London riots resonate in China

By Xu Peixi
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, August 19, 2011
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Events in recent weeks have brought the globalization project to a halt as world leaders address a series of domestic calamities. The United States has played party politics on its debt ceiling, threatening debt default and disaster for the global economy. Britain has been stained by riots. China has rushed to salvage state credibility after a fatal collision of its much-flaunted bullet trains. And Somalia, a nation largely isolated from the globalization process, has watched in despair as its citizens starved.

Globalization is not the root cause of these incidents. But globalization plays a central role in mobilizing labor and capital, producing winners and losers. Riots in China and the UK are byproducts of the same process. When street violence gets entangled with politics, ethnicity, race and religion, our attention is often diverted from what is really at issue.

This is why the Chinese response to the London riots is primarily focused on the British media, asking them to reflect upon their past coverage of the 2008 riots in Tibet and the 2009 riots in Xinjiang. The unrest in China was much more brutal than the street disturbances that have recently hit London, yet the Chinese troublemakers were often portrayed either implicitly or outright by the British media as human rights activists and freedom fighters.

An article in the Guardian newspaper on the March 14 riots in Tibet said the protests were the result of anger that was "real and instinctive" and reflected "resentment Tibetans feel at the inequality they face in their day-to-day lives." Another piece on March 16 explained that the "continued Tibetan resistance" had "frustrated the communist leadership" by bringing China's human rights record into the spotlight. BBC went even further, describing "China's view" and the "Tibetan view" on "the Tibet issue," inciting ethnic tension. Edited, fabricated, and misplaced photos were common in the coverage.

The Guardian's and BBC's difficulty sorting out historical facts does not justify their support for street violence and looting. The same type of rhetoric was applied to the July 5 Urumqi riots in 2009. British media had similar sympathy for that violence, giving little attention to the cries for help from women and children besieged by rioters. Photos of Han Chinese victims with blood on their faces were reported as rioters attacked by police. Uygur civilians helping Han Chinese escape attackers were not reported. The misery inflicted on civilians was seldom featured and often dismissed. Police actions were exaggerated in photos featuring guns and descriptions of "a heavy police presence" blanketing the area "with squads on every corner, convoys of trucks moving through the city and helicopters whirring overhead," as the Telegraph reported on July 9, 2009. The papers slanted their coverage by mixing interviews with Chinese officials with quotes from overseas dissidents.

The Telegraph also attempted to diagnose the riots as the result of ethnic tension, noting that they came "after a year of rising tensions between the dominant Han Chinese authorities and the Uygur ethnic minority socially and economically marginalized by Beijing's development policies." Such a dichotomy ignored the division between those who were looters and those who were not and provided a selective historical context. While the uneven development of the modern Chinese state deserves criticism, the British media never seem to realize that the first attempt to put China on the globalization bandwagon was made by an omnipotent British empire through two bloody opium wars.

The human rights discourse from the British media has become so familiar to Chinese readers that netizens on the forums are borrowing British media rhetoric on China to report the London riots. Voices of "independent observers," "Amnesty International," "protestors" and those "who wished to be anonymous" were deliberately spoofed. Photos that in fact featured police helping victims were satirized. The Tianya netizens also found direct quotes from British media coverage on London riots and compared them to coverage of the Chinese riots. The Chinese elite and progressive media such as the Southern Weekend newspaper were criticized on the forum for their sympathy for Londoners and their provocative stance against the Chinese administration's handling of the Wenzhou train crash.

Unsurprisingly, the British media misunderstood the Chinese satire as an attack on Britain and the British government. In the wake of the riots, the Telegraph's correspondent in Beijing, Peter Foster, wrote that British government entreaties that the Chinese accept the virtues of "democracy, free media and robust civil society" as the foundation of social stability will now be met with "even greater contempt than usual." The article reads more like self-reflection on British coverage of riots in China. The fact is the virtues that Foster mentioned are becoming more deeply seated as a consensus view. That explains exactly why an elite section of Chinese society felt unwilling to comment on London riots – they have somehow treated domestic issues as a priority and in doing so, they have taken for granted British superiority.

There is no need for the "elite" to give knee jerk criticism on domestic problems but mute themselves on foreign matters, just as there is no need for China's nationalistic "angry youths" to do the opposite. The debate between the elite and angry youths in China confirms Voltaire's words that "a long dispute means both parties are wrong." To some degree, both groups are overly biased in their worldviews. They tend to forget that they share the same values of peace and democracy.

Xu Peixi is a columnist with For more information please visit:

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of


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