June 2, 2008

A Look Into China, A Glance Back Out

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“Adversities only make our country stronger,” the leadership of the All-China Students Federation told the Ivy League Student Delegation in a heartfelt recap of the devastation caused by the Wenchuan Earthquake – a natural disaster that has since left over 65,000 Chinese residents of the Sichuan Province dead, over 4.8 million homeless and over 23,000 missing. Through the display of dramatic photographs and deliverance of stories recounting local heroes and grassroots-level community activism in the face of crisis, many of the students, government officials and international correspondents the delegation has met shared a not-so-obvious, yet undeniably important, byproduct of the historic natural disaster: that a unique sense of openness and of national community has since emerged among members of the Chinese population.

As Peter Herford writes in The Washington Post, “Traditionally in China, information about disasters has been suppressed or the disasters have been played down,” citing the much-delayed release of information about the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) pandemic in China that took place five years ago. However, as many of the Chinese and American representatives we met – such as the head of the China Society for Human Rights Studies, students from various Chinese universities, staff of the U.S. Embassy in China and members of the national environmentalist organizations – reiterated, the Earthquake, amidst the physical and psychological damage it imposed on thousands of Chinese people, has also catalyzed a historic step towards a more transparent Chinese society.

As soon as the 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck the Sichuan province on May 12, China’s government-controlled television station, China Central Television, as well as international media organizations like CNN and the BCC, have consistently relayed the ever-shocking news, accompanied by images revealing the destruction the earthquake has caused, to viewers around the world. “The tragedy brought together different groups of Chinese society,” said Zheng Zeguang, director general of North America and Oceana Department from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China in a meeting with the delegation. “The natural disaster is bad, but it is also an opportunity to bring people together,” he continued. And in a country similar to the U.S. in size, but with 56 different ethnic sub-groups, such unification is an enormous task. Chinese citizens from all over the country have contributed to the Sichuan relief effort, offering not only practical goods, but also volunteering their time to help salvage and support whatever and whoever they can from the damaged area.

The recent news coverage of China, however, has not been wholly and confidently embraced — it has raised Chinese criticism and even doubt regarding the credibility of America and the western media. In an intimate meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, an American government officer cited two examples where media transparency and instantaneous news coverage have caused strong Chinese nationalistic backlashes against the western media. First, famed actress Sharon Stone was quoted saying that the Wenchuan Earthquake was “karma” for the Sichuan people, implying that those affected somehow deserved it. Also, the official described how CNN Correspondent Jack Cafferty’s coverage of the recurring conflict between Chinese and Tibetans has incited a hostile response from many Chinese nationalists who are infuriated by his April 9 remarks in which he debased Chinese products as “junk,” and then described the Chinese people as “basically the same bunch of goons and thugs they’ve been for the last 50 years.”

According to Victor Zhang Mocheng, student body president of the School of Foreign Languages in Central China Normal University, the increased accessibility of international media through the Internet and television has had many positive results amidst its controversies. (Mocheng, along with other Chinese students, has participated in the delegation’s cultural events and official meetings with prominent Chinese leaders.)
For example, he claimed that the web enables Chinese students to diversify their sources of news. He said that CNN, BCC and New York Times are among the most popular online international news sources in China. People Daily, China Daily, and China Youth Daily are three print publications that Mocheng, along with his fellow peers studying English, read frequently. Infact, the China Youth Daily, which was founded and 2000 and is “the biggest and most authoritative comprehensive website for young people” according to its website, featured the Ivy League Student Delegation in a front page feature article about their visit to China.

The trend of using the Internet as a supplementary news source to print newspapers became popular around 2003, Mocheng said. “I use the websites to help broaden my view,” he explained. “I use Google very often. I have access to get to the abroad websites through Google. It’s an efficient way to learn English.” Mocheng said that accessing news through the Internet became popular about five years ago, and he started utilizing the Internet consistently about two years ago. He is in his third year of university study.

As the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing approach quickly, the upcoming influx of international visitors to Beijing and the surrounding areas has put the issue of Chinese media censorship into public spotlight. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, “Chinese government is in a state of ‘schizophrenia’ about media policy as it ‘goes back and forth, testing the line, knowing they need press freedom — and the information it provides — but worried about opening the door to the type of freedoms that could lead to the regime’s downfall.’” As Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao signed a decree to grant foreign journalists the ability to report without permits before and during the Beijing Games, and to interview any individuals or organizations as long as the they consent, the media coverage of the Olympics will hopefully be a ground-breaking step in the progression of Chinese social society.