I have been thinking about two questions about China’s image in the Western Media (AKA “international public opinion”).
Question 1: Why is China portrayed as either collapsing (“this time it’s over for China”, “chaos”) or menacing (the “China threat”) so prevalently (despite notable exceptions)? Why these particular traits?
Question 2: How should the Chinese (在朝和在野的中国人) react to their national image in the “international public opinion”? Particularly, what should we do about our “bad press”?
One’s answer to question 2 depends on his or her answer to question 1.
Potential answers to question 1 that I can think of include (1) lack of access to accurate information about the situation in China, (2) inadequate mental capacity among the Western “China watchers” to process the information and (3) deliberate manipulation of the information to create and sustain a pre-conceived image (the China Mirage) in the West. Options (1) and (2) can be quickly dismissed as unlikely. Option three, the deliberate distortion of China’s image, needs examination.
The word “deliberate” is not equivalent to “conscious”. People do things deliberately without conscious intention. These actions are triggered by routines of pursuing entrenched goals, and require no conscious monitoring. Reflective insight is not always necessary for deliberate actions. “Deliberate actions” simply refer to those guided by goals and motives, which may lie deep in one’s subconscious. What are the subconscious motives driving the distortion of China’s image in the Western Media? This question relates to the social function(s) of the Western media, i.e., the purpose(s) they serve. I do not pretend to possess the training to come up with thorough analyses of this complex issue. I have just read a little bit of Herbert Marcuse (I always mix him up with Jürgen Habermas, don’t know why, somehow foreign names always get me) and found his theoretical framework compelling.
The western media are an instrument for the control of the Western population (contrary to popular beliefs about their mission to enlighten). They serve this function by creating artificial needs in citizens and enslaving each individual with the pursuit of these needs (One-Dimensional Man, 1964). This notion can be traced back to Carl Marx’s concept of “alienation”; individuals in capitalist societies are deprived of their authentic need for creativity and self-actualization (Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow), with their labor turned into a “commodity”. Marcuse’s analyses of consumerism in “post-industrial” (Western) societies illustrate this strategy of enslavement. By creating a need for an i-pod, a new car, a big house, vacation in Cancun, plastic surgery, losing weight and etc., the “society” enslaves people in a fervent pursuit (toil) for constantly evolving materials objects, which themselves are created with labor (toil). (It seems to me Marcuse is a Buddhist. His emancipation must come from becoming a Buddhist monk(出家和尚), reducing one’s material needs to a bare minimum, just the robe on his back and a begging bowl in his hand). The pursuit is set in motion by “scarcity” (per Marx).
One can apply this framework to the distortion of the Image of China (trashing or bashing China) in the Western media. The intended audience of the Western media is the Western population. The purpose of creating a collapsing/menacing China Mirage is to allow the ruling class to control discontent among the Western populations. The control is implemented with the creation of psychological needs associated with two basic emotions, fear and (low) self-esteem.
Fear is created by the scarcity of security (or the impression of such a scarcity, from fear mongering). Fear is necessary for controlling the population; it drives the pursuit of stability through accepting and maintaining status quo. Whenever there is a formidable rival from outside, the population is willing to concentrate on coping with outside threat and make personal sacrifices (be model slaves). Foreign (e.g., Chinese) threat gives the masters in Western societies the excuse to oppress the slaves more forcefully. They can call dissidents traitors (un-American or unpatriotic), and pass the Patriot Act. The Americans have always needed a rival, be it the Soviet Union or China (the commie infidels), or the Muslim World (the Satan followers, axis of evil), for a sense of national purpose. This sense of national purpose is the instrument for driving the flock of slaves to elect their masters over and over again (One-Dimensional Man, 1964), instead of challenging the “system”. Why do the rednecks (I use this term with affection, no disrespect) of the American heartland keep installing Republican politicians as their masters, who then team up with the business interests to screw the rednecks really hard? It is fear. The menacing China Mirage serves the purpose of inducing fear in the masses, just like communism and Islam. Once fear is induced in the masses, the associated need for security can be satisfied only by the masters in the government and congress, with Wars on Terror, (Cold) Wars against Commies, trade barriers, anti-immigration laws, stimulus packages and so forth. The slaves freely elect their masters, the cycle continues……
Fear is an inhibiting force; it creates obedient slaves. However, excessive fear of alien forces (e.g., the Chinese or Islam) creates low self-esteem, an agitating and stirring emotion. Collective low self-esteem in the masses may lead to discontent with the ruling class (the masters). Fear creates a need for psychological comfort, the protection of self-esteem, the burning desire to be told that there is someone even more miserable than you are, someone even you can patronize. Here the China Mirage again comes to the rescue. China’s collapsing image created by the Western media is used for “downward comparison”, to dilute the pain from the problems in the Western societies and boost their citizens’ collective self-esteem. This trend gets stronger at times of internal turmoil in Western societies. When the Westerner is in pain (e.g. economic meltdown, or even better, when having his livelihood squeezed by “cheap Chinese labor”), he needs to feel better off than “the Other”. “When you read about the suffering of all the unfortunate people in communist China (or watch ’em on TV), you feel happy and grateful about what you have in this great nation. You are such a lucky s.o.b. to have been born in the USA. Go USA, go….” With this mentality the American redneck would put up with losing his minimal-wage job of flipping burgers and living in a trailer park, leaving the AIG executives continue to enjoy their private jets and million-dollar yachts. He may even enjoy the showmanship in the Congress and presidential elections, as long as the Chinese are living in deeper misery (or so he thinks). Armed with the mirage of miserable Chinese and a China on the verge of collapse provided by the Western “free press”, he lives happily as a slave that freely elects his master (in Marcuse’s own words) to screw him ever harder.
Part of the Western media will never give up the practice of painting China either as menacing or on the verge of collapse or chaos. The China Mirage serves a dual purpose for them, generating fear (the need for security) and assuaging fear (offering a sense of security with the psychological comfort of downward comparison). The source of the problem in China’s image is not in China, but in the West. The Western culture and societies need to hold on to these images of “The Other” for their own functioning. By creating a false dichotomy between the mirages of Western “democracy” and Chinese dictatorship or authoritarianism, i.e., by trashing “the Other” or the alternative, the western media forcefully drive the (mostly poorly educated and ill informed) masses to cling to the status quo (with their guns and religion, per presidential candidate Obama). In recent years it has become patently clear that the real threat of China’s success to the West is not economic or military, but ideological/psychological, by offering a viable alternative of political economy to the so called Western Democracy (citations???). In this aspect, a large part (not the entirety) of the Western media is a comrade of Christian religious fundamentalism and old-fashioned racism in their approach to China.
How about question 2? I think the answer is clear, if you accept my answer to question 1.
Sorry about my abrasive use of the English language. I hope you see my progress in becoming civilized.