The Chinese government just can’t come to terms with the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波). Liu’s wife was illegally placed under house arrest so that she could not go to Norway to collect the prize on his behalf. In addition, as soon as the awarding of the peace prize to Liu was announced, a storm of indignation broke out in China. Some people even called for a boycott of Norwegian goods, while others burned copies of Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s novel Norwegian Wood.
This is not the first time Chinese in China and abroad have expressed their anger in public. The same thing happened two years ago when unrest broke out in Tibet and people and opinion makers in Western countries voiced support for the Tibetans. The atmosphere at the time was so tense that foreigners in Beijing did not dare to talk about what was happening in Tibet.
On the evening before last month’s special municipality elections, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) politician Sean Lien (連勝文), the son of former vice president Lien Chan (連戰), was shot in the face while on the stage at an election rally. KMT supporters were incensed by the shooting and some KMT legislators and pro-KMT media pundits accused the opposition pan-green camp, either directly or by implication, of involvement in the attack. Some even called on people to avenge the violence with their votes. This mobilized quite a lot of KMT supporters to go out and vote for the KMT’s candidates.
However, from the time of the shooting up to today, not a shred of evidence has emerged to show that the attack was politically motivated or that the Democratic Progressive Party or other pan-green forces were involved in any way. So why did voters react emotionally to the attack on Lien by voting for pan-blue candidates?
These incidents that have happened in China and Taiwan are examples of heated emotions overcoming reason among certain groups of the public. When the incident in question is connected with international affairs, public indignation can be channeled into narrow nationalism and take quite extreme forms. A similar effect is seen when domestic tensions are involved. In the case of the special municipality elections, a single violent act can easily prompt people to let emotional, rather than rational, factors dictate how they will vote.
The main factor that stirs up public anger is often provocative reporting and commentary in the media. Instead of simply recounting the facts, most media reports are infused with subjective judgments and standpoints. With regard to commentators, they are in even more of a rush to take a position, exaggerating the facts in an emotive manner or even making things up to prove their point.
The media’s influence is especially crucial when the facts of the matter are not clear. While members of the public are unable to judge the situation for themselves, the media have plenty of scope for exercising their imagination and even indulging in outright speculation. Commentary shows should be a means of using reason to dispel overheated emotions, but in fact, most media pundits are themselves highly emotional and irrational, while various media outlets each have their own entrenched positions.
No wonder we hear so much empty rhetoric bandied about with scant regard for the facts.
Heated emotions do not solve problems — in fact they are more likely to make things worse. Our media and society are in dire need of more space for rational discussion instead of emotive manipulation.
Chiu Hei-yuan is a research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Sociology.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG