Who Cares What Herta Müller Thinks?

The San Francisco Chronicle ran a story today (via CDT) about this years Nobel Literature Prize winner Herta Müller. Müller, apparently, is of the opinion that the West should “be tougher on China”. She said (quoting from the news story, which quotes her):

Human rights in China have been cast aside for too long and that the persecution of dissidents “has nothing to do with democracy.”


“As far as China is concerned, who claims to be on the road to democracy — it’s not even half, not even a quarter, not even a tenth true.”


The 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, a rampage of violence and radical communism led by Mao Zedong’s youthful Red Guards, and the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square are still taboo in China, she said, adding that the West should be less tolerant of this.

“If there were less acceptance in the West, then the rulers in China would have to think a little bit about how to change,” Mueller said.

She emphasized that what she called the current approach of diplomacy and friendliness would not help China on the road to democracy. “Quite the reverse is true,” she said.

Forgive me for being a bit baffled by the whole thing. Certainly, she’s right in saying that China isn’t yet a real democracy, nor is China’s treatment of dissidents in any way acceptable. That said, I can’t help but wonder why the San Francisco Chronicle is publishing an article dedicated to the opinion of someone who, as far as I can tell, has no knowledge of or expertise on China whatsoever.

She did grow up in Communist Romania (and all Communist countries are the same, after all!), but she doesn’t seem to have ever lived in, visited, or formally studied China. That might explain why she things the Cultural Revolution is “taboo” in China despite the fact that, for example, searching Chinese search engine Baidu for “Cultural Revolution” in Chinese results in 23 million results. By comparison, if you search Google for “Cultural Revolution” in Chinese [~3 million results], then search it again in English [~6 million results] and add the resultant numbers together, Google only provides about 9 million results. Then, of course, there’s the entire body of literature that was born from the ashes of the C.R., commonly called Scar Literature, which openly deals with the terrible things that happened during the Cultural Revolution and the “scars” it left on Chinese society. Whoops! Guess it’s either not that taboo or the censors are doing a really, really horrible job…

Of course, what she’s saying isn’t entirely wrong, and that’s the problem. Mixing lies with the truth (whether intentional or not) spreads misinformation. If you knew nothing about China, and then read in the San Francisco Chronicle that a Nobel Prize winner says the Cultural Revolution is taboo in China, would you have any reason to disbelieve it? No, you wouldn’t. After all, she says that Tiananmen 1989 is a taboo topic in China, too, and that’s undeniably true.

Another way to put it might be that Müller, or perhaps the Chronicle, is guilty of making some faulty analogies. The Cultural Revolution may be a taboo topic of conversation in China in the same way that one’s personal finances are a taboo topic of conversation in the West — it isn’t something one routinely brings up at the dinner table. Tiananmen, on the other hand, isn’t so much a taboo conversation topic as a banned conversation topic due to restricted access to information about it.

It isn’t my intention to fault Herta Müller or the Chronicle here. She’s entitled to express her opinions (although one would think a literary person such as herself might have read some Scar Literature), and it’s an interesting (if random) thing to say, so one can’t blame the Chronicle for printing it. It does point to what I think is a larger problem with the Western media on all kinds of topics (including but not limited to China): they love to report the opinions of famous/”relevant” people, even if those people have no idea what they’re talking about. What they never seem to add, though, is the disclaimer: this person has no special knowledge of the topic they’re speaking on.

What do you think? Valid point or are we just tilting at windmills again?

0 thoughts on “Who Cares What Herta Müller Thinks?”

  1. Of course you’re right, the media is full of people jabbering about things they know nothing about, but it almost sounds as if you don’t want anyone criticizing China. The Cultural Revolution may not actually be taboo, but how often does the Chinese Communist Party blame Mao Zedong for it? Even if she doesn’t mention the tens of millions of deaths the CCP is responsible for during its various campaigns and particularly the Great Leap, it’s always salutary to see some criticism of China in a world where many people still insist on celebrating Mao.


  2. Truly credible criticism of China is in short supply in the Western Media; Herta Müller comments is an example of something that IS NOT credible.


  3. This is just what the new media does. Investigative journalism costs too much. It’s a lot easier to run a soft piece like this one — all you have to do is spend half an hour on the phone interviewing them.


  4. The nobel prize has lost a lot of its cache lately, wouldn’t you say.

    Western media embraced the “People Magazine” business model many years ago. The need to spin everything and anything coupled with deadline pressure
    and a poorly educated generation of “journalists” has led to “consenus” storylines and “template” driven editorial laziness. The climategate scandal has
    highlighted the rot at the core of western journalism, and the Tiger Woods crap
    underscores the dangers of PR myth making. Journalist aspire to celebrity and
    celebrities aspire to substance, or some relevance. The world turned upside down, Integrity, intellectual curiosity, are seriously inconvient. Thank god AL
    Gore invented the internet.


  5. I agree with hanmeng; may be it is not an internet taboo… but how many times I have to go through the “translation process” when I speak with Chinese in their 50’s with some kind of “power/responsibility” and they tell me about the “lost years” the “chaos years” the unfortunate events years… May be taboo is not the word, but it is an issue far from open to fair study and criticism, at least not in the open media; maybe some historians have tackle the question, but even there, you still see a lot of compromises.


  6. The Nobel Laureates writers and ‘for peace’ are just always politicized, people like Herta Muller, Henry Kissinger, Dalai Lama, Shimon Peres, Yasser Arafat, and Barack Obama. I’m sure that Alfred Nobel would roll in grave if he learned that these people win the prize under his name.


  7. I’d caution against making points based on search results. (1) It doesn’t provide any context for the hits — a certain cult organization, for example, turns up a surprising number of results in China despite being taboo. (2) The “millions of hits” reported are nowhere near accurate. The Language Log linguists have done some comparisons and have decided: When Google reports hit count estimates over a few hundred, the results should never be taken at face value, or any value at all — they’re not only too inaccurate for serious research, but demonstrably flaky.


  8. “…an article dedicated to the opinion of someone who, as far as I can tell, has no knowledge of or expertise on China whatsoever.”

    Human Rights are moral absolutes, and their abuses don’t need geographical, political, religious, or cultural ‘expertise’ in order to make criticism.

    Besides, Müller may be right about the need for a tougher line: history tells us that appeasing dictators has never had a happy ending.


  9. Besides, Müller may be right about the need for a tougher line: history tells us that appeasing dictators has never had a happy ending.

    Now after carping doesn’t bring result what would you propose “gun boat diplomacy” Well this is 2009 and not 1914!


  10. @ stuart: Even if human rights are “moral absolutes” (and I think one could argue the point, not to mention the definitions of what should be included in “human rights”)

    @ joel: yeah, I wouldn’t base an argument on search results alone, but I needed something slightly more legitimate sounding than “I’ve heard an awful lot of Chinese people talk, unprompted, about the Cultural Revolution.” (Which is true, but I try to keep personal anecdotes off the site entirely).

    @ kailing: I don’t know, I think more of that comes from people not wanting to rehash painful memories than it does from any kind of government-inspired taboo…there’s certainly been plenty written about it, and when one comes across remnants of it, people aren’t generally shy about it (for example, I was tagging along behind a Chinese tour group so I could eavesdrop on their tour guide at the Longmen Caves outside Luoyang and heard her give a pretty extensive explanation for the reason many of the statues there are defaced [if it’s missing a head, it was stolen by Westerners, if it’s missing a face, it was defaced by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution).


  11. “Human Rights” and “Social Justice” are terms that really have little meaning
    beyond making people feel good. Without a legal structure to define them
    and a culture willing to enforse them; what do they mean? Who decides what is
    moral? How does any moral absolute exist outside of a cultural context ?
    Can an abuse of human rights be defined without a legal structure? If a people
    willingly accepts the “dictates” of an authority (any authority) is that appeasment?


  12. Besides, Müller may be right about the need for a tougher line: history tells us that appeasing dictators has never had a happy ending.

    Agree. This is why the dictator of the current world, Westerners, need to be dealt with harshly.


  13. Not really sure how getting opinions from famous people who don’t know what they are talking about is an exclusive trait of the “Western” media. I really enjoy this blog, but if there is one criticism I make is that you consistently fail to question this false and utterly ridiculous construct of the “Western media”. I appreciate the work bridge blogs like this do, but if you are going to have real and honest discussion, isn’t it better to avoid inaccurate and misleading terms like this? If you want to attack the SF Chronicle for taking at face value the criticisms of a personage that has absolutely no business commenting on China, then fine and I agree. But, when you then conflate the mistake of the SF Chronicle with an imagined and politically charged term like “the western media”, you’ve basically destroyed your own credibility through a false generalization that is inherently divisive.

    Please note that I agree with your analysis, I also do not want to defend “the western media” per say. News media in general is regularly disappointing around the world at this time. I am just a stickler for expressions and I think that this particular one has and continues to be used too frequently and loosely by otherwise intelligent writers (similar to the intractable media habit of taking about the actions of “China”, rather than the actions of the “CCP”). Anyway, I see no reason for it’s continued use, as it makes absolutely no sense beyond it’s political function as an imagined geographic antagonist. How do you justify its use as a “bridge” blogger whose goal is to create a more open dialogue?


  14. It’s just a form of shorthand, not unlike “bridge blogger” — a way of generalizing a large group for the purposes of conveniently referring to it. Obviously, the “Western media” isn’t really some monolithic entity, but sometimes the constraints of space and time require us to make generalizations about the sorts of things that get covered in the news we read, i.e., “Western” news, and that’s the term thats most commonly used, so we use it too.

    I agree it’s not entirely accurate or ideal, and furthermore that generalizations generally [ha!] are a bad idea, but I don’t have always have the time or resources to research and document everything in specific, and thus occasionally stoop to generalization in the hopes that readers can extrapolate some legitimate support for my argument from what is admittedly a pretty lazy way of providing that support.

    You make an interesting point about it being divisive, though, which isn’t something I’d really thought about. Anyway, I’m open to suggestions if there’s a better general term. “The media”, I suppose, is less divisive; my concern with that is that on a China blog people will assume I’m referring to or at least including Chinese media, but I don’t read enough mainstream Chinese media sources to feel comfortable making generalizations about their content (yet!)


  15. I’ve always thought “western media”, as a product anyway, included Chinese media, so the two can’t really be separated. That’s because, let’s say my name was Kai Pan, or Kaiser Kuo, I could sit at a cafe (in Shanghai) with wifi and access the majority of what Chinese writers and bloggers are publishing (and I could read it directly). If I had a VPN which says I’m from the states, then I could access news reports from Europe, Taiwan, Japan, or the US with relative ease. Of course I’ve found that a US IP will limit your access to some material on Chinese websites, but I’m not certain of the extent of that. Neway, what I mean to say is, as a product, “western media” to me is more or less inclusive of Chinese media, whereas Chinese media is indeed quite limited.

    Also, @ this statement:
    -“Mixing lies with the truth (whether intentional or not) spreads misinformation”
    I disagree with the characterization of a person stating a falsity because they sincerely believe it to be true as a lie, more just a mistake. It’d be like me saying, “80% of China’s population is Han”, and someone correcting me in this manner: “Liar”


  16. Does motive define the media?
    economic / technical
    Does the audience define the media? as in “western”
    Is there some monolithic MEDIA?

    I majored (very briefly) in journalism, many years ago. I quickly moved to
    press operations. The pressmen were a better class of human.


  17. This is why I hate talking about China with Americans that are actually in America. They ask me something about China and I have to give them a long answer to correctly frame it within context, but by that time, they’re bored and are no longer interested in the question they originally asked. But if I give them a short, quick answer, then the message has been delivered out of context and they take it to mean something else entirely.

    In this case, Mueller is giving people exactly what they want to hear: clear, concise criticism about a still-communist nation. But I think what annoys me the most about the situation is how people like her say something like this, take arthouse pictures of themselves and act like they’re enlightened individuals who have just reinvented the wheel. Honestly, the entire thing smacks of pompousness.


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