Features

The China syndrome

National | Two big reasons the American press loved the little dictator

Issue: "Walk the Talk," Nov. 15, 1997

Guess who's "humorous," "earning applause," calling for "deeper understanding and friendship," and defending "world peace, stability, prosperity, and progress"? It is Jiang Zemin, President of China!

Although the blood is still damp from the latest Christian martyrs, student protesters, and democracy activists, Mr. Jiang spent a week visiting America and giving civics lessons to Americans-and the U.S. media seemed to stumble over itself to give him a forum.

What about all the things we "hold to be self-evident"? The media didn't have much to say about that. Most reports helped readers to understand that the Chinese strongman laughs, he sings, he tells funny stories, he even makes "gentle allusion to the protests that have followed him everywhere." One paper wrote that protests "produced laughter and applause as he steadily ignored" a man who stood with his back to the stage wearing a human-rights protest T-shirt at Harvard.

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This drew accolades? Since when did the media (which typically love nothing better than a little student activism) make a politician into a media darling for deflecting hard questions and steadily ignoring protesters?

All of Mr. Jiang's events were staged, but the press gave this little coverage. At Harvard, his audience was hand-picked, the questions were selected by a panel of four specialists, and out of the five softball questions pitched to Mr. Jiang, he answered only two. The protests in the streets outside the auditorium where he spoke were the largest since Vietnam, but journalists noted this only in passing. The New York Times headlined its story: "China's President Draws Applause at Harvard Talk." The Chinese couldn't have written a better headline themselves.

The article reported Mr. Jiang's response to a question about Tiananmen Square: "It goes without saying that naturally we may have shortcomings and even make some mistakes in our work, however, we've been working on a constant basis to improve our work." This is chilling-it sounds like he's talking about manufacturing, not the calculated decision to kill hundreds of students with tanks in Tiananmen Square.

It isn't Mr. Jiang who is most shocking. Who expects Mr. Jiang to be nicer than this? What is unfathomable is that the U.S. media treated him not just to a free ride, but to breathless endorsements. What is going on here?

There are at least two reasons why the press handled Mr. Jiang so gently.

Postmodernism. China rejects the western concept of human rights, making individual rights something nations can afford at some later to-be-determined moment of development. Until then "community rights" (as decided by the police state) reign supreme. Given the increasingly postmodern nature of American culture, the press seemed inclined to accept this argument. Mr. Jiang simply emphasized that his country is complex, that things are different there.

That's the language of the day, and the Chinese know that no free-thinking post-modern will deny them the right to an "alternate perspective." So the media have gotten away with turning the issue of human rights into a matter of America's "need to understand"and "be tolerant."

Ignorance of Christianity. The U.S. media is largely tone-deaf on religious issues, yet the fight over U.S. relations with China was animated in large part by the issue of Christian martyrdom in China. This issue doesn't move our media much, but it moves middle America a lot. Ironically, many members of our press are confused by religion for the same reason Mr. Jiang is-they aren't personally religious. They don't have any special sympathy with dead Christians.

There is a deeper story here that remains unexplored as a result. The debate over Christian martyrdom draws attention to the unsettling reversal of a favorite media storyline. Reporters understand the story when Christians are intolerant dogmatists, but in China the roles are reversed. Jiang is the dogmatist, and Christian martyrs are the spiritual revolutionaries and free thinkers of their country. Chinese leaders kill to defend the atheism at the heart of the Communist philosophy. Many American journalists are so used to thinking of the Christians as the bad guys that they seem confused by the real story.

These two reasons-postmodern attitudes on human rights and ignorance of Christianity-contributed to Mr. Jiang's great press.Talk of rights, of martyrs, and of morality in general is messy. Reporters showed they would rather let Mr. Jiang give their readers civics lessons during his visit than report on the blood of martyrs.

Mr. Legg is a graduate student at Yale University.

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