I received an email from a girl named Jasmine in Texas a week or so ago, asking if I could help her on her school project. She and her friends are doing a documentary, she said, on Tiananmen 1989, and if I, as someone who was there, would be willing to talk to them, Jasmine said she believed they would be able to get their documentary into the State finals. Got to help!
So we did a telephone call in which Jasmine asked me lots of questions about China then and China today, and I was amazed by how negative her view was, as reflected in the questions. The implicit assumptions included such chestnuts on China as – no press freedom, no personal freedom, monolithic dictatorship, control, suppression etc etc.
So I tried to balance it off, explain that China and the world and the United States are not so black and white, that information and the media are controlled everywhere in different ways, that everyone including the New York Times and Reuters censor themselves, that freedom is a relative term, that the messy vibrancy that is China today cannot be summed up in words like dictatorship, and that the speed and power of the economic and social revolution that has taken place in China over these last few years is a direct and positive consequence of the blood spilled on the streets of Beijing 17 years ago.
But Jasmine’s questions indicated clearly that China still has a major problem in terms of its image in the West, and there is evidence to suggest that the negative view of China is becoming more fashionable.
Another aspect for the Chinese leadership to consider is that this negativity of view is shifting from past to future.
To date, the negative views of China in the West have been based on PAST events – June 4, Tibet suppression, prison labor, forced abortions, whatever. But the negative view of China that may be growing now is based on fears of China’s role and power in the FUTURE, a fear of what China might become. This is much more difficult to handle and spin than fear and loathing based on the past.
Action point for Zhongnanhai: Must communicate better.