Thursday, 29 September 2011

More news from China than just buried sex slaves, please

If Julia Gillard expects Australians to look closer at China the news media has to get on board too. We need more than just news about sex slaves held for years in underground caverns - though, admittedly, the story is justifiably newsworthy.

The prime minister has said she will establish a working group to write a white paper to act as a basis for Australia's future government policies in relation to China.

But more will be needed. A government policy direction is all fine and good as it can encompass such things as military and trade links. The way companies and their executives and employees adapt their approaches to China is going to be just as important, however. And stories such as the recent expose by Ji Xuguang, a Luoyang reporter, showing how a government functionary had incarcerated six women aged 22 to 24 over a period of two years in a bunker underneath an apartment complex, hardly help to cement ties between our two countries.

The story of the illegal detention was enough to interest Western media but the subsequent developments around the story made it even juicier from the point of view of Western journalists. The New York Times covered the case - and got some facts wrong - but Australian media have yet to pick up on it. That's surprising, because the facts surrounding the treatment meted out to Ji after he started reporting on the case - he was threatened by government officials on the basis of revealing "state secrets" - are exactly the sort of odd behaviour on the part of China's leadership that excites the most interest in this country. Sure, reporting on the vicious attitude of the Communist Party toward the media is fair but if this is all we get - along with negative stories on the treatment of Tibet, Muslim unrest in the country's west, threats to Tawian, and sprays at foreign governments that criticise the Party - then we're just creating a readership that will hold overwhelmingly negative attitudes toward China. This, in turn, leads to more negative stories because the news media thinks it's giving people what they want.

Keeping women locked up underground is not something China pioneered. There have been three separate cases in Austria alone in recent years. Badgering journalists for accurately reporting on such occurrances is not, indeed, something Austrian authorities normally resort to. Yes, the Luoyang city officials who threatened Ji are in the wrong but, fearing for his safety, Ji was able to turn to China's version of Twitter, Weibo, where he generated a large volume of support from ordinary Chinese. This probably saved him from worse than mere threats. What it does show is that Chinese people are not the same thing as the Chinese government. The way that Western media report on China, the Chinese people never get a showing. It's time for this to change.

Government relations are important, the prime minister realises, but she should also be looking to improve relations between ordinary Australians and ordinary Chinese. The two countries have a lot of things that they can profitably share as the new century wears on. The Australian media is part of the problem.

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