Australians Behaving Badly


At times it feels like a tone of snide denigration and moral superiority are prerequisites for journalists reporting on the Olympics for Australian newspapers. Having lived in Beijing for 12 months, I am no fan of the Chinese state and have seen plenty of problematic measures instituted for the Beijing Olympics. But it’s been with growing embarrassment that I’ve read some of the unrelentingly negative, haughty and off-the-mark commentary appearing on Australian news sites in recent weeks.

John Birmingham opened his first blog entry, posted 26 July, with the following lines: "Picture a couple of Falun Gong dudes, or a Tibetan Monk sitting in a cell, waiting for the Games to finish so they can be executed and give up their organs for harvest." Organ harvesting from prisoners may or may not be taking place in China, but is this highly emotive, unambiguously negative image really the only thing Birmingham could think of to open his reporting of the Beijing Olympics? It’s cheap, lazy sensationalism masquerading as journalism, and has very little to do with the daily experience of most Chinese people.

In his third entry on 3 August, after strongly insinuating the Chinese are likely to cheat because the Soviets did at the Moscow Games in 1980 (all Commies are the same, right?), Birmingham describes how the Australian Olympic team were prevented from having a barbecue in the Olympic village due to concerns that Beijing’s air might contaminate the food. The city’s pollution has been on ongoing obsession for Australian media in recent weeks – the ABC’s site even has a "Beijing Smog Watch" featuring daily images of the city’s skyline.

Mentioning Beijing’s poor air quality is fair enough – as a resident I can testify on some days it is pretty bad. But these comments should be balanced with some acknowledgement of the fact the air is much better than it was a few years ago due to the efforts of the Chinese Government. Given the issues faced by some major Australian cities over traffic, worsening air and appalling public transport, Australian readers might also be interested to know that four new subway lines have opened in Beijing in the past year. Post-Olympic expansion of the subway system will see it become the largest in the world. And despite a rapidly growing car fleet, huge numbers of locals still cycle on a vast network of bike lanes that covers virtually every street in the city.

The Chinese Government openly acknowledges it has an environmental crisis on its hands and is taking steps to address it – unlike certain Western states. To my knowledge, none of these more positive and genuinely interesting points has been publicised recently on the Fairfax sites. If they have been mentioned, they have been well and truly smothered by the obsession with smog.

If the Fairfax blogs have serious problems, the Newscorp coverage is even worse, as anyone who’s wasted 30 seconds looking at Caroline Overington’s effort for The Australian will know. Her entries for 7 August consist of interviewing her colleague "elder statesman" Greg Sheridan about his time in Beijing, quoting the advice of a Westerner living in Beijing to foreign journalists about which clichés to please avoid repeating (advice which I hope she takes), and this post: "The Olympics is about to get underway in China, so let’s take a look at Beijing…Oh. Can’t see much." Insightful stuff.

The Fairfax bloggers have not only managed to overlook anything remotely positive about Beijing – some of them seem to have also managed to avoid any meaningful contact with locals. When Beijingers have appeared, it’s been as caricatures. Jacqueline Magnay, in her character assassination of China’s capital "Welcome to Beijing – for some" on 28 July wrote: "The 20 million Beijingers… warmly smile, all the time, even when their shops have been forcibly shut… and their hutong homes razed for a high rise."

Readers are left to wonder whether Beijingers are smiling at the end of a gun barrel or whether they’re so indoctrinated they unthinkingly grin at their own repression. It couldn’t be that most of them are happy with their country’s overall direction, or that their lives have improved vastly over the past 20 years, or that they have a genuine desire to engage with the outside world and create a good impression. Or that they’re just friendly people.

It is true that much of old Beijing has been levelled in recent years, and many locals are unhappy about the rate of change. Despite Magnay’s image of robotic compliance there have been several well-publicised protests. It must also be acknowledged that while Beijing’s ancient hutongs (lanes dating from Imperial times) are very picturesque for foreign tourists, they can be hell to live in. Given a choice between a dilapidated, unheated hutong abode without a toilet, and a new apartment in a modern high-rise, most Beijingers would opt for the latter. In short, locals’ feelings regarding the changing face of the capital are mixed, but you wouldn’t know this from Magnay’s comment. Instead we get unnamed forces bulldozing people’s homes and the residents smiling warmly in response.

As a little aside, The Sydney Morning Herald carried a report of a small development-related protest by disgruntled Beijing residents on 4 August, under the attention-grabbing headline "Protesters, police clash in Tiananmen Square". Perfect: a demonstration with easy-to-grasp historical resonances that neatly correlate with many Australians’ limited image of China. Except the headline was a blatant lie. As the article’s first line reveals, the protest was not "in Tiananmen", but in an area "near" the square, and motivated by quite different concerns to the massive protests 19 years ago.

To return to Magnay’s article, having reduced Beijing’s millions of residents to a single brainwashed stereotype, she continues with a string of sweeping claims about their city, including the statement that it is largely empty after "Chinese authorities renounced visas to aliens". Renounced visas? Then how are Magnay, myself and thousands of other foreigners in Beijing?

Visa regulations in China have been tightened in recent months, which has mainly affected long-term residents and those entering on business visas. I’ve had two Australian friends visit in the past three weeks and neither experienced any problem obtaining a 30-day tourist visa in Sydney.

The real issue for foreign residents is that nobody is quite sure what the changes to visa regulations are, a symptom of a Government culture of secrecy and non-accountability that has deep roots stretching back to well before the Communists came to power. This culture is a serious impediment to China’s progress, and the fact that it can inconvenience foreigners is the least of its sometimes devastating effects. Magnay, however, blithely skates over a complicated problem with a blanket and untrue statement: Chinese authorities have "renounced visas to aliens".

My point in highlighting these partisan comments, omissions, distortions, and inaccuracies is not to defend the Chinese Government, their often brutal actions, or their insanely blinkered paranoia. It’s simply to point out the People’s Republic is a challengingly large and complex place that is frequently reduced to a set of inaccurate, exclusively negative clichés in the Australian media.

It is possible to intelligently discuss China’s problems and achievements, including matters related to human rights abuses, without resorting to formulaic half-truths or looking down on the Chinese people. Richard Spencer of the UK Telegraph, for example, has examined the impact of the Olympics on Beijing’s residents without sensationalising the issues or whingeing about how he can’t access Falun Gong websites he would never dream of visiting in his own country. Similarly, Jian Shuo Wang’s blog offers an even-handed view of life in China from a local’s perspective. His entry posted on 31 July covers many of the same points as Magnay’s Welcome to Beijing, but with a tone of thoughtful consideration rather than smug superiority.

What distresses me most about the lack of reflection, accuracy or nuance in so much of the pre-Olympics coverage is the way it plays right into the Chinese Government’s hands. Many Chinese people already believe the West is terrified of China’s growing might and that we will do everything possible to belittle and humiliate their country. Given this mindset, all the Chinese Government needs to do is point to a few untruths – whether it’s countless news outlets running images of Nepalese police beating protestors to illustrate "Chinese" brutality a few months ago, or a patronising article on a Fairfax blog riddled with inaccuracies – and by implication all Western criticism of China becomes suspect.

How can Chinese people be expected to take criticisms of the Chinese state seriously when so much that is written about their nation is insulting, condescending, based on gross generalisations, displays an astounding degree of hypocrisy, or is just plain wrong?

I get the impression, however, that many Western journalists care little about what their words mean for ordinary Chinese people. China is well on the way to becoming an all-purpose "other" against which the West can define itself. Sure, Australia may flagrantly violate international law by helping to invade other countries, support the establishment of torture centres outside the jurisdiction of the law, lock up refugees in offshore camps, and willingly embrace the erosion of our own rights, but at least we’re not dirty, brainwashed, repressive Chinese.

For some Australian journalists, it seems shoring up the West’s crumbling sense of identity is a higher priority than attempting to understand and explain the complexities of life for one-fifth of the world’s population.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.