ON THE SUBJECT OF MISINFORMATION

Publication: China Brief Volume: 1 Issue: 11

Ying Ma’s Question & Duzhe Mei’s Answer

THE QUESTION

I think that Mei Duzhe’s “How China’s Government Is Attempting to Control Chinese Media in America” in your November 21 issue overestimates the influence of the Chinese government and underestimates the willingness of Chinese to be skeptical about the virtues of the American political system.

Mei attributes the poor quality of reporting in the Chinese media to the influence of the Chinese government. To be quite blunt, mediocre journalism in the Chinese media is due more to the lack of professionalism, a relative lack of resources, funds and technology compared to the major English networks and the relative few alternatives available to their audiences.

If you look closely, poor reporting surfaces in all subject areas, not just those areas that have to do with the Chinese government. So many claims that the Chinese media makes about daily life, about working conditions, about public personalities, about everything under the sun are uncorroborated. Chinese audiences often are aware of this but they nevertheless continue to rely on the Chinese media for sources of news because they don’t have much of a choice.

Also, this poor quality of journalism existed well before the Chinese government decided to become more aggressive in influencing the Chinese media in the U.S. during the 1990s. When San Francisco’s award-winning Cantonese News Hour launched on KTSF in the 1980s, the two co-anchors were so terrible that they could rarely finish a single newscast without stuttering, mis-speaking and misquoting. The whole thing was such an embarrassment that the audience used to cringe at the broadcast every night. That news hour has improved dramatically over the yeas, but I should say that similar embarrassments still regularly occur in the Chinese media throughout the United States.

Despite the poor quality, Chinese media sources do respond to their audiences complaints and concerns. As more and more mainlanders (particularly those who haven’t suffered the evils of Communism and who grew up during the era of Deng’s reform) immigrate to study and work in the United States, they often react negatively to negative portrayals of China in the press and press for more frequent representations of views that are more pro-China. This is not necessarily instigated by the Chinese government, but by nationalistic Chinese who are proud of the changes that have occurred in China in the last two decades and want those changes to be recognized. The reporting at numerous Chinese media sources have to a large extent reflected this change in Chinese demographics.

Also, the antipathy that many in the Chinese-American community feel toward the United States come in no small part as a result of the endless squabbles that have occurred in the Sino-American relationship during the 1990s. Many Chinese have perceived the anti-China rhetoric in Washington and controversies such as the Wen Ho Lee debacle as manifestations of American racism and unwillingness to accept Chinese-Americans into the mainstream. In fact, those who harbor the strongest antipathies toward the U.S. government and are most skeptical about the virtues of the U.S. system are Chinese-Americans who no longer speak or read Chinese and do not rely on Chinese media sources as their primary source of news. The affluent Chinese members of the Committee of 100 immediately come to mind as an example. The gripes of these well-to-do Chinese who are considered by the community to have “made it” in America are not instigated by the Chinese government or the Chinese media, but shaped by their own experiences and perceptions (real or imaginary) with mainstream American society.

I should also point out that Mei was inaccurate in saying that the Chinese community was apathetic or unsympathetic to the tragedy of September 11. In urban centers like San Francisco and New York, numerous poor immigrants who normally are extremely penny pinching shelled out donations (big and small) to charitable organizations for the victims of terrorism. It is true that many of them may have felt that the U.S. government brought this upon this nation through unilateral and aggressive foreign policies, but let me remind you that these views, however misguided, are found amongst plenty of mainstream Americans, including all those long-haired, maggot-infested, hippie-want-to-be kids participating in antiwar protests in Berkeley to respected intellectuals like Edward Said in New York.

I believe that the opinions of Chinese-Americans about our political system and Sino-American relations are indeed important. It is disturbing when the Chinese government attempts to influence or coopt Chinese in America. However, I think that we do ourselves a disservice by blaming the Chinese government for some grave problems that exist in our own society. For instance, why do the well-fed, well-educated Chinese-Americans who do not labor in sweatshops like their parents once did feel so much hostility to American society? Why do they continue to feel that this society refuses to accept them? Why are so many Chinese-Americans politically inactive or apathetic? How do we help hardworking and patriotic Chinese immigrants in the inner cities air their grievances and concerns when prominent Asian leaders fail to represent their own communities adequately? These are all questions that we should think about regardless of the Chinese government’s involvement. In the end, how the bourgeoning Chinese population in America will view its political institutions, values and principles will depend more on Americans than the Chinese.

–Ying Ma

THE ANSWER

I would like to thank Ms. Ying Ma for sharing her insights and perception of the situation.

I find myself in agreement with Ms. Ma’s conclusion that, “in the end, how the burgeoning Chinese population in America will view its political institutions, values and principles will depend more on Americans than the Chinese.” Indeed, one major purpose of the article was to generate awareness of certain factors that shape news and information, and, in turn, perceptions in the Chinese-American community. By calling attention to these factors it is hoped that positive developments might follow… perhaps even by way of Americans playing a more active role in helping to educate this community, for example.

However, I think that at present several questions are unavoidable when discussing Chinese media in the United States: What effect does the strong hand of the PRC (in U.S. Chinese media) have, tangibly speaking? Is the situation now one of more than just merely poor reporting or broadcasting, which has always been the case? (and that was not the article’s claim, of course) I think the answer to the latter is yes.

The article on the PRC’s efforts to influence intends to trace a pattern of development without claiming what this means; in the end are offered some possible interpretations of why this is significant. It was hoped that several questions would arise from reading the piece: what does this pattern mean? What is the PRC trying to do? If the PRC is not in fact carrying out any political agenda, why on earth would it be so aggressive in buying up US media and so on? And finally, what might be the unforeseen long-term effects of this pattern? I do not expect uniform answers to these questions, but do hope that these issues will be weighed with all do seriousness.

–Duzhe Mei

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