Tibet: looking for the truth

Chang Ping
8 May 2008

When the Lhasa incident of 14 March 2008 occurred, rumours were spreading all over the streets even as the Chinese media kept its usual silence. For several days, the Chinese media carried only the brief bulletins and speeches from the leaders of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. In the bulletins, there was only one description of the incident: "Recently, a small number of people in Lhasa engaged in assaulting, vandalising, looting and arson." This was just an ordinary, brief news item. But the people can tell from the strong condemnations of the "Dalai Lama clique" that this incident was no small thing, and therefore they set out to find out more.

Chang Ping (the writerly name of Zhang Ping) is a Chinese blogger. He was formerly deputy chief editor of the Southern Metropolis Weekly magazine.

Ching Peng published this column on the sources of news about Tibet - "How to find the truth about Lhasa?" - on 3 April 2008. It was revealed on 6 May 2008 that he had been fired from his job Many people, basing their efforts on past experience, obtained additional information from the overseas media. At around the same time, several forum posts and videos that exposed fake reporting by overseas media appeared and gained popularity. This quickly became an internet incident in which Chinese citizens angrily condemned the western media. Several websites appeared with names such as "anti-CNN," "anti-BBC" and "anti-VOA".

An angry current

Chinese netizens compiled information indicating that certain media in countries such as Germany, United States, United Kingdom and India had made clear factual errors in their reporting. From the viewpoint of journalistic professionalism, these errors were very wrong, even deliberately misleading. Although some media outlets have issued apologies and corrections, the damage from the inaccurate news was already done, and the Chinese people find this hard to forgive. Like any kind of fake news, the damage is first and foremost to public trust in the media itself, because ten thousand truths cannot undo one lie. But if in the reporting of the Lhasa incident (as well as other major incidents), the Chinese media is not allowed to report freely and the overseas media are suspect, then where is the truth going to come from?

Some of the netizens who had exposed the fake reporting by overseas media claimed that they wanted to use their action to show the truth about Lhasa to the world. This assertion is logically incorrect, because their actions can only let people see that the western media are not reporting the truth accurately. But what happened in Lhasa? Most Chinese people have only seen the unified press release issued by their government several days later. When the news comes from a single exclusive source, I cannot say that it is fake but I cannot accept that it is true either. The overseas media have mostly described this as "the truth that the Chinese government has carefully scripted". After the government organised a visit to Tibet by a group of overseas journalists, their reports were mostly not translated into Chinese. But given the fervour of the campaign to condemn the western media, not many people would believe those reports even if they were translated.

Also in openDemocracy on China's tensions over Tibet and the Olympics:

Li Datong, "Beijing's Olympics, China's politics" (22 August 2007)

Kerry Brown, "Beijing's political tightrope-walk" (12 March 2008)

Gabriel Lafitte, "Tibet: revolt with memories" (18 March 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "The perils of forced modernity: China-Tibet, America-Iraq" (27 March 2008)

Donald S Lopez, "How to think about Tibet" (28 March 2008)

Dibyesh Anand, "Tibet, China, and the west: empires of the mind" (1 April 2008)

Ivy Wang, "China's netizens and Tibet: a Guangzhou report" (8 April 2008)

Wang Lixiong, "China and Tibet: the true path" (15 April 2008)The anger is still spreading. Anti-CNN.com may state that: "We are not against the media themselves; we are only against the unobjective reporting done by certain media outlets; we are not against western people, but we are against bigotry." The facts, however, are different. Many netizens have gone to the opposite extreme. Indeed, in many ways they started from there. They do not care if the news is objective and fair; they do not care if the media hold certain positions; biases are not totally unacceptable; rather, the key is just which side you are on.

A deeper gaze

If the netizens genuinely care about news values, they should be doing more than exposing the false reports of the western media; they should also be challenging the control by the Chinese government over news sources and the Chinese media. There is no doubt that the harm from the latter is even worse than the former. When individual media outlets make fake reports about real events, it is easy to correct because just a few meticulous Chinese netizens can do the job. When media control is exercised by the state authorities, the whole world is helpless.

Certain Chinese citizens have seen that fake reporting and biases are not the most scary thing. In an open opinion-field with adequate revelations and discussions, there will always be the opportunity to reach truth and justice. The successful counterattack by the netizens against overseas media this time is a very good example. The first people to notice and react were Chinese students based overseas. Their exposés were freely circulated on the internet, and the YouTube presentation was red-hot. But if these internet media had been restricted, it would have been much more difficult to expose the story.

The biggest harm to news values by these fake reports is that many people have chosen to abandon their trust in objectivity and fairness and hence seek refuge in narrow nationalism. They draw the conclusion that talk of universal values is all a deceptive trick used to cover up underlying national interests. They even say that it is standard international practice to tell lies, and therefore they forgive the lies around them (now and in the past). True, these people were thinking this way even before the Lhasa incident, but the latest media incident has given them a piece of evidence for use in propagandising to others.

It is also clear that many Chinese people have taken this opportunity to engage in broader discussions and deeper thinking. They have found out that the bigotry of the western people against China is based upon a sense of cultural superiority. But this discovery carries a warning message: when the Han people face China's ethnic minorities, do they have the same cultural superiority that leads to bigotry? The distorted western reports about China came from an unwillingness to listen and understand because they are too engaged in the sort of orientalism that Edward Said wrote about. But what about the Chinese themselves, and China's ethnic minorities? If we use nationalism as the weapon to resist the westerners, then how can we persuade the ethnic minorities to abandon their nationalism and join mainstream nation-building? The Dalai Lama asked the Chinese government to reassess him, so what kind of person is he really? Apart from the official government position, will the media be permitted to discuss the matter freely and uncover more truths?

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