Five-ring Circus

Are the Media Being too Mean to China?

Chinese fans at the Beijing Olympics

To say Beijing is eager to welcome foreign guests to the Olympics may be the understatement of the century. The new airport terminal features a welcome robot, there are “welcome booths” on just about every downtown street, the names of the Olympic mascots spell “Welcome to Beijing” in Chinese. If you’re not careful, you may be walking down a normal street only to find yourself surrounded by eager volunteers clad in blue shirts who point out everything you ever wanted to know about Beijing and plenty more you didn’t. In the Olympic Village, where the athletes live, friends say that the enthusiasm and attentiveness of the volunteers borders on harassment.

The enthusiasm is understandable. Everyone keeps talking about the “100-year dream,” and in a sense, Beijing has been waiting to host this—its international coming-out—since 1842 or so. That’s the year China lost the Opium War and started a 160-year-long search for respect. Much to the country’s chagrin, it still isn’t getting any.

The Western media have arrived en masse to China’s ball: lots of senior journalists, in sloppy dress, interested either in their own athletes or in writing their own big “China piece.” (Foreign guests are here, too, but fewer than Beijing had hoped for, thanks in part to self-defeating visa policies.) Not surprisingly, the stories written about China by foreign journalists are rarely on topics China might have hoped for.

The Western press is fascinated with the two P’s: pollution and protests. For dessert, anything to do with Tibetan independence, censorship, or foreign visitors is also welcome. Sometimes all of these issues converge, like last Wednesday, when a gaggle of Americans put up a “Free Tibet” banner in Tiananmen Square on what happened to be a very smoggy day. Now that’s a story.

So are the media just being a little mean to China? It does at times feel akin to if coverage of the Atlanta Olympics were focused on the failings of the U.S. health care system and the plight of the American Indian. One foreign correspondent for a major American newspaper agreed, telling me, “In Athens the traffic jams were presented as the outgrowth of a hip Mediterranean lifestyle. Here they become yet another product of state repression.”

Chinese friends and strangers I’ve been chatting up on the street complain that the coverage is unfair or biased. “Maybe it’s just a kind of cultural difference between Eastern and Western peoples,” said Liu Shudi, a student I talked to in a cafe in downtown Beijing. She concedes that it’s hard to get her hands on much Western media, but what she has seen (mainly CNN) seems “biased.” “We worked so hard. Maybe we didn’t do everything right, but we really did work hard. It’s unfair.”

The cultural difference she’s talking about is reflected in fangwen culture, which translates as “official visit.” If you’ve ever done business in China, you know what fangwen is all about—a kind of formal tour that is meant to show how great the host’s facility is, while the guest says admiring things. China was hoping the Olympics would be a nationwide version of fangwen. Instead, it is mostly getting fangs.

Another theme that you hear is how much “hard work,” or nuli, went into getting the city ready for the Olympics, which makes all the criticism more painful. Here is a Chinese commenter online reacting to the American cyclists who wore masks in the Beijing airport: “You are guests, you come to someone’s home that has, through lots of hard work [nuli], been cleaned up, and who welcomes you very warmly. At this time, shouldn’t you show friendliness and kindness?”

But when I ask most of my reporter friends—that is, the Western media who live here—if the foreign press is being too mean, they say no, that China deserves the scrutiny it is getting. As one longtime resident said about the pollution, for instance, “China just blew it.” In his view, China is backsliding on all kinds of promises it made, but the IOC “is down on its knees giving China a blowjob.”

A second theory put forward by reporters is that criticism of China is simply the kind of news an American audience is interested in—criticism sells. A third is that the whole point of giving China the Olympics was to subject it to foreign scrutiny that, for once, it might have to listen to. Reporter and food writer Jen Lin-Liu, who lives in Beijing, wrote in the New York Times that the whole project is backfiring—that “as China projects a new air of openness and tolerance as it rolls out the welcome mat for Olympics visitors, the government is cracking down on citizens.”

Lin-Liu is getting at the real paradox here. China’s idea of what makes for a better Olympics for foreign consumption—tightened security and cleaning up marginal elements—is exactly what makes Western reporters crazy. If you’re showing off for the fangwen, you want to clean things up, but the West wants to see the dirt, not the rug it was swept under. It’s the dishonesty, as much as the substance of what’s wrong in China, that seems to get under the skin of Western reporters.

Yet there may be something at the core of the Chinese complaint. It’s a sense that no matter what China does, it won’t really be accepted as an equal on the world stage, that it will always be left cleaning the toilet at the OECD country club. It might be that China is perceived as an economic and political rival to Europe and the United States, so that the old Cold War reporting instincts come out. But there’s also the fact that China doesn’t have the manners and grace of the richer countries, even if it has increasing economic and political clout. The question, then, is whether the negative coverage of China is completely rooted in substance or reflects something like class disdain for its uncouth ways.

Beijing itself is an expression of the problem. With the exception of a few neighborhoods, the city is dynamic, but, frankly, not charming. It suffers from the current obsession with fazhan (“development”), which in urban-planning terms replicates the “giant soulless block” development style of Robert Moses and the American 1950s. Authenticity, which Western culture valorizes, isn’t something that Chinese people or planners go for right now. There’s a tendency to either modernize or tear down old structures, instead of trying to preserve their decay in the way Westerners like. It’s all just a little too nouveau riche to get much respect.

None of this is to trivialize the issues the media raise about human rights abuses, censorship, or the situation in Tibet and Xinjiang. For the most part, I happen to agree with the Western critics. But perhaps the key is the difference, as one longtime foreign correspondent puts it, between stories that are appropriately negative and coverage that’s just downright cynical. There’s no question that this cynicism is compounded by China’s stiffness and  eagerness to please. Right now, China is an awkward place that just wants to be loved—and that makes it particularly easy to kick around.