Lessons from Xinjiang: the MediaWritten by Julen Madariaga on August 4th, 2009
Have you been watching Xinjiang TV these days? I am a fan. It’s the new Love TV, a 24-7 concentrate of all the corniest efforts by the Chinese official media to promote harmony after the events of 5th July. Smiling kids, flowery dances, long meetings of interethnic neighbour associations discussing love and togetherness. Best served with tequila, lemon, and a grain of salt.
But seriously. It’s been a month since the events of Urumqi, and it feels like there hasn’t been much done in the way of analysis. All the channels of the media were red hot for a week, but they cooled down as soon as the blood dried on the streets, and no new insights are forthcoming. Too soon the debate has been hijacked by unproven claims of opportunists like Kadeer, and the predictable responses from China. The peace loving Uyghurs and Han who lost their lives in Urumqi deserve better.
So yes, I am consciously watching XJTV, and I suggest you do the same. For lack of anything better and in protest against the rest of the media establishment, both Chinese and foreign. Because no matter how awkward XJTV’s efforts might seem, at least this TV station is doing its job.
The events of Xinjiang are more important than the bland Summer coverage would lead us to imagine. It is probably the most deadly single political riot that has happened in China since Tiananmen 1989. It is also the only major case of social unrest where the international press has been granted permission to report from the ground. And there are important lessons to draw from the experience, particularly in the fields of 1- Media and 2- China’s policy.
The Chinese Media
I am and I will always be against State-controlled media, and every person I respect here, some CPC members included, agrees with my point of view: without the freedom to blame, all comment is meaningless.
But precisely because we don’t believe in that media, we don’t expect too much from them. After all, it is not the fault of the writers or editors if they live in such a system, not everyone can be a hero. From this relative point of view, we can say that the Chinese media – or the CPC, which is the same in this case - has done a good job.
Indeed, one interesting phenomenon in the aftermath of the July 5th events is the media’s role in calming things down on the Han side. We made fun of all those silly heart warming articles, but probably the love talk was crucial at a moment where ethnic feelings were getting out of control. How many times in the World have you seen interethnic clashes* killing more than a hundred to simply peter out in 2 days with no more than moderate force applied by the State?
By choosing to focus on the positive, turning the blame on external elements and being loyal to the principle of harmony, the Chinese media did a valuable service to their country and probably avoided many more deaths. This might seem obvious now with hindsight, but it might have been just as easy for them to try to appeal to the pride of the Han and disaster would have ensued.
The Free World Media
But what about the media from the free World?
The Xinjiang events were of particular interest for many of us following the debate of anti-China bias in the Western media. In the highest point of the discussion, after the Tibet 2008 events, the Western media always had the point that, since they had been banned from the area, they couldn’t be held accountable for inaccuracies in their reporting. Now we have the first major riot where this argument is not valid. The time is to evaluate the results. How well have they fared?
In my opinion, it has been disappointing, at least for two reasons.
1- In a large part of the media there was a clear prejudice against the Han and against the authorities. Not all were as extreme or ignorant as this example, but the principle was clear: their mission was to witness how inhuman the Chinese system is. Even if some of them later moderated their reports, the harm was already done, and when travelling in Europe mid-July I found it a common opinion that “China is slaughtering its minorities again”.
2- Fortunately, free media IS to some extent free and diverse, and we have seen some examples of fair reporting from the ground. In particular I was following the Telegraph journalist Peter Foster, who did a great job of reporting honestly what he saw. And then, I got to this article, only 4 days after the events, and to my despair he announces that he leaves on holidays. Like blogger B&W Cat noted, almost all the others soon followed suit and, to this day, nobody has told us what really happened in Xinjiang.
In the meantime, Xinhua and the others stayed at their posts, showing the Chinese and the World who really cares about Xinjiang, and who really cares about China.
There is something very wrong with the World media, and it is something much deeper than a anti- or pro- China stance. It has to do more in my opinion with how it is organized. Remember the line:
By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.
It is a pleasure to read Adam Smith and imagine that, indeed, the invisible hand is working every day to make our lives better. And yet, this example has made clear that if there is one industry were the hand cannot work it is the media. That is, of course, unless we accept that its role is to produce “the truths we like to hear” in the same way as the role of Apple is to produce computers we like to use.
Because that is exactly the problem. The minute the media sees that there are no obvious CPC crimes, that the police is handling the situation well, and that actually a communist authoritarian regime sometimes does things better than a democracy, this is not interesting. It is not even about political lobbies or advertising companies’ pressure, it is simply that most readers don’t like it. It is more comfortable to live with their solid categories, Islamism bad, communism bad, democracy good. And the invisible hand says: journalist shut up.
There is a lot of talk on the internet about the future of traditional newspapers, and many are analyzing the reasons for their demise. Well, how about this one:
There has been a major political riot, the most deadly in 20 years in the most important rising country in the international scene, and the media has still not even attempted to explain the reasons behind the events, instead working full-time as a mouthpiece for a self-appointed leader in Washington with very dubious legitimacy, and who might possibly be connected with the terrorist group who has organized the killings of more than 100 people.**
I am not so idealistic to think that internet and blogs are going to change the situation. The information lobby will always be powerful, whatever the shape it takes, and in the end the mainstream reader will always read what he wants to read.
For the people who care, the only hope, now as always, is in diversity. And fortunately the internet works in the right direction for this. Visit this link for just one example of how a blog can provide you –if you take the time to read carefully- with better commentary than your Sunday paper.
* Interethnic clashes: whether or not the initial violence was organized by terrorist elements, by the time the Han mobs went out with bats it clearly became an interethnic clash.
** More about this upcoming.