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Are the Chinese "not free in their mind"?

Otto Kölbl

The Western media seem unable to take the Chinese seriously, especially in the field of politics. They often describe them as being interested only by their family and by money, as if they did not care about politics. However, according to a worldwide study mentioned in the World Development Report 2007 published by the World Bank, the Chinese are in all the age groups among those who are most interested in politics. How can we explain this gap between the picture drawn by our media and a scientific study? Can this great interest for politics lead to a good understanding of this field in China or will it be blocked by the information blackout imposed by the communist regime?

A Chinese middle school student prepares for a robotic contest. In Chinese schools, the children do not only learn by heart.

A Chinese middle school student prepares for a robotic contest. In Chinese schools, the children do not only learn by heart. Photo: Otto Kölbl, Xi'an, 2005.

This is an important question. In 2008, a huge majority of Chinese people was furious because of the Western media coverage of the Olympic Games and of China in general. Even people who are extremely critical of the Chinese regime tried (in vain) to explain to our reporters and journalists why they did not recognize their country in what they read and saw in our media. In the research programs about this topic conducted in Western universities on this topic, not one single Chinese has been asked about his opinion about our media.

This only illustrates a problem which appeared already in 2008: our reporters and journalists were unable to take "ordinary Chinese" seriously. Instead, they almost exclusively quoted official sources (which were immediately discredited as being "communist propaganda" and dissidents, considered as being the only reliable information source. The popularity these dissidents had with the population was deemed irrelevant.

I deeply deplore this attitude. I had many interesting discussions with Chinese people, including on topics like politics or communism. There is just one precondition: you must be willing to question your convictions and to confront them to the convictions of people who look at the world from another perspective. It seems that our journalists are not willing to do that.

Many times, I realized that Chinese people have not only another way of seeing the reality, but that quite often they are right in their critique of the positions generally defended by our media, if we refer to Western scientific sources or to trustworthy international organizations. This is true for example as regards topics like human rights, Tibet, Falungong, the opium wars and many others. How do the Chinese get information about these topics?

Their first source of information is simply their close surrounding. They tend to keep contact with remote relatives and former classmates or colleagues much longer than what we are used to do in the West. They will also build up new contacts with people they meet by chance much more easily than Westerners.

Many people tend to underestimate the value of information collected in this way. In order to push them to reveal this kind of information in a conversation or an interview, just ask them about their close surrounding. In a country where the media are still controlled to some extent by the government, this method has got the advantage of strongly reducing the influence of the position of the government.

In a country where emigration has got a long tradition like in China, this contact network will often allow direct or indirect access to information from foreign countries, even if foreign media are available.

We should not underestimate the Chinese media as an information source. The Chinese know how to read between the lines and to decode information which is quite often given indirectly. For example, under Mao Zedong, the way in which politicians were mentioned or their position of official photographs revealed a lot about power struggles within the party.

Within the last decades, many media have been privatized or at least partly subjected to the laws of the market economy. In itself, this is not necessarily a guarantee of objective information. The criterion of what the government wants the journal to write has simply been replaced by what the readers want to read and by the defense of the interests of the journalists. The example of the Western media shows only too well that media which are "free and subjected to the laws of the market economy" can easily end up abusing their power in a frightening way.

However, as the Chinese readers are eager to read critical enquiries about government and administration and new perspectives about the events in the world, this evolution has certainly contributed to a great extent to offering a more diverse source of information to the readers.

More recently, Internet has become maybe an even more important source of information. In particular in English and in other foreign languages, almost all the website of the mainstream media (e.g. CNN, Al Jazeera, Le Monde, Libération, Le Temps etc.) are available virtually without restriction throughout China, with a few exception like for example the BBC website, probably because of some conflict with the Chinese government.

The websites of the international organizations (UN, World Bank, etc.) and of universities all around the world are also available. Everybody in China can therefore download the research reports and articles which can be found more and more on these sites.

On the other hand, all the Western websites run by "pro-Tibet" or "human rights" organizations are blocked, as are most foreign media websites in Chinese. However, there are programs and websites which Internet users can use in order to get around what is commonly called the "Chinese Great Firewall". They can also ask people they know in Western countries to send them some documents as email attachments.

In order to get a full picture of the situation, we must consider that the Chinese government makes targeted efforts in order to improve the knowledge of the students about democratic political regimes and in order to give them a concrete experience of democracy at school and university (see our article The Model-UN program, a threat for our media?).

Unlike what we could expect after the 1989 student protests on Tiananmen Square and elsewhere in China, the Chinese government seems to restrict access to international information to people who speak only Chinese, and to push the students who generally speak English to get information about the foreign countries, including in the field of politics. It is quite obvious that this is not exactly the way in which the situation is presented in our media.

The result of all this is that I have had very interesting discussions with many Chinese about the world, its development, politics and China. In particular, many students I met in China or in Switzerland helped me a lot to improve my understanding of this fascinating country and of the way in which its inhabitants see us and the rest of the world. They have also provided me with very interesting insights into the way in which human society in general works.

I know many other people who have had such enriching contacts, but sometimes, such talks also lead to a total breakdown in communication. In particular, journalists who have majored in sinology or have otherwise acquired a solid knowledge about China seem to have serious problems to establish a relation based on mutual trust with Chinese people and to benefit from the information they get, whereas people who are sent into the country without any preparation whatsoever are apparently more open-minded.

In order to overcome this gap, it seems that it's the Chinese who must learn to talk to our reporters and journalists, since the latter are unable to overcome the cultural differences, despite their education and training which should have prepared them specifically for this task. Maybe the problem is precisely the stress on "cultural difference" which builds up these barriers, whereas people landing in China without preparation don't care about these problems…

This website is intended not only to provide some (constructive) criticism of our media, its objective is also to provide some hints about the way in which we can break down the walls which will often prevent a successful communication, not only between China and the West, but also between many other cultures.


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