The second thing is that Chinese people see the question of how the U.S. media covers China in isolation from how the American media covered the Soviet Union in the past, or Russia today, or country X, Y, or Z. The same proposition of looking for the problem applies. Every now and then you will read a story about a country that has put it all together and is having this otherworldly success. But in Thailand the story is about the problems between the Muslim south and the mainstream Buddhist population. In Brazil it’s the Amazon being cut down. There is this tendency to look for the weak points in other societies, to analyze them and come to terms with them, that’s what the American media tends to do.
The Chinese see this as something that is aimed particularly at them. And that’s basically not true. I spent a lot of my career working in Africa and what’s so striking about what I hear from Chinese people is that I’ve heard almost the exact same thing from Africans about American and Western coverage of Africa. “All you do is focus on coups and human rights atrocities and rape—what about the good news?” As with many broad observations, and perhaps clichés, there is an element of truth in that.
The final thing I’d say about China is that if you stopped one hundred people on the street right now, and you asked them, “What are the first three things you know about China?” I can guarantee you that the first one—and maybe all three—would have to do with the country’s recent successes. The first thing they would say is not that China is a country of awful human rights, or is a country of 500 million poor people. I can almost guarantee you that they would emphasize the success of the recent rich before they would emphasize the continued existence of the poor.
The question then becomes something else. Most of these people you stop have never been to China. Which means they have had to receive these viewpoints from somewhere. I would posit that they got these viewpoints from the media. So you have these two somewhat difficult to sustain points of view. The Chinese view is that the Western media is so tough on them, always beating up on them, and always emphasizing bad things. And then the fact that the public point of view of China is predominated, I would say, by word of China’s recent successes.