Big Brother, Tibet, and the Sichuan Earthquake

Shanghai – Tight media control of the unrest in Tibet has been followed by what, to some, looks like far more open coverage of the devastating earthquake in Sichuan province. Is this a change in China’s media strategy, or just a short term change in tactics? 

This question stands out in view of Chinese public opinion in the latter phase of the Tibet crisis. Much to the consternation of the Western media, Chinese people worldwide lashed out against its allegedly biased coverage of the Tibetan riot. Throngs of Chinese expatriates and students took to the streets, protesting the prejudice they perceived in Western media reports. Angry youngsters even founded Web sites such as anti-cnn.com to express their outrage.

Western reporting, once commended for its veracity, now seems discredited across China, although sympathetic coverage of the loss of life in Sichuan may have redeemed the Western media somewhat. Even Chinese liberals admit that Western journalists blundered badly in Tibet, using cropped images and false captions as evidence of China's heavy-handed rule. One sarcastic posting on China's popular Web portal Tianya even went so far as to say that “CNN is of the same ilk as CCTV (China Central Television). Both talk grandiosely and profusely about impartiality. Ironically, both turn out to be hypocrites.”

One can argue that this trend bodes ill for China. But pessimism is misplaced. Much of the Chinese wrath is directed at biased reports, not at Western media in general. And when one looks more closely at how Chinese responded, both to the unrest in Tibet and the Sichuan earthquake, one sees tangible signs that the Chinese are embracing a greater degree of free speech.