- How rumour journalism works
Chinese police have arrested six people and shut 16 websites after rumours were spread that military vehicles were on the streets of Beijing. Without factual verification, such unsubstantiated internet rumour has gone viral internationally as a sign of instability and power struggling in Beijing following the arrest of Bo Xilai last month.
Through political reform, internal restructuring and the introduction of a leadership selection criteria and procedure, China has enjoyed a smooth leadership transition since President Jiang passing over to Hu Jintao and the incoming Xi Jinping. A recent U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Staff Research Report acknowledges that the CCP cadres on track to assume senior positions in 2012 are “not selected by the Elders of the CCP’s revolutionary generation” and that “It will also mark a greater institutionalisation of the processes for the leadership turnover in the CCP.” The selected cadres are also “better educated than their predecessors; they have all gained experience in provincial government administration; and arguably have outlooks that are more technocrats and less ideological than earlier generations of CCP leaders.” The internal party democracy means that the power of the individual has been “constrained by the consensus nature of CCP elite decision making.”
There were no lack of literature in recent years on the issue of institutionalization of leadership selection process in China. The only problem is, western journalists and writers alike are either totally ignorant of the existence of those literature or simply not interested to report them. For example, the China Daily have a webpage dedicated to the issue of building a learning political party (学习型党组织建设); and a new book written by a Chinese scholar, Zhang Weiwei, ‘The China Wave’ (中国震撼) also touches on the issue of political succession. Nevertheless, the usually anti-Chinese mainstream Western media is still eagerly trying to tell the story of political infighting in China. The arrest of Bo Xilai provided them with that opportunity.
Despite the fact that virtually all the media in the West acknowledges that the arrest was related to the issue of corruption within Bo’s family, a cursory study on the way information is presented indicates an effort to mix the story with the suggestion of an internal power struggle in Beijing. A few examples include the New York Times reported the arrest with a suggestion that it is “a campaign to discredit him (Bo),” who “was openly seeking a spot in China’s top leadership when power changes hands late this year.”; the Washington Post ran a heading: “Bo Xilai’s outster seen as victory for Chinese reformers”; and The Economist uses the incident to portrait politics in China as “no less vicious than in the Rome of Julius Caesar.”
There is nothing new for people with ulterior motives making use of unsubstantiated internet rumours as a tool for disinformation and packaging them as facts. The internet rumour can easily be spread like a tidal wave with Journalists and writers alike copying each other’s stories and adding some new quotes from unnamed sources or commentators, politicians and representatives of NGOs that are known for anti-China. The Western network of news syndication will eventually convert the rumour into widely reported ‘facts’.
This is specifically the reason behind Beijing’s recent decision to crackdown on internet rumours with new regulations asking users to register their true identities in December last year. The Hong Kong based Media (Ifeng.com) carries an article describing the situation: “The habitual relay of such rumour by Netizens in China has unconsciously helping those with ulterior motives using the internet as a tool to spread rumour and turn conjecture into reality.”
Unfortunately, in most cases, media that have published these kinds of dodgy news fail to tell readers the exact sources of their story, and it is therefore very hard to examine the authenticity of the statements they make. However, an article in the Foreign Policy by John Garnaut few days ago, ‘The Revenge of Wen Jiabao’ with this highlight: “The ouster of Chongqing boss Bo Xilai was 30 years in the making -- a long, sordid tale of elite families and factions vying for the soul of the Chinese Communist Party,” has provided me the opportunity to conduct a detail analysis on how rumour journalism works.
How Rumour Journalism works
One may recall that one of Hu Jintao’s first addresses to party leaders in 2012 included an order to fight harder against corruption. In 2011 the Chinese government approved the launch of a website that reveals bribery, and issued a new code of conduct with fifty-two ‘NO’ to the party cadres in 2010 aiming at rooting out corruption. The effort to root out corruption in China at a time of rapid economic expansion is not an easy one. It is an on-going process. The arrest of Bo Xilai as a result of corruption being found is supposed to be the most natural cause of action by any government, but like the script of most media, John Garnaut portrayed it as “The Revenge of Wen Jiabao” with a story of political infighting.
‘The Revenge of Wen Jiabao’ is a typical John Garnaut style article. The feeling is like reading a novel whereby John appears to enjoy a direct and intimate personal contact within the highest level of the Communist Party’s leaderships. This is the first time I have seen so many hyperlinks in John’s articles. However, when I take the trouble to examine the content in those links, I find that they do not support his story, despite there being a lot of “QUOTEs” directly and indirectly before and after those hyperlinks.
Just a few examples:
Example 1: First paragraph: ‘critics allege’- this links readers to a 2010 news about a book on Wen. Nothing in this link supports the story of Premier Wen nailing “the coffin of his great rival Bo Xilai in 2012.” The recent problem with Bo Xilai was not created by Premier Wen; it was his own making relating to corruption within his family. In addition, if there is any rivalry, it should be between the incoming leader Xi Jinping and Bo Xilai instead of the out-going Wen.
Example 2: Paragraph 2: ‘Bo’s political execution’- again, the content in this link did not mention anything that followed John’s story line in that paragraph such as “… He (Wen) framed the struggle over Bo’s legacy as a choice between urgent political reforms and “such historical tragedies as the Culture Revolution…””; In fact, that link tells the story that “Mr. Bo’s downfall was precipitated by the flight to an American consulate of Wang Lijun.” Although, that report by the Economist editorializing Wen answers to questions posted by journalists on the issue of the Chongqing incident at the press conference a day before Bo’s arrest as “public ticking-off”, and suggests that it is the “biggest public rift in China’s leadership for two decades”, as far as I am concerned, the subjective wording only reflects the typical prejudice of western journalists. They are meaningless and don’t tell anything. The reasoning is simple - should Premier Wen, a national leader keeps his mouth shut and avoids answering the questions posted by journalists during the press conference and wait for the arrest to take place the next day? Shouldn’t the arrest of Bo be the most normal cause of action taken by any government when corruption is found?
Example 3: Paragraph 2, 2nd hyperlink: ‘ideological heirs’: Again, this link to statements made by Premier Wen that are still related to questions posted to him by Journalists in the Press Conference. There is nothing in Wen’s words that support John assertion that: “In Wen’s world, bringing down Bo is the first step in a battle between Maoist past and a more democratic future as personified by his beloved mentor, 1980s Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang.” In fact, the article in this link is merely the personal opinion of the author Hu Shuli as stated by the editorial team as end note.
I took the trouble to go through more links in John’s article and cross references with the statements he made in the respective paragraphs, the result is basically similar to the above three examples. In fact, some of the links that John provided don’t tell a thing at all. For example, paragraph 15, ‘then propaganda minister’ links to a book at the Google book site: ‘Toward a Democratic China’, there is nothing in this site with information that supports any of John’s statement made in the entire paragraph 15.
Worst of all, in paragraph 23, by presenting a link to a photo of Wen standing besides his then boss Zhao Ziyang during the 1989 Tiananmen incident, John tries to imply that Wen was on Zhao’s side at that time, despite the information in that link telling us that “There is no evidence that Wen supported Zhao. Wen was a bureaucratic functionary at the time, doing his job. When Zhao decided to go to Tiananmen, it was the [Communist Party's Central Committee] General Office, of which Wen was the director, that arranged transportation to the square. So Wen figured he needed to be there himself.” Therefore, the next statement made by John about: “Wen shifted his loyalty from Zhao” is simply an unfound allegation.
John is a novelist, not a journalist. For those readers who are interested to explore further the kind of dodgy journalism in John’s article ‘The Revenge of Wen Jiabao’, please feel free to do so by examining more links in the article, and you will notice that the whole story was based purely on his personal imagination without any factual backing. In short, it is a kind of rumour journalism without factual verification and cross references.
In fact, John has often been the source of rumours himself. For example,
During the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, John wrote a report in the Sydney Morning Herald under the title: ‘Horror of entire towns flattened’ telling the story of the PLA and Premier Wen in action on the quake zone. However, a year later in 2009, he wrote another article on The Age: ‘Journey through an earthquake’. In this report, John changed the entire story in total contradiction to his 2008 report and claims that he witnessed the PLA’s involvement in looting, and that the PLA has done nothing to help the victims while Premier Wen was putting up a show for the consumption of the camera. This is his exact wording:
“On May 14 and 15, The Age watched People's Liberation Army soldiers loitering aimlessly and helping themselves to goods looted from shattered shops, while the cries of trapped citizens rang out from buildings nearby. Of the tens of thousands of soldiers in Beichuan in the days after the quake, the only ones we saw raise a sweat were a dozen who jostled in front of Premier Wen as they rushed to an imaginary rescue for the benefit of the China Central Television camera. All of the rescues we witnessed were by local volunteers or orange-suited fire fighters from far corners of the country. Thousands died who should have been saved. And yet CCTV has played endless slow-motion footage of heroic soldiers at the service of the common people. For many in the Communist Party, the tragedy was primarily a propaganda opportunity.”
In fact, by browsing through the photos and video gallery on The Age newspaper website, you will find hundreds of photos and video images of PLA rescuing people during that 2008 Sichuan earthquake, among those images, there are dozens taken by John himself telling the same stories of the PLA in actions.
I then approached The Age for an explanation over the contradictory report by John a year apart. The process of challenging John for an explanation is not an easy one as he appears to have been protected by The Age, ABC Media Watch, and the Australian Press Council. I have had to resort to the technique of applying constant public pressure by releasing a series of articles on my personal blog and Independent media Australia website to get things move. Eventually, I managed to receive three e-mails from John. From the content of his e-mails, you will find that he is guilty as charged. The detail of our story and how The Age, ABC media watch and the Australian Press Council reacted to my complaints can be found in www.outcastjournalist.com, click on ‘Media Disinformation’, follows by clicking on the following articles:
· Can we trust our Media? The Shocking Behaviour of The Age Journalist’s John Garnaut (12 May 2010)
· Media Accountability—The Age must say ‘Sorry’ to Australians (24 May 2010) [Note: includes the content of an email from John]
· More Dodgy Materials Exposed - The Age and John Garnaut Case Continue (14 June 2010) [Note: includes the content of two more e-mails from John]
· Has the Australia Press Council Protected Media that Violated Its Own Written Principles? (29 Jul 2010)
John is a good story teller. During the 2009/2010 Rio Tinto Bribery case, he was at the forefront of the nine months of media smear campaign again China over the arrest of Rio’s Australian executive in Shanghai. The saga ended with the Australian executive pledged guilty in the Chinese court under the presence of an Australian diplomat and disputed only the amount of money involved. During this period (from the arrest to guilty pledge), there are evidence of the Australian media holding up information that supports China’s side of the story. I then wrote an article: ‘The Brutal Truth about Rio Tinto Bribery Case’ outlining the issues. On the part of the media smear campaign against China, the following three reports that link Chinese top leadership to the case are from John Garnaut. The following is the direct abstract from my Rio’s article:
“Sydney Morning Herald (13 July, 2009) under the heading ‘Chinese President backed Rio spy probe’ quoting an (unnamed) Chinese Government sources suggesting that “The Chinese President, Hu Jintao, personally endorsed the Ministry of State Security investigation into Rio Tinto that led to the detention of the Australian iron ore executive.””
“Again, Sydney Morning Herald (7 Nov 2009) under the heading ‘Exposed: the man controlling Stern Hu's fate’, speculating without quoting any source that “Wu Zhiming, who is due to decide his (Stern Hu) fate within 10 days”. Follow by an unnamed source: “But some Chinese lawyers say the justice system is more tightly controlled in Shanghai because it has been the stable, long-time power base of Jiang Zemin.”, then another unnamed statement: “Some say Wu has a tighter grip on Shanghai than even the mayor or Communist Party secretary”. Then, “The President, Hu Jintao, and a host of lesser players might also vie for influence” (not quoting any source again), then “political analysts (unnamed) say there is a risk that Rio Tinto's iron ore team will - or might already have - become stuck in the middle of a bitter struggle between President Hu and Jiang.””
“On 11 Feb 2010, The Age made a further speculation under the heading ’China steps up Stern Hu bribe case’, again, using the technique of quoting an (unnamed) observer: “Observers say the decision is likely to have been made at the highest level of Chinese politics,” follow by this statement: “Some had expected President Hu Jintao's visit last month to Shanghai - the territory of his political rivals and his first visit in two years - would lead to the case being resolved in Mr Hu's favour.””
As readers may observe from the above three reports from John that link the Chinese top leadership to the Rio’s case, he appears to be an insider to the leadership circle in China and are able to know every bit of the leadership’s intention and decision. The technique that John used in this three Rio’s reports is exactly the same as the article in the Foreign Policy. The only different is, in the Foreign Affair, John need to provide links that support his story, but in the Australian media, he is able to say whatever he wishes without any link to support his stories.
In fact, John wasn’t the only one in the business of rumour journalism. My recent article: ‘Dalai Lama, Tibet and Western Media’ has pointed out a series of factual errors of an article in the National Interest: ‘Meet the New Mao’. That author, an assistant professor may be himself a victim of media disinformation, went to the extent to imagine that Tibet is so backward that Xi Jinping won’t be able to enjoy a hot bath through the running tap in his hotel and have to resort to bringing “his own water (from Beijing perhaps) for drinking, cooking and bathing” in order not to be poisoned by the Tibetans. It may sound unbelievable, but this kind of dodgy article does exist. Who is to blame? The individual author or the industry as a whole?
It is easy to blame the individual journalist and writer for this type of dodgy journalism. When digging deeper into the corporate media industry in the West, one will notice that, it is simply part of the complex culture within the industry that encourages such behaviour. There is no lack of high quality investigative literature on the way the media is operated and how they influence each other through the so-called “Inter-media agenda setting” describes by David McKnight in page 80 of his new book: Rupert Murdoch – An investigation of political power’. This is a big topic; I will not go further in this article.
In fact, if the corporate media in the West are able to uphold the principle of objectivity and balance reporting, there are areas of achievements in China in the form of humanity and a caring government that may be quite inspiring to the Western public and leaders alike.
The truth is, the Communist Party in China is in many ways far more caring and responsive to the collective voices of their citizens than many of the Western democracy. The kind of humanity extended to the victims of a nature disaster in the form of rescue and reconstruction would in comparison put shame to the way the US government’s handling of the 2005 Katrina disaster. The policies toward housing affordability for first home buyers when compared to the policies in Australia is another example.
The months of nationwide Wall Street protests against social injustice, inequality, unemployment, corporate powers, cost of living and hardship in America have been consistently met with arrests and evictions by authorities in the form of rubber bullets, pepper sprayed, chemical agents , teargas, punching on the face or simply been beaten up. If such footage of the brutal crackdown on public protests took place in China, I wonder how it would be broadcasted across the globe using any amount of harsh languages to ensure maximum impact on the image of the “Brutal Chinese Regime”. However, when they took place in America, you can only find most of those images and video footages on the internet and social media sites.
The irony is, the Wall Street protests resulted in the “free world” government in America rushing through a new anti-protest law in both the House of Representative and the Senate to curb future protests; while the widely demonised Wukan protest resulted in the “authoritarian” government in Beijing rushing through a new amendment to China's Land Management Law to protect the interest of all villagers across China.
With the annual PEW Global Attitude Survey persistently placing China as number ‘One’ in citizen satisfaction with the country direction as compared to the persistently very low satisfaction in the West, I doubt that many western public learn about such PEW reports about China from their media.
The world is big enough to accommodate all mankind, every culture has its unique strengths and weaknesses, so why not begin to learn from each other strengths with balance report and accurate information?
Written on 5 April 2012
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