Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Nepal in Chinese Press

That it takes extraordinary events in Nepal to earn an opinion piece in Chinese papers is clear from the lone editorial published in China Daily

In contrast to the Indian media coverage of Prime Minister KP Oli's India visit last month, the English press in China has little to comment on Oli's "landmark" Beijing trip. This is a relevant topic as his visit took place after the prolonged Indian blockade, which was in large part fanned by the Indian media. Unfortunately, when it comes to Chinese media coverage of such visits, historical references are hard to come by.

BP Koirala, in his Atma Britanta, makes a passing mention of a photo-op during his official visit to China in 1960, probably in front of Chinese journalists. Among his "notable incidents" he narrates in this book includes a "provocative" query by an Indian reporter to Zhou Enlai, the visiting Chinese premier at Singha Durbar press conference. The reporter raised doubts over the possibility of cordial relations between Nepal and China. More visible and accessible to us are records of a series of photos of King Mahendra or BP Koirala making toasts with their hosts, or their pictures, typically in front of the Imperial Palace and other landmarks in Beijing.

I hoped Yadunath Khanal, our scholar-diplomat posted in Beijing as Nepal's envoy (1978-1982), would make at least a few keen observations on Chinese media. But he disappoints us. In his writings and books, however, it is not uncommon to find him occasionally citing foreign media, in particular from the UK and the US.

Unlike in today's world of public diplomacy, news coverage was hardly given any credit for its potential to influence public opinion. The press was strictly controlled and news makers worked behind the curtains.

The widespread reach, access and immediacy of channels today have exerted more pressure on leaders and made news media indispensable to maintain and even impair their public image. Besides, the urge to know NOW is so addictive that we simply cannot wait for history books to get the news behind the news.

One could argue that for a state-controlled media like China's there is nothing new to know; the bland, prosaic and subdued tone and texture of content is obvious. That's anything but systematic knowledge.

It is frustrating to see lack of scholarly work in this area. Not that there are any significant studies that focus on Indian media coverage of Nepal either. Chinese scholars have focused overwhelmingly on US media coverage of their own country. Nepal merely figures, often, in references to Tibetan refugee protests, Indian posturing vis-à-vis Nepal, and most often, as a geographic entity. A rare analysis I found was a research note ("very little on-line coverage of Nepal's civil war") in the September 2004 issue of Foreign Area Specialists Journal based in the US.

For a perspective on numbers, online archives of major English-language Chinese outlets show predominance of factual news. In the past year, following the earthquakes in Nepal, there were a couple of thousand news stories on Nepal, including referential news bits and photos with captions. The official news wire Xinhua (700) led in volume, followed by China Daily (540), People's Daily (441), Global Times (460), Shanghai Daily (162), China Radio International- CRI (over 50), and CCTV (34).

Those stories focused on the earthquake (almost half of all stories) to business, tourist destinations, dog fashion show in Kathmandu, international tattoo convention in Nepal, Holi festival, PM Oli's China visit, to Nepal's objection of EU-India statement. The bilateral agreements on railway, highways, transmission lines, trade and transit, infrastructure development, etc. received wide coverage.

Of all these publications, the semi-official Global Times appeared more spirited and offered a little bit of opinion. A commentator chided India for her suspicions about Nepal-China cooperation: "New Delhi should wake up to the fact that Nepal is a sovereign country, not a vassal of India." A related cartoon in the paper amplified this opinion. In a more substantive commentary (March 27), Liu Zongyi, senior fellow of Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, called for Indian broadmindedness regarding China's cooperation with Nepal, and unity among Nepali politicians. His was among the few pieces that referred to Indian blockade and the "situation" in Madhesh. Xinhua, however, carried half a dozen stories referring to the agitation in Madhesh.

Global Times' interview (March 21) with ambassador Mahesh Maskey is also revealing in the questions it raised. Of the six questions, two referred to India in the context of trade and bilateral relations with Nepal, another to the adverse impact of Nepal earthquake on Tibet's economy, and yet another to opportunity for Nepal from China's "Belt and Road" initiative.

That it takes extraordinary events to earn an opinion piece in Chinese newspapers is clear, for example, from the lone editorial ("A friend in times of need", 28 April 2015) published in China Daily. Sometimes, opinion is euphemistically inserted in news stories for positive emphasis. For instance, "Nepalese people, media, politicians and civil society" have "hailed the agreements as a landmark" (Xinhua, March 25).

My Chinese scholar-friend, Dr Juyan Zhang, communication professor at University of Texas at San Antonio, US, says media coverage of a country is generally consistent with the government's policy towards the country. "If there are different voices, the media might be punished." Chinese media follow strict directives and guidelines from the Ministry of Truth. Opinion and commentaries are often withheld for fear of censorship or clampdown.

Zhang's impression is that Chinese media tone is always positive in covering Nepal. Nepal is one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with China, and China has interest in using the relations to balance India's influence in the Subcontinent as well as Tibetan exiles' activities. Besides, he adds, both countries share the Himalayan peaks, and today many Chinese visit Nepal, a beautiful tourist destination. And it is where the Buddha was born. "I don't remember seeing any negative coverage. Overall it is positive."

However, he notes, coverage on the Maoists is complex. The online media of the left tend to cover it with some admiration. Some leftist bloggers applauded it. And there is opposite coverage from the liberal-right. Official media choose not to cover Nepali Maoists as the government stood against them.

Although news coverage may be limited, he says, Chinese social media sites include a lot of topics and discussions on Nepal as well as very detailed guides or tourist resources.

Zhang suggests highlighting Nepal as "a bridge" between China and India, promoting the country's natural beauty for Chinese tourists, and more importantly rebranding Nepal as "the Buddha's birthplace". "A number of years ago I talked to an Indian professor. She would not believe that the Buddha was born in Nepal. She had to call somebody to confirm that!"

At the same time Nepal should perhaps take advantage of Chinese media channels that already have substantial presence or access here. For instance, encourage Xinhua to place more features on travel destinations and business. Xinhua's team here produces 70-80 stories and some 300 photographs every month. The shift is towards multi-media coverage on a timely manner. Zhou Shengping, its bureau chief, identifies important political and economic events, Chinese connections and interests in Nepal, and some human interest topics as their current priorities.

Another is China Radio International (formerly Radio Peking) which has a wide following in Nepal, with many fan clubs, and a news exchange partnership with Capital FM. The station's Director Byakul Pathak says they are not in a broadcast exchange partnership; the news exchange program offers them the freedom in news decision making.

The print versions of Chinese diplomacy in Nepal include China Daily, in partnership with Nepali Times, and Asia Pacific Daily produced by Xinhua in partnership with Weekly Mirror.

Ancient Chinese monk travelers like Fa Hian and Hiuen Tsang described Nepal and helped preserve the story for us. Their modern day equivalents are the Chinese journalists, whose reach is expanding. Our view of China, shaped by historical frames of Buddha, Bhrikuti, Arniko, and more recently by Jackie Chan, needs further extension to include people-to-people contact, beyond the ritual of bilateral media exchanges.

Yadhunath Khanal, for his time, lamented he could not meet Chinese intellectuals, and exchange ideas with them as much as he liked. In a world of borderless new media, we should not have to be so limited in our reach.

Published in Republica, 6 April 2016