05 February 2009

A few days ago I mentioned a quote in a Washington Post article about Charter 08 titled “In China, A Grass-Roots Rebellion”:

“The present situation of maintaining national security and social stability is grave,” Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu warned China’s leaders this month, according to state media.

The quote followed a list of dissenting behavior that all occurred in January 2009 - Charter 08, the CCTV boycott letter and Yan Yiming’s attempt to bring sunshine to the government budget and stimulus plan, and following it are details on the charter. The average reader would naturally assume that Minister Meng was referring to these events.

But he wasn’t. The full quote was:

孟建柱强调,当前维护社会稳定工作面临一系列新情况、新问题 ,要密切关注国际金融危机对社会稳定带来的影响和冲击,密切关注敌情社情的新变化,充分认识形势的严峻性和复杂性,狠 抓好各项工作措施落实,努力维护国家安全和社会稳定。

Meng was referring to the financial crisis and told the audience to understand the “grave” and complex nature of its effects. This could be an oblique reference to Charter 08 and its brethren, but its really a pastiche of party cliches. As far back as 2004 Meng was telling his audience to “actively tackle new grave challenges to national security and social stability” and “consolidate the Party’s political power”. The Washington Post article ignores this context completely, giving the impression that Meng is responding to intellectuals. In fact, he’s been on a tour of cities for the past couple of months stressing that police need to focus on small cases - he’s talking about community policing of rural unrest, not academic dissent.

Other English-language articles are taking quotes from the Chinese press out of context. One Reuters article titled “China calls for “absolute obedience” from military” and begins with a quote from state media:

China, wary of growing unrest and facing “multiple security threats”, called for unity in its armed forces on Sunday and absolute obedience to the Communist Party.

and later:

All military forces should ensure that they “uncompromisingly obey the Party and Central Military Commission’s command at any time and under any circumstances”, the commission said in a statement issued on Sunday and reported by Xinhua news agency.

Reuters puts this in the context of the plethora of political anniversaries coming this year, as well as unemployed graduates and migrants being a potential threat to stability. But these quotes are stock language as well. The original quote in Chinese regarding “obedience”, “确保部队在任何时候任何情况下都坚决听从党中央、中央军委指挥”, appears as early as 2004 (with insignificant differences) in a Baidu News search. And the phrase about the military facing numerous security threats (“我军应对多种安全威胁”) has been used nearly everyday for years. These quotes belong under an Onion-esque headline: Chinese Military Redeploys Stale Rhetoric. They are even less in response to contemporary developments than Meng’s, and there is no mention or suggestion that the military would be used to deal with “social stability” problems, as the New York Times repeated. The term used was 部队安全稳定, or “security and stability of the armed forces”, which generally refers to things like safety training and perhaps also political ideology classes for soldiers. In other words, standard practices.

Adam Minter mentioned the other day that the New York Times published a story on the possibility that there is now a net outflow of cash from the PRC (it is not certain if this is true), and compares it to a Caijing story saying:

To be fair, the Caijing article offers little more statistical evidence than the NYT piece, but - unlike the NYT piece - it doesn’t bury its uncertainty in unconnected anecdotes.

These other articles suffer from a similar problem, stringing together a series of anecdotes that may be connected but don’t actually show it.

As China Geeks points out, many articles (Reuters again, in this case) argue the Party is taking the economic downturn seriously because it wants to avoid another Tiananmen. Western media has a tendency to look at China, particularly in rough times like those now and ahead, through Tiananmen-colored glasses. Though nothing in the military commission report suggests they had disgruntled students on their mind, this article succumbed to the temptation to put them together. These are newsworthy topics, but the article gives false evidence they are intertwined. This is not to say that the Chinese government isn’t concerned about Charter 08 or social unrest, but that these are not examples of its concern. These are examples of jargon.

Once upon a time one of the vital tools of journalists in China was “reading the tea leaves” - reading between the lines of editorials to gather hints about internal power struggles in the government. Some scholars still do it. Perhaps in some cases, like the articles above, this has degenerated into reading things into articles in Chinese state media.

It could be worse: some editors still don’t know that Jiabao isn’t Prime Minister Wen’s last name.

Image by Zach_ManchesterUK @ Flickr.

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