How China reports the Arab world

In a post made to his Chinese-language weblog on April 15, Ezzat Shahrour, chief correspondent for al-Jazeera Arabic in Beijing, voiced his frustration with Chinese state media reporting on the upheaval in the Arab world this year. Shahrour, an accomplished writer of Chinese who studied at China Medical University in Shenyang, has commented frequently on both Chinese and Western media during the past several years, and Chinese media have often sought his views, such as in this 2004 interview with Southern Weekend and this 2008 interview with People’s Daily Online.

Shahrour’s latest post received more than 100,000 visits by Monday morning, and drew over 1,300 comments (themselves well worth a read).

This post is a fascinating read particularly in light of China’s policy of “going out” in recent years, in which the government has reportedly invested heavily on state media to beef up its media presence globally and strengthen its impact on “global public opinion.” In a December 2008 speech, Li Changchun (李长春), China’s top media control official as the politburo standing, committee member in charge of ideology, said Chinese media needed “to accelerate the pace of ‘going out.’” We must, he said, have a comprehensive strategy to “take CCTV and other key central media and make them into first-rate international media with a global influence.”

Al-Jazeera has often been cited as the network whose success China must emulate as it seeks to expand its “cultural soft power.”

On the crucial issue of media credibility, and on the world’s biggest story this year, Shahrour’s perspective comes not from the so-called “Western media” that Party leaders and the official press so frequently set up in opposition to an ostensibly “Chinese voice” — one controlled and mediated by the CCP. It comes from a journalist with al-Jazeera, the very network China has so often cited as the best example of how credible non-Western voices can compete for global public opinion.

The Arab People Have 100,000 Questions for Chinese Media
By Ezzat Shahrour (伊扎特)

Every time I see Chinese media reports on the Arab revolution I feel like my blood pressure is starting to rise. My adrenalin starts to race. My colleagues advise me to cut back on my reading of Chinese newspapers, saying, “Look, reading those all the time does your health no good.” But all joking aside, I can’t change my habits. Reading the Chinese newspapers has already become a daily must for me. And while I know it’s harmful, I can’t help myself. It’s the same as with cigarettes and coffee, another of my “bad habits.” Of course, when I talk about “harm” done, I’m not talking about the Chinese media themselves, but rather about their position on issues in the Arab world, and their intentional misreading of the popular will.

I just don’t see what the point is of media spending so much money to prepare their journalists to go to a dangerous place like Libya when all these reporters do is simultaneous interpretation in China of Ghaddafi’s own television station. Can’t this sort of news coverage be done just as well from Beijing? Isn’t it a complete waste of money? In their live reports, the Chinese reporters constantly emphasize that the majority of Libyans support Ghaddafi, so I suppose those opposition members who are gathering daily on the streets and in public squares must be from some fairy wonderland (or the Chinese media believe, like Ghaddafi, that these demonstrators are just “rats”)? The Chinese media tell us how Ghaddafi’s forces are gaining ground on the opposition forces, but they don’t tell us that there are tens of thousands of foreign mercenaries killing Libyan people at Ghaddafi’s behest. They tell us that the people of Libya all enjoy free medical insurance, but they don’t tell us how many hospitals Ghaddafi has built in Libya during his 42-year rule. They tell us how the people of Tripoli are all so grateful to Colonel Ghaddafi, but they don’t tell us that in this country that exports 1.6 million barrels of oil a day, six million people live on daily rations of porridge. The so-called Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya is nothing more than a bad check.

The vast majority of Arabs accept the air campaign in Libya by coalition forces, even though this is a choice made of necessity only, with the hope that the intervention of the multinational coalition will extend a lifeline to the opposition forces that represent the true will of the Libyan people. But China’s media have misrepresented this. After the bombing began, these Chinese media, who originally paid no attention at all to the Arab revolution, sprang into action, assuming the air of stalwart fighters against hegemonism. They took UN Resolution 1973 out of context, applied a double-standard to the breaking of the ceasefire agreement, kept a tacit silence on the issue of [Ghaddafi's] foreign mercenaries, intentionally misread the reasons for the air campaign. For those Chinese viewers who managed to gather the truth from various other sources, this only brought into sharp relief the line and position being promoted in China’s media — emphasize only the humanitarian disasters caused by Western air bombardments, and reporting sparingly if at all on the violent suppression and massacre of the people by Ghaddafi.

I noticed one Chinese journalist compared Ghaddafi to Saddam. My personal view is that there are no comparisons to be drawn at all between these two men. Saddam fell more than 10 years ago, his top officials and advisors have all been either killed or thrown into jail, and rarely do people ever mention criticism of him. As for Ghaddafi’s officials, it seems we haven’t seen a single one. Those who haven’t fled or switched sides have been detained by Ghaddafi. Anyone who could sneak away has. Ghaddafi’s most trusted foreign minister, Moussa Koussa, fled to Tunisia and surrendered to the Americans. Chinese media seem blind to the fact that their deliberate misinformation has already been found out by internet users. Not long after China Central Television quoted Libyan state television saying that Libya’s former interior minister, Abdul Fatah Younis, had not in fact defected (Libyan TV used old footage of Younis and Ghaddafi together to make a fake report), Younis appeared on Aljazeera personally to refute these rumors, saying that he had already joined the opposition camp. But the latter bit of news never made it onto mainstream television in China. The examples like this are too numerous to recount.

Chinese academics and media often exaggerate the importance of so-called revolutionary leaders, and Ghaddafi now has the honor of having becoming one of the “beneficiaries” of such treatment. Some have even compared Ghaddafi’s Green Book to China’s little red book [of Mao Zedong]. But if you really understood the Arab world, you would come to the complete opposite conclusion. The Green Book has long been a joke in Libya and even in the rest of the Arab world. The words in Ghaddafi’s book are not only at odds with his actual style of rule, but they often bewilder with their internal contradictions. No one has any idea how much Ghadaffi spent to have this book translated into different languages of the world — including languages many of us have never even heard of. Chinese versions of the book came out in China in the 1980s and 90s. I won’t say any more about this. Everyone can go and find it for themselves. You can note especially his words on the differences between men and women, which will provide you greater amusement than the latest pop hit.

As I see it, media have responsibility and an obligation to report events comprehensively. Media should report it how they see it and how they know it, no matter whether the facts suit their own value judgements. Libyan state television can be used as one source of information. Through it you can understand the situation with Tripoli and Ghadaffi’s faction. But this is definitely not the only source of information. The rebels in Benghazi are people too, and they are an important side of this conflict. What I actually see, though, is that Chinese journalists are active every day in the hotels and on the streets of Tripoli, accompanying Ghadaffi loyalists to streets, hospitals and schools that have been prearranged for the convenience of their reporting. Their [media] logos frequently appear in videos in which Ghaddafi is shouting out slogans, but it’s hard to find them at important press conferences given by the opposition party.

Information is the glue that links media and viewers together. For this reason, the reliability of information becomes the standard for judging a media’s credibility. Media are not about proselytizing, they are an industry, an industry whose responsibility is to transmit information. And yet, during each successive sudden-breaking story, the effect Chinese media have as a fourth estate falls far behind that of the internet and personal media. Those who know how to obtain richer information and reassemble it will turn to the internet to understand the situation in Libya. A number of people who dare to challenge the authority of the state media have already begun to act. The information they provide make it easier for Chinese to open their eyes and see the world. Take, for example, the Old Banyan Blog (老榕). Based on what I know, as change has gripped the Arab world about 170,000 Chinese web users have turned to the Banyan News Service for timely online broadcasts. Many Chinese are no longer satisfied with getting their information form a single source, and as a direct result of this is that the positions of Chinese on the war in Libya are no longer so unified as they were on the wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. One aspect of this can be attributed to the development of the web, but another aspect is the steady loss of credibility by Chinese media.

FRONTPAGE PHOTO: Ezzat Shahrour takes part in a 2009 dialogue on Tibet held by the Permanent Mission of the PRC to the United Nations.

16 Comments to “How China reports the Arab world”

  1. Schwa says:

    Folks all over are frustrated with both state and corporate media which seeks to brainwash with selective dissinformation for capitol and controll. More independant news networks like Al-Jezeera gain ground with reporting more objectively and with common sentiment. While there is a perspective to every story, hate and lies are an instant turnoff.

  2. Justin says:

    Attaboy samsa, keep the blinkers on and say good enough. The gulf arabs thank you.

  3. ltlee says:

    @samsa

    If you are talking about Al Jazzera’s Arabian language service, I am sure it has more timely, detailed, and fair reporting on what have happened in the Middle East and in the Muslim world. However, I don’t have the same confidence in its English edition. Their reports on major issues related to China mostly reflect the positions of the western press . And it is well known that western view on China is frequently illogical and far from reality. The following is one recent example:

    http://www.google.com/url?sa=D&q=http://prestowitz.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/05/10/us_orthodoxy_on_china_is_nonsense

    “Here’s the problem with the conventional American wisdom on China –
    it’s nonsense. Honestly, it doesn’t compute even within the terms of
    its own logic, much less those of the real world. ”

    How well is China’s coverage on the Middle East? Ezzat Shahrour had tried to show that China coverage on Lybia was faulted. But he failed.

  4. samsa says:

    They are reporting in Bahrain and Syria, what is the problem? Even if Al-Jazeera is kinda biased, which all media are, it’s still far above any Chinese state media.

  5. Justin says:

    Where was Al Jeezera when it came to coverage of Bahrain?

  6. JVO says:

    I think one thing that the author left out is that the Arab revolts have been sparked as much by a desire for more dignity among the working class as they have for more freedom and economic opportunities. This is obviously very unsettling to the authorities in China. Yes China’s economy has grown much faster than the Arab world’s, but its a double edged sword- Rapid growth contributes to greater income disparities. Nowdays the lower middle class and the poor are more acutely aware of the widening gap between the rich and the poor. Thirty years ago everyone was poor so people would just grudgingly accept it. But being poor surrounded by signs of opulence and wealth, is a recipe for bitterness and anger. Ironically China’s economic growth leaves her more prone to unrest and class tensions.

  7. 汉迪 says:

    a tailor never measure him self.dear al jazeera journalist.please tell us what your chanel is reporting about the bahrain revolution?!.
    will you be fair enough to criticise your chanel before doing the same about the chinese media?!!!

  8. ltlee says:

    Hi, Sacha.
    I made three points.

    On the first point, you guess wrong. I meant what I had written. That is “Whether a certain source is easily accessible, like Ghaddafi’s TV program, or not has nothing to do with whether it is reliable.” And I will answer my question this way. It is a journalist’s responsibility to judge what is reliable and what is not without regard to a source’s accessibility.

    On the issue of biased media, Mr. Shadrour failed miserably in making his case. He did not provide any evidence to show that the Chinese media was wrong and hence biased at all. On the issue of health care delivery, the Chinese media was correct per World Bank data. If you are not happy with the World Bank data, feel free to dig up some data to show that the Ghaddafi government did a poor job in improving the health of the people. To you degree you succeed, you will show that Mr Shadrour is lazy.

  9. Adam says:

    Martin, the Chinese and Western media are nothing alike. The Chinese government sends requirements to every news bureau that say “do not print this information”. This is a fact. Find a Western country that also does this.

    How many Chinese newspapers have criticized Hu Jintao for one action or another? Is it because 100% of Chinese media agree with all the president’s policies?

  10. sascha says:

    @itlee

    i see your type of argument a lot. let me begin with this sentence:

    “Is it every journalist’s responsibility to judge what is reliable and what is not disregarding a source’s accessibility?Should a truly professional journalist not prefer wasting money over misleading his audiences/readers?”

    I guess these questions are meant to … somehow undermine the assertion that the Chinese media is biased by saying 1) if a source is inaccessible then it is difficult to ascertain its reliability. a journalist should work with what is accessible and a source that is not accessible cannot be judged reliable or unreliable.

    Wow. what a cluttered brain you must have.

    And then this one here:

    “If he has objective evidence such as survey or poll results, why didn’t he simply present the data? Else, it is every reporter’s subjective interpretation. He criticized the Chinese reporters. But he did not produce anything concrete to support his criticism.”

    and this one:

    “He raised the question of how many hospitals had been built since Ghaddafi’s rule. Yet he did not provide the answer to his own question? If zero hospital had been built, it would be easy for him to tell the truth. I guess he did not have the answer.”

    demonstrate that you know nothing of rhetoric. You basically pick at the tiny thread sticking out of the hem of a massive carpet in order to criticize the color. The story is not about hospitals or polls, its about biased media.

    and the final one here:

    “According to the World Bank graph, life expectancy had increased from 51.5 years at 1971 to 74.3 years at 2008. Certainly commendable improvement achieved by Ghaddafi’s government”

    is typical Google research presented as real research. Life expectancy of 51 in 1971? Wow. pretty low for the 20th century don’t you think? And 74 is not much better. Did the government do this? Why was it 51 on the first place? why not 80? war? famine? medicine? Too many questions here for you to be able to use an interactive graph as your coup de grace against an argument that had zero to do with life expectancy and everything to do with accountability and courage..

  11. Daniel says:

    The author need better research skill, it only took me a sec to find an article about the Libyan rebellion perspective http://news.xinhuanet.com/herald/2011-04/18/c_13834039.htm

    China didn’t recognize the rebel as the official government yet. Why do you think Chinese media should feel the same way as the rebellion does? Remember, both Western media and China speaks for their own interest. Look at how mad those “freedom fighters” are when you don’t support their claim. Apparently they want to take away your freedom.

  12. ltlee says:

    A terrible article

    1. Mixed up priority
    “I just don’t see what the point is of media spending so much money to prepare their journalists to go to a dangerous place like Libya when all these reporters do is simultaneous interpretation in China of Ghaddafi’s own television station. Can’t this sort of news coverage be done just as well from Beijing?Isn’t it a completewaste of money?”

    Whether a certain source is easily accessible, like Ghaddafi’s TV program, or not has nothing to do with whether it is reliable. Is it every journalist’s responsibility to judge what is reliable and what is not disregarding a source’s accessibility?Should a truly professional journalist not prefer wasting money over misleading his audiences/readers?

    2. Criticism in the absence of evidence
    “In their live reports, the Chinese reporters constantly emphasize that the majority of Libyans support Ghaddafi, so I suppose those opposition members who are gathering daily on the streets and in public squares must be from some fairy wonderland (or the Chinese media believe, like Ghaddafi, that these demonstrators are just “rats”)?

    Of course, there were protestors. The issue is whether they formed a majority. If he has objective evidence such as survey or poll results, why didn’t he simply present the data? Else, it is every reporter’s subjective interpretation. He criticized the Chinese reporters. But he did not produce anything concrete to support his criticism.

    3. Lazy and/or ignorant
    “They tell us that the people of Libya all enjoy free medical insurance, but they don’t tell us how many hospitals Ghaddafi has built in Libya during his 42-year rule.”

    Again, he criticized Chinese reporters for telling the audience that the people of Libya all enjoyed free medical insurance. He raised the question of how many hospitals had been built since Ghaddafi’s rule. Yet he did not provide the answer to his own question? If zero hospital had been built, it would be easy for him to tell the truth. I guess he did not have the answer. How about a proxy then for health care delivery then? It took me 10 sec to
    find the following interactive graph:

    http://www.google.com/publicdata?ds=wb-wdi&met=sp_dyn_le00_in&idim=country:LBY&dl=en&hl=en&q=libya+life+expectancy

    According to the World Bank graph, life expectancy had increased from 51.5 years at 1971 to 74.3 years at 2008. Certainly commendable improvement achieved by Ghaddafi’s governmen

  13. King Tubby says:

    Tremendous intro and op piece. In Oz we can get daily dose of CCTV, but it has as much credibility as the home shopping channels.

    In contrast, Al Jazeera is now becoming the turn-to news/reporting source for both the Middle East and other regional stories for not only the #independent# govt channels, but increasingly so for some of the commercial channels. Even if most people wouldn’t have a clue where Qatar is located….somewhere with lots of sand.

    Al Jazeera reporters do not interpose themselves on the events being reported and they get close to their subjects. As a reporting model, it stands in stark contrast to CNN with its self- important clothes horses such as the odious Anderson Cooper and his female counterparts [who all look like a bunch of buffed trophy wives].

  14. Andrew says:

    Excellent article ! It is amazing to think that China still manages to indoctrinate over 90% of its population to the old rhetoric even with modern technology. An example of the ignorance that abounds there shocked me on one of my visits to southern China. In a local diner sitting with 5 local workers the discussion turned to North Korea doing Nuclear Testing. They all were deeply concerned over this issue as it had made the Chinese Media. I said yes, this is disturbing as there are too many nations with The Bomb already. They asked me who else besides the USA & Russia? So I began to list all the ones that I knew of: Britain, France, Israel, India, Pakistan and of course China. ALL of them men & women leapt out of their seats shouting, WE Don’t have Nuclear bombs, we are peaceful people. I thought it expedient to drop the subject, but not before assuring them that China has the third largest arsenal in the world, giving them something to think about.
    Two days later out on the street I was ” befriended ” by a policeman, who’s leading questions had me watching every word I said. There followed a very informative conversation about Football, Beckham, Snooker, Beijing Olympics and the weather. Not one political phrase or opinion did I have, I went totally native. Afterall I needed that visa more than truth itself.

  15. Julen says:

    I don’t think manipulation in Western media is the same as in the Chinese media. The results may be similar in some cases, but the mechanism behind them is quite different. In the West it is a complex network of business and political interests, which often (less often in international news) is balanced out by the reporting of competing media.

    In China there is not even a chance to balance information, as the news are directly manipulated by the party and no alternative voices are aloud for subjects deemed sensitive. The Chinese situation is clearly worse.

    Great OP by the way.

  16. Martin says:

    Interesting stuff, not in the least because it shows how much alike Chinese and Western media apparently are. Applying double standards, willingly distorting and biasing the news, having correspondents do work that could have been done a lot cheaper by the news room at home (read Joris Luyendijk’s book “Hello Everybody”!)… Sounds awfully familiar.

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