Challenging your ideas about the Red Dragon

I wrote this on Friday:

We hear a lot of rumors, and rumors of rumors, about China in the US.  Some of them are true, some of them are half-truths, and some of them aren’t valid at all.

1888 Itcho Hanabuso wood print: blind monks examining an elephant

China isn’t everything the mainstream media in the US cracks it up to be.  I said the other day that trying to describe China is like asking “What’s the weather like in the United States?”  Perhaps a more accurate version of that question is the classic story of the blind men describing an elephant.  If I’m in China, how do I know what mainstream media is saying about the Middle Kingdom?  1) When I’m tuned into it during a visit to the States, 2) When I read online news, 3) The biases/assumptions that come through when people ask me questions/make comments about China.

Coming off my comments above, which weren’t the main point of my thoughts the other day, I hit a gold mine in this article from the Columbia Journalism Review.  This paragraph made my head go up and down like the bobble-head doll it talks about.

We’d just note that once a meta-press-narrative gets rolling, it tends to take on a life of its own, for a lot of reasons. Intra-newsroom dynamics play a role. It’s just easier to get a story in the paper that fits the meta-narrative than one that pushes against it. The former are the kinds of stories that, once pitched, make an editor’s head nod up and down like a bobble-head doll.

David at the Silicon Hutong also commented about this article.  I think it really hits the nail on the head.  He says

Let’s face it: most of us, most of the time, do not like reading or viewing media that challenges our personal assumptions on any topic. If the case were any different, Al-Jazeera would be America’s leading news source, not CNN or FOX. That does not make us bad, it makes us human. Being uncomfortable, whether physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually, is not fun, and most of us prefer comfort.

News media recognize this, and respond accordingly. This does not mean that journalists and editors are required to pander to readers, but it does mean that they can only go so far in challenging our core assumptions before the channel is changed, the paper is tossed, the advertisers lose their target market, and journalists lose their audience.

Have you noticed cases where China gets drawn into the mix in order to promote someone’s agenda?  Like clean energy or going green or currency debates or military strength?  The media would like it to seem like China is a threat to our American way of life and the American Dream.  I don’t remember where, but recently I saw a headline that said that China was siphoning scientific research talent from the US.  Really?  I mean, really?  The Washington Post echoes these thoughts in There’s a new Red Scare. But is China really so scary?

This new Red Scare says a lot about America’s collective psyche at this moment. A nation with a per capita income of $6,546 — ensconced above Ukraine and below Namibia, according to the International Monetary Fund — is putting the fear of God, or Mao, into our hearts…

“We have completely lost perspective on what constitutes reality in China today,” said Elizabeth Economy, the director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “There is a lot that is incredible about China’s economic story, but there is as much that is not working well on both the political and economic fronts. We need to understand the nuances of this story — on China’s innovation, renewables, economic growth, etc. — to ensure that all the hype from Beijing, and from our own media and politicians, doesn’t lead us to skew our own policy.”

So, all that to say, beware the things the blind men are saying as they circle the elephant.

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