Monday, November 21, 2005

George Bush in China: How Western Media Got It Wrong

Western media should end their biased view of China and focus on all the positive changes in the country, including an increase in religious freedom.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Coming off a new low in domestic approval ratings and battered by a decidedly hostile reception in Latin America, a mellower and gentler President George W. Bush brought a more conciliatory message to Asia.

Bush in ChinaWestern media stressed the part of Bush's speech in Japan where he suggested that China should look upon Taiwan as its model for democracy and freedom. The reference to Taiwan occupied only two short paragraphs out of 34 of his prepared text. China chose to ignore the reference when Bush arrived in Beijing.

Bush began his speech in Beijing by praising China for its economic progress and for its role in the six-party talks with North Korea. He gave a subtle signal about the need for more religious freedom in China by attending a Protestant church service near Tiananmen.

Alas, both the president and the media entourage showed dismaying flaws in their understanding of China.

When Thomas Murphy, then chairman of General Motors, visited Beijing in 1978, he too attended mass at a Catholic church near where Bush attended the protestant service. Giving subtle signals about religious freedom was far from Murphy's mind, however. His only intent was to be a good Irish Catholic.

What has changed during this interval is the degree to which Buddhist temples have flourished. Today, temples are full of worshippers and grounds covered by incense smoke and burnt currency printed for the dead.

China has even constructed a bronze-clad statue of Guanyin, a Buddha native to China, off Hainan Island, built by design to be taller than the Statue of Liberty. Buddhism has always been the dominant religion in China. Why has Western media not acknowledged the liberalization of worship in the country? Surely no one is suggesting that only the practice of Christian religions count toward religious freedom.

About the time of Bush's trip to Asia, the Washington-based Pew Research Center released a remarkable survey as part of their global attitudes project. The survey revealed that 76 percent of the Chinese people living in urban areas expect their lives to improve over the next five years. For the United States, it was 48 percent, much closer to Russia's 45 percent.

When asked if they were "satisfied with the way things are going at home," 72 percent in China responded "satisfied," and only 19 percent "not satisfied." In the United States, the survey indicated only 39 percent satisfied and 57 percent not satisfied. This response, however, was superior to Russia, where 23 percent of respondents reported being satisfied, and 71 percent not.

Even more remarkable than Pew's result is the near total absence of coverage about this survey in Western media. Only the International Herald Tribune, distributed outside of America, ran the story. None of the wire services and none of the major American dailies even mentioned this poll.

Why such a lack of interest? The global attitudes project was co-chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Sen. John Danforth. Pew's many other surveys were always cited by the mainstream. Could it be because people allegedly deprived of freedom have no right to be so optimistic?

President Bush, it seems, should have saved his lecture for his good buddy, Russia's president Vladimir Putin at the APEC meeting in South Korea. At least with Putin, Bush would have spoken from a relative position of strength.

Bush also misfired by holding Taiwan as a model to which China should aspire to. People in Asia have not forgotten that the last election of this so-called model of democracy saw a miraculous intervention of a supposed assassination attempt on the eve of the presidential election. The sympathy from the superficial wound on President Chen Shui Bian's belly was far more effective than any hanging chads or Swift Boat veterans that influenced the outcome in America.

Now that Beijing has offered to buy agriculture products from Taiwan tariff-free and dangled the prospect of sending millions of mainland tourists to Taiwan, the economic pressure on Chen to revise his no-negotiation stance is mounting. The opposition leaders in Taiwan have already reached rapprochement with Beijing, further isolating Chen.

It will be interesting to see how long Chen can abide by rules in the books without new subterfuge. His predecessor, Lee Teng Hui, was known to make revision of the Taiwan's constitution an annual exercise.

More than 1 million Taiwanese have already voted with their feet by moving to the mainland. Even 100,000-plus Americans are now living in China. Such voluntary migration of people flies in the face of the image of a repressive China portrayed by the Western media.

During his visit to Asia, President Bush has shifted to a perceptibly softer diplomatic approach from his previous hard rhetoric. It is a small but hopefully significant step toward collaboration instead of confrontation. Western media needs to take off their biased filters and see China for what it has become -- a progressive nation on the move.

New America Media, Commentary, George Koo, Posted: Nov 21, 2005, A version was published in South China Morning Post, November 23, 2005