Posts Tagged ‘BBC’

China pulls back the media veil

September 7, 2009

Bob Green, founder of Hong Kong’s Amazing Grace Elephant Company, worked during the Cultural Revolution as a radio newsman for US network NBC. He and his colleagues regularly drove a van with a long antenna to a mountaintop near Hong Kong’s border with the mainland to hold a teacup against the Bamboo Curtain, monitoring scratchy broadcasts of Radio Beijing.

That scramble for hints of news from China is a far cry from the current unrest in Uruumqi, where Chinese government media is feeding international broadcasters demonstration footage and man on the street sound bites from Xinjiang Province’s capital. When large scale clashes between Xinjiang’s majority ethnic Uighurs and China’s majority Han Chinese began in July, China facilitated foreign media travel to report from this area of remote northwestern China.

Some observers attribute the change to lessons Chinese authorities learned from their unsuccessful media clampdown in response to rioting in Tibet in early 2008. But the trend dates back to March 2007 rioting in Zhushan in Hunan Province, as I noted then in Asia Times.

When China opens up is less interesting than why. The Zhushan riots erupted over economic issues, specifically local bus fares, at a time when there was a lot rumbling about restive Chinese workers. China’s rulers took the opportunity to show foreign investors that they still knew how to handle unrest over pocketbook issues.

When the Tibet rioting broke out, the combination of pre-Olympic jitters and the sharply drawn disagreement between China (supported by the vast majority of its citizens) and the rest of the world over Tibet instinctively triggered a media blackout. But once China realized that it couldn’t block the news, it tested many of the same media management techniques that it’s now using more successfully in Xinjiang.

For example, in Tibet China learned that tightly controlled press tours can backfire. Reporters in Lhasa glossed over the spoon-fed government gruel in favor of unscripted nibbles with disgruntled monks. So, in Urumqui, China cut reporters loose with plenty of monitoring but little overt guidance, making it harder for them to find unfavorable stories and for unwelcome sources to find them.

In its Tibet and Xinjiang riot narratives, China portrays ungrateful backward minority people resisting Chinese efforts to lift them out of darkness and poverty by (ignorantly) attacking innocent Han Chinese. This argument plays very well in the domestic audience. It may also resonate in the overseas Chinese community, particularly in Asia, where many believe Chinese racial and cultural superiority contributes to their economic success. (See Coloring Judgment [July 12, 2009] on this blog for the Malaysian example.)

Overseas, affection for the Dalai Lama and Tibet culture undermines the portrait of Tibetan inferiority. But in Xinjiang, giving reporters the opportunity to interview Chinese victims of violence and conciliatory Uighurs paints a sympathetic portrait of earnest working people being victimized by barbaric thugs, eliciting global sympathy.

For Tibet, China’s violent separatist agitator argument also swells nationalist pride domestically but falls flat overseas. The Dalai Lama, after all, is a Nobel Peace laureate. In Xinjiang, Muslim Uighurs provide bait for links to al-Qaeda and other violent Islamists, and China consistently invites media to make the connection. Moreover, there’s no Uighur Dalai Lama.

While watching nuance and spin, remember that China still controls the big picture for all media. Every local and foreign reporter knows that crossing certain lines risks expulsion or worse, but China rarely draws those lines clearly or in advance. So reporters generally limit themselves more than government rules would dare mandate. Reporters that exceed the limits of tolerance don’t report for very long. That’s the autocrats’ ultimate weapon in media management, and China is never afraid to go nuclear to control the news.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie.

Putting Your Mouth Where Your Money Is

August 15, 2009

Macau’s two biggest American casinos operators are making plans for share sales in Hong Kong, as detailed in my Asia Times report. Analysts are divided on whether the Macau operations of Las Vegas Sands, owner of the Venetian Macao, and Wynn Resorts are worth a gamble. Before placing their bets, investors might also want to consider the leaders of these two companies.

Wynn founder Steve Wynn and LVS chairman Sheldon Adelson are both self-made multi-millionaires. They also share an apparent conviction that success bestows skills beyond their fields of apparent expertise.

Adelson fancies himself as a master of repartee. During LVS’s earnings conference call, according to the transcript from www.AlphaRising.com, one analyst trying to discuss that possible stock offering (or IPO for initial public offering) prompted the following exchange:

Analyst: What is the earliest you think you can do something in Hong Kong?
Adelson: What do you mean do something in Hong Kong? You mean go to have dinner there?
Analyst: Well, you will probably do that pretty soon. You probably…
Adelson: We have great Chinese restaurants…

Adelson loves showing off his conviction that he’s the cleverest guy in the room. In BBC interview just after LVS’s close escape from bankruptcy last year, reporter Sharanjit Leyl asked about financing the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, the most expensive casino resort ever built, price estimates reaching US$8 billion. Adelson brushed aside the inquiries. When Leyl rephrased the question to ask about his “problem with money,” a visibly annoyed Adelson replied, “I don’t have a problem with money. We don’t have any arguments, any confrontations. Money and I get along very well.”

Steve Wynn wouldn’t talk about his company’s IPO filing during his conference call with analysts last month, but he opted to play talk radio demagogue. “Right now we are watching the United States government deal with complex problems that clearly seem to be beyond their intellectual ability,” Wynn said. “Right now, we are more afraid of Washington than we are of the economy.”

Denouncing “bombastic rhetoric from the White House and from the administration,” Wynn said, “There is an attitude that, there is a very definite bias in this administration that business is bad… The President of the United States has his own office and he has his own group of little cadre of people that agree with him and look at the world just the way he does and they don’t listen to anybody from what I’ve heard from my business friends. They invite people down to Washington and tell them what they think, they don’t ask or listen to anybody.”

In this conference call meant to discuss company earnings and business prospects, Wynn went on to praise China – “maybe we could all learn a lesson by watching what happens there…. but I’ll bet you that government sees to it that economy and that workforce is protected” – and Macau’s incoming Chief Executive Fernando Chui Sai-on, who was chosen to run unopposed in a backroom deal and endorsed by the 300 electors (also chosen in an unopposed election) voting for Macua’s leader in the local Beijing-approved version of democracy.

Chui is a member of the cabal of families that have dominated Macau for generations. His candidacy sparked outrage among grassroots Macau, including a protest ad that had to be run in Hong Kong newspaper because no Macau publication would dare risk the wrath of the entrenched elite.

From Macau’s handover to China in December 1999 until this May, Chui served secretary for social and cultural affairs, reportedly using his position to enrich family business interests. Chui undeniably did little to improve Macau dismal social services, most notably healthcare, Chui’s area of academic training including a US PhD, despite Macau’s vast government surpluses thanks to the casino boom. People in Macau at best see Chui as an empty suit fronting for big business interests (which, given a chance to do it again, would have never let Wynn or Adelson into Macau), more commonly as a not particularly smart or honest empty suit.

But for Steve Wynn, Chui is a heroic figure. Contrasting Chui with the US leadership, Wynn praised Chui for “understanding issues that affect people” as well as exemplifying the “the level of education and sophistication that permeates the Chinese, the People’s Republic of China government.

“These are very smart people, very highly educated people, very thoughtful people. My own feeling is the government of Macau will protect and so will the central government in Beijing and the regional government in Zhuhai at Guangdong province, Guangzhou. The government will do a very enlightened and thoughtful job of protecting the interest of the citizens and the business enterprises that support the health of those businesses.”

Yet, no matter how lavish their praise for China’s government, Wynn and other international investors in China never get around to trading in their passports for Chinese citizenship.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie.

Coloring Judgment

July 12, 2009

In a preview of US President Barack Obama’s trip to Ghana, BBC asked children at an Accra elementary school to explain the meaning of his visit.

One boy, perhaps seven years old, said, “Obama proves that black people can do anything that white people can do.” As an American, I’m extraordinarily proud that our country could help teach this lesson. I pray that it sinks in the across the African continent.

As a former resident of Africa, it’s incredible to me that, after 50-plus years of independence, an African child born this century can believe in the inferiority of black people. I won’t speculate about the reasons the boy feels that way, but I’ve witnessed something similar in Asia.

While working on Lonely Planet’s inaugural guide to Borneo, I crossed the border from predominantly poor, poorly educated, underdeveloped and untouristed East Kalimantan in Indonesia to more affluent, educated, developed and cosmopolitan East Sabah in Malaysia and suddenly found race an issue. As I wrote in Asia Times, during six weeks in Kalimantan, I received overwhelmingly warm receptions and helpful responses to inquiries. In Sabah, I was mocked, shunned and insulted. (I understood the taunts since I speak Indonesian, as close to Malaysian as US English is to British.)

I peg the difference to the Malaysian government’s racial policies. Its system of preferences of Malays and restrictions on Chinese and other groups institutionalizes racism. It teaches that all people are not created equal, that there are differences in race, and that Malays are at the bottom of the pile.

That’s no way to raise proud Malaysian children, and, unfortunately, it’s most likely going to be a while before America elects a Malaysian president.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie.


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