Sharon Stone, the Chinese Media and Stirring Up Trouble

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There has been a good deal of discussion in the Chinese media and blogosphere (and also on this blog: see comments on my Wen Jiabao post) about comments by has-been actress Sharon Stone in which she says the thought occurred to her that the earthquake was a karmic punishment for China being “not nice” to her “good friend” the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people. First off, if you watch the youtube video, it’s a barely-coherent, new age ramble when she seems to have been in party mode. That’s no excuse of course for saying something quite this idiotic and offensive. But it does underline what seems to me the main issue: why should anyone in China pay attention to what she says, particularly this much attention? She’s known for saying dumb things. In fact, you have to wonder if the reporter deliberately asked the question as he knew she’d be practically guaranteed to say something foolish. So why get in a tizzy? It’s partly due to the web, which magnifies and exaggerates such idiocies. But it is also partly due the some Chinese media outlets, particularly the official media, being constantly on the lookout for people who “offend the feelings of the Chinese people.”

We had a somewhat comparable experience –on a much smaller scale– recently when the stridently nationalist Beijing world affairs paper the Global Times managed to misrepresent a passage in one of our stories as saying that the earthquake was punishment for China’s March crackdown on demonstrations in in Tibet. (See the passage for yourself here; it actually says these sorts of interpretations of what happened were discussed by Chinese netizens). This was such an outrageous stretch that I wondered at first what the motivation behind it could be. I’m still not sure. We actually know the paper’s editor and he’s a thoughtful journalist. Perhaps he didn’t see this as it’s an online piece.

Anyway, a Global Times on line reporter then buttonholed some ‘ordinary Beijingers’ for comment (original in Chinese here), though I very much doubt any of them had actually read the article and were entirely dependent on what the reporter told them about it. Not surprisingly, they were outraged. Pretty tendentious stuff, particularly considering there was discussion of “heaven’s mandate”, portents, omens, disasters etc of exactly the kind I mention in our story on the exact same website (the famous http://www.anti-cnn.com; discussion here) that the reporter says sparked the idea for this piece in the first place.

Here are a few translated passages from the Global Times online report:

“How can they say that! They just don’t want to see Chinese as a united people”, Li Hongyi, a Beijing taxi driver in his 30′s complained to the Global Times reporter.

…..describing the earthquake as “heaven’s damnation” is by no means acceptable. “I am very angry”, said 27 year old bank clerk Li Nan, “China is in a great sorrow. How can we not be sad? Talking about “heaven’s damnation” at this moment is being intentionally hurtful to the Chinese people.”

God knows where the “heaven’s damnation” quote came from. Not from us. Perhaps stirring up nationalist feelings is any easy way to increase sales, even if you have to basically construct a straw man out of virtually nothing to get your response. It is, as we’ve remarked before on this blog, a delicate, raw time. All the more reason to ignore throw away comments by the ignorant. China and the Chinese people are much bigger than that as they have shown in the weeks since the quake. And even greater reason, too, for local media to behave in a responsible fashion and not stir up feelings even further with imagined transgressions.