especially dark tunnel she ended up in. Unfortunately, she did end up there and compromised her credibility. But I think more than anything else she’s a victim of a cold system that’s all too happy to push people around like pawns in order to mislead the country and the world.

What do you think? At what point does a state media job become a liability for budding foreign journalists rather than an asset?

Foxconn: A Very Quiet Riot

Posted: June 7, 2012 in media
Tags: ,

Over the past day or so several foreign media outlets including Huffington Post, Business Insider and Bloomberg TV have been reporting that dozens of workers at a Foxconn factory in Chengdu were arrested after clashing with security at a dormitory. Some said that “workers with a grudge against the security guards prevented them from catching a thief. Soon up to 1,000 workers were ‘throwing trash bins, chairs, pots, bottles and fireworks from the upper floor of the building and destroying public facilities.’”

These outlets cited a single source: Want China Times – a Taiwanese agency which routinely prints stories based on single, unreliable sources (here, here and here, for instance). In this case, WCT cited Molihua – a democracy and human rights advocacy group. Of course, claims that there were 1,000 rioters had to come with evidence. This is it:

Most of the media reporting this story and netizens on Weibo have included this picture with reports of the violence. If you can spot a riot here, you have much better eyes than I do. A couple searches for “Foxconn riots” also bring up this picture:

I can almost hear the crickets chirping.

Bloomberg TV however managed to obtain a much more sensational picture depicting a fire and people in surgical masks:

 

…but it turns out that picture actually came from an explosion that happened at Foxconn’s Chengdu plant over a year ago.

It’s now been three days since this supposed riot started and this is all we have. No other pictures, no videos, no interviews from rioters. That’s pretty amazing considering “Foxconn riot” is NOT blocked on Weibo and there were allegedly 1,000 people involved.

I got in touch with Foxconn Technology Group and they sent this press release:

We were informed by local law enforcement authorities that late Monday night, several employees of our facility in Chengdu had a disagreement with the owner of a restaurant located in that city. We were also informed that the employees subsequently returned to their off-campus residence, owned and managed by third-party companies, at which time a number of other residents also became involved in the disagreement and local police were called to the scene to restore order. Foxconn is cooperating with local law enforcement authorities on their investigation into this incident.

They didn’t list any numbers, but this seems a far cry from what’s been previously reported.

It’s too early to say definitively that the original Want China Times report (and all those that based their reports entirely on it) were completely wrong, but I think it is safe to say they jumped the gun. Some outlets even tied the alleged violence to poor working conditions, which is completely unsubstantiated. Huffington Post went so far as to title one piece “Foxconn Workers Riot In Chengdu Over Minor Incident, Leads To Massive Uprising” and listed several unrelated conditions at the factory (They’ve since printed a retraction).

Foxconn has been the whipping boy of the media for quite some time now. In 2010 some outlets were ticking off suicides as they happened at the company. The estimated 14 suicides that year do indeed sound bad…until you consider there are over 800,000 employees and that that suicide rate is well below China’s national average (and the US’s for that matter). Both the suicide and rioting over poor working conditions angles fit nicely into the pre-established narrative that Foxconn and its Apple overlord run a repressive sweatshop. Unfortunately for those outlets that perpetuate these angles, there’s just not much evidence to support them.

Update 6/8: Reuters published a story this morning which said:

Seven workers at a Foxconn factory in Chengdu went to a restaurant near their dormitory, but began making a ruckus after an argument between the eatery’s owner and his wife “affected their meal”, said a statement on the Sichuan government website (www.scol.com.cn) released on Thursday.

After the restaurant owner called the police, the workers ran back to their dormitory shouting “they are beating us”, upon which around 100 of their colleagues came in and joined the disturbance, throwing bottles, the statement added.

For those expats in China distressed by the recent anti-foreign atmosphere online and in the media, you now something to be thankful for: You don’t live in South Korea.

Recently Korea’s MBC ran a program called “The Shocking Reality About Relationships With Foreigners” (Link has the full 5-minute segment with subtitles). The piece presents itself as an exposé on how foreign expats easily seduce Korean women, only to taint, abuse, rob them and leave them with AIDS. It completely forgoes any sense of journalistic integrity by using hidden cameras and adding wholly unsubstantiated commentary. At one point, a Korean girl is cold-called by the producer and asked if she was “a victim of a foreigner.” When the girl replies that she doesn’t know what the producer is talking about, the narrator jumps in to say, “Most victims avoid telling the truth.”

For all the times the Chinese media has hyped the non-newsworthy transgressions of foreigners in China, I’ve never heard of any newscast being this despicably ignorant and unprofessional. As much as it pains me to say it, we probably have China’s censorship apparatus to thank for that.

The Chinese government (and ergo the state media) needs a healthy dose of nationalism, but the key is moderation. In 2010, when anti-Japanese sentiment flared up over a Chinese fisherman being detained in disputed waters, I saw a first-hand manifestation of how the government tries to channel nationalism. At the Japanese embassy in Beijing, protestors were allowed to congregate – but only at a distance from the entrance. Periodically, police would let a handful of the most vocal protestors go right up to the gate and media were allowed to film it. But when the crowd gained a certain mass, it was broken up and told to leave – only to re-form again slowly with tacit police approval.

This push and pull-back of nationalism has become the rule after some past debacles. Some 2005 anti-Japanese demonstrations were gleefully allowed by the government…until they turned violent and Japanese businesses (many of which were Chinese owned) were destroyed. Back further in 1988, anti-Africans protests  broke out in Nanjing, which unexpectedly shifted to calls for the Chinese government to reform. The incident was one of the preludes to the Tiananmen uprising. Today, nationalism is still crucial and encouraged, but only to the point that it doesn’t affect stability and support for the authoritarian government.

Korea and China have similar histories of being subjugated by foreigners, and Korean leaders have likewise relied on nationalism in the past to achieve political goals. The difference now is that Korea has some lingering xenophobia combined with a free media wholly dependent on ratings for revenue. The result is this highly sensational and populist program targeting foreigners. If China’s (state subsidized) media wasn’t on its current leash, we’d probably see much more of the same here.

This is far far FAR from an endorsement of China’s media restrictions. The harm is much more compelling than any redeeming factors. But for this very narrow issue, expats can probably begrudgingly thank China’s censors.

The 100-day crackdown on illegal foreigners in Beijing is now well underway and it seems the police aren’t messing around this time. Some have suggested this is a knee-jerk reaction to the alleged attempted rape of a Chinese girl by a British man. But both things may be part of a bigger trend we’re likely to see continue for the rest of the year.

Another story has made waves recently on the Chinese internet about a Russian cellist who put his legs up on a Chinese woman’s train seat and cursed her when she complained about it (He later apologized). Unlike the rape incident, this is not a crime; nor is it newsworthy. But that didn’t stop Beijing Morning Post from splashing the whole story on their front page this morning:

Then there was CCTV anchor Yang Rui, who made this tragically hilarious statement on Weibo. Here’s a blurb:

The Ministry of Public Security is getting rid of foreign trash right now, arresting foreign scum and protecting innocent Chinese girls from them. […]Foreigners who can’t find a job in their home country come to China and get involved in illegal business activities such as human trafficking and espionage; they also like to distribute lies which discredit China to persuade locals to move abroad. A lot of them look for Chinese women to live with as a disguise to further their espionage efforts.

Then finally, People’s Daily reported today that Baidu and mop.com have launched a campaign with Sina Weibo, “calling on internet users to expose bad behavior by foreigners in China.”

[Update: Kaiser Kuo, Baidu’s director of international communications, said this:  “The People’s Daily story is erroneous. Baidu has launched no such campaign. It was something done originally on Baidu PostBar but not under official auspices and we have now removed it.”]

A lot of people do bad things and break the law in China, regardless of their nationality. But this campaign intends to put the magnifying glass squarely over bad behavior – whether or not it’s anything remarkable – so long as the perpetrator is foreign. It implicitly calls on Chinese to look at foreigners with a suspicious eye while holstering a smart phone.

Recently I discussed how the Communist Party uses the “Century of Humiliation” as the cornerstone of its legitimacy. Foreigners invaded and defiled China for a hundred years until the CCP rescued the country from them – so the story goes. The government stays in the people’s good graces by constantly reminding them of this period and implying that the country still isn’t safe from the foreign menace.

I also predicted in that post that, as the increasingly complicated power transition draws near, “we can probably expect to see even more international events covered in China from an angle that harkens back to the humiliating century. And we might even see an uptick in coverage of scarcely-newsworthy events that portray foreigners in China as exploiters or aggressors.”

Trying to consolidate political support by taking a hard-line on foreigners in the country is hardly unique to China. It works the same almost everywhere. Foreigners make a perfect “them” to unite “us” against. They can be scapegoated and harassed without political liability because they’re too few, too vulnerable and, well, too foreign to defend themselves. In China, this tactic is a matter of survival for the authoritarian government.

These recent cases shining the spotlight on bad foreigners aren’t necessarily direct examples of this tactic though. After all, it was common citizens who first disseminated the British pervert and the Russian cellist stories. But both cases raise the “did the chicken or the egg come first” dilemma. Why did netizens frame the stories as a “bad foreigner attacking good Chinese” in the first place?

The subsequent actions by players like Beijing Morning Post and Yang Rui showed that they have every intention of making sure this cycle continues. They perpetuate the implicit anti-foreign angle, thereby assuring future incidents will continue to be framed as “peaceful Chinese vs. arrogant imperialistic foreigners.” That’s pretty good for creating very shallow Chinese unity and government support, but pretty awful for humanity.

The Party’s Insecurities

Posted: May 10, 2012 in media
Tags: ,

Insecure governments are much like insecure people. They overcompensate for their weaknesses by making a big fuss about how strong they actually are in those areas. For instance, if you’re an ashamed closet homosexual, then you might become an Evangelical anti-gay crusader. Likewise, if you’re an authoritarian government that operates on the whims of un-elected leaders, you might stress how adherent you are to the “rule of law” again and again and again and again. So if you want to see what the Chinese government is insecure about, you usually need look no further than the propaganda.

All over China you see slogans like “Happy Guangdong” or “Civilized Chaoyang” that call attention directly to what leaders feel those places are lacking. And chengguan – the city management officers responsible for stopping illegal street vendors – have an often-deserved reputation as being thugs who use their little power to terrorize poor migrants. So all over Beijing we see signs like this:

“People’s City, People’s Administration” (A play on the word “Chengguan” )

With this principle in mind, I’ve been watching Xinwen Lianbo over the past few weeks. This is CCTV’s flagship news program that runs simultaneously on most channels every evening at 7:00. This program most consistently reaches the largest viewership throughout China, so it’s perfect for gauging the government’s biggest insecurities.

The program’s traditional schedule is widely recognized and mocked by Chinese. It consists of three segments: The leaders are busy, the people are happy, and foreign countries are in chaos.  I vaguely recall when I first got to China in 2007, you could almost set your watch to it most days. When images of top leaders shaking hands with foreign diplomats or doing countryside field inspections shifted into minorities and peasants enjoying favorable government policies, it must be 7:10. When those happy faces faded into American gun violence or Middle-East bombings, it must be about 7:20.

These three segments can be seen as compensation for the Communist Party’s three biggest fears: That the leaders might be seen as illegitimate, corrupt and self-indulgent; that the peasants and minorities might feel exploited or repressed; and that countries under different political systems might be viewed as preferable alternatives.

What I’ve found interesting from watching the program over the past few weeks – and ticking off the kinds of stories that are shown – is that the traditional format has been shaken up. To its credit, individual stories are now more diverse and often contain news without apparent political aims. However, the “leaders are busy” portion now often stretches out 15-20 minutes of the 30 minute newscast, with an average of 5 separate stories each program. This might suggest the leadership is REALLY keen on proving its legitimacy as the power handover draws near.

The “people are happy” and “foreign countries are in chaos” segments are also still cornerstones, with an average of 2.3 and 3.6 stories respectively each night. But two other segments seem to have become regular additions: “China is innovative” and “the economy is looking good.”

Each have been averaging one story per night. Chinese innovations like an aerospace medical lab and the world’s quietest washing machine are shown; as are detailed explications (often digressing into virtual PowerPoint presentations) leading you to feel that China’s economy is strong and will stay strong.

China is facing some major economic bubbles, coupled with bleak growth prospects if its businesses can’t move up the value chain while wages increase. The Chinese education system’s failure to produce the creativity needed to do so has been a concern for years. If, and how badly the bubbles will burst, and whether or not China can get creative, remain to be seen. But if Xinwen Lianbo is any indication, they’re things the government is pretty worried about.

SEE UPDATES BELOW

The past few weeks have been especially embarrassing for the “rule-of-law” touting Communist Party as a blind activist (not actually charged with any crime) escaped house arrest. Well now Global Times has released a new narrative on what’s happened in Chen Guangcheng’s village over the past few years that puts the situation in a very different light.

In an op-ed entitled “Chen trump for US in human rights game,” Sima Pingbang, a “blogger and grass-roots intellectual” claims that he actually visited Chen successfully last December. This is a pretty bold claim since we were previously under the impression that no journalist had successfully broken through Chen’s guards to see him. It’s also quite strange that we haven’t heard anything of this visit until now – at a time when finding some actual wrong-doing by Chen would be very convenient for the party – which brings us to the even bolder claims of the article:

According to other villagers, Chen’s imprisonment a few years ago had nothing to do with his work. It was actually a pretty common local conflict.  They told me that Chen built a deep well using funds he received from a British source. But that well sucked out water from other wells in the village, which meant Chen effectively controlled the village’s water.

They claimed that Chen charged high fees for the water and caused discontent from villagers, some of them then openly voiced their unhappiness and that angered Chen. So he asked his family members to attack the village committee and blocked public roads in order to vent his anger.

So rather than being a feeble human rights defender, the piece says Chen is a water-hoarding, price-gouging, vengeful rabble-rouser.  For some reason, a British source funded a blind man’s water monopoly on a random village in Shandong.

[Update 1: Another article today from The Daily Beast mentions that there was in fact a British-funded well. It says, “After his environmental fight against the paper mill (in the late 1990s), Chen contacted Western media, diplomats, and NGOs in an effort to help improve villagers’ access to clean water. When the British Embassy agreed to bankroll a new 180-meter-deep well, Chen was proud of what his little hamlet of Dongshigu had achieved.”] 

Sima Pingbang, the author of the GT piece, is a somewhat famous left-wing Maoist who last year penned an essay entitled “Support American People’s Great Wall Street Revolution,” which said events in the US will herald a global revolution that will bury capitalism. It inspired some short-lived protests in support of the movement in China.

On scouring over Sima Pingbang’s Weibo tweets from the month of December, I found nothing about a visit to Chen Guangcheng’s village. When contacted about how the claims were verified for print in Global Times, op-ed section reporter Gao Lei explained that Sima Pingbang did indeed visit Dongshigu in December with two others named Liu Yang 刘仰 and Yi Qing 一清 from a “blogger association.” Gao said that the group was approved by local authorities for the visit because they said they were “not there to cause any trouble, but looking for a peaceful solution.”  They then related this all to Gao Lei with some others from the association over dinner sometime after their return.

It seems that the “blogger association” (which Gao didn’t name) these men belong to is April Media 四月传媒 at m4.cn – formerly Anti-CNN.com – a nationalistic site that’s railed against Western media distortions of China since 2008.  It has an English sister site called the 4th Media. All three men have written op-eds on Chen Guangcheng in the past three days (here, here and here). Yi Qing backs up the trip to Dongshigu, but Liu Yang just talks about how Chen is a sympathetic figure who’s been exploited by the West. It’s not quite in line with the conniving water baron Sima Pingbang’s article portrays.

Gao Lei also said that these men have written about their trip before, but I wasn’t able to find anything about it dated before the past few days – which is odd if they did in fact go last December.

So it seems Sima Pingbang either A) Really found a story that the entire foreign press has somehow missed, B) went to Dongshigu, actually talked with villagers and Chen Guangcheng, but was lied to – perhaps by the thugs guarding Chen – and swallowed it all wholesale, or C) made things up.  Since Chen Guangcheng is gone now anyways and these new revelations, if true, would neutralize the government’s supposed wrongdoing, surely Dongshigu authorities will want these things independently verified by journalists – like those from CNN –  who might try to visit the town.

[Update 2: Yaxue Cao from Seeing Red in China, who first broke the news on Chen Kegui’s altercation with thugs, has informed me that Sima did go to Dongshigu with Liu and Yi, as well as Politburo member Li Yuanchao, to convince Chen to reach some kind of compromise – which he refused. This site shows that Li was in Linyi at the time, though it naturally doesn’t mention anything about Chen. The presence of a Politburo member would be nothing short of incredible and would explain the others not writing about the trip earlier.

Yaxue also adeptly pointed out that, while there was indeed a British-funded well, the idea of Chen siphoning the water away from the rest of the village is stupid because of (among other things) the principle of communicating vessels.]

[Update 3: He Peirong, Chen’s rescuer, has told me that Li Yuanchao never met Chen. So if Li did have any involvement with Chen, it wasn’t direct.]