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When it comes to China stories, people will believe almost anything.
July 9, 2014 8:43 PM   Subscribe

Westerners are so convinced China is a dystopian hellscape they’ll share anything that confirms it.

"The headlines of [...] news stories on China are mostly negative in tone and often put China in the role of the aggressor by stating that China “arrests,” “bans,” “escalates,” “insists,” “halts,” or “rejects.” [...] Even clearly apolitical issues such as health and social welfare, transportation , or housing are presented in a negative light."

"Western readers eat this stuff up. [...] Western audiences generally love Chinese “airpocalypse” stories. [...] By interweaving the themes of pollution and the government’s Orwellian-tinged attempts to control daily life, the Daily Mail offers a double-whammy of Western reader stereotypes about China."
posted by gemutlichkeit (44 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ok, I'll bite. What's apolitical about health and social welfare, transportation, or housing?
posted by Phssthpok at 8:57 PM on July 9 [12 favorites]


The pollution in China is bad enough that it doesn't need exaggerating. These articles obscure the true picture of pollution that doesn't just mean air but also the water supply and ground.
posted by arcticseal at 8:57 PM on July 9 [8 favorites]


Westerners are so convinced China everywhere else is a dystopian hellscape they’ll share anything that confirms it.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 9:09 PM on July 9 [11 favorites]


americans could be totally superficial ignoramuses but china could still be kind of a hellscape.
posted by facetious at 9:10 PM on July 9 [17 favorites]


It is possible, of course, that X is terrible in many ways and also that people are too willing to believe any stories about X being terrible in many ways, even as some of the ways may be different.
posted by vivekspace at 9:15 PM on July 9 [4 favorites]


Westerners are Everyone is so convinced China everywhere else is a dystopian hellscape they’ll share anything that confirms it.

I've worked in China for the last six months (middle east for four years prior) and arcticseal is correct-- the "fast track" of industrial/urban-ization produces profound levels of pollution which I can only hope serve to instruct the development of nations around the world.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 9:21 PM on July 9 [6 favorites]


When bad shit happens to us, it's just bad shit that happens. When bad shit happens to China, it happens because, well, what else would you expect in a totalitarian/dangerous/mystical/inscrutable dystopia.

One instance of this differential treatment I recall strongly came before the 2000 Olympics, when both Beijing and Sydney were the bid frontrunners. Australian media reported enthusiastically on the "propaganda" that China was pumping out to engage their citizenry in the bid. Meanwhile, Sydney's streets were plastered in government advertising doing exactly the same thing.

Another example is animal rights. China is home to grotesque, large-scale animal abuse. So is the US, where it is hidden away in a vast, hidden, gulag archipelago of factory farms. But Morrissey didn't describe Americans as "subhuman" for their treatment of animals; only the Chinese.
posted by dontjumplarry at 9:30 PM on July 9 [23 favorites]


Which apart from being racist, is just plain unhelpful in terms of tackling animal rights abuses, air pollution, workers rights and all the other urgent sociopolitical issues China faces.
posted by dontjumplarry at 9:32 PM on July 9 [4 favorites]


Read this.
posted by j_curiouser at 9:34 PM on July 9


China has a lot of problems. Its problems are not that far out of line compared with most developing countries. I am constantly astonished when my friends make casual comments like China is literally the worst place in the world.

I had a good chat with a Chinese friend who is working in the US the other day actually -- he actually said his life was better in China (Guangdong). He had a nice apartment close to his work, he didn't need a car, he got a great college education for free, he worked fewer hours and took more vacations. So why did he move here? "Because it's where all the smart people are."
posted by miyabo at 9:48 PM on July 9 [6 favorites]


Also Chinese moms get 2 months PAID maternity leave, and from talking to people it seems to actually be taken very seriously... There's a lot the US could learn from China.
posted by miyabo at 9:53 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]


That's what Michele Bachmann always says.
posted by XMLicious at 10:00 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Westerners Canadians are so convinced that China America is a dystopian hellscape they’ll share anything that confirms it.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:27 PM on July 9 [11 favorites]


I've done 4 2-week stints in Shanghai in the past 7 months, and likely will be going back several more times in the next 6 months. My thoughts*:

1. Bleeding-edge modernity, infectious entrepreneurial spirit

2. I feel safer in Shanghai then I have ever felt in Salt Lake City

3. The air, especially in Winter, is absolutely noxious. The sun at noon looks like a dying cigarette

4. The government did a lot to cover up the poorest areas, to keep them from view of tourists

5. There are huge swaths of middle-class neighborhoods that seem a little crowded (by this spoiled Utahn's standards) but everything is clean and people generally seem pretty chill

5. Every single Chinese citizen I've ever had occasion to discuss politics with had mixed, nuanced opinions about the role of government in their lives

6. It is decidedly not a hellscape


*granted these findings are limited to Shanghai, probably considered the most modern and westerner friendly Chinese city but it's still home to about 30 million people so it's not irrelevant
posted by Doleful Creature at 10:53 PM on July 9 [15 favorites]


That's how it works when you live in a country whose media isn't in English (which is why the Canadians vs. Americans analogy doesn't work): you get a reputation for X. Any article about X is therefore believed, whether based in fact or not, because "Hey, that country is known for X!" Even reporters for normally decent publications can post pretty shoddy articles as long as they are about X, because so few people can fact-check them. Pretty soon the false claims about X vastly outnumber the true claims about X.
posted by Bugbread at 11:09 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Canadian moms/dads get 1 year of paid parental leave to split between the two of them. As a recent US, formerly Canadian immigrant it's kind of terrifying to me that 2 months would sound like anything to write home about. Unlikely this will change in the US before I have kids, but I'm praying that it somehow does.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 11:16 PM on July 9 [7 favorites]


The key point I got from the first article is that TIME magazine is repeating stuff unverified from The Daily Mail. This makes me feel bad I can't reduce my reading of TIME to less than zero times per year.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:18 PM on July 9 [6 favorites]


Hey, I like this stereotyping game. "Westerners are so _________ that _________ is a _________ that they'll ______________."
posted by Alaska Jack at 11:55 PM on July 9


Even clearly apolitical issues such as health and social welfare, transportation , or housing are presented in a negative light.

Yeah, that sentence just doesn't make sense. That's too bad, since it detracts from the rest of the FPP, which gives some much-needed perspective on how China is presented to Western audiences.
posted by John Cohen at 12:17 AM on July 10 [2 favorites]


3. The air, especially in Winter, is absolutely noxious. The sun at noon looks like a dying cigarette

I can't tell if you're talking about Shanghai or SLC.
posted by weston at 12:34 AM on July 10 [3 favorites]


I'm always saddened by the incredibly small vantage point western media tends to look at China, and more broadly Asia, from. China is like 1/5 of the world's population. There must be a hell of a lot more subtlety and diversity of things going on there than we are presented with. All in all it's a bit 1984.
posted by iotic at 2:07 AM on July 10 [4 favorites]


I thought North Korea was the dystopian hellscape? China is only a nominal ally of the DH.
posted by evil_esto at 2:09 AM on July 10 [1 favorite]


I remember seeing Frank Skinner doing some stand up in the 90s where he said you can make anyone (in Britain) believe anything at all if you just add the words "in America" to the end of your story.
posted by dng at 4:17 AM on July 10


Exporting our pollution to China was a master stroke - - we get a cleaner environment and get to do the Nelson Ha! Ha! to it's recipients.

(Last laugh TBD)
posted by fairmettle at 4:20 AM on July 10 [2 favorites]


When Bill Gates says that China has used more cement in the last 3.5 years than the US did in all of the 20th century, it makes even the wildest China factoid seem downright plausible.
posted by klarck at 4:24 AM on July 10 [2 favorites]


Media coverage of China is absolutely baffling... "Factory Slaves!" "Everyone's a Billionaire!" So I've pretty much given up and admitted to myself I can know nothing about the country unless I actually visit.

When I travel, the one thing people seem to want to ask me about the US is how it is possible to function with our terrible health care system.
posted by maggiemaggie at 4:40 AM on July 10 [2 favorites]


Increasing inequality in a massive country with a corrupt legal system, an unaccountable government, tightly controlled media and a demographic & financial crisis looming like an oncoming train. That's what's happening, and it leads to factory slaves, billionaires, an emerging middle class (30%-ish) extreme environmental damage, stories of great success and of terrible failure.

If it was easier to get to the truths of China (and they are many and various), far fewer people would believe the outlandish fabrications.
posted by dickasso at 5:05 AM on July 10 [1 favorite]


Dickasso, I could have sworn you were going to finish that first paragraph with: "And China's bad too!"
Nearly all of those issues are at play in the US as well.
posted by staccato signals of constant information at 5:15 AM on July 10 [15 favorites]


It's probably pretty safe to say that Russia is a bigger aggressor than Chinese these days but judging by the way things are reported in the West, it's still China that's somehow the major threat to the civilized world. True, China is beginning to flex its muscles a bit in the Asian region, but they haven't done anything yet as outright invasive as Russia has. And I think this is definitely influenced by racial biases.
posted by ChuckRamone at 6:21 AM on July 10 [1 favorite]


Yeah, now that you point it out, welfare and transportation are certainly not "apolitical." I think what the author meant by that was that those issues are somewhat less related to international relations and have more to do with the country's domestic affairs.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 6:49 AM on July 10 [1 favorite]


Dickasso, I could have sworn you were going to finish that first paragraph with: "And China's bad too!"
Nearly all of those issues are at play in the US as well.


I get that you're trying hard to appear impartial, but comparing Chinese government unaccountability, media control, environmental damage, and factory slavery to situations in America is downright ignorant. These things are not the same by orders of magnitude.

If you go to a Chinese city from the west and breathe the air, you will wake up in the middle of the night hacking up foul black shit that your body just could not process. I know this from experience. Comparing American environmental damage to that is ridiculous. Things are fucked up here, but it is not the same.
posted by IAmUnaware at 7:03 AM on July 10 [13 favorites]


I get that you're trying hard to appear impartial, but comparing Chinese government unaccountability, media control, environmental damage, and factory slavery to situations in America is downright ignorant. These things are not the same by orders of magnitude.

Yeah, this is the problem with these kinds of stories. Yes, Western media distorts what's going on in China, but I feel like these things give license to dismiss any problems China has as false Western propaganda or make facile "WELL IT'S EXACTLY THE SAME IN AMERICA!111" comments that severely distort the severity of the problems there.

True, China is beginning to flex its muscles a bit in the Asian region, but they haven't done anything yet as outright invasive as Russia has. And I think this is definitely influenced by racial biases.

I don't think so. Russia has been more aggressive recently, sure, but China is the much clearer long-term threat and rival. China's on the rise, Russia isn't and won't be. These are Russia's last grasps at relevance, while China is only beginning to show its might.

If China keeps pushing all of its neighbors like it has been, something is going to break eventually. This isn't to say China is evil and must be destroyed, just that they're brooking conflict with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Phillippines simultaneously, all of which are tied up with the US. A country can't keep sending in their ships into neighboring territory, parking oil rigs in other country's waters, and unilaterally declaring control of contested airspace forever. All it takes is one spark; maybe some ship captain reacting a little too angrily to yet another incursion by Chinese vessels into their waters and suddenly there's a crisis.
posted by Sangermaine at 7:20 AM on July 10 [3 favorites]


gemutlichkeit: "I think what the author meant by that was that those issues are somewhat less related to international relations and have more to do with the country's domestic affairs."

Actually, looking at context, it seems the author is using it to mean "related directly to politics" as opposed to "politics playing a major hand in". Like health care is not about politics (well, ok, recently in the US it has been, but in general, as a topic in most countries, it's not). It's about human health. A ton of the decisions about health care are made by politicians. "Freedom of speech (specifically in criticism of the government)", on the other hand, is directly about politics. "Housing", again, isn't about politics, it's about houses. "Preferentially providing houses to party members", on the other hand, would be about politics.

I know what I'm trying to say but I'm having a hard time expressing it.
posted by Bugbread at 7:21 AM on July 10


As a South Jerseyian, I think North Jersey is a dystopian hellscape.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:30 AM on July 10 [3 favorites]


I just spent the past 4 years working and living in Beijing and am about to move back to the US very soon, and I have to say there is no easy comparison between China and the US on the above cited issues. The environmental issues in particular - earlier this year there was a day in Beijing where the PM2.5 index was about 1,000 parts per million; fully 0.1% of the air was comprised of solid microparticle pollutants. I think finding an equivalent in the US may require you to stick your head into a smokestack.

I realize I'm telling a China horror story in a thread based on articles that question the integrity/value of such stories, but like others said, China having actual terrible issues can co-exist with shoddy western media coverage on China.
posted by obliterati at 7:49 AM on July 10 [3 favorites]


miyabo: "I had a good chat with a Chinese friend who is working in the US the other day actually -- he actually said his life was better in China (Guangdong). He had a nice apartment close to his work, he didn't need a car, he got a great college education for free, he worked fewer hours and took more vacations. So why did he move here? "Because it's where all the smart people are.""

My irony sensor just went up to 11.
posted by chavenet at 7:51 AM on July 10


He probably meant 'it's where all the smart people FROM OTHER COUNTRIES are', which is still more or less true I think.
posted by obliterati at 7:59 AM on July 10 [1 favorite]


It'd be useful to look at actual pollution measurements.The standard I know about, and I'm not an expert, is Air Quality Index measurements.

AQICN publishes a good index using a variety of sources for many cities in China. One of those sources is the US Embassy, which publishes their own data for a few Chinese cities. Shanghai is particularly bad today; I see a reading of "265 Very Unhealthy" right now. The AQI of New York City today is 58.

When I was in China from 2007-2010, the government would dismiss the pollution as fog or mist from nearby water. Talking with a friend in Nanjing just recently, he said that the government has gotten much more open about the issue and more readily acknowledges AQI issues as they happen.

None of this should excuse some of the ridiculous or inaccurate reporting on Chinese pollution. Pollution in China is a real issue.

And one thing that rarely gets mentioned is indoor air pollution. I remember a New York Times article about the issue a while back, but can't find it. This SCMP article has a little about it, as does the latter half of this Atlantic piece. Some of that comes from indoor coal use (especially outside of China's major cities in the east) and some of it is just what starts outside and makes its way in through windows and doors. You really can't escape it.

(previously on MeFi)
posted by msbrauer at 8:01 AM on July 10


I'm having a hard time taking this Quartz article seriously when it's 425 words about China and the rest of my screen is filled with an 2200 word advertorial about "The only white jeans you need."
posted by sneebler at 8:37 AM on July 10 [2 favorites]


I spent 2 years living in Shenzen on the Pearl River Delta, and travelling all over for work. I have done the blowing black stuff out my nose after spending 4 weeks in Beijing and not able to see more than 50 yards through the smog. I have seen more cranes than at any other time as buildings are thrown up in Urumqi, Chengdu, Tianjin and all over China. It's terribly polluted, which is why it shouldn't be exaggerated by alarmist articles.
The good news is that the Chinese public are fully aware of the issues and are agitating for improvement and the government knows that they had better do something before the current system is overturned.
The Chinese people I worked with were smart, engaged and were keen to progress. I have a lot of confidence in them addressing this over the next few years, it's just whether they actually have the time to do so before they all poison the earth for generations. The West has a role in this as well, we're the ones who exported all the factories as it was cheap and the regulations didn't care if we had spills or dumped heavy metals (or we could ignore the regulations with a few well placed bribes).
posted by arcticseal at 8:47 AM on July 10 [2 favorites]


This article made me feel guilt and fear.

Guilt, because it's largely the manufacture of goods for export to the West driving pollution (and all of the industrialization required).

Fear, because, in 20 years, the air in Shanghai will probably be crystalline and blue, because being the locus of the global high-tech industrial manufacturing stack (and all those people it employs) will demand it.

I couldn't even begin to speculate what the US air quality will be in 20 years. Maybe we'll have a functioning EPA, maybe we won't.

Industrialization is ugly. It was ugly here. It's revisionist to pretend it wasn't.

There does tend to be an unpleasant strain of racism and xenophobia behind these pieces.
posted by mrdaneri at 8:52 AM on July 10 [4 favorites]


Metafilter isn't immune. "Slave labor" and other such whipping boys are pulled out to support arguments against China, at will, often on assumption that it must be so, with no particular supporting evidence. People here have seriously argued that China couldn't possibly be a better place today for the average Chinese person than in the 60s. Yes, Mao-era, Cultural Revolution-y China must have been a better place, because China today is such a hell hole!
posted by 2N2222 at 9:27 AM on July 10 [1 favorite]


Another example is animal rights. China is home to grotesque, large-scale animal abuse. So is the US, where it is hidden away in a vast, hidden, gulag archipelago of factory farms. But Morrissey didn't describe Americans as "subhuman" for their treatment of animals; only the Chinese.

This is sort of a mixed truth. I work on regulatory policy for chemical testing and risk assessment in China (including drug testing), all of which involve a lot of animal use in a legal atmosphere functionally devoid of animal welfare mandates. I can say with some authority that China's regulatory policy is... well, it's a dystopian hellscape. Regulations aren't transparent, when they are transparent they conflict, when they conflict there's no routine mechanism for clarification, when clarification is sought from or through regulatory affairs specialists the responses are often open ended (e.g. flexible with the appropriate flavor of bribery), and so on.

Animal rights and welfare are contentious subjects globally, but China excels at obfuscating not just the contentious practices but also the national legal context. In the US and EU, to contrast, there are variable but defined regulatory structures for addressing and understanding testing and welfare measures that are compulsory. Chemical and drug companies are very truly struggling with this, and it's a noted problem that the Chinese government has really drawn out (if you have a subscription to ChemWatch, there's an article from last week about the EU's exasperation on China's foot-dragging on fulfilling transparency and accountability requirements in its trade agreements).

I'll agree with the author that journalists for big outlets are bad at fact checking, and that people click on stories without much scrutiny. I won't go out on the same limb with the writer and assume that an article click means that people believe what they're reading, or refer to HuffPo et al. as "relatively respectable." My area of interest is sufficiently well-defined to say, though, that, yes, this part of China's "Orwellian-tinged" nature is pretty hellacious.

(Also pretty sure that Morrissey has shared his thoughts on the Americans quite a lot.)
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 11:30 AM on July 10 [4 favorites]


As a South Jerseyian, I think North Jersey is a dystopian hellscape.

As a lifelong Midwesterner, I'll never forget the first time I flew into Newark. When the plane started to descend, everything I saw was beautiful and green...and then we passed the hellscape line and there was no more green in sight, just endless urban sprawl, chemical tanks, etc. What you say is true.
posted by limeonaire at 4:41 PM on July 10


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