The Importance of ‘Informed Empathy’: Kaiser Kuo on China in the Western Media
This post was co-authored by Pengyou interns Hannah James and Kamilla Yunusova
Kaiser Kuo, with his long black hair and rocker look, is an iconic figure easily recognizable to Pengyous in Beijing. One of the founding members of China’s legendary pioneer rock band, Tang Dynasty, he has been featured on a Project Pengyou Fireside Chat and an 8 Questions post, advising Pengyous how to build bridges between the U.S. and China. In his own life, he carries on the mission as Baidu’s director of International Communications and through his contributions to Sinica, a podcast keeping China Watchers everywhere informed and entertained. Those who gathered at Bridge Cafe on June 16 were eager to hear him speak at the ThinkIN China event: “China in the Western Media : Examining the Lens” as well as crack a couple of jokes with his familiar brand of humor.
He began by acknowledging that often times, ignorance by Westerners about China is due to a lack of direct exposure to the people and culture. Rather than understanding that ethical choices are shaped by culture and history, many formulate their opinions directly from Western news and media sources. He highlighted that the very nature of journalism is to report the non-everyday happenings and this can cause the context of an event to get lost in translation; in other words, the lens of these media sources are sometimes unintentionally biased. It is our duty to correct this optical refraction:
“Shouldn’t we, as China Watchers, seek to understand the optical properties of this lens?”
Kaiser explained three key elements of Western media reporting that blur the lens through which the West views China.
- The bias of scope: the majority of what people think they know about China is shaped by a few hundred people — journalists and freelance writers. Reports are often written in “full confrontation mode” because they tend to receive more attention and readership than reports that publish more moderate views, leaving a “silent majority” of China-related intellectuals ignored.
- A lingering McCarthyism: a second reason for problematic perceptions is the tint of a widespread idea in the West– a tendency to view China as one gargantuan monolith when in fact, China is dynamic and pluralistic in a plethora of ways. Those who are knowledgeable on the historical context of news, as Kaiser pointed out, realize that historically, China is changing at a relatively drastic pace.
- The bias of generalizations: the vocabulary used by the media can paint a very biased picture of China. Kaiser disagrees with the use of strong words to generalize China, for example the word “regime” which holds a very negative context in American rhetoric regarding Chinese national policies.
Kaiser believes we should all “seek to understand the nuance that is lost in translation,” and highlights in his talk the beauty of “informed empathy” as opposed to just empathy, or sympathy. Historical context is an absolute necessity to fully understanding China’s complex culture and society. Informed empathy starts with the initiative to inform ourselves on history and current events. He also recommends that we read widely, and have a healthy variety of opinions to get a fuller understanding of the news. Everyone has biases, and one story can be reported in a variety of ways. By realizing that bias exists and informing yourself of varying opinions, you can clear up any fog in the media lens. We couldn’t have put it any better than Kaiser:
“As bridge builders, it is our responsibility to seize every opportunity we can find to fill in the holes with knowledge.”
Along with Kaiser, we are seeking to build a world of informed perspectives and informed empathy by actively practicing both. He reminded us to “temper our criticism with praise when it’s due” by sharing insightful and positive China-stories on social media sites. This will not only help to spread awareness and positive news within your own circle of friends, but chances are they will share it too.
Pengyou tip: Start by reading and sharing posts on our Pengyou Daily section, a dose of constructive US-China news curated daily by Team Pengyou!
If you are interested in being a bridge-builder and learning more, you can access ThinkIN China’s event report here. Additionally, you can hear Kaiser’s full talk if you sign up to be a member of ThinkIN China’s website to access the podcast.