Category Archives: Discussion Section

Translation: “Looking Forward to When Anti-Corruption Has Some Culture”

I came across this short piece by Wang Gengxing in Southern Weekend today; I think it’s quite worthy of discussion. (All the links were added by me for the purposes of providing extra context; none of them are in the original piece).

Recently officials have been falling one after another: “Watch brother” Yang Dacai, Guangzhou former PSB chief He Jing, Yibin deputy mayor Chen Guangli…we can see that the government is resolute in opposing corruption and that the anti-corruption system is gradually improving. But even the most perfect system will not easily show results without corresponding cultural support. Taichung (Taiwan) mayor Hu Zhiqiang once dressed up as a beardless “modern-day Zhong Kui” and beheaded four kinds of green “corruption demons” with a group of children to plant the seed of opposing corruption in their hearts. Hong Kong’s ICAC uses many approaches to plant the seed of “clean governance” in the people’s hearts: they used the cartoon “Zhi Duo Duo” to communicate with children, set up an interactive website to communicate with young people, sent “clean government ambassadors” to colleges, held anti-corruption activities…Central Commission for Discipline Inspection secretary He Guoqiang recently emphasized that we must give prominence to the special characteristics of clean government culture, “in improving writing styles from top to bottom, in innovating new measures from top to bottom, ceaselessly raising the level of anti-corruption/pro-clean government education and propaganda work.” Why can’t you and I also put forward plans and make anti-corruption even more cultured?

Is cultural involvement really necessary to fostering cleaner government? Clearly not everyone thinks so. One commenter on the article above wrote:

Without civic consciousness, without consciousness of civil liberties, without an effective system of checks and balances, all we can do is count on idle talk, what’s the point?

Another wrote:

Culture’s influence is imperceptible [but present], however in today’s society, this road is destined to be long and winding [i.e., eliminating corruption via cultural changes is going to be a very slow and inefficient process]. Returning to the main topic; greed comes from human nature; unless we wait for the arrival of true socialism when there is no more inequality, we’re just treating the symptoms but ignoring the root cause.

Another commenter hit on my own personal reaction to the piece:

The system is useless, it’s all Monday-morning quarterbacking ((The original Chinese here is one of my all time favorite expressions, ‘an after-the-fact Zhuge Liang’)). Mostly it relies on net users, mistresses, and Gan’s daughters.

In other words, the system is often reactive and does nothing to stop corrupt officials who don’t draw attention to themselves. Indeed, one of the examples Wang cites in the original piece, “Watch brother” Yang Dacai, was only brought to justice after internet users uncovered his corruption and started raising a ruckus.

Returning to the original point though, despite the fun-sounding stunts in Taiwan and Hong Kong, I don’t think that corruption can really be regulated through education and culture, and especially not through the PRC government’s propaganda machine, which hasn’t proven to be particularly effective with this sort of thing. (For example, the government has been both promoting and legislating gender equality for years in the hopes that it can stamp out the traditional girl-bad-boy-good mentality; the failed results of that campaign so far are pretty evident in the country’s growing gender gap). As one commenter pointed out, greed seems to be a part of human nature, and it’s not likely to be overcome by a cultural campaign even if Zhongnanhai plasters the walls of the Forbidden City with red banners about fighting corruption.

On the other hand, though, the Chinese school system certainly could be doing more to promote transparency and honesty. At present, many students in Chinese schools are learning (among other things) how to get away with cheating; cheating and plagiarism are (in some schools) basically considered part of the game. I can only assume that attitude does contribute to the idea that it’s OK to cheat in other ways in one’s professional life, including — if one opts to go in that direction — one’s life as a public official.

Moreover, I suspect the larger issue facing China’s anti-corruption drive is the perception that Party membership and officialdom is generally motivated by personal interests rather than ideology or any genuine interest in serving others. For example, a cursory search for “Why Should I Join the Party?” turned up this question on Baidu Knows (What is the best reason why I should join the Communist Party?”). The top answer is exactly what you would expect, but here are snippets from some of the other answers users submitted:

…The best reason to join the Party is that after you commit a crime you’ll become famous. As soon as someone says official so-and-so did it. Otherwise, you won’t be able to become famous…

Of course, joining the Party has advantages for you…

Because you’re a Chinese person and you have to live in China…

Because these days many companies give priority to Party members when hiring.

Entering the Party is not just a reflection of improving your political identity, it is also creating a political foundation for your personal struggles. In a sense this means it will improve your personal value; for example when filling out a resume and putting down that you’re a Party member, the results will be very different [than if you weren’t; in other words, Party members will get jobs and meet other goals more easily.]

My personal opinion…when Party members make mistakes, they take away your Party membership first; if you’re not a member you’re just directly criminally prosecuted. Also I hear that if you’re a Party member and you’re arrested they can’t put handcuffs on you, haha.

There’s plenty more where this came from; the point is that clearly a lot of people feel that joining the Party ((which, granted, isn’t quite the same as public service although it’s generally the first step towards that)) these days is just a way to get ahead in your career or give yourself a little bit of padding in case you ever get caught breaking the law.

That’s a cultural problem of sorts, so could a cultural push really help stem the tide of China’s corruption? And if it could, would the Chinese government actually be able to effectively pull off such a campaign? I have my doubts, but I’m curious to hear what others think.

(Please keep in mind before you comment that we have recently changed the commenting rules. I highly suggest reading that link before commenting if you’re not already aware of the changes.)

Discussion Section: Han Han (and China) on Libya

I was about to translate this post when I discovered that Global Voices beat me to the punch. I guess some people are still paying attention to Han Han, even if the domestic media isn’t allowed to mention him anymore.

Hit the link above for Han Han’s take on Libya, but here’s the money quote (from the Global Voices translation):

My view is very simple: dictators have no internal affairs, and slaughterers ought to be invaded and eliminated. Yesterday just happened to be the brightest moon in 19 years. It doesn’t matter who, it doesn’t matter why; in the name of the moon, annihilate him.

The moon bit is just a joke; “In the name of the moon, I’ll annihilate you!” is a quote that’s been bouncing around the net for a couple years. But the rest of it seems to be genuine, and it’s interesting because there is a lot of debate happening on the Chinese net right now about Libya.

It’s not hard to guess where the Chinese government — which abstained on the vote to enforce a no fly zone — falls on this issue. I’m just waiting for Li Hongmei to write one of her classic columns on it.

More than a few Chinese netizens have a similar take. Comparisons to the Iraq war and condemnations of “the West” are already flying around Chinese social networking sites and microblogs like Sina, where “Iraq” has been a trending topic for the past couple days mostly because of that comparison.

As I understand it — and I haven’t had time to follow it too closely — there are a couple issues at play here. First, people are concerned about “the West’s” incursion being a violation of Libyan sovereignty. In China, of course, any incursion into another country’s “domestic affairs” is always a hot topic and a point of pride for the Chinese government, an opportunity to take the moral high ground because China doesn’t interfere in other countries’ affairs unless those countries are Taiwan, Japan, India, any African country with useful resources, etc….

With regards to that argument, I’m with Han Han. And in an age of instant international communication, I’m not sure what the value of national sovereignty is when (1) the “domestic issues” of any given country inevitably affect things in other countries ((Just look at the wave of protests that continues to sweep through the middle east; somehow, Tunisian internal affairs managed to affect Egypt…)) and (2) there are civilian lives hanging in the balance. As a government, I think you probably forfeit your sovereignty right about the time you start using fighter jets to bomb peaceful protesters. And from the perspective of a Libyan protester, I suspect I’d prefer the French violating our national airspace to being killed by my own military ((even though it would mean I could die happy in the knowledge that Libyan sovereignty was secure!)).

The second issue is that the UN forces have allegedly also killed civilians, although for the moment, those claims appear to be a your-word-versus-mine situation, with Gaddafi and supporters claiming several dozen citizens killed, and allied military leaders denying any civilian casualties ((Obviously, both of those groups have reasons to potentially “massage” the truth)). Personally, even if the UN has killed 40-something civilians ((I believe that was the number Gaddafi was claiming yesterday; I haven’t seen more recent figures)), I suspect that’s preferable to what would have happened without UN intervention (to wit: more civilian deaths, and not accidental ones).

What’s interesting — if predictable — is that in the discussions I’ve seen on Weibo and other Chinese sites thusfar, tend to focus on the former issue rather than the latter. Even to regular Chinese people, it seems, Libya’s sovereignty is a more pressing issue than whether or not its citizens are being killed.

And, of course, most of the discussion isn’t really about Libya at all, it’s the same China-versus-the-West narrative of Western arrogance and imperialism that we hear every day. Libya is a bit player, and the eventual outcome there probably doesn’t matter much to the people discussing its fate.

That said, I haven’t had enough time to properly follow all the news on Libya or to research this post — as many of you probably noticed, things have been busy lately. So I’ll leave it at that for now, the comments thread wide open below, waiting excitedly for you to condemn me.

Discussion Section: Are Things Getting Worse?

This is a question I’ve been pondering for some time now, but it’s a question that’s impossible to separate from one’s own experience, so it’s tough to answer: are things getting worse in China?

On the one hand, the economy is growing blah blah blah yes we all know that and it’s important. But, in the last few years, it seems to me — and I am not an economist — that things have been getting worse for regular folks. Housing prices have gone way up in cities, inflation is also hurting (esp in terms of some food prices), and there seem to be an awful lot of people left angry by all the development (specifically, the people who used to live in the houses that just got torn down).

At the same time, it seems like the political situation is getting worse, too. Liu Xiaobo’s winning the Nobel Prize was an excuse to block a whole new group of sites (including this one, and the well-regarded Chinese bbs forum 1984bbs), people are being arrested because of snarky tweets, and most recently there are rumors (from a very credible source) foreign reporters are being threatened with not getting their visas renewed as punishment for negative coverage of China.

But, like I said, it’s a tough question to separate from one’s own experience and perspective. So what do you think? Are things getting worse in China from where you sit? Better? The same?

Administrative notes

  • Our comments policy has been updated. Read it, live it. If you need help figuring out whether your comment is inappropriate, try asking yourself one of the following questions: Does my comment make a sweeping, unfounded generalization about a race or nationality? Does my comment address the personal life of another commenter? Does my comment contain the phrase “Suck it, fuckwad!”? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, your comment is going to get deleted. Be civil.
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Ai Weiwei Under House Arrest

Apparently, Ai Weiwei has been placed under house arrest for threatening to host a dinner. There is more to it than that, of course — for details see this, this, this, etc. — but I’m more interested in raising a couple of other points here.

It’s not at all surprising that the authorities were freaked out by the ideal of Ai Weiwei throwing a big, sarcastic demolition party and inviting his whole dissident Twitter army. I doubt that even Ai himself expected the event to go off without a hitch.

That said, his movement in the past few years has been relatively free, and, aside from that little knock on the head, authorities seemed content to harass the people around him, leaving him more or less alone. Undoubtedly, his international fame had something to do with it. Authorities have understandably been hesitant to directly harass a guy who has most of the foreign correspondents in Beijing on his speed dial. And the fact that he’s also Ai Qing’s son must also have helped. He was, according to some, one of the few people who had gotten big enough that they were more or less free to say what they liked without too much fear of repercussions (another is Han Han, whose magazine has apparently been nixed for good).

Given that, it’s interesting that the police chose to detain Ai himself, instead of allowing him to go to Shanghai and derailing the event by arresting everyone else who showed up. That is a fairly common tactic for them (most recently, the October 8th gatherings celebrating Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize were broken up in this fashion), and it was what I expected when I saw that Ai Weiwei was planning to hold the dinner.

It has been a busy fall for the authorities, what with Liu Xiaobo’s prize, the Party Elders’ letter, and even Premier Wen Jiabao’s comments about political reform to CNN, which someone apparently decided needed to be censored domestically (one hopes the irony of censoring the Premier is not totally lost on whoever pushed the button). Given these things — and the rash of arrests that followed the first one — I wonder if Ai’s house arrest is perhaps another signal of a strategic shift to an even more direct method of enforcement.

Arresting Ai himself is undoubtedly easier than letting him hold the event and then undermining it (although, as Evan Osnos points out, Ai Weiwei is probably making life hell for the poor cops assigned to keep him at home). But it’s also more blunt, and has turned the whole thing into an ongoing news story.

So the question is, is this strategy an indication that the authorities no longer care about making this kind of news, or is it just another example of the government shooting its own foot?

(As a sidenote, whatever the reason for detaining Ai, it doesn’t seem to have worked, reports coming in from Twitter indicate that there are already nearly a thousand people at the “River Crab banquet”. Interested parties can follow periodic updates via milpitas95035 on Twitter.)

Unrelated Announcement

Also, many apologies for the lack of posts recently. I’ve been working on finishing up the first ChinaGeeks Films original documentary! It will likely be another week (at least) before the final product is ready (still need to add subtitles, cutaways, and wait for the narrator to record his bits so I can do the final audio mixing) so the relative dearth of posts may continue until then.

A Minor Inconvenience

While we were up in dongbei shooting a documentary last month, we ran into this situation completely unintentionally. We walked to this street, Kedong’s main thoroughfare, in the hopes of catching a cab, only to discover there were no cars on the road. We shot a good bit of it; here’s what happened:

Passing of the Governor from ChinaGeeks on Vimeo.

I didn’t bother editing this video for color or anything, but it’s not going into the documentary, so I thought it might be worth sharing and discussing here. Obviously, as official transgressions go, this is quite insignificant. And it wasn’t a huge hassle for us to wait half an hour before being allowed to cross the road, since we didn’t have anywhere we needed to be anyway.

I’m posting this because I think it’s indicative, more than anything, of an attitude that plagues Chinese officials. How much of an inconvenience would it really have been for the provincial governor to drive through town with other cars still on the road? Surrounded by an army of police cars and with police standing guard up and down the street, he certainly wasn’t in any physical danger. And it’s not like Kedong, which has remarkably wide streets for its tiny population, was going to have a traffic jam at three in the afternoon.

I’m also wondering what people think. In the evening, I mentioned this to the family that I was staying with, some of whom are devout government supporters, expecting them to say that the governor deserved special treatment. To my surprise, not a single one of them said that. “You should have filmed it so you can post it online and expose him,” someone said. Everyone agreed that closing the road for hours so that the governor could drive through Kedong (a process that took about 30 seconds, as you can see in the video) was ridiculous, and they wondered why I was told not to film it (it’s not like they were trying to travel undercover, after all…)

So what do you think?

Dumb Arguments About Liu Xiaobo

Liu Xiaobo winning the Nobel Peace Prize has given rise to a lot of discussion. The Global Times, for one, has been running vicious op-eds slamming Liu and the Nobel Peace Prize daily since the award was announced. Some of the discussion happening outside official media, in contrast, has been interesting and productive, but there are two specific arguments against Liu Xiaobo that I’d like to address here.

Dumb Argument #1

The first appears as oft-cited evidence that Liu Xiaobo is a traitor to China. Commenters generally post this quotation from an interview Liu Xiaobo gave:

“(It would take) 300 years of colonialism. In 100 years of colonialism, Hong Kong has changed to what we see today. With China being so big, of course it would take 300 years of colonialism for it to be able to transform into how Hong Kong is today. I have my doubts as to whether 300 years would be enough.”

Indeed, the quote is pretty shocking. But what these commenters generally fail to mention is that (1) the quotation is from 1988 and that (2) Liu has since suggested that at the time (he was giving an interview to a Hong Kong publication) he was just talking and hadn’t fully thought his response though.

One could argue all day about whether Liu actually meant this, whether he still believes it, and whether that makes him a traitor, but the fact is that he hasn’t said anything like that since 1988, which is why his detractors go back so far to dig something up against him. As James Fallows puts it:

“It’s in no way representative of Liu’s general position, which is that of a Chinese nationalist working to bring universal values to his own country.”

Liu is a professional writer with a large body of work; if he were truly a traitor who wanted China to be subjugated to foreign powers, presumably it would be easy to find evidence of that in his writing, but I have yet to see a single argument against Liu online or in the Chinese media that quoted even a single line from anything he has written.

Dumb Argument #2

The second argument suggests that Liu deserved his eleven year sentence and/or is a traitor to China for accepting money from foreign organizations, with a side helping of “Americans are hypocrites because that’s illegal in America, too.” Here I am quoting commenter Charles Liu on this post:

Liu Xiaobo has received hundreds of thousands of US government funding via the NED in the past five years to conduct domestic political activity in China (including advocating abolition of China’s constitution.) Check NED’s China grants for Independent Chinese Pen Center and Minzhu Zhongguo magazine, which Liu heads.

If Liu were American he would be in violation of FARA (Foreign Agent Registration Act). Ron Paul had once commented “What the NED does in foreign countries… would be rightly illegal in the United States”.

As you might expect, this is a clever mix of truth, lies, and intentionally misleading suggestions. In actuality, if Liu were in the US, he would be perfectly fine, assuming he did register and keep records of who gave him money, as is required by the FARA. Moreover, there’s no reason to think Liu would have been sentenced to a day of jail time even if he did refuse to register in the US. In fact, not a single person has been convicted in a criminal case under FARA since 1966.

Moreover, the whole thing is a false analogy, as Liu was convicted of “attempting to incite subversion of state power” based on the contents of Charter 08, not because he had accepted money from foreign governments and thus violated some law similar to FARA. Quoting from the official verdict read at the end of Liu’s trial, he was convicted because he “published inciting articles”, and because he “drafted and concocted Charter 08″ and then posted it on overseas websites.

Specifically, he was convicted of violating article 105 section two of the PRC criminal code, which reads:

“Whoever incites others by spreading rumors or slanders or any other means to subvert the State power or overthrow the socialist system shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not more than five years, criminal detention, public surveillance or deprivation of political rights; and the ringleaders and the others who commit major crimes shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not less than five years. “

In fact, accepting money from foreign organizations can, in some cases, be illegal in China, as evidenced by Articles 106 and 107 of the Criminal Code:

Article 106: Whoever commits the crime as prescribed in Article 103, 104 or 105 of this Chapter in collusion with any organ, organization or individual outside the territory of China shall be given a heavier punishment according to the provisions stipulated in these Articles respectively.

Article 107: Where an organ, organization or individual inside or outside of the territory of China provides funds to any organization or individual within the territory of China to commit the crime as prescribed in Article 102, 103, 104 or 105, the person who is directly responsible for the crime shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not more than five years, criminal detention, public surveillance or deprivation of political rights; if the circumstances are serious, he shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not less than five years.

But neither of these laws were even mentioned in Liu’s verdict. From the verdict: “The procuratorate found that Liu Xiaobo’s actions have violated the stipulations of Article 105 (2) of the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China…” No other article is mentioned.

So, in short, Liu’s crime and sentencing in China are in no way comparable to FARA and, in the words of those who convicted and sentenced him, he was not imprisoned for accepting money from foreign organizations like NED.

“Universal Values” and “Western Imperialism”

“Trying to impose western so-called ‘universal’ values on China” is a charge that has been leveled at Liu Xiaobo, the Norwegian Nobel committee, and a whole lot of other people. It is of only tangential relevance here, but we’ll quickly address it anyway. Since detractors rarely, if ever, cite specifics from Liu’s body of work, it’s difficult to know which “Western values” he is supposedly trying to force on China.

In terms of Charter 08, though, as a recent joke being passed around the Chinese internet points out, most if not all of the ideas in the charter are evident, and often more strongly worded, in speeches and writings of revered CCP leaders like Zhou Enlai:

Hu Jintao: Has Liu Xiaobo confessed yet?

Prosecutors: He’s confessed everything and we’ve corroborated his statements.

Hu Jintao: So [in Charter ‘08] where does he get the phrase “federated republic?”

Prosecutors: This comes from the report of the second congress of the Chinese Communist Party. The original wording was, “establish a free federated republic.” Only, the word “free” is not in the Charter.

Hu Jintao: Then… then, what about the military being made answerable to the national government and not to a political party?

Prosecutors: We’ve looked into it! This comes from The Selected Works of Zhou Enlai. The original wording was, “We must make the military answerable to the national government.” Only, the word “must” is not in the Charter.

Hu Jintao: Then… then … then, where does all that stuff praising Western style democracy come from?

Prosecutors: The Xinhua Daily ran an editorial that read, “America represents a democratic society.” Only, the Charter doesn’t say “America represents.”

Hu Jintao: Then… then… then, what about an end to one party rule?

Prosecutors: This is a slogan from great grandfather Mao when he opposed the Guomindang [the Nationalists]! The original wording of the slogan was, “Topple the one party dictatorship!” [When the Nationalists were vying for power with the Communists, Mao strongly advocated a multi-party government. Failure to create a multi-party state led to civil war.]

Hu Jintao: Then… then… then… then, what about freedom of association, freedom of speech, and a free press?

Prosecutors: These are all part of the Constitution!

Moreover, it’s worth noting that “human rights” is not in and of itself a Western concept. In fact, one of the principal drafters of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights was P.C. Chang, a Chinese citizen who was a dedicated Confucian, a lover of traditional poetry, and a member of the anti-Japanese resistance during World War II. Chinese people in Hong Kong and Taiwan, among other places, have adopted so-called “Western” values like freedom of the press and democracy, yet they are still recognized as Chinese.

Yes, of course, some of these ideas have their origins in the West, but there’s plenty of precedent for a belief in fundamental freedoms and human rights in China’s native traditions, too (this will be the subject of a future post at some point). In any event, the idea that Liu’s advocating things like democracy and freedom of the press is somehow fundamentally “not Chinese” is ridiculous.

Comments

There are, certainly, arguments to be made in favor of not giving the prize to Liu Xiaobo. Others may have deserved the award more (I don’t personally think so, but I don’t know a lot about many of the other candidates, either). Arguments that Liu Xiaobo is a traitor to China or that he deserved his eleven year sentence, on the other hand, seem to be few and far between.

I am, as ever, open to other interpretations, but our discussions on this in the past have gone off the rails, so the rules here are going to be a bit stricter. If you’re going to make an argument in the comments (one way or the other) you need to support it with actual evidence, and you need to do it without attacking other commenters personally. NO EXCEPTIONS.

Discussion Section: Thoughts on Balance

Like all China bloggers, I have been accused of being many things. Depending on the day and the post in question, I am supposedly both a “fifty cents Party” government shill and a Western anti-China propagandist. This is not surprising. I have been a bit baffled, though, by the repeated complaints that this blog isn’t “balanced.”

What I want to discuss here is (1) what “balance” actually is and (2) whether it is worth pursuing in this context.

Defining Balance

Defining balance is actually harder than you’d think. Journalists in the mainstream media are expected to be neutral and ensure that when they write about controversial issues (or any issues, really) they address any and all viewpoints related to that issue in a relatively fair and equal manner. Perhaps, then, balance refers to giving equal emphasis to both sides of a critical divide when one exists. Certainly, within the American media, balance is often assessed on this kind of binary scale, and debate about whether certain media outlets are “balanced” often has a lot to do with how much time they spend covering specific issues, and how they cover them. But giving both “sides” equal access does not, by itself, ensure that a media outlet is balanced. The television program Hannity & Colmes, for example, routinely pitted one conservative and one liberal anchor in debate over political issues, but was roundly criticized by liberals who felt that Colmes (the show’s liberal) was not as forceful an advocate of liberalism as Shaun Hannity was for conservatism.

I would suggest, then, that balance is extremely difficult to measure, but it refers to a media outlet’s neutrality, largely as measured by the perceptions of its audience. Indeed, the evidence routinely cited to support theories of media bias tends to be poll results suggesting that a media outlet’s readership (or viewership) perceives it as biased or unbalanced.

I am inclined to suggest that in this context, “biased” and “unbalanced” are relatively synonymous. The difference is that balance may suggest what percentage of coverage is dedicated to a specific viewpoint, whereas bias may suggest ideological slanting within the coverage itself that favors one side over another, even when both are granted equal time.

Balance and the “China Blog”

When discussing balance in the context of blogs, I think it’s important to note that the conception of media balance has been constructed on the assumption that readers may be getting all their information about a given topic from a single source; namely, the newspaper. For decades, this was absolutely true. It is still true, to a lesser extent, for some newspapers, and it makes balance important because if the reporter ignores one side of the story, most people will never hear it.

But that same assumption does not hold true for blogs, least of all China blogs. Blog readers tend to get information from a variety of sources, not just one.

In fact, if our reader survey is any indication, there is almost no one who uses this blog (for example) as their sole source of information about China. 94% of respondents said they read other China blogs, and the 6% who don’t read other blogs may well get additional information from newspapers, magazines, or twitter, all of which I didn’t think to ask about in the survey.

In any event, what this means is that whatever readers are learning about China from this site, it is only part — very probably, only a small part — of the China-related information they intake. The same is likely true for most other China blogs. Whether the picture of China they receive is “balanced”, then, has more to do with the different blogs and media outlets they’ve selected to read than it does with what any individual blog posts.

Of course, any blog that claims impartiality while advancing an agenda of one sort or another is still being misleading. But the effect of that in practice is greatly diminished by the fact that almost no one on the internet reads just one blog.

Most bloggers are acutely aware that their readership is not only their readership, and that it is often shared with many of their so-called competitors. Our posts at ChinaGeeks would probably look different if I thought that this blog was most readers’ sole window into the world of China, but I know that it isn’t. This gives me and my staff the freedom to invest time in topics that interest us — and let’s face it, as this is still a volunteer gig ((Although, joining the staff now means you get a free VPN! Join us!)), the blog wouldn’t exist at all if we couldn’t report what we found interesting.

So, if measured by the topics we choose to post about, it’s undeniable that ChinaGeeks is unbalanced. One look at our tag cloud makes it clear that we often focus on controversy, and are inclined to write about the exploits of dissidents more than we are inclined to write about, say, the exploits of conservative Party members. There are a number of reasons for this, but the simplest by far is that we generally write about what interests us, and the “Party line” often doesn’t. This seems to be true for a significant percentage of China blogs in English. Perhaps our interests naturally gravitate toward the same things, or perhaps it’s a response to China’s domestic media, which has the opposite problem and which most “China bloggers” read frequently.

If we measure balance by the way we treat the topics we do write about, whether or not we’re balanced becomes fuzzier, and, I would argue, at least somewhat irrelevant. Even within the mainstream media, there are legitimate criticisms of the quest for objectivity and balance. Historically, the quest for objectivity led to reporters giving equal play to two sides of a “debate” that, with the benefit of hindsight, ought not to have been juxtaposed as equals (for example, giving equal play to the “reasoning” of lynch mobs killing blacks in the United States). Moreover, some modern journalists have suggested that balance in reporting leads to reporters recycling spin and PR platitudes rather than assessing and reporting the situation itself. Ken Silverstein, an editor at Harper’s Magazine, reportedly once said:

“‘Balanced’ coverage […] plagues American journalism and […] leads to utterly spineless reporting with no edge. The idea seems to be that journalists are allowed to go out to report, but when it comes time to write, we are expected to turn our brains off and repeat the spin from both sides. God forbid we should attempt fairly assess what we see with our own eyes. “Balanced” is not fair, it’s just an easy way of avoiding real reporting…and shirking our responsibility to inform readers.

I am inclined to agree with Silverstein. My ideal standard for this blog is one of “fair assessment” rather than one of “balance”.

There is more to be said on this topic, much more, but this post has gone on far longer than I intended already. Rather than continuing to preach, then, I’m hoping we can continue this discussion on the comments. How important is it to you that this blog, or any China blog, be “balanced”?