Thursday, March 09, 2006

Bias and the International Media

STOP_george passed along this link to an awful USA Today article by Paul Wiseman on the recent NUC flap.

A recent anonymous commentor complained that I am "biased" and really ought to treat the PRC, the KMT, the Department of State, and the international media, more like human beings. I'll be happy to cheer for any of those entities as soon as they move into a pro-democracy position. Yes, it's true. I am biased. I am a polemical pro-Green Taiwan expat blogger. And I am in good company -- support for the Greens is widespread in the expat community here, and so is support for Taiwan. This is true even among expats who have violent disagreements about politics back in the home country. The Green position of democracy for Taiwan is so obviously the right position that only the ethically lamed can support any other.

One problem I have with the international media is one that many commentators echo, and that its striving for balance has crippled its ability to be objective. The reporter who writes...

China says that no one died in Tiananmen Square, while international human rights groups say thousands died. striving for balance. She is not, however, being objective. Fealty to the truth would compel her to write that thousands died in Tiananmen Square, and that the Chinese government is lying. The paradox of the "balanced" position is that it actually favors the side that is lying, by equating its position with that of the truth. Paul M. Fussell once wrote that advertizing is essentially anti-democracy in that it creates a society in which things are constantly asserted that smart people know are false. The international media function in a similar way, with similarly tragic results.

Speaking of bias, how about USA Today? For example, the author writes:

Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) advocates independence, but he promised not to abolish the council in his inaugural address in 2000.

As we have seen, Chen promised not to abolish the council provided the PRC gave up its intention to annex the island by force. Since the PRC has solidified that intention into law with the new Anti-Succession Law, Chen is not breaking any promises. You can accuse him of political unwisdom (I have!) but you can't say he has broken a promise.

Wiseman goes on to repeat a common shorthand that eliminates history from the discussion:

China and Taiwan have been separate since 1949 when the communists seized power on the mainland and Chiang Kai-shek's vanquished Nationalists fled across the Taiwan Strait to set up a rival government. Mainland China has never relinquished its claim to the island of 23 million, threatening to resort to force if necessary to reunite.

I wish this phraseology would die and be replaced by a more accurate one that conveyed the proper sense of history, something like:

Taiwan, never the possession of any ethnic Chinese emperor, had been a Japanese colony prior to occupation by the Republic of China in 1945 at the end of WWII. In 1949, after its defeat on the mainland, the KMT retreated to Taiwan to continue the fight against the Communists, with both sides claiming that Taiwan was part of a China that each was the sole government of.

Any summary should note that Taiwan was not part of China prior to 1949 (it remained under Japanese sovereignty until 1952) and that it had been a Japanese colony for the previous 50 years. Granted, it's tough to write a two-sentence summary of the complex history of Taiwan in the 20th century, but that doesn't mean one has to regurgitate, as Wiseman does, the Chinese position:

Mainland China has never relinquished its claim to the island of 23 million, threatening to resort to force if necessary to reunite.

China has no claim to Taiwan, so it is not being asked to "relinquish" anything, nor is what is happening "reunification." It is annexation, pure and simple, since China has never owned Taiwan. Even the word "Mainland" before the word "China" assumes a certain status for Taiwan that does not exist in reality and has never been settled in international law. Finally, note that incredibly biased word "resort" with its flavor of a distasteful position that must nevertheless be adopted because the other side is so unreasonable. In short, far from being balanced, Wiseman's article incorporates pro-China biases in its language and point of view.

Wiseman also repeats a common error, one that has become a regular theme on this blog:

China prefers to stand back and let Chen's behavior drive a wedge between Taiwan and its No. 1 ally, the United States. Washington is required by law to help Taiwan defend itself, but the United States opposes Taiwanese independence and wants to prevent a cross-strait military conflict.

Folks, sit down and read the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) sometime. It doesn't obligate the US to do a damn thing in the event of an invasion of Taiwan by China. It merely mandates consultations between President and Congress, something that would happen anyway. It is pure politics. Whether the US defends Taiwan is ultimately a political decision, not a legal mandate.

Note this paragraph:

China has tried to butter up the Taiwanese public instead. Beijing has encouraged Taiwanese businesses to invest and sell their products on the mainland, welcomed visits by opposition Taiwanese politicians and offered to send pandas to the Taipei Zoo.

Taking the points in reverse order, the panda offer is a sale not a sending, China has welcomed visits only from the pro-China Blue politicians and not from Chen or anyone associated with him. There is an obvious bias in mentioning that the vists of Soong and Lien, both born in China, were "welcomed" without also mentioning that China refuses to talk to the pro-democracy types. Of course China has welcomed Taiwanese investment, because one of its goals is to steal Taiwan technology and hollow out the island's industrial base, a fact that should also be mentioned. This whole paragraph posits a fantasy of a friendly China by leaving out salient facts (hey, Paul W, those pandas are expensive!). What smart people know is false?

Look at these last few paragraphs:

Despite its conciliatory approach to the Taiwanese public, China passed an anti-secession law last year. That created a legal basis for attacking if the island declares independence. The mainland still has more than 700 missiles pointed at Taiwan.

Chen is using political brinkmanship with China to rejuvenate his party's pro-independence base after big losses in local elections last December, says National Taiwan University's Philip Yang. "Chen wants to return to center stage in Taiwanese politics," he says.

Last week, Chen told The Daily Yomiuri, a Tokyo newspaper, that he wanted to draft a Taiwanese constitution, a move China probably would view as a precursor to a declaration of independence.

"The termination of the reunification council is a signal that Taiwan will take a more antagonistic approach toward China," Tung says. "There will be trouble among the three parties" — China, Taiwan and the United States.

Note that it is not China that is antagonizing Taiwan -- you can point 700 missiles at Taiwan and get no more than a passing "The mainland still has more than 700 missiles pointed at Taiwan" but if you abolish a defunct council that was created by fiat by an authoritarian government, you are "antagonistic." Wiseman even says that China has a "conciliatory" approach toward's Taiwan's public -- apparently you can still be considered "conciliatory" no matter what weapons you point at Taiwan and how many times you threaten it. You can imagine what Mr. Wiseman would say if he came home to find his daughter raped and beaten by a stranger, and the stranger explained his actions by saying that the girl got "antagonistic" toward him when he threatened to rape her. It's just another case of the international media accepting that China points missiles at Taiwan -- that's OK -- but that Chen, who has never threatened violence against China, is a madman and antagonistic.

Finally, look at the title:

China exercises restraint with Taiwan

By using the phrase "exercise restraint" it almost makes it appear that China has some right to use violence against Taiwan. It smacks of approval for China's threats. Surely there is some less loaded language out there that can discuss China's apparently low-key approach without signaling approval of its long-term goals.

I realize it is difficult to write about Taiwan. But selective use of facts, loaded language, and a point of view that strikes a balance between authoritarianism and democracy (there's no middle position there) is not one conducive to creating understanding among people in the audience.

UPDATE: My friend Michael J. Klein noted on another post in re this ridiculous claim:

Despite its conciliatory approach to the Taiwanese public, China passed an anti-secession law last year. That created a legal basis for attacking if the island declares independence.

MJ noted: oh yeah, one phrase that boils my blood: "China passed an anti-secession law last year. That created a legal basis for attacking if the island declares independence." what f-ing legal basis would that be?

So right, man.


David said...

You didn't mention the use of the term "renegade province" which must be the most misleading and biased term one could possibly think of. Yet it is continually regurgitated by the international media as it aids and abets China's propaganda program.

Anonymous said...

I really don't want to sound trite--but it's so Orwellian it's scary. Double talk is exactly right. How do you change the stupidity, the laziness of American media?