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Through the media prism, a distorted China


THREE years after the "Beijing Spring" demonstrations were crushed, China is experiencing a summer-like economic boom. But as far as American public opinion is concerned, that springtime flowering of political dissent turned into an unending winter of repression.

A study by academics and journalists at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government suggests that a major reason for this gap between perception and reality is the powerful and gripping coverage of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Despite the efforts of reporters to put the dramatic events in their historic and cultural context, the coverage bred some serious and lasting misconceptions about China.

The study, "Turmoil at Tiananmen," was prepared by the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. Its authors argue that "the volume and immediacy of the reports from China helped ensure that the coverage itself -- beyond the actual events in Beijing -- would become a major factor in the formation of American public opinion and foreign policy toward China."

The study's authors have high praise for the intelligence and enthusiasm of the hundreds of American reporters assigned to the story. But they note criticism "that distortions caused by the media prism had an unnaturally disruptive impact on public opinion and policy-making in both countries."

Some of those distortions were the kind inherent in the coverage of any breaking news story -- particularly the inaccurate account of the violent crushing of the demonstration. But two of the distortions have seriously impaired American understanding of China as it moves beyond Tiananmen.

It was too easy to use "pro-democracy" as the tag word for the demonstrations, despite the fact that Western-style "democracy" is not what the students had in mind -- as suggested by the reply received by an American teaching at a university in Wuhan when she asked her students: "What do you mean by democracy? Do you want to give the 80 percent of the people who are out there in the countryside the right to vote?" The reply: "No, they're not ready."

The study concludes that the use of "democracy" was not "a shortcoming to be laid principally at the door of the media, but it may have been an obstacle to American understanding of the unique features and limitations of the student movement."

It was also too easy for American reporters to play up the activities and statements of students and intellectuals. They dominated the events in Tiananmen Square, where most of the press attention was focused and were accessible and articulate -- and they recaptured for many reporters their own glory days during the anti-war protests of the 1960s.

With several notable exceptions, the study notes, "some in the press were slow to register the transformation" by late May from a strictly student movement into "a broad urban anti-government" one.

Subsequent research has identified 28 workers' organizations that sprung up in 19 cities during the spring of 1989, suggesting that the real story -- probably impossible to document and report at the time -- was what Harvard sociologist Andrew Walder calls "an explosion of explicitly political organizing efforts on the part of urban citizens."

The workers may not be the final instruments of change in China, but as Elizabeth J. Perry, another scholar who has studied post-Tiananmen China notes, "Ironically, it was the very instigators of the Tiananmen protest -- the urban intellectuals -- who appeared most wedded to a limiting legacy."

The emphasis on students and intellectuals in the press coverage has had the effect of tying American interests to their status-oriented and moralistic role in Chinese society at the expense of the economic and political aspirations of China's workers and peasants.

As long as American political leaders and American public opinion continue to see China through the prism of Tiananmen, the chance for rebuilding a constructive relationship with a China that is neither dominated by students and intellectuals nor a mirror of American political systems is diminished.

Michael Kenney is a member of the Boston Globe staff.

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