China and Western Media Bias

Posted on April 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Media. 6 comments

Writing in the Guardian, Timothy Garton Ash makes an important point about international media coverage of China:

Hard though many Chinese may find this to believe, since their own media reflect the policy of their party-state, western governments have almost nothing to do with it. The main cause lies in the economics and professional dynamics of the west’s commercial news business, which is going through one of those “gales of creative destruction” that Joseph Schumpeter saw to be characteristic of capitalism.

As they compete fiercely for readers and viewers, mainstream western media tend to stick with a few stories that are familiar and interesting to them. They report so much about Tibet not because they are ideological China-bashers but because their consumers are fascinated by and care about Tibet. Yes, their news stories on China’s domestic politics tend to the sensational and the negative – so do their stories about the domestic politics of their own countries. Those who edit and select these stories are just following the market-oriented rules of their trade. If it bleeds, it leads. Knocking copy is selling copy. Good news is no news. “Many Chinese city dwellers moderately content with rising standard of living” is not a headline that would sell many papers.

(Emphasis mine)

Blogger and historian Jeremiah Jenne, writing in the new Global Times, adds:

And while accusations of professional journalists coming here to blatantly push an agenda is (mostly) paranoid hogwash, I do think that there is a tendency to let preconceived notions dictate how certain stories are covered, and this is obviously a problem. It would also be naive not to also discuss the role market forces play in the decision to run articles on certain topics at the expense of others.

Both points are correct, I think. Bad reporting about China typically derives from laziness, sloppiness, or lack of access- not a deep anti-China racial animus in the hearts of the reporters themselves. The narratives that emanate from foreign reports in China are sensationalistic because, as Gash points out, these narratives sell.

In countries which possess free, private sources of media, these sources compete for scarce readers and advertising revenue. In China, the interests of media are subordinate to the interests of state power. As a result, criticisms of the state in the Chinese media are virtually unheard of.

Therefore, the only criticisms a Chinese person may hear of his own government comes from foreign sources. As people typically dislike hearing foreign critiques of their country, a common defense is the biased shortcoming of the critics themselves. It is far easier for a Chinese person to claim “they hate China and want us to fail!” than it is to confront the issue that the Beijing regime often exhibits barbaric and brutal behavior.

In the United States, conservative Republicans shriek “liberal bias!” as an explanation for why their ideas do not have greater currency among the electorate-at-large. As with the nationalist Chinese brigades, this prevents them from making the difficult decision to confront their own ideas and understand why others disagree with them.

In terms of watching the Chinese media, it is important to distinguish between reporting that is actually biased- of which there is some- from reporting that merely reflects the nature of the business.

UPDATE: Link for the Guardian piece added.…

Learning Chinese Riffs

Posted on April 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Language. No Comments

There have been a number of interesting responses to my recent post at Lost Laowai that asks this question: does location within China matter when attempting to learn Mandarin?

My view, unsurprising for a Yunnan resident, is that it does not. There are exceptions, of course- parts of rural Xinjiang or Tibet would present few opportunities to practice the language. Otherwise, even smallish cities in Yunnan- thousands of miles from Beijing- are fine.

To paraphrase what I wrote in the comments of the LL post, the people I know who speak, read, write, and understand Mandarin best are the ones who worked at it the most. While some people have a natural knack for languages that facilitates smooth learning, these people are the exception, not the rule.

Read the whole post- and especially the comments that follow.…

Senior Citizen Homes In China

Posted on April 22nd, by matt_schiavenza in China Culture. 1 Comment

The New York Times discusses the growth of retirement facilities in China (link via TPD‘s Facebook feed), though notes with a caveat that these remain viable options only for the upper class living in or near major cities.

Over the years I’ve had several conversations with Chinese friends in which the subject of retirement homes comes up. Often, my friends find the idea of putting grandma or grandpa in a home to be an abhorrent violation of filial duty. One told me that her parents wouldn’t allow her to date a foreigner because they were worried that the foreigner would, if married to the girl, refuse to look after her dear old parents.

It usually surprises these friends to hear that my grandparents lived with me, at least part of the year, for much of my childhood. In fact, the experience of living with grandparents and other relatives isn’t all that alien to a lot of Americans, particularly in generations past.

Placing elderly relatives in retirement homes derives not from a ruthless cultural norm, but more from a value that the Chinese well recognize: pragmatism. A lot of senior citizens have medical issues that require more attention than a working adult may be able to provide. Being in a home with full-time professional care, surrounded by peers, is often a more appealing lifestyle for a senior, particularly a widow or widower.

As Chinese people grow wealthier, I would guess that more of them will reach similar conclusions to their American- or Western- counterparts.

As a corollary issue, I find it interesting how matters assumed to be largely or entirely cultural are often mostly socio-economic in nature. I do believe that the Chinese have a stronger cultural norm of involving extended family members in day-to-day affairs than do Westerners, though not to the extent typically assumed. Plus, urbanization and affluence cause lifestyle changes that override cultural considerations.

What we often believe is cultural, and thus impenetrable, is actually far more fluid and malleable that we realize.…

Tea Parties- Pffftt

Posted on April 16th, by matt_schiavenza in US Politics. 9 comments

I’ve been tracking this “tea party” movement back in the US with a combination of bafflement and mild amusement. As has The Washington Post, who actually attended the DC party:

Without the spectacle of a 1773-style tea-bag dump in the square, the handmade signs became the focus of the event. Though ostensibly an anti-tax protest, it was more of an anti-Obama festival. Among the messages: “The Audacity of the Dope,” “O Crap” and Obama as an acronym for “One Big Awful Mistake America.” Some messages were ugly (“Napolitano — Obama’s Gestapo Queen,” “Hang ‘Em High Traitors,” and a sign held by a young girl saying “Victim of Child Tax Abuse”). Others were funny (“Don’t Talk to Me! I Forgot My Teleprompter”). Certain ones had sinister overtones (“Tax Slavery Sucks,” and “Obama bin Lyin”). Then there was the guy holding a Cabbage Patch doll by its hair with the message: “My kid’s growth stunted by your stimulus.”

And this, in a nutshell, is why I wouldn’t worry about these “spontaneous” gatherings. I imagine that there is a constituency for people uneasy with the present volume of government spending. That these people largely kept their mouth shut when our previous president spent like a drunken sailor, well, seems to be forgotten, but let’s just say that a certain segment of the population is unhappy with Obama’s economic plan.

But just when these tea parties are beginning to get press, they’ve already been exposed as a broad, disorganized batch of people whose only unifying feature is their general dislike of Obama. Some, as the Post reports, are still bringing up the “Un-American” angle, for instance. I imagine before long the anti-immigrant, anti-choice, and good old-fashioned racist groups will make an appearance at these rallies.

In some ways, these gatherings remind me of the Bush-era anti-war protests organized by the left earlier in the decade. Like the tea parties, many of these anti-war protests began with a very specific policy goal (preventing and then ending the war) and devolved into a potpourri of left-wing grievances, ranging from freeing Tibet to raising the minimum wage to prison reform. As a result, the anti-war protests never had the effect their organizers wanted.

Then again, let’s consider the implications. Anti-war protestors were rallying against the biggest foreign-policy blunder in a generation, a decision by the president that directly led to the deaths of thousands of Americans and countless more Iraqis. These “tea party” people are arguing against the possible restoration of Reagan-era tax rates and fairly standard-issue government spending in a recession by an elected official.

These tea parties, I’d say, are an indication of the right’s current weakness, not its growing strength. …

Assimilation and Over-Assimilation

Posted on April 14th, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. 9 comments

Most expats who move to China follow a similar pattern. First, there’s the shock and euphoria of actually living in China. Then, there’s a protracted struggle to carve out a life despite linguistic and cultural misunderstandings. Finally, one finds his stasis in China; though while there still may be issues with understanding and occasional frustrations, for the most part the laowai has found his niche in China.

This stasis can be called assimilation, a word with a distinctly positive connotation in expat circles. But can it go too far? Can one over-assimilate? What would over-assimilation even look like? I hazard a guess:

Assimilation: You no longer mind squat toilets and even find them preferable in public latrines.
Over-assimilation: You break your friend’s toilet seat by attempting to stand on it and squat.

Assimilation: You develop a fine taste for Chinese vegetables, even ones prepared with a gallon of oil.
Over-assimilation: You demand to the waiter at the “Western restaurant” that he boil the elements in your green salad.

Assimilation: You’re more than happy to drink beer with your Chinese friends in the “ganbei” style, at least on occasion
Over-assimilation: You refuse to drink beer in anything larger than a shot glass.

Assimilation: You don’t mind sitting with your Chinese girlfriend under an umbrella in the shade when you take her to the beach
Over-assimilation: You tell your friends just coming back from vacation in Thailand that they have turned “too black”.

Any others?…

The Dali Blues

Posted on April 13th, by matt_schiavenza in Me. 2 comments

I spent the weekend attending the Dali Music Festival, an event co-sponsored by a local guesthouse business supposedly interested in purchasing and developing land in the Dali old city. Several of my favorite Kunming bands, as well as a couple of acts I hadn’t seen before, played in front of an old temple on Friday and Saturday night.

The promotion couldn’t have been better; for a foreigner, that is. The organizers, wishing to attract foreigners to their event, offered the first 100 applicants free transportation and accommodation in the old city. Chinese people weren’t necessarily excluded from this event, but the fact that the promotion was publicized entirely in English acted as a limiting factor.

Meanwhile, back in Kunming, a new disco has launched a promotion in which foreigners can literally drink as much as they want for free as long as they sit in the front row. The idea behind this scheme, whether or not is works, is that the mere presence of foreigners will attract more Chinese people.

Quite a few people I’ve spoken to in Kunming are uneasy with this sort of “affirmative action”, if you will. A long-term resident married to a local Chinese woman has vowed to boycott the Kunming venue, citing discrimination. This is a sensitive topic and I can certainly see his point.

But discrimination does exist elsewhere. A beautiful, young woman has a far better chance of being admitted into a choice club in New York and London than does a middle-aged single man. Celebrities, to my knowledge, are often paid large sums of money just to show up places. Private nightclub owners should have some say in controlling which clientele frequent their establishments.

The easier way to handle these issues, I think, is letting the market decide. A far amount of foreigners I know in Kunming don’t want, necessarily, to associate with the sort of atmosphere that emerges when foreigners are given free alcohol.

Anyway, Dali was fun. Lots of sunshine, cafe lounging, and nice walks in the countryside. It’s easy to see how people find it so…difficult…to leave. …

China Travel Feature Up

Posted on April 13th, by matt_schiavenza in Self-Promotion. No Comments

A piece I wrote over a year ago about “kite jumping” in Kunming, as an example of the sort of lifestyle choices available in this city, is the feature travel story on the Chinatravel.net website. The link to my piece is here, as well as a few photos contributed by friends of mine here in the city.

I like the title of the piece, as well: Optimus Prime China. (I didn’t choose it but it fits).…

Lil Update

Posted on April 9th, by matt_schiavenza in Me. 1 Comment

Apologies for the recent sucky blogging, or rather non-existent blogging. I do have a very good excuse, though. Last Saturday I fell off my bicycle while going downhill on a slippery mountain and injured my right arm and hand to an extent that typing became physically impossible.

After four days the injury hasn’t healed completely, but I can happily report that most functions are back to normal. Still can’t button up a shirt all the way, though.

Less sporadic blogging to resume…

Fame and Fortune

Posted on April 3rd, by matt_schiavenza in Me, Media, Self-Promotion. 1 Comment

It isn’t often that flipping through the pages of a week-old China Daily provides a moment of delight. But it was so, when notified by a friend, I found that in a narrow column called “Your Say”, snippets from this Lost Laowai post I wrote about a month ago were used.

Of course, being lumped in with the splittist Dalai clique would be more exciting, but I’ll take mention by the state-run media any time. Even if they only use my first name. To protect anonymity, of course.…