Posted by: Sam Olsen | August 15, 2011

London riots: a Chinese perspective

Being a senior Chinese politician is not an easy task. Apart from the responsibility of leading 1.3 billion people and ensuring they don’t starve/mutiny/explode, they also have the West to deal with. Every time they go abroad or get involved with the international community, Western activists put pressure on their leaders to bring up human rights abuses, or Tibet, or Falun Gong, or… It is fair to say that perhaps China doesn’t have the best record when it comes to human rights, as for example Amnesty International document, but the average Chinese person sees comments surrounding this as a mere stick to beat them with. (Sorry, poor taste analogy there.)

Larry and I were having breakfast the other day in front of our staple diet of China TV when a Newsnight-equivalent came on. The host, a stocky 45-year-old man with German-style glasses and a semi-aggressive manner (and Chinese of course), had with him the Deputy Head of Mission from the UK, Chris Wood (pictured here, on the far left) to discuss the London riots, as well as a random American writer.

The host started off with lots of general questions about how the riots started, who was to blame, and so on. But soon it became clear that he had three lines to push, and he pushed them hard. The tone was set by a sneering of the host so pointed that Jeremy Paxman would have blushed. “Mr Wood, we are not surprised by your official line defending your Government” was one of the gentler jibes, but still delivered with the hostility of a spitting cobra.

The first line was an attack on the hypocrisy of the West for criticising China for clamping down on disorder in Tibet and Xinjiang, but not saying anything to Britain for trying to bring its English riots under control. As a Briton, I can see a startling difference between the two, not least because hundreds of people apparently died in the Chinese provinces at the hands of the security forces and the rioters alike. There was also an overt political dimension that was missing from the shopping with violence that we saw last week. But to Chinese eyes they are very much in the same mould, and to criticise one and not the other is extreme hypocrisy.

The second line taken by the host was that the London Olympics would be very much overshadowed by these riots. The 2008 Games in Beijing are an enormous source of pride in China and had a huge impact on political perceptions of the nation, as this article discusses. There is therefore a subtle effort to portray London’s forthcoming extravaganza as inferior to those in Beijing, and anything that can knock the London Games is seemingly supported. For example, some of the ‘impartial’ quesitons our host asked: “Are the Olympics safe? How can the London police manage if they can’t manage the rioters?” Or “”We don’t question the technical ability of Scotland Yard, but why have the police been caught out by the violence in the streets?”

Next stop the West?

Talking of the police, a third line of attack was around the UK police being potentially  granted the power to shut down social media sites like BBM for a while. The host was cock-a-hoop at this, going on for quite some time at how the West, having constantly attacked China for both censoring the media and having its Great Firewall, was now perhaps seeing the wisdom of control.  I paraphrase, but the host’s comments were along the lines of “You agree that new media is dangerous and can be used by youths to organise riots, yes?” A pointed question was then asked: “Will the UK Government be tempted to bring in controls on new media? Because if the same happened in China then this would be heavily criticised.”

All in all, the Chinese media seems quite happy that the riots happened. This may be just a press-thing, but it is likely to reflect the opinions of at least some in Government who are keen to see the Old World put down, especially if it benefits the image of China. As the West’s decline continues, expect a lot more of this to come.

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