Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Brainwashed Chinese

It's a ridiculous refrain coming from Chinese students as they protest around the world against media bias: Your media lies to you! Tell the truth CNN! Et fucking cetera.

As much as they insist we try to understand them, they could bloody well try and understand us. It's natural to project your own frame of reference onto other people. That's why I walk around in China and say holy shit, that's weird a lot. Of course to them it's not weird.

Well, to us media bias is not weird. We simply know from an early age that all media is biased. Mostly because it's written by that most fallible of creatures, the human. We learn in school that history is a story written by people and that we should read between the lines, compare, do differential diagnoses, etc. The average 4 year old Western kid has more media savvy than a mainland Chinese.

Sure, some people just read one newspaper, or watch just one channel, but that guy is a cranky old coot anyway. I tend to ignore him.

Most other normal people these days have the advantage that the news comes to them. Here in China, with my somewhat limited literacy, I can attest to feeling media-deprived all the time. There's no serendipity. Back home you overhear people in restaurants, you see the paperboy holding up a headline, you see the picture on the media rack at Seven Eleven... whatever. The news gets to you. And it comes from a wild variety of sides, with a wild variety of contradicting biases and we know by the age of 12 that Die Burger talks shit and The Citizen is a bunch of rascists and Vrye Weekblad (RIP) is ueber-cool, and Rapport has naked chicks on the back and the Mail & Guardian is larney and CNN and SKY will do anything to create catchy graphics... et fucking cetera.

But, I recently realised, it's also about timing. The news reaches us more-or-less when it possibly can. When the Twin Towers were hit it was lunchtime in Zaland and I was watching the planes coming in live. I stayed up late to watch the beginning of the first Iraq War. (We kinda knew when it was gonna go down.) Nelson Mandela freed from prison... live. Live. Live!

What a difference that makes, even now, to my perception of the world, and the flow of events in my head.

I watched the torch relays in London and Paris, and even Buenos Aires, live on my computer via direct feed from local TV stations (channeled through CNN.) CNN, you say. Well, they only channeled local stations, so don't worry, there was only local bias. At the same time I could monitor the representation on CCTV and Chinese news websites. The difference was... well... vive le difference! Massive. On CCTV nothing much happened. For London, they showed the first runner get under way and then cut to the Grand Prix. Later that night they showed a "highlights" package that repeated the start of the run, then cut to tourism brochure shots of London scenery. The next day Paris happened and even though I could see in front of my eyes that things were going south rather quickly, the CCTV version again only showed a quick panorama of Paris and the first runner getting on his way.

Of course by that time expat Chinese have been blogging and phoning home like ET with a Blackberry. (Oh, God, forgive my analogies.) So the news had actually reached China, but only the few who cared. Only the few who had a mind to dig it up. And it was eight hours later that CCTV made any mention of things possibly going a little bit rough. Then, of course, the dam wall broke. Sure enough, suddenly China was way informed.

The next day students in my class were visibly confused: why in God's name are they so angry, these evil western splittist running dogs?

For, aye, here the rub: if the news could come to them there would have been no surprise. If they could have known about the Tibetan issue from the start, and could have been kept informed by the serendipitous media machinations of elsewhere, they would have known by now something was going down out there. The disconnect between the blatant bogwater they get fed on a daily basis and the reality out there proved too big for their "harmonised" minds to compute. Result: nazifest.

Now, you'd say something like: duh, you're in China and you can read the news. Well, yeah, duh-sayer, but I can also read ye olde Englishe. There's this myth going about that the Chinese are "disappointed" with CNN and BBC because they've always relied on these sources to be accurate and truthful. What bollox! Who in the ordinary Chinese citizenry EVER watches CNN or BBC? You get it in 5 star hotels if you're lucky. They could go on the web, you say. Well, yes they could, but again: they don't so much read English. Believe me, I teach it.

And then back to the serendipity: I don't suppose most people understand what I have to go through to GET THE NEWS over here. I have to freakin' proxy jump like a crazy person. Sometimes the actual proxies are blocked. Sometimes there's a keyword trap and whatever I type in Google just times it out. Sometimes the bloody proxies get so overloaded by Chinese users they block the whole country for periods of time... from outside China.

Tonight, for example, any page one link deep on the Guardian's website is blocked (in the China section). This is a first: except for a short while around 14 March, the Guardian has remained relatively open. So, idiot netnanny, if I see you're blocking something I WILL FIND IT. I will not sleep. I will resolutely continue my search until I get a new, unblocked proxy, or someone on Yahoo messenger can copy and paste it for me.

But that's me: I get obsessed with knowing what happened. It's an illness. It must be, since not even my non-Chinese friends over here share the same drive. If I don't leave every stone unturned I wouldn't get at the news. It's a constant game of cat and mouse button. (God help me.)

The average, well-educated, well-informed Chinese guy or gal out there is never going to go through this much trouble. If you add up the hoops you have to jump through, the high levels of motivation required, the ability to comfortably understand long pieces of written English AND the fact that I get hints of specific happenings that I want to search for... then the obstacles are just too many.

Factor into that the overwhelmingly biased mass of Chinese media out there, that would direct attention to specific areas to begin with, and the only conclusion I can come to is that the Chinese are incurably brainwashed to a psychotic degree.

And the only reason they think we are brainwashed too is because they can't step outside of their own shoes. They have no experience with anything different. In fact, their culture... yes, I'll say it: their 5000 old culture is an albatross around their collective necks; an unstoppable weight of inertia propelling them blindly into the future. I think Mao Zedong himself said that. [citation needed]

I am constantly wrestling with the question of my right to criticise another culture. I've been told I don't have that right. I've just been wondering who exactly grants rights. If I don't have the right, then nobody has. Therefore, and here's the clever bit, everyone has. But of course no one decides who has which rights. I am simply taking this one for myself. I'm looking in on the Chinese culture and I can see its naughty bits, even if they can't. And I'll tell them about it until they kick me out of their piece of Earth. Fair enough?

Especially now that their naughty bits are sending weapons to my piece of Earth.

Bo Yang died yesterday. He's worthy of a look-see. Taiwanese writer, best known for The Ugly Chinaman, in which he kinda does what I did here, only better cause he's actually Chinese and has the right. They're also making this book into a graphic novel, in Taiwan. Can't wait.

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