What The Washington Post gets wrong about The Daily Show in China

The April 9 Washington Post ran this blog post by Max Fisher about the unprecedented  number of video viewings in China of a recent Daily Show segment on North Korea. (You can watch the original clip Daily Show clip here. I’m having trouble embedding.)

The Chinese web portal Sina reposted the segment, importantly with subtitles, racking up more than three million views (and counting) – more than any other Daily Show segment short of a 2008 bit about Sarah Palin.

Unfortunately Fisher draws exactly the wrong conclusion about Chinese public opinion and viewing habits based on this single data point. He suggests that the surge in popularity indicates the average Chinese citizen’s frustration with the country’s belligerent ally, and insinuates a popular divergence from official foreign policy supporting North Korea and its young leader, Kim Jong-Un.

This is far too much to draw from this incident. Fisher is first of all comparing China’s viewership to the Daily Show’s normal audience, which is mostly American and at 300 million its fullest potential is almost a quarter the size of China’s population. Also, a cursory glance at the Sina site shows that the most popular segment on the site has views of nearly twice The Daily Show’s segment at around six million views. (I would nonetheless discount some comments in Fisher’s thread that three million views is a tiny slice of China’s population because that is not a statistically relevant or sound measure of the Chinese population in any event. It can only be measured against other views.)

But most important, Fisher provides no context or public opinion data for his assertion that this viewership represents a particular rancor about a specific policy. In a country where corruption, pollution, economic inequality, poverty, censorship, arbitrary seizures and state surveillance are pervasive, China’s policy toward its small, pugilistic neighbor cannot rank very high in public concern.  It is not even clear from the Sina site that the Chinese people are even particularly well-informed on this issue. (If China’s English propaganda mouthpiece, China Daily, is any measure, the government has not spoken often or very directly about the mounting crisis in North Korea recently.)

So why is The Daily Show segment suddenly so popular? The important context to understand this phenomenon is the Sina site itself, China’s great Firewall, and the government’s total control of all media, including the Internet, inside the country. This segment was not posted freely – that is, it was posted for a reason – but that doesn’t make its existence in China any less interesting or exciting. Another cursory glance at the Sina site makes The Daily Show stand out even more: this is satire – cutting, anti-authoritarian satire – in a country that brooks no political dissent.

Given that context, Jon Stewart practically explodes off the Chinese web. Against the drab greys of state propaganda, The Daily Show contrasts in psychedelic Technicolor. This is the Web-TV equivalent of stumbling across jazz in 1960s Moscow or rock’n’roll in 1970s Prague. The Daily Show perfectly captures what’s missing in a society where the government dominates all creative and political expression.

That is why this segment is so popular: it is so unusual in a country that normally does not tolerate questioning of authority, much less mocking it. Fisher gets this very wrong, and it is important that we don’t draw the wrong conclusions about what the Chinese people think and know and feel.

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About James Thomas Snyder

U.S. Foreign Service Officer, writer, translator and former NATO and U.S. Congressional staffer. All opinions expressed here are my own. My work has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Military Review, Joint Force Quarterly, Internationale Politik, Dissent, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. In 2013, Palgrave-MacMillan published my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy. In 2004, TAMU press published my translation of Pierre Hazan's Justice in a Time of War, a history of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in 2004. I earned a joint JD-MA from American University in 2001 and a BA from UCLA in 1995. I also studied European and international law at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and international security at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan.
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