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9/11 Beijing: “Baoying”

Sep
11
2006

One’s fact, one’s fiction, of course. But the Chinese treatment of a still shot from “Death of a President,” – a photo not widely reprinted in the U.S. press – is a subtle comment on what 9/11 has meant here. Nary a newspaper in England could resist running that frozen frame from the film which envisions the assassination of President Bush; nary a newspaper in the United States failed to make note of that fact. A popular print outlet of international affairs in China, the Global Times, wasn’t about to miss out on the fun. On Monday, it printed the shot front-and-center, on Page One.

What was the big idea? A 16-page tabloid that has gone from printing twice to three times to five times a week, Global Times is published by People’s Daily, the Communist Party flagship. Not that it toes the official line. The government, outwardly, remains much more good-willed and politely aloof in its foreign policy statements. The paper, by comparison, is a fount of yellow journalism and chest-thumping jingoism. Beijing’s constraints on the state press notwithstanding, it slants its coverage by means of second-hand pastiche, conflating news from the world press and opinions from Chinese academics according to its own provocative designs. Those designs include sating the impulse of many Chinese to check hegemonic Americans and independence-minded Taiwanese; and just as important, selling as many papers as possible.

For all the shadow puppetry of every article you see in the Global Times, though, a chorus of conventional Chinese opinion usually rings through at some point. Midway through its article on “Death of a President,” the writer noted, “Undoubtedly, the movie will anger American and European supporters of Bush, but it raises a question that cannot be avoided: where is this war on terror going? How long will it continue to cause destruction before it yields positive effects?”

Reading this, I was reminded of the Chinese reaction, five years ago, to the September 11 attacks. As a whole, that was equally difficult to assess. In a country that appreciates the general sense of order (if not law) enforced by Communist rule, some people were genuinely shocked by the attacks. To some small degree, they could even empathise, having experienced a remote threat of bomb attacks by separatist Muslim Uyghurs from the northwest region of Xinjiang. Meanwhile, after two-plus years of flirting with crisis in Sino-U.S. relations, China’s leadership was inclined to get behind the U.S. campaign on terrorism, relieved to see the focus of Bush administration demonizing diverted. Yet more than anything other emotion that Chinese were feeling, foreign observers picked up on this tinge of xin zai le huo – delight in another’s disaster. Because on some level, most Chinese did view 9/11 as a manifestation of baoying, the deeply ingrained notion of cosmic retribution: America, the “world’s policeman”, had it coming.

To prevent that feeling from exploding into a public uproar, which would only further complicate its policy response, Beijing did what it normally does: it tried to tune out the media. But as has become just as common, the market seeped with loopholes. Within 10 days of the attacks, I counted four books on the streets from state publishers capitalizing on the entertainment value of 9/11. They carried whiz-bang names like “America’s Great Blasts of Terror”, and amounted to creatively stitched digests of newspaper clippings, mostly borrowed from Hong Kong press and Internet portals. One documentary about 9/11 and the build-up to it, “Attack America,” was particularly imaginative. Co-produced by a Singapore-based video distributor and Beijing Televsion (BTV), it fused newsreel history with Hollywood blockbuster, splicing in footage of Godzilla squashing New York buildings in the 1998 film remake. “There’s this need for more information on world terrorism in the market, so we’ve got to meet it,” a BTV producer told me at the time. I wrote a feature about the phenomena for Reuters, my then-employer.

A few days after the piece was published, I received an unusual phone summons from the Information Office of the State Council (SCIO), the government’s top publicity manager. The next day I cabbed it over to SCIO headquarters, where I was led to an upper floor meeting chamber. I sat down on one side of the table beside two colleagues, one from the Washington Post, another from The Associated Press. On the other side sat three officials from the State Council.

I don’t remember exactly what was said over the next hour. But the officials were intent on making clear to us that entertainment pieces like “Attack America” did not represent the attitudes of China’s government or its people. They also wanted to sound out our opinions of the reaction within China, and the foreign media’s treatment thereof. The session was on the record, but was remarkably low-key and informal. Afterward, somewhat perplexed as to what conclusions to draw, none of us filed anything specifically about it.

After five years of wasteful bloodshed and the viral spread of terror cells from England to Southeast Asia, what has changed? It seems to me that people in China bear the same general mix of sentiments toward America. Fewer and fewer hold our country’s political system in high esteem, though, and seldom does anyone question whether the Bush Administration is getting what they deserve in Iraq and Afghanistan – baoying. In fact, that’s practically a non-issue.

“This so-called ‘delight in another’s disaster’ is really two separate things,” a top news editor at a major Internet portal told me this week. “People may feel bad for the victims of terrorism…But they still think that it was brought about by U.S. policy.”

Today, by the same token, it’s less likely that a Chinese official would feel the need to explain, or risk making excuses for, domestic media sentiment deemed insensitive toward the United States – as those State Council officials did. The government has spent so much political capital massaging Chinese national pride in the past five year; why go out of their way to respect America’s? So, for a couple days, on its Internet home page, The Global Times displayed that acted image of George W. Bush, doubled-over and wincing like Lee Harvey Oswald. I’d be surprised if the paper’s editors hear anything about it.

Share  Posted by jansfield at 11:48 PM | Permalink

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