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CommentInsight & Opinion

Distorted view of China overlooks its many positive achievements

Chandran Nair says that while China has its fair share of problems like any other large nation, biased coverage by the Western media gives the impression it has no redeeming qualities

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 September, 2013, 3:39am

The cover of a recent issue of The Economist featured a Chinese dragon encircling the globe, covering it in smoke and flame. The title read "The world's worst polluter." It was a bold cover typical of The Economist, but it betrayed deep-rooted ideological biases and did its readers a great disservice.

It was, in too many ways, what has become the quintessential "China story" - one that emphasises the nation's huge and growing impact on the world but chooses only to highlight its negative aspects - from environmental and foreign policy issues to investment in Africa, it would seem Beijing can't do anything right.

The lone positive anyone can seem to come up with is China's incredible economic growth. But the hypocrisy of praising this growth with one breath and condemning China's carbon emissions with the next seems lost on most commentators. Even seemingly admirable developments such as China's level of investment in research and development are covered only from the perspective of the threat to Western interests.

The simple truth is that China, like any other large country, is a complicated and messy place that cannot be summed up in a cartoon. Equally obvious is that the rest of Asia sees China in a completely different light than the West. Yet neither of these facts is reflected in Western media coverage, creating a distorted picture of China for the vast majority around the world. China is no paradise but neutral observers must highlight some of the good things happening there.

This should not be hard. Surely, no one would argue China has no redeeming qualities. And it must be done if people are to understand the country that will shape in large part the 21st century, and to avoid the prejudice that can easily damage relations. What follows, therefore, are a few examples of significant achievements, in areas where China is typically criticised.

Firstly, pollution. It is no secret that pollution is and will continue to be one of China's biggest struggles. Sixteen of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China, a fact that the media harps on about. Yet almost no non-Chinese I ask can name a single thing Beijing is doing to combat it. The implication is that such efforts do not exist and, worse, that Chinese political and business leaders do not care, something that could not be further from the truth.

China's 2020 target for total power generated by renewable means is 20 per cent, the same target set by the far richer EU member states. At present, China is the world leader in installed renewable energy capacity, and far ahead of the US and Brazil in second and third place.

China's environmental policy is not a recent development. China banned plastic bags five years ago and Styrofoam boxes 14 years ago. Even longer in the making is the incredible transformation of Youyu county, a success story which few others can rival. Youyu, in the north of Shanxi , began as a desert-like county, where the coal industry was the main source of gross domestic product. From the 1950s, the government encouraged the local population to plant trees and reforest the region. Sixty years later, the forest cover has risen from 0.3 per cent to an incredible 52 per cent. Countless other efforts like this can be found across China.

Second, the West's image of China as a culturally homogenous place is belied by the 55 ethnic groups besides Han Chinese, which make up 8 per cent of the population, or well over 100 million people. And anyone who has visited places such as Gansu , Qinghai or Ningxia will be aware of how Han Chinese, Muslims and Tibetans co-exist peacefully and successfully, despite major cultural differences. I personally have seen Han Chinese villagers keep pigs without fuss in fields they share with their Muslim neighbours. This is no small feat given the cultural differences.

In these same communities, Han Chinese, contrary to stereotypes, also show great empathy and respect for Tibetan culture and beliefs. Moreover, state authorities have adopted a consistent policy of preserving or protecting minority cultures. Perhaps the most notable example is that ethnic minorities are exempted from the one-child policy.

The state has also mandated quotas at national universities to ensure ethnic minorities are represented as part of the student body, and plans to increase grants to minority students tenfold by 2015.

Then there is the endemic corruption within government. There is no denying it has had a negative impact on citizens on a scale so large that it's hard to quantify. But far too little is said about Beijing's efforts to address the problem. It was a main point in Xi Jinping's inaugural address, which shows the government is willing to admit the severity of the problem.

Xi has gone as far as to acknowledge that measuring the success of officials by a focus on GDP is a major cause of the problem and that changes are needed. And the government has done more than talk - several high-profile investigations have been launched into senior party officials. Of the hundreds of officials convicted every year, many receive long prison terms. Indeed, Beijing has been remarkably unafraid to take drastic action, such as suspending the construction of new government buildings for five years.

The deplorable irony is that not only has much of this gone unreported by much of the press, but many of Beijing's salutary activities, such as the arrest of Rio Tinto and GlaxoSmithKline executives for allegedly paying and receiving bribes, have been cast as attacks by the state on multinational businesses.

And, finally, there is the sensitive issue of Tibet. Most people know that the Chinese invasion caused great suffering, starvation, the destruction of thousands of monasteries and the forced departure of the Dalai Lama. Yet very few outside China have heard of the incredible changes Tibet has undergone over the past 50 years. As a part of China, Tibet has developed at an astonishing pace. GDP in 2010 was 110 times what it was in 1950 - admittedly not always the best measure of progress - while life expectancy has nearly doubled.

The Qinghai-Tibet railway is the first to connect Tibet to the rest of China and has dramatically reduced the cost of power and the transportation of goods and people to even the most remote areas. No doubt some would argue it has all come at too high a price. But it is worth mentioning that, recently, there has been a reduction of the Chinese military presence in some troubled Tibetan towns and that images of the Dalai Lama, once banned, can now been seen in many places.

The truth about China is not a simple one. Foreign media must provide balanced coverage if non-Chinese are ever to fully understand the nation. This will make simplistic judgments difficult, but perhaps one day the need for objective reporting will trump the need for a clever cartoon.

Chandran Nair is the author of Consumptionomics: Asia's Role in Reshaping Capitalism and Saving the Planet, and founder and CEO of the Global Institute for Tomorrow

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This article is now closed to comments

ianson
And completely skirted in his article are the twin elephants in the room: human rights and freedom of speech. Put it this way, Hitler made Germany's industry mighty but he doesn't get much positive press, does he? China gets bashed because it bashes its own people, mercilessly. Your article fails miserably for not so much as mentioning what drives the powerful negative sentiment towards CCP-run China.
scmpbrowser
What drives your obviously powerful negative sentiment is not what drives the media's powerful negative sentiment. The article was written in response to the economist front cover and the constant bashing of china for polluting the world.
Where are your bastions of human rights and freedom of speech? The US - where income inequality is at an all time high, hatred of muslims and gays rampant and elections hijacked by corporations thanks to "freedom of speech". Not to mention the killings of thousands of women and children in drone strikes in the past few years alone?
Comparing the current Chinese government to Hitler would be laughable if it wasn't in such bad taste.
kctony
What China is doing, the west sees as a given.
Between 1955-1965, 30 million Chinese perished in starvation and between 1966-1976 millions died of persecution. In 1978 China opened up and turned into an economic miracle the west had never seen before. All these were news worthy.
Deng Xiao-ping greatest achievement is keeping the Chinese people fed. Is it news to a westerner that every Chinese has a bowl of rice to eat everyday?
pseudotriton
Let's put it this way, objectively speaking, nothing is free and everything comes at a price. The US is unlikely to be where it is today if it didn't go through its history of slavery and ethnic cleansing of Native Americans. Every country has to go through some rough times during its course of development.
The comparison of China to Nazi Germany is ludicrous to say the least, and frankly down right offensive. China never committed genocide like Hitler or Japan did in WW2. On the contrary, China has implemented many supportive policies for minorities as the article explained. As for the Tibetans, the Chinese gov't would not give a spit if they weren't so easily instigated by Dalai Lama and burn themselves in some open square.
The favorite argument of human rights by the west is repetitive and trite, to the degree that it has become a moot point.
pseudotriton
It comes at no surprise that western media are biased against China in their reportings. A quick browse of a South Korean or even Taiwanese newspaper is enough for one to spot the clear different tone of voice in China-related stories. However, the real cause for this bias is rooted in the contempt by most westerners of China, because after all, western media are just writing what their readers want to read. This sentiment of westerners towards China likely stems from years of brainwashing by their gov'ts and corporations, and also just a natural feeling of (moral) superiority by many in the west.
pwickham
Fair points raised in the article.
pslhk
honkiepanky
The Econist is practiced in the art of sophistry
It brainwashes using subtle casuistries
-
E: “China produces nearly twice as much CO2 as America”
Me: The US tops the world with four times China’s per capita CO2 production (1)
-
Furthermore the US nationalizes almost all the benefits of its CO2 output
and internationalizes most of the costs
whereas China nationalizes most of the costs of its CO2 production
and internationalizes most of the benefits
-
E: “Western countries need to continue to lead by example”
Me: Insufferable patronization, sheer hypocrisy
Take beef for example
-
Raj Patel: “The energy cost of the 550 million Big Macs sold in the US is $297 million
producing a greenhouse footprint of 2.66 billion pounds of CO2 equivalent
… None of these costs are reflected in the drive-thru prices of a Big Mac
A burger should really cost about two hundred dollars
US are paying for cheap hamburgers … thru tax dollars
American beef industry saves some $562 million a year
from corn subsidies that topped $4.6 billion in 2006” (2)
-
Me: How do the US finance the profligacy?
By printing money and IOU’s which they sell to the Chinese
A double-dip front-and-back-end scam
(1) ****en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_carbon_dioxide_emissions_per_capita)
(2) The Value of Nothing, pp43-6
pslhk
yellow_lynx_cat
Whereof one doesn’t know, thereof one must be silent
Don’t mention Lu Xun whom you can’t possibly understand
Don’t talk of Chinese characters thru the skeleton of Rev Smith
Purge the delusive impertinence of fabricating Chinese genocide for comparison
Out of context antediluvian irrelevance
-
Simpleton like Joe Chung is easy to dispose
a sad joke overwhelmed by wretched inferiority complex
which must have to do with his family background
that he hates not only Chinese people but also Chinese dogs
the latter probably project in his mind some fatherly oedipus imagery
He alleges that western dogs are friendly and kind
whereas Chinese dogs bark and bite
For his education we may take him to dog parks in HK and China on leash
to prevent him from biting Chinese dogs and their owners


honkiepanky
While this article raises fair points, I find it odd that Nair chooses to pick on The Economist, a magazine whose reporting on China is quite balanced. The subheadline of the article in question is "the world’s biggest polluter is going green, but it needs to speed up the transition", a sentiment I think few would take issue with. The very first sentence in the article points out that London was once horrifically polluted. See for yourselves:
www.economist.com/news/leaders/21583277-worlds-biggest-polluter-going-green-it-needs-speed-up-transition-can-china
pslhk
Chandran Nair is surely another notable
besides Raj Petal, Pankaj Mishra, Kishore Mahbubani, …
with a much need developmental perspective
to counteract western prejudice
that’s fanned by paranoia
fearing being taken over
subconscious quilt
and payback
-
In the journalist arena
may I add Michael Chugani
whose “down in the dumps” yesterday (Standard) was endearing
-
The world has turned a new page
auld lang syne, old filths
-
Expats are NOT all filths
who are only those everyone can tell
by the cold-war formula of the slogans they yell.

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