When riots broke out in Tibet five years ago, the Chinese government was condemned abroad for censoring reports about what had happened. Then something strange occurred. A backlash began inside China against the way the international media were reporting on the incident. It came as a big surprise to foreign journalists that it was ordinary young Chinese who were protesting, not party officials in Beijing.
Young “netizens”, as we are known, quickly identified errors in the western reporting on what was happening in Tibet. Nepali police beating protesters in Kathmandu, for example, were portrayed as Chinese armed police in Lhasa. We set up a website, Anti-CNN.com, to correct mistakes like this and, a month later, in April 2008, worked hard to expose the hostility in coverage of protests against the Beijing Olympic Torch Relay.
The events of that month gave us the name that we still carry. In many ways, “April Youths” is an awkward label for us but it does at least identify a new generation of Chinese who refuse to put up with stereotypes that the western press insists on projecting on China.
From the outside, of course, we are often dismissed as nationalistic (if not outright radical) youths with a blind allegiance to the state. Commentators in the west also assume that we are a single group, with a single set of views.
So let’s make a few things clear. The backgrounds and ideas of the April Youths could not be more varied. From Confucians to Christians, from Trotskyists to Maoists, and from diehard believers to hit-and-run opportunists, it makes more sense to think of us as a loose alliance of educated, urban Chinese whose different stripes show the complexity of contemporary Chinese intelligentsia, and of Chinese society as a whole.
What we have in common is our concern with western media, and how they shape the world’s understanding of our country. With more access than ever to the international press, many young, urban Chinese are fed up with the usual patronising coverage of a “rising China”. We are, after all, the world’s second-largest economy and the largest creditor of the United States. But we also understand that this is not a simple story to tell. China is a constitutionally socialist state that now forms the core of global capitalism. It will never remake the world in its own image, just as the west has never transformed China either.
Beyond that, though, the April Youths disagree as much as we agree, particularly on domestic affairs. Some of us hail all efforts of the state as judicious and benign, while others remain sceptical of many aspects of China’s development, especially how it affects the poor.
I am one of “the others” in our internal scuffles. I cherish China’s revolutionary past, and many of the socialist remnants in our social fabric.
I am excited about the potential of China as an alternative force in the world. That said, I also see fundamental obstacles in the path ahead and reasons for China to change direction.
Stunning inequality, confused identities, ecological decay and economic stagnation are among the challenges that China faces. But we are hardly alone. They are common across the developed and developing world, magnified and deepened by transnational capitalism.
Being confident in our country and culture at a time of huge global change should not label us immediately as “state-guided nationalists”. Instead, it should provide the basis for an equal conversation, a starting point to break down the cultural and ideological barriers that continue to divide us. The world’s social, economic and ecological sustainability affects us all. Blanket hostility towards China’s attempts to tackle these questions helps no one.
When the movement against media distortions began in 2008, we never thought changes would occur overnight. Five years later, some people still think we are just outraged college kids acting as human shields for the government. I resent that. We April Youths may have emerged from passion and argument but our goal is to improve communication for the benefit of us all.
Hu Yinan was editor-in-chief until August of April Media, an independent online media outlet based in Beijing