Career: Senior Scientist | Zonare Medical Systems | San Francisco, California, USA
From Worship to Disillusionment: The Changing Attitude of Chinese Youth Toward Western Media
When China opened its doors to the world in the late 1970s, Western media was very much admired by Chinese young people and regarded as objective and unbiased. One of the major demands of the university students at Tiananmen Square in 1989 was freedom of the press. They called on the Chinese government to let the media play an oversight role in the political life of their society.
China’s youth continued calling on government media for much of the next decade to learn from the West how to be more transparent and less rigid. However, this enthusiasm dropped off noticeably in 2008. In the wake of Western media coverage of unrest in Tibet that year, an anti-CNN website was established by a group of college students in China. This website has gained great popularity, and hundreds of thousands of people showed support for its views. Jokes emerged among College students about the need to “Be honest, not CNN.” How could such a dramatic turnaround occur?
Consider the context in which this occurred in recent years.
Although censorship of the Internet and other media still exists, the Chinese people have made tremendous progress in their access to Western press. This has occurred in large part thanks to the Internet. CNN, BBC, and other major Western media are no longer taboo and all have set up offices in China. The source of anger among Chinese youth in 2008 was the seemingly deliberate distortion by Western media of the facts about unrest in Tibet.
In their view, media coverage was motivated by a desire to disrupt the Beijing Olympics.
As evidence for this, Chinese Internet users pointed out that the actions of the Nepalese police were incorrectly labeled as a crackdown conducted by the Chinese police. And they point to editing of photos that appeared to be aimed at covering up the provocative actions of rioters. To make things worse, insulting and racist, anti-Chinese language was used on a CNN program, a development that aroused even stronger feelings of confrontation. The videos at issue have been uploaded to YouTube and can be viewed by everyone in China, resulting in disillusionment, anger, and even hatred. All this has given rise to the question: Why should the Western media resort to such despicable and mean tricks against the Chinese people? What was the intention behind this?
Another factor to take into consideration when considering recent developments is the growth of the economy. Their new economic power has made Chinese people demand more respect from the Western media. Though still undeveloped in many areas, China has every reason to be proud of what it has achieved in such a short time. With basic food, shelter and other needs now met, the Chinese people are aiming higher, and freedom of access to unbiased information is one among many new demands. Their improved economic status in the world has made people more confident to say “No” to those they see as trying to disgrace them. They are prepared to speak up and demand that they be treated fairly.
The emerging distrust of Western media among young people in China is something that cannot be ignored. In the short term, it will lead to a rising narrow-minded nationalism. This has already surfaced in demands for punishment or at least restrictions of those Western media spreading rumors. And some have even called for sanctions against items from unfriendly Western countries. If these issues are not addressed properly, they run the risk of costing a great deal, or even evolving into a crisis in the longer run. Unfortunately, the behavior of the Western media just plays into the hands of Chinese hardliners who try to stir up narrow nationalism and resist the process of further opening up.
How should we respond to this crisis? The answer is a process of gradual learning, which requires time, patience, and effective communication from both sides. It can be seen that the Chinese government has been willing to learn and become more sophisticated in handling foreign media after the Tibetan unrest. Instead of being barred, foreign journalists were invited on a tour of Xinjiang’s capital after the unrest there in 2009.
The Chinese authorities are trying to understand and respect the freedoms of speech and the press, which is a universally accepted value in the Western world.
For its part, the Western media must remember that the West and China are at different stages of development. It will take time for freedom of speech and the press to manifest itself, and this will require further development of social and economic foundations.
More haste, less speed. Arrogance and sensationalist reports by the Western media will only elicit more ill feelings and criticism. Indeed, effective communication is based on trust and respect from both sides.