Surely you all have read Edward Wong’s report in the New York Times about the Nobel Prize award to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. The full text of the article is here; direct quotes from the article are included below in italics and followed by my analysis.
[Ed Wong writes:] 1. BEIJING — Few nations today stand as more of a challenge to the democratic model of governance than China, where an 89-year-old Communist Party has managed to quash political movements while creating a roaring, quasi-market economy and enforcing a veneer of social stability.
This is quite an opening gambit, and its language (specifically its verbs) deserve a bit of attention. (Sometimes adjectives are worth the attention, such as the growing trope that China has a “voracious” appetite for natural resources.) Wong writes that the CCP “Quashes political movements” when the operative verb might also be described as “channel.” Does the CCP only crush, destroy, repress, or does it also understand, shape, reconfigure political pressures? The mention of the party’s age (it was founded in 1921) further makes Wong’s gambit a bit strange, as over the course of its history the Party has done a fair amount of stimulating, rather than quashing, political movements in its history. Perhaps this is not the place to enter into some disquisition on how the galvanizing experiences of the Cultural Revolution have made Chinese leaders since Mao adverse to mass movements (other than those which are nationalistic and relatively easily controlled), but, this party is more flexible and widely (if not uncritically) supported than Wong’s heavy-handed prose would have us believe.
As for the phrase “create an economy,” that’s historically impossible: the CCP inherited a sclerotic and dysfunctional economy from the Nationalists in 1949 and have since revived it. As for the phrase “enforcing a veneer of social stability,” Wong leaves out that social stability is in large part supported by the Chinese masses, but, more importantly, such statements also contain implicit threats to the regime: you could be exposed and overthrown.
In other words, with the opening paragraph, Wong makes plain that his article will also function on the polemical level, and that Liu represents defiance of something immense and consequential.
[Wong writes:] 2. With the United States’ economy flagging and its global influence in decline, some Chinese leaders now appear confident in asserting that freedom of speech, multiparty elections and constitutional rights — what some human rights advocates call universal values — are indigenous to the West, and that is where they should stay.
Here Wong leaves out the complexity of the human rights and democracy debate in China, leaving Wen Jiabao’s recent discussion of democracy as a peripheral concern. Of course Western leaders and journalistic institutions like the NYT have a difficult choice to make: validate Wen and appear to endorse slow pace of reform, or ignore/refute him (the same as accusing him of insincerity) and undermine his work domestically. Being the CCP isn’t easy because you rarely get validated from the outside, in some ways paradoxically heightening the need to bluster and puff one’s party up domestically, which the CCP is really very good at and obvious about anyway.
[Wong writes:] 3. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, 54, was a sharp rejoinder to that philosophy. Of course, it was a Norwegian panel that gave him the prize, providing Chinese officials and their supporters with ample ammunition to denounce the move as another attempt by the West to impose its values on China.
Context, context: What Wong is missing is that the Nobel announcement arrives at a moment when the CCP media has been slowly amping up the nationalistic rhetoric (in which the West is seen as overbearing and arrogant, of course). This comes within a host of issues ranging from the Diaoyu Island dispute (which the Huanqiu Shibao fairly blamed on Douglas MacArthur extending favors to the Japanese in 1952), and the return of the Yuanmingyuan trope (150 year anniversary) and of course the main event: currency pressures.
4. But anticipating the criticism, the judges underscored the support in China for the imprisoned Mr. Liu’s work and his plight, which they said proved that the Chinese were as hungry as anyone for the political freedoms enjoyed in countries like the United States, India and Indonesia.
Virtually no Chinese intellectuals are serious about imitating India! And they don’t want to be Indonesia. And they don’t want to be Americans!
Read Daniel Bell and discuss the potency and problems of the Confucian human rights models. In Wong’s world, these don’t exist: it’s either Chinese totalitarianism (which may as well be Stalinism, true enough as they share common DNA) or Western droit de l’homme. There is no time to explore middle ground.
5. The Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader who won the prize in 1989, highlighted the grass-roots Chinese push for political reform in a statement praising Mr. Liu, saying that “future generations of Chinese will be able to enjoy the fruits of the efforts that the current Chinese citizens are making towards responsible governance.” Yet the Dalai Lama stands as proof that the struggle for rights in China is a hard one, and that winning the Nobel is no guarantee of achieving even minimal success.
Quote number one comes from Dahramsala or wherever his Holiness is raising funds at the moment. The Dalai Lama does of course have a right to talk about China’s legal future, and the struggle for individual rights, but Wong’s verdict is just overly didactic. Obviously, the Dalai Lama has a good and reasonably uncritical friend in the New York Times. Just as clumsy Global Times front page articles that call the Dalai Lama a “jackal” need to be criticized, the type of hagiographical serial worship that Wong applies to the Dalai Lama need similar rebuke. Why the first quote and the explication of inspiration? This belongs at the back of the article, and overly didactic news writing that is actually editorial belongs in the op-ed pages.
6. Nevertheless, the number of signatures on Charter 08, the document that Mr. Liu co-drafted that calls for gradually increasing constitutional rights, shows that at the very least, there is an appetite in this country to openly discuss the kind of values that hard-line Communist Party leaders dismiss as a new brand of Western imperialism.
Which is why Wen Jiabao is doing that. (Update: China Media Project has a good takedown on Wen Jiabao’s sincerity towards liberalization.) But one has to read the French press to get a full look at Wen. The analysis of “a new brand of Western imperialism” is right on the mark, however. And keeping in mind that China needs to remain friends with nearby North Korea, these kind of denunciations have more than just domestic use.
7. The 300 initial signatures on the document snowballed to 10,000 as it spread on the Internet, even as the government tried its best to stamp it out. Certainly many of those who signed it were intellectuals, not exactly representative of most Chinese, but China has a rich history of political reform led by its elites. Chinese lawyers, journalists, scholars, artists, policy advisers — many among them will be heartened by the Nobel Committee’s decision.
Yes, elites have a history of leading Chinese public opinion; and “heartened” is probably true, but again, it really feels that this sentence is op-ed style. Of course there is no public opinion poll in China…it’s worth noting that the news is widely available in China, not trying to block its diffusion in foreign languages. As a mere point of fact, the NYT used to be blocked in Chinese internet completely, now it isn’t.
8. The Internet, the vehicle that carried Charter 08 to prominence, simmered with Chinese support for Mr. Liu early Friday night despite extensive government filtering. Liu Xiaobo was the most common topic on Sina.com’s Weibo, a popular microblog forum. Microbloggers burned with enthusiasm for the prize and hurled invective at the government: “Political reform and the Nobel Prize, is this a new start? This day has finally come,” wrote a user named Nan Zhimo. Another user, Hei Zechuan, said, “The first real Chinese Nobel Prize winner has emerged, but he is still in prison right now; what a bittersweet event.”
This is such a tricky journalistic maneuver. On the one hand, it’s great: “Look, actually Chinese debate on the internet!” On the other hand, it is specious, because basically you can find whatever you want on the internet. The same tactic is often used by Global Times to support its own point of view, finding a netizen to quote. For American/Anglophone readers, the image is given of a China seething (oh, sorry, “simmering”) with support for Liu Xiaobo, when in fact the vast majority of Internet users in China are either unaware of the award or are trashing the West online. I wish that the New York Times would distinguish itself a bit from Global Times. Get a quote from Michael Anti or other Chinese tweeters!
Instead we get:
9.But the authorities clung to their habits on Friday night, as police officers showed up at celebratory gatherings in Beijing and Shanghai to haul people off to police stations, according to Twitter feeds.
Now we arrive at something significant, an actual event. At the very least, couldn’t Wong quote the Twitter feeds which reported on the event? Does he read Chinese? (Perhaps he does, like the Reuters reporter Chris Buckley, but his reporting rarely betrays the fact.) Do we need to rely on NYT fixers to get information about this dastardly chain of events? It appears so, because the link in the story is not to specific Twitter feeds, but to more NYT articles about Twitter, just what China watchers are needing, surely! This is vague reporting in the extreme, but fortunately Wong reminds us that “the authorities clung to their [authoritarian] habits.” Emotion rules over factual clarity, which is a shame, because clarity had a chance of succeeding here.
10. The rest of the article is solid, and we get a sense of inner-Party debates, all of the discussion of Wu Bangguo vs. Wen Jiabao takes place well “below the fold,” and after the gratuitous Dalai Lama references. Recognizing that these things are written quickly, I still can’t help but feel that the guts of such an article, the political background, have been sitting on Wong’s harddrive for more than a year, and that the New York Times all to often resorts to using formula in its reporting on China.
With a nod to this takedown of the Huanqiu Shibao/Global Times skewed reportage on the Dalai Lama, I’m presenting:
How to Write About Chinese Dissidents for the New York Times
1. Cogitate on some prose about China’s refusal to reform politically, let it marinate until the next time you need some boilerplate material on a story dealing with the dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party.
2. Get a VPN, hire some Chinese fixers fluent in Chinese to read Twitter feeds; don’t actually quote or cite those feeds, but be proud of yourself for adding a veneer of authentic “Chinese dissident reporting” that gives your writing a kind of underground flavor for your fellow Anglophone readers.
3. Don’t call anyone in Hong Kong: let the AP images from the city of faceless people behind placards suggest vast reservoirs of support for his cause, the way that the same crazy guy in Seoul who burns the same pictures of Kim Jong Il every time North Korea does something suggest vast antipathy toward the DPRK in South Korea.
4. Don’t mention anything about EU politics of human rights or anything specifically European; don’t mention that Angela Merkel and the German press have been advocating for Liu Xiaobo for a while now; American readers won’t understand! When talking about Wen Jiabao, do not mention that he was in Europe when the Nobel Prize was awarded or mention that it was a slap in the face to him politically as well. Assume that Wen Jiabao isn’t worth a full feature such as is given to Bob Gates/profile in Newsweek. Your editors aren’t interested in that kind of stuff, so get thinking about how to write yet another piece about China’s economic takeover of Africa or Afghanistan.
5. Don’t give any background at all about Liu Xiaobo, his writings, his experience of 1989, other than a vague appraisal of Charter 08; assume that he is an infalliable dissident who must have been pronouncing correct verdicts on Chinese politics since the Cultural Revolution. Dissidents don’t need scrutiny of their views, they need support! The central problem is the CCP, not what the dissidents would want to see in an alternative system! In this case, the NYT is just as complicit as the CCP in hamstringing political reform in China: no one seems willing to discuss the actual alternative at length. What other political parties? What about the Taiwan model? Who is influencing whom? We won’t ever know. Instead it reads like 1989…
6. Don’t give the CCP any credit whatsoever for expanded literacy in the rhetoric of rights; instead, make sure to emphasize jack-booted thugs. Remember, your competition is the cro-mag-rightist Washington Times and FOX News, not the French press! And you’ve got to keep your credibility with the American right wing, who after all is the loudest, Bill O’Reilley and all that.
7. Acknowledge not the views of Chinese-Americans. Assume instead that they are all lined up behind Ed Wong in staunch support of censure of the CCP, as if nothing has changed since 1989. Chinese=Americans are a highly diverse and increasingly powerful and prominent group in all areas of life in the United States. Does a single group exist that could be quoted on the Liu Xiaobo case? Does the CCP argument have traction among former democracy activists in the US? What might this tell us about support for the CCP within China, where as Wong points out, media is more limited? What does the absence of this quote tell us?
8. All articles about human rights in China must include a quote from his Holiness. The Dalai Lama is the foremost pure symbol of Chinese deficiencies in human rights, a role he has been steadily filling. Who better to speak about human rights in China than someone who hasn’t set foot in the PRC since 1959? Keep in mind that mention of this man will draw in readers and make the stakes plain. We don’t need to be bothered with Liu Xiaobo’s views on the Tibet question (obviously, all Chinese intellectuals are in bed with the Dalai Lama and long for Tibetan independence, right?)…
9. When discussing specific Chinese dissidents, don’t’ bother giving Chinese characters for their names or links to online profiles, or the names of the organizations they lead. It’s important that they stand up as stock figures who can’t be learned about even by readers who are fluent in Chinese! What matters is that they stand up for democracy!
10. Don’t describe Chinese media response other than to remind us all that the jack-booted thugs police the internet. Readers don’t need any clue that the Liu Xiaobo case was discussed in prominenent outlets (in their own jaded way) such as X Z Y, [correction! blame it on the 1:59 a.m. post from a posh Chengdu cafe with 39 yuan-a-cup-java that was closing at 2 a.m.] or that it was easily available within China for 200million English readers, users of Yahoo mail, etc. If Chinese leaders wanted to quash discussion of this among elites, etc., they weren’t trying very hard. [Update: Word on the street among Chengdu students at Sichuan University is that the heavy filtering of text messaging and the shut down of microblogging platforms and the ubiquitous QQ actually made more people interested in what they were missing. By the same token, I went to a little salon of Chinese intellectuals/知识分子 last night in Chengdu and the subject of Liu Xiaobo never came up, maybe because we were having too much fun learning Tibetan, playing music, and throat singing with censored poets.]
11. Never, never, never write about the deep damage done to the American model of human rights defense and democracy by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Chinese media cover these conflicts extensively. Do not at any point mention the demoralization of pro-American sentiments in China and among Chinese intellectuals; the bankruptcy off the American economy is OK to mention (hell, it gets the second paragraph of the piece!) but under no circumstances contextualize the Chinese search for a viable model by discussing the undermining of the American model by the Iraq fiasco. Ed Wong was in Iraq, for goodness sake! And what did Liu Xiaobo say about the American model of democracy? What did he write, apart from Charter08? Who knows and who cares? What matters is that he stands up to the CCP in the most generic way possible!
The New York Times: standing up to Chinese Communists since 1949…