How China Sees English Riots
Image Credit: Stuart Bannocks

How China Sees English Riots

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It's been a good couple of weeks for China’s conservative press and a bad one for the image of liberal governments, as democracies battle crises ranging from the US budget standoff to Britain’s ongoing riots. Chinese commentators have taken the opportunity to take a few shots at the nations that have long lectured them on political reform, most notably a fierce Xinhua editorial that criticized Washington’s handling of the debt issue Sunday. These crises will certainly not be forgotten by defenders of one-party rule eager to find evidence of democratic countries’ failings.  

But Chinese media have followed the English riots with particularly intense interest, making it a lead story for days – and casting it as a reflection of fundamental problems in English and European society.  An editorial in Guangming Daily (Chinese link), a party newspaper, argues: ‘In reality, the disturbances in London are a reflection of Europe’s sickness: years of high welfare payments, excessive personal liberties, and an increase in foreign immigration have rendered it impossible for the lowest rungs of society to enjoy material well-being.’ (The full article is translated below). Adherents to such views have found ample confirmation in the British media – a China Daily translation of a Daily Mail column has become popular on the Chinese networking site Renren. It argues that British youth are ‘wild beasts…they respond only to instinctive animal impulses — to eat and drink, have sex, seize or destroy the accessible property of others.’

Conservative papers especially have picked up on illiberal comments like British Prime Minister David Cameron’s suggestion that social networking websites should be blocked to maintain order.  The Global Times, a conservative, but relatively independent, newspaper owned by the People's Daily has had Cameron's proposal to block access to Facebook and Twitter as a lead story in its special coverage (Chinese link) of the riots all day. As James Fallows writes at the Atlantic, he will undoubtedly be quoted for years whenever China comes under fire for limiting access to controversial information.

The riots have also given Chinese media a chance to put Western netizens under a microscope – in a feature that will be familiar to readers of the popular ChinaSmack, Chinese media outlets have gathered and translated outrageous comments from Western news stories: ‘Just send the army in to take care of it. Bring in martial law already jeez’ or ‘Muslims suck. Assimilateor [sic] get the hell out of the West. We don’t want your inferior culture being imposed on us.’ Comments like these will only reinforce the standard Xinhua editorial argument that Western liberalism is a facade, an easy prescription for other countries, but quickly dropped when push comes to shove.

Pictures of burning buildings in London, like Standard and Poor’s downgrade of US debt last week, will have a long shelf life in the repertoires of apologists for authoritarian rule. As a friend of mine asked me this week – with the United States paralyzed, the European economy in tatters, and England in chaos, whose model is looking good now?

Translation of ‘The root causes of the London riots,’ from ‘Guangming Daily

In Europe, August is usually a relaxing time, free of cares: national leaders leave for vacations one by one, and many factories and companies give their staff a time to rest.  This year, however, things are different: as the multinational debt crisis strikes fear into their hearts, Europeans have been unable to relax as in former times.  And this is saying nothing of the disturbances that continue to appear in Britain.

The riots in London began unexpectedly — to the extent that many political leaders, including Prime Minister David Cameron, took several days to return from vacation and handle the emergency.  In addition to the surprise, what is notable about these riots is the suddenness with which they began. The police shooting of a man led to a brief peaceful demonstration, which quickly became a riot, almost completely without political demands or slogans. Many young people poured onto the streets fighting, smashing, and looting. So, in the account of the British media, public opinion almost unanimously condemned the violence, and some called on the prime minister to allow the police to use water cannons and rubber bullets, rarely used by British police.

How did the situation spiral out of control so quickly?  Apart from the immediate fuse, we can identify many deep-seated reasons. The most important: a period of economic hardship, widespread dissatisfaction among the people, a high unemployment rate and cuts in public benefits; a long-term gap between rich and poor, especially the hardship of life among disadvantaged groups; tensions between local people and police, who have conceded the streets to violence for the past ten years; the criminal desires of opportunists; as well as the popularity of violent video games. However, nothing else is nearly as important as economic and social inequality: the root causes London riots are essentially the same as those that have struck other parts of Europe in recent years.

In truth, if we look at the deep causes, the London riots are a reflection of Europe’s sickness: years of high welfare payments, excessive personal liberties, and an increase in foreign immigration have rendered it impossible for the lowest rungs of society to enjoy material well-being. In good times, the flaws in this social model are concealed.  But when prosperity fails, the problems emerge: xenophobia, extremism, and such — if they aren’t handled well, sudden violence can break out. To take these riots as an example, the British media have reported that people are angry with the European Union, dissatisfied that irresponsible consumption in southern Europe has created a financial crisis, unhappy with cutbacks in public expenditure, worried about the inefficiency of the police and the crime rate — this is what the riots reflect. Of course, most people are appalled by the developing situation, and believe that they are a criminal disgrace that should be punished severely.

So to some extent, the London riots, the violence of recent years across Europe and especially in France, the expulsion of the gypsies, discrimination against conservative Muslims, and last month’s shooting incident in Norway, are all symptoms of different aspects of Europe's development. While pluralism, equality, and individual freedom are all of very great worth, achieving them in practice clearly comes at a very great price.

Xiao Qian (media figure)

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