Chinese Reality


“I reject your reality and substitute my own.”
- Adam Savage, Mythbusters

Perhaps “reality” can be added to the list of products being produced in great quantities by China these days. In the past year, China talked boldly about their environmental leadership, military prowess and effectiveness in dealing with separatists within their own borders – all topics where the Chinese version of events sounds impressive, at least until you compare it with reality.

During the postmortem on the Copenhagen Climate Change summit, China was one country singled out by environmental advocates for their role in blocking any meaningful reform.  China would not commit to any hard caps on CO2 levels and also steadfastly refused to agree to any independent international monitoring of their greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the state-run Xinhua news agency was filled with articles touting China’s leadership in Copenhagen, they even set up an entire website dedicated to promoting China’s role at the Copenhagen talks. One gem from that site was an article alleging that “world media reports have praised China's efforts in promoting international cooperation to combat climate change.” The “world media” cited by Xinhua included Indonesia, Malawi and the Central African Republic – no offense to any of these journalists, but they’re hardly CNN and the BBC.

Meanwhile, after Somali pirates captured a Chinese-owned cargo ship, the De Xin Hai in the Indian Ocean last October, the Chinese boldly and very publicly vowed to “spare no effort” in securing the release of ship and crew. In December the De Xin Hai was freed. The Chinese government used the state-run media to praise the bold rescue of the ship. The “rescue” operation, it turns out, consisted of a helicopter dropping a bag reportedly containing $4 million to pirates waiting on the deck of the De Xin Hai, who then turned the ship back over to its Chinese crew and sailed back to port. In most circles this is called “paying a ransom,” yet the Chinese government insists it was a brave “rescue” operation carried out by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (and yes, that is the official name of China’s navy).

Domestically, China has persisted in their efforts to portray both their Tibetan and Uighur ethnic minorities as caldrons of simmering separatist tension. The Chinese government managed to effectively pressure the Obama Administration into not granting an audience to the Dalai Lama when he visited the United States last summer. In official statements, Beijing said the Dalai Lama was the head of a “splittist” (their word) movement and suggested that Obama’s meeting with him would be akin to Premier Wen meeting with Jefferson Davis. Meanwhile, they framed their crackdown against the Uighurs in Xinjiang province last July as stepping in to forestall a would-be revolutionary movement. The reality though is that while the Dalai Lama has long advocated for increased autonomy for Tibet to protect Tibetan religion and culture, he has officially maintained that Tibet should remain part of China; the Uighurs who took to the streets in protest in Urumqi (Xinjiang’s capital city) did so carrying the red banner of the People’s Republic – rather than demanding independence, they were calling on the Chinese government to enforce their own laws on discrimination against ethnic minorities and for the prosecution of a Han Chinese mob who had murdered two Uighur migrant workers at a factory in southern China a few weeks earlier.

China’s obsession with shaping reality is also at play in their ongoing dispute with Internet giant Google. In case you haven’t been keeping up on this, Google recently accused Chinese-backed hackers of trying to break into the email accounts of Chinese human rights activists hosted by Google’s Gmail service. In response, Google has said it will stop filtering the Internet search results of users in China. The Chinese government has been incredibly active in making sure its citizens see only what they want them to see on the Internet, their filtering system is often referred to as “The Great Firewall.” This is to keep Chinese from searching terms like “Taiwan,” “Tiananmen Square,” “human rights,” or any other issue the government in Beijing would prefer they not learn about. A former colleague who worked for a US-based, Chinese-language newspaper gave me an example once of The Great Firewall in action – he told me of surfing over to his paper’s webpage while he was visiting China, only to find a story that ran afoul of Chinese censors missing completely, a white box appeared on the paper’s homepage instead of the offending story. Last Friday Chinese officials bristled at criticism from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over Internet censorship while insisting “the Chinese Internet is open.”

So if the Chinese government wants to keep their people in the dark on a few issues, what’s the big problem? Potentially quite a lot if John Lee’s deconstruction of China’s role in the Copenhagen failure is accurate. In it, Lee says that China’s refusal to agree to any kind of independent monitoring scheme wasn’t to defend their “national sovereignty” as they so loudly proclaimed, but rather to keep outsiders from taking too close a look at their economic miracle. Lee contends that China’s impressive GDP growth is really far less than it seems, that local officials regularly report phony numbers to Beijing, which then puts its own spin on the figures before releasing them to the world – a process Lee bluntly refers to as “cooking the books.” China has relied on an ever-growing GDP to fuel the expansion of a Chinese middle class and has assumed that people were likely to overlook the country’s lurking social problems so long as the potential for upward mobility exists.  But take away that impressive growth and the focus is likely to turn back to issues like the split between the booming cities of the coast and the poverty of rural China, the growing demands on social services of an aging population and simmering inter-ethnic tensions.

Facts have a terrible tendency to intrude upon even the most carefully crafted stories; that is the real danger for Chinese reality. 


Hillary Clinton, Climate Change, China, Uighurs, Pirates