Rose-tinted reflections

By Yiyi-Lu, an associate fellow of Chatham House’s Asia programme (THE GUARDIAN, 05/08/08):

After months of western criticisms and Chinese counterattacks over issues such as human rights, Tibet, the environment and support for rogue regimes in Africa, the Olympics finally open this week. While many in the west will use the games to test their expectations of China, it is also a rare opportunity for the Chinese to test their expectations of the west.

Earlier this year, Chinese citizens living overseas organised protests in France, Germany, the US, Canada, Australia and the UK. There was an outpouring of anger at the alleged bias of the western media’s coverage of the Tibet issue and the Olympic torch relay. They charged that the western media did not accurately report the unrest in Tibet, and gave extensive coverage to the Tibet campaigners during the torch relay. They also took issue with the media’s generalised statements, such as “Tibetans are against Chinese rule”. The anger surprised many. Along with surprise came a search for explanations, but none of those proffered went beyond blaming China’s surging nationalism. If Chinese government propaganda has shaped Chinese perception of the west, so has propaganda from the west itself.

In a way, the west has been the victim of its own success. It has created high expectations about its behaviour, values and purposes. These protests result partly from a sense of disillusion among the Chinese youth. It is a backlash against the idea of a politically and morally superior west. The angry youths who protested against the west’s biased coverage of Tibet and the Olympic torch relay had had their idealised views crushed. Their understanding of “balanced” reporting includes the highly unrealistic expectation that equal coverage would be given to every single perspective on every issue.

Since the Chinese protests, I have witnessed many debates in which defenders of western media point out to Chinese critics that at least it is more objective and balanced than their own state-controlled media. This argument has not appeased anyone, and the reason is simple. They take it as a matter of course that Chinese media frequently serves as the government’s mouthpiece, but they have very different expectations of western media. Hence their bitterness when they found it committing some of the same sins.

Despite the Chinese state’s effort to promote patriotism among its people, and the Chinese media’s regular criticism of western policies, the west has been extremely successful in influencing how it is seen by ordinary Chinese people. Many not only take for granted that the west is more advanced in political, economic and social development, but they also subconsciously accept the west’s moral superiority. They believe the west is more democratic, and that it possesses such virtues as fairness, tolerance, civility and open-mindedness. But the perceived western attempt to use the Olympics to bully China has led some to question their views.

It is said that before the 1989 democracy movement, the west had a rosy picture of China, believing the country was gradually casting off communism to embrace democracy and the free market. Many have never recovered from the shock of finding out how wrong they had been, which led to the demonisation of China post-1989.

Then again, many Chinese also had a rose-tinted view of the west. As globalisation and China’s development brings Chinese people into closer contact with the west, there is the potential for a nasty backlash. Managing the expectations of the Chinese people is therefore an important task for western governments, media and NGOs if they don’t want to see anti-western feelings grow.