Mr. Li Writes To BBC

The following is the translation of a Chinese-language essay submitted to the Chinese section of the BBC website with the challenge to publish it.  The BBC did just that.  The essay has been re-posted widely across Chinese Internet websites.

This opens two questions.

First of all, if a westerner submits a similarly critical English-language essay to CCTV or China Daily about Chinese media coverage, will it be published verbatim?  And will comments be open too?

Secondly, is there anything to gain from the ensuing discussion between "Fifty-cent gang" pro-China agents and FLG naysayers?

(BBC  How should the western media deal with China in the reforms?  Mr. Li.  September 2, 2008.

I graduated from university in 1990, and I was part of the generation that went through the 1989 student movement.  As a person who received a complete secondary and higher education in the 1980's after the Cultural revolution ended, I was a totally pro-western young student who was also thoroughly patriotic.  I actively participated in the entire process of the student movement.

I once thought that only be completely adopting the western ideas of democracy, freedom and science is the only way out for China.

As you can imagine, I used to be the most loyal audience member of western media.  For a long period after the student movement, I thought that the western media represented by CNN, BBC and VOA were the only credible media that are fair, balanced and truthful.  By comparison, the mainland Chinese media only represented lies and propaganda.

In the mid-1990's, I lived in eastern Europe for a long time.  I could only access western media and I could not hear any voices from China.  I personally witnessed the entire process by which the eastern European countries switched from the former Soviet Russia model to full westernization.

During this period, my thinking changed completely.  I went from being a blind admirer of western media to a critical audience member.  The cause for the change is the western media such as the BBC.

During the four or five years when I could only see the western media, all the reports that I saw about China were negative and critical.

If you don't believe me, you can ask BBC to go through what it reported about China during that period.  As a result of only being able to see western media reports during this period, I thought that China was a country that was about to collapse at any moment.

But each time that I returned to China, I saw a prosperous country that was growing significantly faster than the eastern European countries.  I began to doubt whether the western media were truly fair and objective.

Then two things happened, and my thinking changed completely.

The first event was the return of Hong Kong China in 1997.  Every overseas Chinese person was proud, some of them even being moved to tears.  When I read the black cover on TIME magazine  on <The Death of Hong Kong> and I listened to relentless denigration of Hong Kong, I was thoroughly skeptical.

In 1998, there was a once-in-a-century flood in the Changjiang River, China.  During the period of the flood, I lived for several months in China.  I saw how the Chinese governmented attempt to mobilize all the resources of the government to fight the flood, and I saw large numbers of soldiers trying to save people in spite of the risks to their own lives.

Before the floods ended, I went overseas again and I read the western media reports about the floods.  They only spoke of bodies strewn all over the place and people living sorrow.

There was nothing positive about the efforts that the Chinese government was making.  I was completely disappointed.  Why did they choose to make such biased reports?

In the late 1990's, I returned to China and began to work for a foreign capital company.  I came into contact with foreign workers and I traveled outside of China frequently.  So I was able to compare western media with Chinese media.  I regret to say that western media has not changed.

This year, there were the Tibet splittist effort and the Sichuan earthquake.  The western media did not change.

The western media may not realize that they are losing China!  They are losing the admiration and trust of the young generation of China, pushing them towards nationalism.

All this occurs because the western media do not really understand China and they have no intention of really understanding China either.

The western media have two obvious misunderstandings about China.  The first misunderstanding  is that they believe that the Chinese government is a dictatorial and totalitarian government, which must necessarily be unpopular among the people.

A very obvious example is the CNN anti-China insult earlier this year.  After the incident, CNN host Jack Cafferty was flooded with protests from Chinese all over the world.  His first reaction was to explain that he was referring to the Chinese government and not the Chinese people.  This resulted in even louder protests and more lawsuits.

The second misunderstanding is that the western media assumed that the voices that could represent the people of China are the overseas political exiles and the anti-government civilians.

Why are these misunderstandings?  Firstly, the west is ignoring the basic fact that the Chinese government has brought astonishing economic growth to China in the last thirty years and many people benefited from this economic growth.  If the western media were willing to investigate, they will find that the popular support for the Chinese government is a lot higher than western governments get from their own people.

Secondly, the western media do not realize that the truly representative and influential voices in Chinese society belong to the middle-class and intelligentsia that came into being during this thirty years of economic growth.

Those who benefited from the reforms want China to go even further with the reforms, but they basically support the Chinese government.  While the western media listen to the overseas Chinese political exiles, how much do they know about this newly rising social force?

At a deeper level, the western media do not understand the deep historical factors and eastern cultural factors that formed the present social and political system in China.

In terms of political system, the more than one hundred years of humiliation means that any Chinese government will have a heavy nationalistic flavor.  They will never be the followers or allies of the western world.

In terms of eastern culture, the east admires collectivism more than the personal liberty that the west admires.  The Chinese children are brought up being educated to sacrifice the individual for the sake of the group.

South Korea, Taiwan and even Singapore share the same eastern cultural background, and they went down paths of modernization that were completely different from the western one.  Under dictatorial, totalitarian regimes, they realized high economic growth rates.  The economic growth nurtured a new middle-class that eventually brought about a democratic political system.  Taiwan has only 20 something million people but it is still suffering from the residual pains of democratization after fifty years of economic growth.  China has 1.3 billion people with serious and complicated social conflicts.  How can you expect it to realized the democratization of its political system just 30 years after beginning to reform.

Without doubt, democracy and rule of law are the ultimate goals of modernization for China.  At the present stage, it is more important to maintain a strong and powerful central government than giving more personal liberty, even though this leads to problems of corruption and lack of some economic freedom.  But this is the road to modernization for China for which  some painful price will have to be paid.

The western media very much want to promote democratization and liberalization in China.  These Chinese people share the same hopes.

But the methods and techniques used by western media can easily create skepticism.  Although I am only speculating, I must raise my doubts: Are the democracy and freedom that the western media want to push the same and identical as what the Chinese people want for their ultimate goals?

The Chinese people want to go through the process of democratization in order to have a strong and wealthy nation.  The western media seem to want democracy for the sake of democracy and they don't care what happens to China after democracy and freedom come.

Some of those people may be concerned that China will become a new eastern empire that threatens the west.  So they actually want to use democracy and freedom as pretexts to divide and weaken China.

The western world should be reminded that a stable and prosperous China is good news for the world.  But if China were to really down down the divisions of the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe, that could be an absolute political calamity that will bring economic ruin to the whole world.

Since eastern culture places priority on harmony and stability, it will a lot harder to restore the equilibrium.

Finally, I want to challenge the BBC.  Will the objective and fair BBC dare to publish this essay verbatim?

(Editor's note)  We are willing to accept this challenge, just as we work to maintain objectivity and fairness.  We have published Mr. Li's essay in full except to correct certain words and punctuation marks.

Selected netizen comments:

I am somewhat disappointed with the netizen comments.  Many Chinese people are still the wrong audience with whom to discuss democracy and freedom, assuming that the comments represent actual Chinese citizens and not Fifty Cent'ers or Angry Young People. ...

Chinese Communist propaganda are the best in the world.  As early as 1947, Xinhua radio was airing strong words to criticize the KMT dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek and calling to establish the a democracy in China in the western manner.  Unfortunately, they took their words back in 1949.  BBC, VOA and CNN used critical language in reporting their own national news.  After June 4th, 1989, BBC and VOA questioned sternly whether the Chinese Communists will disintegrate like the former Soviet Union.  But the Chinese Communist abandoned their ideology, the workers and the peasants.

I am an ordinary citizen.  Perhaps it is as Mr. Lu Xun said, a person is a stupid person or an Ah-Q if he does not oppose the Chinese Communist government.  Certain western media try to win support by saying that they only oppose the Chinese Communists but not the Chinese people.  But I don't understand this.  The Chinese Communists are part of the people.  We the Chinese people know that there are good and bad elements amongst them, just like among the civilians.  The workers of the so-called democratic media such as the BBC also have good and bad people, just like your government.  Maybe you have even more bad elements.  I support Mr. Li!  I believe in my country, I believe in my government, I believe in everything of ours! ...

BBC should be praised for publishing this essay.  I believe that the workers at BBC believe that they are objective and fair.  But even as you believe in yourselves, you should also believe in the wisdom of the masses in China.  China is not North Korea.  For the last ten years, there is no longer any brainwashing political education, because we receive information from the outside.  So even if we continue to take political classes, we are no longer brainwashed by them.  I would like to think that western media such as BBC are not maliciously trying to malign China.  If this is really true, then you ought to reflect on yourselves about whether your previous work about China is really proper?

This is a very "Chinese" essay: it uses Chinese thinking, it uses a Chinese style and it gives a lovely Chinese response to the west!  This was good, hard work!  For the Chinese people, this essay is worth 90 points.  For western people, this essay is worth 10 points!  This is like playing music to a cow!  A genuine westerner is neither willing nor able to understand nor does he have any intention of comprehending this essay!  ...

I like the reports in BBC, CNN and VOA very much.  But just like this author, I think that the western media are biased when it comes to reporting on China.  But I am happy to see this essay today, and I hope that the BBC can publish the English-language version of this essay.  The Chinese people do not need to understand China better.  It is those foreigners who were brought up among the misunderstandings.

I completely agree with Mr. Li's viewpoints and I also appreciate the courage of BBC to publish this essay in full.  Just like Mr. Li, I was a worshipper of western democracy and freedom for a long time.  But I have changed now.  I do not worship the west, but I am not an obstinate nationalist either.  Like the majority of people around me, we support our government and we love our nation even though we know that there is still a long way to go before we attain the ideal society in our hearts.  We are filled with confidence about our country.  The reason why we no longer worship the western media is because they make inaccurate and unfair reports about China and damage our dignity.  I sincerely hope that you can go in the midst of Chinese society and its people to listen to their true voices and understand this ancient but vibrant country and its good and aspiring people.  When that time comes, you will discover that China is one of the few most hopeful and attractive countries in the world.  We firmly believe that China will join the ranks of the most developed nations in the world, and China will become the most important nation for world civilization!  If there is any opportunity, please inform the western media friends that people who use negative distortions about China to gain attention are really pathetic.

The viewpoints of Mr. Li are insightful, and I agree with them fully.  Without needing government propaganda, the majority of Chinese intellectuals (including myself) care about how foreign media report on China.  We can see that most of the reports are extremely negative and unfair.  Mr' Li's viewpoints can be said to represent the majority of the middle class.  The BBC reporters probably know better than us about how to make fair and balanced reports.  Let me get you an example.  I showed the colleagues around me the first BBC report about the lip-synching on the song <Ode to the Motherland> during the Olympics opening ceremony.  They all said that it was the natural result of Chinese culture.  But more people remember the grandeur of the opening ceremony.  When such a BBC report comes out, many readers will think that BBC had the dark intention to belittle China (and that is just speculation on my part).  I am wondering what would BBC do to the essay if Mr. Li did not include the last paragraph to challenge them?

I agree very much with Mr. Li's viewpoints in <How should the western media deal with China in the reforms?>.  I often come to visit the BBC Chinese page.  But I have practically never seen any positive reports on China.  I don't know if BBC is deliberately doing that or nothing good ever happens in China.  I am an ordinary Chinese person who gets depressed every time that I read BBC.  Really.  I don't like BBC at all.  The reason that I don't like it is because of the BBC reporting angle that was either being intentionally difficult, or taking delight in misfortunes, or assuming a moral high ground.  The problem is that BBC has the right to do so.