Flaying ‘Flowers’: An Example of Western Media’s Bias Against China

There has been a long and on-going debate between some Chinese and westerners on whether the western media are biased in their China coverage or not. As defenders of western media rightly point out, negative news and critical commentaries may displease the Chinese, but they do not necessarily amount to biased coverage. Besides, there are plenty of positive stories about China in the western media too.

But the accusation of bias does not seem entirely unfounded. A case in point: Western media’s treatment of Zhang Yimou’s Nanjing massacre film “The Flowers of War.”

When news came out that “Flowers” had failed to win a Golden Globe award and was not even shortlisted for an Oscar nomination in the best foreign-language film category, some Chinese said the result was just what they had expected given that the film had been described as an anti-Japanese propaganda in biased western media reports.

On the issue of China’s dispute with Japan over the presentation of World War II history, there is a clear tendency for many western media reports to employ double standards, underplay the sufferings of the Chinese people during Japanese occupation and turn the coverage of the history dispute into attacks on the Chinese government.

In a post entitled “The Flowers of War Brings out the Worst of Western Media,” Cfensi, a general news blog on Chinese entertainment, comments on some examples of tendentious western media reports about the film:

Jonathan Landreth at the AFP skillfully uses the title “Christian Bale denies his Chinese film is propaganda” followed by the statement that the film is one of “a string of films and TV series from China promoting national unity against an evil Japan.” …he’s excellent at making falsehoods true – first make an arbitrary accusation, then make the accusation’s denial the headline, and finally affirm the accusation as fact without any evidence whatsoever.

Laurie Burkitt and Tom Orlik at the WSJ…complain that “nuanced treatment of the Chinese characters is in stark contrast with portrayal of the Japanese as monochrome monsters.” Do these people not realize the immorality that comes from humanizing (aka: finding excuses) for rapists and mass murderers? Maybe, just maybe, there’s a reason why we don’t expect films with good Japanese soldiers during the Nanking massacres, just like how we don’t expect there to be good Nazis in a Holocaust movie.

While the Cfensi post may be too harsh, the comparison of “Flowers” with Holocaust movies is telling. Numerous Holocaust movies have been made that portray Nazis as evil incarnate, but one does not see western media describing them as anti-German propaganda that “lacks subtlety.” Yet, when Chinese films on the Japanese occupation during World War II come out, western media reports are often quick to deplore their portrayal of Japanese soldiers as “one-dimensional savages” and their “demonization of the Japanese army,” despite acknowledging that the Japanese army had committed many atrocities, including during the Nanjing Massacre.

According to Cfensi, a number of western media outlets, including Variety, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian and CNN, also erroneously claimed that the Flowers of War was partially funded by the Chinese state, implying that the film was state-backed nationalistic propaganda. In fact, it only received a loan from a private Chinese bank.

Accusing “Flowers” of being anti-Japanese propaganda or “one-dimensional” is but the latest manifestation of mainstream western media’s propensity to criticize China when covering the history of China’s fraught relations with Japan. Often, reports on Chinese protests over perceived Japanese attempts to whitewash its militaristic past are turned into warnings about rising Chinese nationalism deliberately fostered and manipulated by the Chinese government. Stories about new Japanese history textbooks that gloss over Japan’s wartime aggression become discussions of problems with China’s own history textbooks.

For example, in April 2005, after protests broke out in China following the approval of new Japanese textbooks that whitewashed Japan’s wartime atrocities, AFP’s coverage contained the following:

While learning materials in [Chinese] mainland high schools take special pains to outline Japanese aggression beginning with the 1874 invasion of Taiwan, China’s involvement in the 1950-53 Korean war is dismissed in one sentence.

The Los Angeles Times said:

China has criticized Japan in recent weeks for whitewashing its militarist history, focusing in particular on a junior high school textbook recently approved by Tokyo.

“Yes, what Japan did in World War II is horrible,” said Sam Crane, Asian studies professor at Williams College in Massachusetts. “But the embarrassing fact for the Communist Party, and one that is not taught in Chinese schools, is that the party itself is responsible for many more deaths of Chinese people than those caused by Japanese militarism.”

And the Financial Times offered its readers the following:

For those seeking graphic if not necessarily balanced accounts of Japanese infamy, there is no better place to look than China…

But China’s schoolbooks, carefully edited to ensure they do not contradict the official historical verdicts of the ruling Communist party, have their own conspicuous absences. Texts for middle and upper school students give great detail about the party’s resistance against Japanese oppression, but gloss over or ignore most of its less glorious moments. The brutal 1989 suppression of pro-democracy protests centred on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square is ignored.

It is not that Chinese history textbooks do not have their own problems, or that western media do not have the right to discuss those problems. But there is an appropriate time and place for such discussions. To attack Chinese schoolbooks in the middle of reports about Japanese attempts to whitewash its history of invasion and occupation of other countries is morally dubious to say the least.

Suppose, when discussing Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews, western media reports were to say: “Yes, the Jewish people suffered a great deal during World War II, but Israel has also occupied Palestinian territories and killed innocent Palestinian civilians.” They would cause public outrage and may even be accused of trying to make excuses for the Holocaust. Yet, it has been perfectly acceptable for western media to effectively say “Yes, Japan did horrible things to the Chinese, but the Chinese government did horrible things to its own people too.”

Do we take this to mean Japan’s wartime atrocities in China are insignificant? Do the Chinese have no right to criticize Japanese textbooks?

It is one thing for western media to be critical of the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party. It’s quite another to let their views of the CCP color their reports on the history row between China and Japan. Using criticisms of the CCP to divert attention away from the suffering of the Chinese people at the hands of Japanese militarists during World War II — and the refusal of some Japanese to fully acknowledge the past — and to do so consistently, this is what I would call biased media coverage.

Yiyi Lu, an expert on Chinese civil society, is currently working on a project to promote open government information in China. She is the author of “Non-Governmental Organisations in China: The Rise of Dependent Autonomy” (Routledge 2008).

Source: The Wall Street Journal

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