“Flying blind among mountains” – Interview with Karl-Heinz Pohl on the media coverage of the Hong Kong protests

Professor Pohl, it seems that the media reporting on the Hong Kong protests is terribly biased. On the one hand are ‘Western’ media organizations that emphasize the topic of freedom, on the other hand are the official Chinese media that talk about chaos, disorder and riots. Both cannot be right, can they? 

Well, I hate to disappoint you, but I think they can. Let me tell you a well-known rabbi joke: 

Two individuals who had a major dispute agreed to consult a rabbi, hoping for a solution. The first party in the dispute came to the rabbi and carefully outlined his side of the argument. The rabbi listened intently and finally said, “My friend, you are right.” The man went away satisfied. Later in the day, the other party in the dispute arrived and told the rabbi his side of the issue. The rabbi again listened carefully, was impressed with the arguments, and replied after some thought, “You are right.” Later, the rabbi’s wife, who had overheard the rabbi’s conversations with both men, said to him, “Rabbi, you told both the first party and the second party that they were right. How can this be? They cannot both be right!” To which the rabbi replied: “And you are right too!”

Here you go. Both sides are right – from their point of view. You may call this way of looking at things “perspectivism”. Instead of the rabbi, I could also come up with the old Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi:

‘There is nothing that cannot be seen from the standpoint of the “Not-I”. And there is nothing which cannot be seen from the standpoint of “I”. If I begin by looking at anything from the viewpoint of the “Not-I”, then I do not really see it, since it is “not I” that sees it. If I begin from where I am and see it as I see it, then it may also become possible for me to see it as another sees it. Hence the theory of reversal that opposites produce each other, depend on each other, and complement each other. […] The wise man therefore, instead of trying to prove this or that point by logical disputation, sees all things in the light of direct intuition. He is not imprisoned by the limitations of the “I”, for the viewpoint of direct intuition is that of both “I” and “Not-I”. Hence he sees that on both sides of every argument there is both right and wrong. He also sees that in the end they are reducible to the same thing, once they are related to the pivot of the Tao.’

Put differently, you only find what you are looking for. Western media look for – the lack of – freedom, and hence that is what they find. With the official Chinese media, it is the other way around; they focus on other – and probably no less important – aspects: vandalism, destruction of private property etc.

Karl-Heinz Pohl, Professor emeritus of Sinology from Trier University. Born 1945 in Saarlouis, Germany, Ph.D. in East Asian Studies from the University of Toronto (1982). 1987-1992: Professor of Chinese Literature and History of Ideas at Tübingen University (Germany). 1992-2010: Chair of Chinese Studies and 2003-05 Dean of Humanities at Trier University (Germany). Retired in 2010. Fields of research: Chinese History of Ideas; Literature and Literary Theory; Ethics and Aesthetics of Modern and Pre-Modern China; Intercultural Communication and Dialogue between China and the West. Selected publications: Cheng Pan-ch’iao (郑板桥): Poet, Painter and Calligrapher, 1990. Aesthetics and Literary Theory in China – From Tradition to Modernity, 2006 (in German and Chinese translation: 卜松山,中国的美学和文学理论,2010). Editor of: Chinese Thought in a Global Context: A Dialogue Between Chinese and Western Philosophical Approaches, 1999, and (with Anselm W. Müller) Chinese Ethics in a Global Context. Moral Bases of Contemporary Societies, 2002. 卜松山,与中国做跨文化对话 – Intercultural Dialogue with China (collection of articles translated into Chinese), 2003. 卜松山: 发现中国 – 传统与现代 (Discovering China), 2016 (Chinese translation of China for Beginners – in German: China für Anfänger, 2008).Translations: Tao Yuanming’s (陶渊明) complete collection of poetry into German Der Pfirsichblütenquell (The Peach blossom Spring, 1985). Li Zehou’s (李泽厚) The Path of Beauty (美的历程): Der Weg des Schönen (1992).

But you do agree that the Chinese media are controlled by the Chinese government? Or is that already an incorrect ‘Western‘ view?

Of course, Chinese media are controlled by the government. They probably have a certain leeway, though, too. But although Western media are not controlled directly by the government, they are led by the prevalent political Zeitgeist. Regarding China this means, for example, to view China only from the perspective of her people lacking basic rights – not focusing, instead, on issues such as poverty alleviation, increase of a middle-class and others. In the Western press, there is also constant reference to the crack-down of the 1989 Tian’anmen protests. If you would compare this attitude to reporting about the US, imagine that the reporting would only focus on slums of whites, blacks or Latinos, run down Indian reservations, constant references to the wars in Vietnam or Iraq …

The struggle in Hong Kong is to a large extent a struggle about images, created and transmitted in the global media. And seen from this point of view, the protesters are the winners, and China is the loser. Through the power of the globally active Western media, a view has dominated the coverage in the West that the protesters are the goodies, and the Hong Kong government and police are the baddies.

According to that rabbi joke: They are both good and bad at the same time. Although one may doubt whether that is a ‘good’ – here you go – distinction at all.

Before this interview, you pointed our attention to an interesting article by Spiegel correspondent Georg Blume – ‘ein einsamer Rufer in der Wüste,’ as the Germans would call it, a lone voice in the wilderness. Blume said that the Western media should act more responsibly, more carefully, that they are causing more harm in Hong Kong by exposing the protesters and giving them hope than they maybe are aware of …

Of course, the Western media take sides in the struggle. They are “players” in the game, and are not at all neutral. And the protesters hope that they help to transmit a detrimental image of China and the Hong Kong government abroad. After all, the protests culminated on the weekend of China’s 70 years anniversary celebrations. I have even read that the hardcore protesters wish that China would send soldiers so that the media could have a re-run of Tian’anmen 1989 with the respective catastrophic damage to the image of China abroad. We had Joshua Wong, one of the leading figures of the protests, come to Germany, meeting the Minister of Foreign Affairs. He received a hero’s welcome by the press ..

Especially by the “Bild” newspaper …

Yes, and his standing was being compared with the impact of Greta Thunberg.

What kind of cultural differences are at work here that inform the discourse? Your main thesis seems to be that religion is at the bottom of cultural values. Does that apply to the media reporting, too? What is lacking?

I don’t think that religion is at work here – maybe only in the sense of civil religion, that is: our “belief” in “Western” values, freedom and democracy, which we see invoked by the young Hong Kong protesters. Charles Taylor once described Western “Liberalism” as a “fighting creed” … What is lacking in the media reports is any reference to history. Mind you that Great Britain ruled the colony for 150 years without giving the people of Hong Kong any type of self-rule or democracy. But 5 minutes before they left, they installed some kind of democratic procedures and made sure that this system should last until 2047.

Most protesters are very young, that is, born after the hand-over. So they have not lived through the colonial period. What is also lacking in the reporting are references to the economic situation of Hong Kong, the divide between the rich and poor, the unbelievably high prices for housing and real-estate, the diminishing role of Hong Kong in comparison to its neighboring city Shenzhen, unemployment and so on. And there is a substantial part of the populace that does not share the position of the radical protesters – which does not find an echo in our media either. 

Let’s try to do justice to both sides. First, let us adopt a more friendly attitude towards the Chinese government. They actually took back that law that caused the protests. That is a fantastic success – and a forthcoming gesture by the Chinese, isn’t it? I think something like that had never happened before. Angela Merkel got that – but the protesters did not, it seems.

Yes, that was a surprise. But I think that the protesters see that they have the support of the Western media, so they are fighting – or gambling – for more.

Secondly, you already pointed at it, there is the historical context. Hong Kong was taken away from China.

As I said already, this aspect is totally absent in our media. Western media are historically blind. John King Fairbank, a foremost China scholar, once warned that “anyone who tries to understand the Chinese Revolution without a considerable knowledge of Chinese history is committed to flying blind among mountains”.

You also mentioned the other aspect: that the protesters grew up in a democratic society. It is understandable that they are afraid to lose some of their privileges, don’t you think?

This is certainly an important aspect. But this doesn’t explain the extreme violence and rioting that one can also see taking place – that is documented, for example, in the Hong Kong paper “South China Morning Post”. When I see pictures or videos of that it reminds me, in fact, of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. When they went on a rampage, smashing everything, they used to sing “Revolution is no crime – Rebellion is justified” (革命无罪, 造反有理). Here in the West, ever since the French Revolution, we also have the dominant view that rebels are good guys, always fighting for good and just causes. Seen from this side, we often condone the violence of rebels. This happened also in the German media reporting about the riots during the G20 summit in Hamburg 2 years ago. Or see, most recently, the positive media coverage of the movement “extinction rebellion”.

What about the allegation that the US is involved in the Hong Kong protests?

That is a very interesting point. In the Western media this is usually brushed aside as a “conspiracy theory”. But one should not forget that the US have a long record of getting involved through the CIA in the overthrow of unloved governments – only to mention the Mosaddegh government in Iran in 1953 or the Allende government in Chile in 1973. For other cases you may want to take a look at Stephen Kinzer’s fascinating book “Overthrow”. It is also well documented that the CIA got involved in the Tibet uprising of 1959, because it was in the interest of the US at that time to destabilize the Communist block and thus also China. So one can safely assume that the US is – undercover, of course – involved in Hong Kong, too. After all, as one can see with Donald Trump’s moves against Huawei or the trade war, it is of prime interest for the US as the world hegemon to weaken its most potent geopolitical rival. 

Are you familiar with Marvel comics ? Have you ever seen a Marvel movie? 

No. I read Asterix, Tarzan, Donald Duck etc. when I was young …

In the first Avengers movie – the Avengers are a bunch of super heroes coming together to save the world – a villain named Loki shows up. When they ask him what he wants, he answers: He wants to free them. And on the question “From what”, he replies: “From freedom. Freedom’s life greatest lie.“ And in another scene he says: “The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity.” What do you think, is he right? Is the search for ‘freedom’ maybe misleading, a giant Western ‘smokescreen’?

This might be getting very philosophical now … Freedom – a big word, maybe too big a word for me to tackle … I recall a line from the song “Desperado” (Eagles): “And freedom, oh freedom, well that’s just some people talkin’. Your prison is walking through this world all alone.” You are free in your own prison …

Well, I (Saima) am not free! Not just because I am a young woman living in Pakistan. I don’t think you are ‘free’ either. You are for instance married!

You are quite right. I never thought of it this way. Yes, I am happily married since 1977, and when I got married my freedom kind of ended … So what is more important: happiness or freedom …?

A while ago, I read John Gray’s, “Straw Dogs. Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals” – by the way, the title is an allusion to Tao-te-ching of Lao Tzu … It’s a very interesting book. In the context of freedom, he talks about the “fetish of free choice” and points out that most of the things that are important in our lives are things that we haven’t chosen freely. Such as time and place of our birth, our parents, our mother tongue, important relationships etc. He says our life is just a “chapter of accidents”: “Personal autonomy is the work of our imagination, not the way we live.” And he concludes “We are forced to live as if we were free.” 

Daniel Bell tried to create a more balanced view on China in his latest book, “The China Model“, too. He said: Let us not confuse China with a dictatorship. It is a meritocracy – not a brutal, cruel regime like the one in North-Korea. Do you agree?

With my hero Michel de Montaigne I am inclined to say “Que sais je … What do I know?” Hence, he concludes: “I refrain from judgement”. I share Bell’s views, though, to a large extent. I found his book very thought provoking. 

Regarding the political system, the Chinese seem to be content with the rule of technocrats – as long as they are incorrupt, though. And, as is well known, they don’t push their autocratic system – or oppose democracy – abroad. With Daniel Bell, I also see a continuity of a “meritocratic” tradition – from Confucianism to Communism. And here we get to the bottom of it: Is the rule through the CCP a real “meritocracy”, that is, the rule of a genuine moral elite – or is it more in style of traditional “secret societies”? Considering the long ethical tradition of Confucian China, I see a good chance, though, that positive traditional elements such as “virtuous government” might re-appear in the long run. In addition, the Chinese system has – here largely neglected – consultative aspects and the ability to react flexibly to new situations; hence the Chinese model can also be described, in the words of Christopher Heurlin, as “responsive authoritarianism”.

All over the world, democratic regimes are facing political crises. Maybe it is true what they say: that the people are not able to recruit the best because of their inadequate knowledge. 

Yes, that is what I have read, too. Donald Trump’s America and Boris Johnson’s Great Britain – Brexit – show us the not so pleasant sides or shortcomings – of democracy.

Should we maybe re-examine the question of the superiority of the democratic model, which is characterized by the instability of ever-changing governments? Even popular scientists like Harari have started to question the ideals of liberalism and individualism.

I agree. It should be re-examined. The impossibility of long term planning – because of the ever-changing governments – is one of its shortcomings. And vice versa, the ability for long term planning: one of the strengths of China. But I doubt that there will be a change in attitude here.

The philosopher Slavoj Žižek stated that people who think they are free and make their own choices are much easier to control.

Interesting idea, and interesting fellow. Žižek also cites an anecdote about Niels Bohr which is quite intriguing with respect to our “belief” in democracy just mentioned: Surprised at seeing a horse-shoe above the door of Bohr’s country house, a fellow scientist exclaimed that he did not share the superstitious belief that horse-shoes kept evil spirits away, to which Bohr snapped back, ‘I don’t believe in it either. I have it there because I was told that it works even when one doesn’t believe in it’. Žižek continues, “This is indeed how ideology functions today: nobody takes democracy or justice seriously, we are all aware of their corrupted nature, but we participate in them, we display our belief in them, because we assume that they work even if we do not believe in them.”

Would you mind to help us sum up what we found out in our conversation?

The situation in Hong Kong is more complex than we think; and we should refrain from jumping to conclusions – and from knee-jerk and mindless China bashing.

Generally speaking, the coverage – or perception – of world problems by the Western media is very selective. Some parts of the world are covered, sometimes extensively, others are forgotten. China has gotten into the focus because of its phenomenal rise during the last decades. And the image that we get through the media coverage is largely negative. But China is, somehow, only a projection screen of our own political agenda and preferences. There is a Talmudic wisdom that might enlighten us here: “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.”

Systems theory offers a similar approach: Any observation points back to the observer … So what can the West learn from China? It seems that China has already learned a lot from the West – but we are fine with a little Yoga, some Buddhism, and that’s basically it. 

That is a good question. I have learned a lot from my preoccupation with China, starting in 1970.  In my view, both traditional – Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism – and modern China could show us possibilities concerning our lives that we have not thus far envisaged. That is, it could shed some light on some blind spots in our perception of the world. Let me quote the late Senator William Fulbright on intercultural learning: “The essence of intercultural education is the acquisition of empathy – the ability to see the world as others see it, and to allow for the possibility that others may see something we have failed to see, or may see it more accurately.”

And you already mentioned the fact that China is not, as American diplomat Chas W. Freeman put it, ‘ideologically messianic’. A little less patriotism would be good though. But it seems to be necessary to hold that huge country together.

I agree. It only is difficult to draw the line here – what is too much and what is necessary …

Professor Pohl, thank you very much for your time. 

Interview: Markus Heidingsfelder and Saima Jawed

PS: After we finalized this interview, Professor Pohl sent us a link to an article by Hans-Georg Moeller for NZZ (Neue Zürcher Zeitung). Unfortunately, it is only available in German so far. In it, Moeller – who is a professor doing research on Chinese and Comparative Philosophy at the University of Macau – sheds light on an aspect of the protest movement in Hong Kong the Western media never talk about, that is its racist components. We not only think that providing a platform for ‘truth professionals’ like Moeller or Karl-Heinz Pohl can compensate for some of the biggest deficits of the mass media – we are also convinced that there are many readers out there interested in more nuanced views on what is going on in the world right now. So we just keep on keeping on! MH & SJ