Monday, April 21, 2008



Boycott CNN! Boycott Carrefour! Boycott anyone who boycotts the Olympics!

Boycotts are a blunt instrument, albeit drawn from the trusty democratic toolbox. That boycott fever seems to be the mood on the streets of China these days is a testament to how discontent with domestic problems has been eclipsed by disappointment with the West.

When China is weak, the country is ridiculed, exploited, and poked fun of. When China is strong, the country is ridiculed, exploited and poked fun of. “What do you want from us?” is the question of the moment, to borrow the title of a funny and oddly moving bit of guerilla video by “a silent Chinese”
( about the frustration of being continually looked down upon. It chronicles a century of humiliation at the hands of the West, ironically set to the tune of Louis Armstrong’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

China, isolated and ostracized for decades because of its rejection of capitalism and a Western-dominated economic system, at last abandons its homegrown revolutionary system for an open-door, pro-business, pro-trade system, abiding by rules created by others, joining international organizations dominated by others. Chinese doff the dusty Mao jacket and communal economic arrangements to imitate the West.

What is imitation if not a kind of flattery? China’s nouveau riche don the suit and tie, imbibe the MBA and CEO lifetyle, they sip champagne and smoke cigars in five-star hotel lobby and trade tips on golf courses likeWestern businessmen—and they still get no respect. And if the most powerful people in China get no respect, imagine how the ordinary people feel.

Lack of respect is central to the informal eruptions of popular Chinese anger in the street in recent years, whether it be anti-Japan, anti-France or anti-CNN movements. Whether the issue at hand is being portrayed as willing idiots in Japanese textbooks, or being treated with dismissive disdain by the French President or being manipulated by US government backed destabilizers such as the National Endowment for Democracy, Radio Free Asia and the CIA-tinged Free Tibet movement, the resentment is real.

Beijing’s Olympic bid is hard won and ordinary Chinese people have made considerable sacrifices; not just incessant labor and heavy infrastructure investment, but spiritual sacrifices as well. Chinese have been called on by their own leaders, no less than foreign ones, to give-up a traditional way of doing things in favor adopting the norms of a global capitalist system dominated by powerful Western actors. It’s a system in which the rich get richer, as can be seen in America and increasingly in China. No wonder boycotts make businessmen nervous.

How can you keep your head up when you are asked to reject your own way of life but are not fully accepted by the arbitrers of the new rules? Japan felt this way after the heyday of Meiji and Taisho era Westernization; no matter what it did it could never really join the Western club. Angered at Western racism, documented and affirmed by W.E.B DuBois among others, Japan in the Showa era came up with a racist response of its own, The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

It is not because Chinese are arrogant and xenophobic that they resent being misled and misrepresented by CNN and Time; it is because they had the humility and the cosmopolitan savvy in the first place to accept the notion that the Western media was superior to their own that they are now shocked to see how shoddy, jingoistic and biased it can be.

Teaching journalism in China for the US-based Knight Foundation was an eye-opener for me. My appointment to be what was in effect a journalistic missionary included a week-long orientation in Washington, DC at which we were reminded that American journalism was the gold standard, fair and uncorruptible; that’s why the Chinese and other foreigners needed to learn from us.

After spending several subsequent years doing media research in China as an academic, I can safely conclude that it’s not so white and black as US boosters would have it. The Chinese media is not as bad as we think it is, the American media is not as good as we’ve been taught to think.

To offer but one example, the American media misled the US public into a ruinous war in Iraq, and yet is has yet to come clean about conflicts of interest, jingoistic tendencies, and compromised access to power.

Nowadays Amerians are mad at US media, so why shouldn’t Chinese be? When you come to believe in something, or more critically rely on something to make informed choices as a citizen and responsible member of the global community, bad information from the most reputable information providers puts everyone in a quandary. What is one to do? Turn off the TV, cancel the newspaper subscription and go online, reading opinioinated blogs all day?

Deviations from the standard inevitably dismay and disappoint. As we enter this season of boycotts and protests, we learn from the usually reliable New York Times that the Pentagon has been spoon-feeding TV networks with misinformation and spin on Iraq. It might be a good time for all responsible information disseminators --commercial TV, state TV, news agencies and newpapers-- to clean house of paid propagandists and jingoists and get back to the basics of journalism.

Meanwhile, let one hundred boycotts bloom! The boycotts may cause a temporary dip in profits or lose of face, but again, imitation is the highest form of flattery. Chinese protesters have taken note of the Farrows and Free Tibeters and Spielbergs and Sarkozys of the world and they extend the compliment. You boycott us, and we will boycott you.

(published in the Bangkok Post)

The author, a visiting fellow at Cornell University and professor of media studies at Doshisha University in Japan, has twenty years of media experience in China including coverage of Tiananmen in 1989 for BBC.