On Chen Guangcheng and Batman

Today, CNN posted a video in which they accompanied actor Christian Bale on a trip to Linyi to visit Chen Guangcheng, where he was promptly (and predictably) roughed-up and kicked out by thugs. They’ve since also posted a follow-up interview with Bale about it.

Anyway, as you might imagine given Bale’s star power, this story has gotten some play today, despite the ongoing craziness in Wukan and the news that Sina Weibo and other Beijing-based microblog providers must implement real-name requirements for all users. (This, I think, will be the death of Weibo as a political platform in China, but there will be time to talk about that later).

The ‘Batman Searches for Chen Guangcheng’ story has also elicited a number of negative reactions on Twitter. There seem to be two main criticisms of it; the first being that CNN was making news here rather than reporting it, and that Bale might just have been doing it as a publicity stunt. Both true, and yet to both I say: who cares?

CNN should not be “making news” by facilitating a confrontation between Bale and Linyi authorities? I’m not captain journalism or anything, but that’s probably true. They say Bale’s camp approached them about it, and we’ll probably never know the full background, but I don’t see it as particularly important. The method employed by CNN may have been unethical by journalistic standards, but the result they achieved via that method is exactly the point of journalism: getting attention to problems that people wouldn’t otherwise hear about. Now, do the ends justify the means? Not always, but here, even if they don’t, I don’t care. CNN has no credibility to lose in China anyway — see their ridiculous doctoring of photos during the riots in Tibet in 2008 — and aside from “you broke the rules” I don’t really see the harm in what they did here.

Bale is just making a PR move after accusations of being a propagandist for appearing in Zhang Yimou’s Flowers of War? It’s certainly possible. But again, why does this matter? A good deed done for selfish reasons is still a good deed. If letting people know about Chen’s case is what happens when Christian Bale gets selfish, I hope he spends the rest of his career so self-absorbed that he has to set up permanent housing in Linyi. (Take that, Relativity Media!)

Ah, but is it a good deed? There have also been some suggestions that Bale’s stunt could bring harm to Chen and his family, or hurt the chances of him being released. Of course, we can’t know what’s going on in the heads of the officials who are holding Chen and his family, but I’m not to worried about this, for two reasons.

  • Chen, by law a free man, and his entire family have already been locked away for a year with no charges or legal basis. They’ve been beaten and denied even the most basic access to, well, basically anything. And that’s just what we know has happened. What could Bale’s visit possibly do to make things worse?
  • “Quiet diplomacy,” historically speaking, doesn’t seem to work particularly well on these high profile cases. Moreover, Ai Weiwei’s release showed that with a bit of star power, a Western media firestorm can (potentially) influence things for the better. Of course, the personalities and the cases are different, but as I see it, Bale bringing attention to the subject can only help. If the Chinese government was going to release Chen on its own, they would have done it when he was released from prison. No one was following his case then, nor did it become big in the West until this fall, at which point Chen and his family had been under house arrest for half a year already. Keeping quiet and hoping the government will do the right thing may work sometimes, but it won’t work here.

Hopefully that makes sense. It’s been a long few days and we’re off again for a filming trip this weekend, so if I’ve made some crucial logical error here I won’t be able to address it until after we get back.

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0 thoughts on “On Chen Guangcheng and Batman”

  1. The problem is that every time that CNN Beijing does something that violates the normal standards of journalism, it negatively impacts, and tarnishes, every other reporter working here. They are one of the two or three highest-profile gigs in the country, and what they do is taken – for better or worse – as representative of the working methods of other foreign journalists. In this case, it’ll be proof – once again, courtesy of CNN – that foreign journalists engage in agenda-driven reporting. That isn’t helpful at all. In fact, it’s damages the ability of foreign correspondents to work with Chinese sources, among others. One more brick in the wall, if you will.

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  2. That’s a fair point. In the overall balance of things, I’d rather have that brick in the wall and more people know about Chen then have it not have happened, but I suppose one of the straws has to break the camel’s back at some point (I’m having a cliche party in this sentence and you’re all invited).

    I guess the reason I can’t get too worked up about it is that most people already have an opinion about “foreign media in China” anyway. CNN isn’t making things easier, but things were never gonna be easy anyway. To me, this time around, the brick in the wall is worth the attention it’ll bring to Chen’s case. Then again, as a tech writer I don’t stand to lose much from it one way or the other so perhaps it’s not fair for me to comment.

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  3. Of course the CCP would want real-name on weibo in particular, and the internet in general. Which authoritarian regime wouldn’t want to know exactly which comrade is bad-mouthing it, in order to provide timely and meaningful rewards for such behaviour?

    As for Bale/CNN/Linyi, let’s not lose sight of why this is a news story at all. If the Linyi thugs/corrupt government officials aren’t keeping CGC and his family under house arrest illegally and immorally, Bale wouldn’t be visiting, and CNN wouldn’t be bothered to film it. So if we’re to apportion credit, we should heap the lion’s share to those who most deserve it.

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  4. “The problem is that every time that CNN Beijing does something that violates the normal standards of journalism, it negatively impacts, and tarnishes, every other reporter working here. They are one of the two or three highest-profile gigs in the country, and what they do is taken – for better or worse – as representative of the working methods of other foreign journalists. In this case, it’ll be proof – once again, courtesy of CNN – that foreign journalists engage in agenda-driven reporting. That isn’t helpful at all. In fact, it’s damages the ability of foreign correspondents to work with Chinese sources, among others. One more brick in the wall, if you will.”

    I’m trying hard to think exactly what it is that you think CNN did wrong. As far as I can see, by trying to go to see someone that the press has not officially been denied access to they are merely exercising the rights granted under Chinese law. The fact that Chinese officials do not allow the press to see Liu Xiaobo’s wife Liu Xia does not mean that Al Jazeera’s Melissa Chan wrong to try to go to see her or that she was violating the “normal standards of journalism”.

    One of the things I find worrying about the US news media is their extreme deference to officialdom. As a simple example, I cannot remember an example of a US president being asked a tough question on purpose. When I compare this to the rough-and-tumble which British officials are treated to by our press I cannot help but think that the British press is far better at exposing the wrong-doing of officials than the US media, and that mostly this is due to their lack of deference.

    Asking tough questions which people do not want to answer, going places where people do not want reporters to go – I cannot see how this “violates the normal standards of journalism”. Quite the opposite.

    As for Bale, if his actions bring greater attention to this issue, this can only be good.

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  5. I’m not sure this necessarily qualifies as “agenda-driven reporting.” If a story like this had happened anywhere besides China, I don’t think it would be a big deal.
    Attempting to place blame on CNN for violating “journalist ethics” completely overlooks the fact that 1) there would be no “agenda” if the government was not blatantly violating its own laws and mistreating a human being by arbitrarily detaining him and his family in their home, and 2) anywhere else in the world, this would not be “an agenda,” this would simply be a news story. But in China with all of the lovely constraints on speech there’s a sense that it is best not discussed, hence making those who discuss it people with “agendas.”
    I would propose instead that it is the people who want to lock up Chen and his family and thousands of others across the country who have a real agenda, and that it is the responsibility of journalists to report on this fact.

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  6. For what its worth CNN conducted the same excursion earlier this year with the same journalist sans Mr. Bale without sparking this type of debate. Is the presence of Batman in Linyi the lynchpin to accusations of CNN’s integrity?

    As an aside suddenly holding CNN to journalistic ethics ignores years of questionable practices that have sidelined CNN to mainstream infotainment status.

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  7. Which issues did Rein raise which have not yet been thoroughly deconstructed, pray tell? Either here or at PKD? Richard admits to having a bit of a burr in his saddle about Rein, but Rein’s piece falls on its face all on its own, without the need for much outside assistance.

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