A Moment of Perspective

I was just looking at this map of Africa, with other areas of the world shown for comparison and it got me thinking that while Westerners like to think that we know a lot about the world our "knowledge" is heavily skewed by perspective. Like the economic disparities that Immanuel Wallerstein outlined within his notion of the "core-periphery", there is also an awareness gap that exists between the core and the periphery, the developed and undeveloped nations, which leads the citizens of both to have wholly unrealistic ideas about the lives of the alien Other.

But in this globalized world, we often hold the attitude that the global citizen on the path to success. But I think we should qualify that belief and say that, the global citizen who finds his home in the first world, naturally benefits from the power of perspective. The perspective, and experience can bring political, economic and social benefits back home in the first world, or allow them to leverage their first world credentials in the developing world. For the global citizens who consider the periphery, the developing world, to be their first home, there is a mounting frustration with the way in which certain kinds of "global employees" or "global citizens" have leveraged themselves into positions where they can be gatekeepers for knowledge. There are no worse culprits than journalists (though there are many other ways in which Westerners can be bad overseas citizens). And I truly have great problems dealing with the continued state of international journalism in the media.

First, is a journalist an investigator of knowledge or a gatekeeper? It seems that journalists back in the heyday of early 20th Century journalism had the attitude of investigators and tradition of well-researched and vigorously fact-checked journalism developed. Sadly, modern journalism, perhaps reached it's height in the Watergate scandal. For afterward, the media establishment began to become targeted by political and economic means of "changing the tone". In the past couple decades, that has meant a real weakening of the journalistic institutions, and perhaps no place has been as damaged as international reporting.

International reporting is a intellectually challenging field in the first place. A journalist is sent to a foreign country, in which even if they speak the native language, they do not speak it as a native; they lack connections; they find their access limited by handlers, censorship and translators; and their bosses demand an exciting, yet simple to read story. Of course, for a foreigner to read about the goings-on of another country without reading about the history and culture of that place, the meaning can be completely changed.

We in the West have always loved stories about the Oriental Others. Especially those that fit in with our preconceived notions of what life on the Periphery must be like: brutal, impoverished, but of course, with a hint of exotic beauty. Looking at a map of Africa with comparable sizes to other countries prompted me to think about this, because we have been conditioned by the media to think of Africa, not as a continent, but as an singular location in our imagination, a country more like, "Africa" with scare quotes, that fits so neatly into our Orientalist stereotypes and makes such fantastic television. Are you surprised to see how big it is as far continents go? I admit, I was even in a little put back, and I would consider myself fairly aware of what goes on in Africa, having spent some time in Kenya myself.

I also have to consider my own current adopted country, China, where Western media bias, is not just a problem for us understanding China as it is, but now a serious issue that is bouncing back onto us as media-savvy, bilingual young Chinese have realized how our media is reporting on China. And they are not happy. The notion that Chinese people know less about what's happening in their country then we do, is one so quickly bandied about in the West, that I almost think that many Westerners actually buy into this attitude. It all came to a head this year during the riots in Tibet, when Western media, reporting on the issue made several critical false knowledge claims without evidence (that if they were reporting on municipal politics would libelous, but they can get away with for international reporting, yet another fundamental flaw with international reporting).

The most graphic of these, was a video, that made it's way onto CNN and Spiegel, in particular, and was also snapspotted onto the frontpages of many prestigious newspapers. The video showed Nepalese policemen cracking down on Tibetan protesters in a riot in support of their brothers in Tibet, that likewise turned violent, when emotional protesters attacked the Nepalese policemen, telling them they were protesting illegally. Lacking actual footage from inside Tibet, Western media outlets instead showed the video of Nepal, without telling their viewers that it was not actually Tibet. This and other media miscalculations were caught noticed by media savvy young Chinese, who enraged, promoted this around the internet. They founded a website called "Anti-CNN.com" which they promoted as a watchdog against Western misinformation about China. I remember viewing it when it was a very shabbily put together HTML set of links and embedded Youtube videos. Today, I looked at it again while writing this post and was surprised to see how it has morphed into a sleek, sophisticated website. Ironically now, Chinese people are now to believe our media is just as manipulated as we think there own is. Maybe they're right.

For me, 2008 was a tragic year for Western-Chinese relations. But it was also a year of growing up. In 2008, Chinese people realized that Westerners think the worst of them. There is an air of defensiveness that now pervades every conversation about politics had between Westerners and Chinese in this country, as opposed to the openness I felt being here in 2007. Before, there was no real awareness of how China was talked about in the West. With sites like Anti-CNN all that changed, for better or worse. Now if I wish to discuss a social problem in China (and there are many) I feel the gaze of my Chinese friends asking, "so you want to confirm your baser suspicions?"

On the other hand, Westerners realized that Chinese people are neither anti-government, nor pro-Tibet. Chinese people are nationalistic, proud of their country and of great surprise to all of us, unwilling to blame the high echelons of the party for the corruption and gangsterism of the local political elites.

This last one is very important for me, because I see it as being largely representative of the very different political culture that exists here. The New York Times recently ran an article that reported on how activists had been jailed in a mental hospital in Shandong for trying to go to Jinan, where I lived last year, to report on corruption of their local level officials. Now, while there was a certain level of collusion in this case between provincial and local level officials, the nature of this kind of jailing of complaintants, is actually a "encouraged" act (encouraged that if complaintants succeed in registering complaints in provincial capitals or Beijing, it leads to punishments for the officials who allowed them to "rock the boat" not just the actual wrongdoers), that is heavily tied to the notion of devolution of power and decentralization within the traditional Chinese state. Yet this isn't a some new wierd concept (though your image of China, compliments of the media, might be a little different) but in fact, the organization of the Chinese state has been based around a decentralized, self-regulating local rule, with a strong authoritarian state at the top which serves to protect the nation (ironically, quite similar to what Hobbes might have had a wet dream about and written a fanciful book of political philosophy called Leviathan). This organization has been around since the Tang Dynasty (1000 C.E.), and modern post-Reform and Opening capitalist government has repaired what few dents Mao and his buddies had made into this system. So long story short, the idea of local leaders sending mercenaries to lock up complaining farmers who try and make their way to Beijing may seem exotic and strange to a Western reader, but here's something to chew on: this is a practice that has persisted for one thousand years.


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