James Fallows should know better speculating someones death is cultural taboo
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and one of the more accomplished journalists in the West. Throughout the years, he has also become a well known “China hand.” I have high regards for his views about Western media; he is like a sage. As a Westerner, his views about China are more nuanced (relatively speaking), and I appreciate his efforts promoting understanding. For example, I recall a debate between Fallows and Niall Ferguson on the topic of ‘Chimerica’ where Ferguson constantly tries to rachet up doom and gloom but only to be fizzled by Fallows more moderate (in my view correct) take on the relationship.
His perspective and narrative can be horribly wrong though about China. And, today, I take issue with him regurgitating a provocative WSJ piece essentially rumor mongering Jiang Zemin’s ‘death.’
First of all, Chinese culture has a disdain for publicly discussing imminent death of a family member. Chinese believe it is bad luck to discuss someone dying. It is disrespectful to do so too. Death is usually announced after.
The West may be fine talking about someone who is old, ill, and dying as if it is some kind of spectator sport. For me, personally, I much prefer the ‘Chinese’ way.
Fallows headlines, “Is Jiang Zemin Dead? Real-time Illustration of News Control in China.”
I am surprised for being a ‘China hand’ he doesn’t understand that nuance. A big bold headline with that question is just insensitive to say the least.
For the past 24+ hours, anyone following various social-media feeds* about China has seen rumors, then official denials, then silence, about the possible demise of former president Jiang Zemin, shown in his prime at right. Jiang would turn 85 next month.
I would add, the hysteria as demonstrated in some Western media over this non-news is just mind-boggling.
Fallows then cites the WSJ’s China Realtime Report – apparently taken at face value “illustrates the extreme heavy-handedness of the news control.”
An item two hours ago in the WSJ’s China Realtime Report illustrates the extreme heavy-handedness of the news control. For instance: Jiang’s name in Chinese is 江泽民, with the first character, 江, being his family name. That character, jiang, literally means “river” — and in the past few hours, any search for info about China’s big rivers on Sina Weibo (China’s Twitter counterpart, the real Twitter being blocked in China) comes up empty. As Josh Chin of the WSJ says:
>>In addition to “river,” the company has also blocked searches for “death” in various iterations as well as “301 Hospital,” a reference to the People’s Liberation Army General Hospital in Beijing where top leaders are often treated.
Beyond blocking searches, the service’s human censors have also been busy hand- deleting posts that mention the former leader.
Chinese microbloggers have employed a variety of tricks in an apparent attempt to get around the blocks. With Weibo censors blocking searches the word for “hung” (挂了), a common Chinese euphemism for death, users have been circulating an image showing an empty set of clothing hanging out to dry, pants hiked up to chest level the way Mr. Jiang preferred.<<
Fallows should ask himself, given his exposures to Chinese culture while in China, do Chinese media speculate on the imminent death of their leaders or anyone else?
Did the WSJ reporter search for “江泽民” itself? Were results blocked?
Did the WSJ reporter search Baidu and any other portals in China to see if results were blocked too?
I would not be surprised if people running the Weibo service were suppressing the rumors out of respect for Jiang. In fact, Chinese laws forbid citizens from spreading false rumors.
Can’t the West give it a rest until Jiang Zemin’s fate is known? If he passes, it will become news. Why pry for it? Until then, people should just mind their own business. Jiang is old and probably ill. The decent thing to do is to wish him and his family well.
Fallows went on to say:
I wish Jiang and his family well. He has been out of power for nearly a decade. The government’s difficulty in handling even the most basic info about his health is one more illustration of the unevenness of its emergence as a full-fledged world power. It will be interesting to see what the government finally says about him, when it does.
I wouldn’t chalk this episode up as “unevenness of its emergence as a full-fledged world power.” That is reading way too much into it. Is Sina Weibo the Chinese government?
If the West is so interested, then do some real reporting. Aren’t their Western journalists physically in China? But again, I will remind them that this type of reporting will be frowned upon as being disrespectful.
Imagine Chinese media outside Reagan’s home while he was ill asking “is he dead yet?”