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The good, the bad and the ugly
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Prostitutes, stock punters, mistresses of big businessmen and migrant workers - "images of modern China" decked out in panda-themed outfits for the world to see.

The fashion show by Chinese designer and artist Zhao Bandi in Paris last month was just asking for it.

Once the media picked up the news, the Chinese online community proceeded to flame Zhao for this latest sacrilegious act of abusing China's beloved bear. He had first used the catwalk to present 33 social classes and issues of the country last November in a similar fashion.

"This is no way to treat a symbol of cultural exchange between China and other countries," ran one online diatribe.

Thousands on the Internet have left furious postings, saying Zhao's Paris stunt was also the most recent example of how the ugly side of China was being blown way out of proportion by the creative industry to pander to Western audiences.

After all, acclaimed director Zhang Yimou drew similar fire from the Chinese public for playing up the country's backwardness in his earlier films of the 1990s.

His 1992 movie, The Story of Qiu Ju, about a Chinese peasant who battled bureaucracy over an injustice, won international accolades but suffered criticism at home for its negative portrayal of society then.

But panda-designer Zhao's case highlights a major, underlying concern today - how a Net-savvy generation handles the increasing interest in its country as it rises in importance on the global stage.

The views the world has of this expansive country will inevitably be as diverse as its provinces, regions and municipalities.

Which means that good or bad, how others see their country is a fact citizens of a developing China will have to take in their stride.

Because along with portrayals that are grossly exaggerated or way off the mark, depictions of the country will also include gems of truth that serve to boost understanding across national and cultural boundaries.

That is also why the role of a media that reports accurately and avoids fanning the flames of sensationalism is more urgent than ever.

Western media reports on the Olympic torch relay and the riots in Tibet last year already led to strong reactions from Chinese audiences for what they said were "negative and biased" reports.

From London to Los Angeles, thousands of overseas Chinese took to the streets in peaceful demonstrations last April to protest what they felt were distorted and slanted coverage of the events by major news agencies.

Conversely, examples of responsible reporting on the May 12 Sichuan earthquake last year moved the world by showing the resilience of the Chinese people and the countries that came to their aid to overcome disaster.

Still, local reporters and editors today face the danger of simply teasing readers and viewers of new media with fleeting, superficial and unverified content. It is a daily challenge they will have to remind themselves - and their audiences - to surmount.

Only then will stories that matter make a difference and eclipse and expose those that are irrelevant and untrue.

While I am not amused by Zhao's latest antics on the overseas fashion runways, I am still willing to let it pass as a necessary evil for a society becoming more sophisticated and tolerant in coming to terms with differing points of view.

E-mail: alexishooi@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily April 10, 2009)

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