Still Inscrutable, After All These Years

Norman Matloff

Panelist Presentation at the Forum on US Policy toward China
Sunnyvale, California
December 2, 1995

First, I wish to thank Silicon Valley for Democracy in China, particularly Ignatius Ding, for holding this forum and allowing a diversity of voices to be heard.

My theme today will be that there is an appalling degree of ignorance and misinformation among Americans about China, especially in the institutions which count most---the American media and government. This is crucial to the topic at hand in today's Forum, as it is axiomatic that one cannot formulate good policy with bad information.

Between 1949 and about 1980, the American media presented China as the Personification of Evil. In 1980 there was a sharp reversal, with the media now portraying the Chinese government as the Cuddly Communists. The media fawned over China. Then after June 4, 1989, there was another sharp reversal, with the media reverting to painting China as the Personification of Evil. Whereas in the 1980s China could do no wrong in American eyes, China now could do no right.

In other words, American press coverage of China has lurched back and forth between two extremes, both of which are extremely inaccurate. Again, it is impossible to base policy on such poor information.

Since 1989 the American media and government have engaged in a relentless campaign of ``China bashing.'' The level of misinformation is such that it is presumed that ordinary Chinese people actually approve of this campaign---a presumption diametrically contrary to reality.

Take for example congressional threats to revoke China's Most Favored Nation (MFN) trade status. In a 1994 poll conducted by the popular Bay Area Chinese-language daily Sing Tao, about 80% of the respondents said that they were opposed to revoking China's MFN status. There were similar results in a China News Digest Internet poll of students from China who were studying at U.S. universities. Even prominent China analyst Orville Schell, a bit of a China-basher himself, has conceded that the populace in China opposes U.S. cancellation of MFN status.

Yet Congress has been completely unaware of this, and has simply taken it for granted that Chinese and Chinese-Americans would be big supporters of revoking MFN status. For example, in 1992 an aide to then-Senator Alan Cranston (D-California) told me that Cranston supported such revocation---``Because he supports all Asian-American causes.''

The idea of actually asking Chinese-Americans their opinions on the matter seemed somehow out of reach to the Cranston people. The old adage that Asia and Asians are inscrutable appears to be alive and well in Congress.

This year Rep. Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) introduced a bill to grant political asylum to any Chinese refugee who claims to be fleeing China's one-child-per-family policy. Smith's office said that he had introduced the bill on behalf of his Chinese-American constituents. Yet most Chinese-Americans know that the Chinese ``boat people'' are simply coming to the U.S. for economic opportunities, not to have more children.

Reporters covering pro-Harry Wu demonstrations in metropolitan areas with large Chinese-American populations this summer never seemed to notice that the vast majority of the demonstrators were Caucasian.

The American media labeled the student protests in Beijing in 1989 the ``pro-democracy'' movement. Had the press bothered to check, they would have found that the students were actually just as anti-democracy as Deng Xiaoping himself. They were elitists, and considered the Chinese populace to be incapable of governing itself. American reporters, who were using the ``emperor has no clothes'' methaphor to describe the Chinese government, failed to notice obvious signs that the students were equally naked, such as a student leader's comment on CNN that ``No, China does not need free elections.'' A 1990 Stanford conference of famous Chinese dissidents produced some proposals that China be governed by a benevolent dictatorship; coverage by the American press was virtually nonexistent.

The press also has a very selective memory. The Chinese government should indeed be rebuked for opening fire on the demonstrators in Beijing in 1989. But the press failed to remember similar incidents in South Korea (1980, 2,000 killed), the U.S. (Kent State University, 1968, 4 killed) and Taiwan (1947, 20,000 killed). How many congresspeople called for cancelling South Korea's MFN status in 1980?

Perhaps the saddest aspect of the American press' misinforming us about China is that certain Chinese and Chinese-Americans have been manipulating American journalists, who have been blind to the fact that these people have their own selfish agenda.

The participants in the 1989 student movement, for example, were motivated much more by self-interest than by a general concern for human rights. To be sure, there was definitely a strong element of youthful idealism driving the movement. But the same Chinese students who were so enthusiastically demonstrating in May had been completely silent during world outcry over Chinese army abuses in Tibet in March. The difference was that the protests in May involved the students' economic self-interest. Most Chinese university graduates work in state-sector jobs, whose salaries were taking a terrific beating by rampant inflation in 1989. The Chinese government had added insult to injury by reneging on its earlier promise to allow the students to find their own jobs after graduation, instead of being assigned. Few students in Beijing relished the prospects of a post in, say, remote Xinjiang Province. The government was also making it more difficult to study abroad. Thus much of the students' motivation for demanding freedom of speech, the right to form an independent student union and so on were more pragmatic than idealistic.

Chinese students studying in the U.S. had their own agenda too. They egged on the American press to paint as repressive a picture of China as possible, so that Congress would pass a bill giving all the students immigrant green cards.

The students' conduit to green cards was San Francisco Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, who had her own selfish interests. She saw China-bashing as her ticket to stardom in the Democratic Party, which after a disastrous 1988 election was looking for an issue to club then-President George Bush with. The Democrats' goal was to portray Bush's support for continuing China's MFN status as inhumane. Pelosi, upon discovering that most Chinese students sided with Bush on MFN, coerced the main organization of Chinese students in the U.S. to voice support for her anti-MFN bills, in exchange for her sponsoring a green-card bill for the students. The students, knowing that there was no justification for being granted this mass political asylum, had to accede to Pelosi's coercion.

Some individual Chinese-Americans have close ties to Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang Party, and have apparently helped promote China-bashing in order to make Taiwan look better. Other individuals bear personal grudges against the Chinese government for misdeeds which occurred long before the present leaders (many of whom suffered themselves during that era) took office.

The press itself is not always so innocent. One China expert at a major newspaper openly told me that her boss would not accept her writing about Chinese-American support for continuation of China's MFN status, their support to hold the 2000 Olympics in Beijing, and so on. Apparently it is not only in communist countries that one must toe the party line.

For all of their hypocrisy, the students in Beijing in 1989 were right to demand a free press, something we Americans treasure. But one must keep in mind that freedom of the press includes the freedom to publish ignorant and even deliberately biased reports. Let the reader beware.


Norman Matloff teaches at the University of California at Davis. He has been active in the Chinese immigrant community for 20 years, and is a member of the Committee for Rational Relations with China.

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