Information Access and Propaganda in China

I'll be getting back to my winter travels shortly, but I wanted to take a moment to talk about information access and propaganda in China.  Most everyone knows that China doesn't have the same freedom of the press and freedom of the speech guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.  But how bad is it really? 

I found a news story today that I think illustrates the truth really well, so I wanted to share it with you:

Don't Be Too CNN, don't turn black into white

The wave of anger and patriotism generated by CNN's recent offensive coverage of China has produced a smash hit song and stirred millions of Internet users into an online show of solidarity.

Don't Be Too CNN, a track that lampoons the network for its coverage and analysis of the Tibetan riots, is written and performed by an online singer who calls herself "Murong Xuan".

It is backed by a music video contrasting CNN footage and what is really taking place in Tibet, and the lyrics attack distorted and biased coverage of the recent riots in Lhasa.

"Why do you rack your brains in trying to turn black into white? Don't be too CNN," Murong croons.

"CNN solemnly swears that everything on it is the truth, but I've gradually discovered this is actually a deception."

As the song continues, images of burnt-out shops and smoke rising over Lhasa flash across the screen repeatedly.

"Don't think that repeating something over and over again (means that) lies become truth," the lyrics run.

The song had been played 160,000 times by 7 pm yesterday on video.sina.com.cn. Other portal websites have also used it.

One netizen left a message on the website requesting Murong to sing the song in English for "all peace-lovers around the world".

...

CNN's credibility has taken a dive in China ever since the network cropped photos of a mob attacking military vehicles from a photograph in order to portray an overbearing military presence in Lhasa.

...

Meanwhile, millions of Chinese netizens put off by the bias in Western media coverage of the Tibetan riots have festooned their MSN messenger names with hearts and "CHINA".

Today, the Chinese have more access to information than at any point in their history.  Using the internet, the Chinese (at least the ones who can speak English) can access tons of websites reporting news that's untouched by Chinese government censorship.  Most major Western news sources are available in China, with a few high profile exceptions--until this month, BBC and Wikipedia have always been blocked during my time in China.  (I've heard rumors that they have been unblocked to provide the illusion of free access to information when all the Olympic journalists arrive).  But it doesn't really matter--the Chinese people keep being deceived.  Chairman Mao is still the greatest man who ever lived, according to all of my students (never mind that his policies starved 20+ million people, or that his leadership was an unqualified disaster even without considering any of the moral issues).  Taiwan is part of China and always has been.  China has complete freedom of religion for all it's people.  The Dalai Lama is a terrorist. 

Sometimes it's shocking at how completely the government's propaganda has triumphed over the minds of the people, but you begin to understand when you realize how great the government is at producing effective propaganda.  For example, take the news story I posted above.  The story doesn't really even address the claims that CNN has made about the Tibet situation, because it doesn't have to.  Instead, the story just confirms in the mind of the Chinese people how biased all those Western news sources are.  They've even created a song to show just how ridiculously biased and stupid CNN is.  You don't want to look stupid, do you?  Then you better not take that CNN coverage seriously.  "Why do you rack your brains in trying to turn black into white? Don't be too CNN."  Besides, isn't it more fun to sing a song together and feel confident in knowing how bad those western news sources are?  Come on, sing with us!

It's all very subtle, yet effective.  Most Chinese can't read English, so they read the western news sources first hand, even though it is available on the internet.  Most of the time when western news sources are mentioned, the Chinese are harping on how wrong and biased the western media is.  That's all most of the Chinese hear about it.  Add to that hundreds of years of Chinese humiliation at the hands of westerners (going back to the opium wars and the colonial concessions China made to the European powers) and it's no wonder the Chinese continue to believe the things they do.  Also, the Chinese educational system is very focused on teaching students what to think, not how to think, so they really have no idea how to think for themselves (and it would never occur to many of them to ever even consider thinking for themselves!).

All that said, I've realized that growing up in the US I was not always given the full story concerning China, either.  For example, Chiang Kaishek, the leader of the Republic of China before 1949 when Chairman Mao and the Communists took power and founded the People's Republic of China, was not exactly the upstanding kind of leader you would hope for.  His government was essentially a military dictatorship.  At one point he ordered the massacre of over 5000 communists in Shanghai.  He did little to prevent the brutal rape of Nanjing in 1937 (in which 150,000-500,000 Chinese were killed, and tens of thousands of women raped by Japanese soldiers while family members were forced to watch), but rather forced Chinese civilians to stay by locking the city gates when the army fled. 

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About Me

Husband and father, musician, software engineer at SEOmoz, open source developer specializing in Ruby and Rails, world traveler and Christian.