Truth is rarely, if ever, true. but truth in China is less true than other places. Or, more accurately, the inability to credibly verify information means what passes for truth, and gets passed on as truth, is fuzzy and flexible. This is not a new observation about places with censorship and strict political control, but is nonetheless, I’ll say it, true in China.
To start, an example. The Chinese media these days is more free than ever. As a result, there is a steady stream of little stories where the media brings up a socially sensitive issues like government corruption or corporate malpractice, serving their purpose as watchdog. I’ve mentioned several of these stories before, and they’re becoming a regular part of daily life. Still, despite their importance and social role, following these stories across their many incarnations in print and on the web shows just how difficult it is to establish truth.
One of these media-episodes was the story of a local leader that was run over and killed by a truck. And that’s probably the only thing that can be said for certain about the story. Everything else is disputed. It’s like an Agatha Cristie novel. Witness accounts and government accounts are at odds. The original story quoted in newspapers by police who arrived at the scene is later recanted. Pictures published in original stories are confiscated by police. New pictures are called forgeries. Times change. Sequences of events switch.
What is remarkable is the amount of accusation and finger-pointing that goes on in these news reports. Police accuse witnesses of taking bribes, and vice versa. People on both sides allege the facts support their interpretation. They even suppose the existence of evidence that has never been seen, and therefore must have been covered up.
The problem is a complete lack of credibility. No one trusts anyone. The government can’t be trusted because they’re corrupt, individuals are just out for personal gain and, crucially, newspapers are just mouthpieces for the highest bidder. Thus, the truth is effectively inaccessible.
This regression to disbelief is even visible in the way reporters write their pieces. They write extremely detailed reports that include small facts that would normally be left out of western news. They list the time of phone calls, give long seemingly pointless dialogue, and tediously recount logistical details. It’s as though they want to make sure the facts will not be changed, or are shoring up their credibility.
The result is that truth is then either subjective (in the eye of the beholder) or simply unknowable. If truth is subjective people must choose who to believe, and facts become political tools. The most salient example is government dogma about Tibet and Taiwan. To hear some Chinese talk about the Dali Llama you would think he had committed genocide.
I’d also guess that this is part of the reason for the prevalence of conspiracy theories in China (one area where the US and China are similar), especially those implicating foreign governments (less similar to the US). I’ve been asked, not a few times, if I think 9/11 was the work of the US government. I’ve also been told that Japan caused the recent tsunami themselves, by detonating a nuclear bomb underwater. And of course, the bombing in Libya is all about getting oil.
Perhaps more frightening than the outcome that truth is more subjective, is the outcome that truth is unknowable. The most reasonable reaction to not knowing who to trust is to accept that knowing the truth is often not an option. People then must go about their lives in a bubble of enforced ignorance, and as their isolated actions form bigger and bigger collective institutions, it’s like a whole society stumbling through the world blind.
A major communist party slogan is, “seek truth from facts.” The idea is that facts are the only way to judge if a theory or policy is valid. In any place, people have to decide who to believe and how much faith to put in different sources of information. China is just operating with a little less faith. But that’s enough grandiose philosophizing for today…