by Austin Bay
The dull animation dramatizing Beijing's version of the EP-3 collision is no candidate for Best Short at Cannes or an Oscar for Best Cartoon.
Yet the video clip, run during last week's US-Chinese discussions over the fate of the EP-3, is as usefully indicative as it is inaccurate. Aware that dour propagandists yammering the party line lack pizzazz, Beijing is trying to wage 21st century media war. Watch out Ted Koppel, Oprah and "Sixty Minutes."
As an action flick, China's "collision video" flops -- no suspense and little bang-bang. A computer graphic U.S. prop plane suddenly rams a Chinese jet fighter, sending the hapless, suspiciously less-than-nimble jet to its demise.
Of course, the film flim-flam isn't supposed to ape Hollywood, it's supposed to resemble Fox and CNN. The docu-fiction has the flat look of a NASA technical simulation detailing space shuttle docking procedures. Beijing's "false simulation" mimics high-tech "real simulations" familiar to everyone who's ever watched a space shot. Beijing's pitch: If you believe NASA when it demos satellite maintenance, believe us when we confront American imperialists.
The animation followed Beijing's use of deceased pilot Wang Wei's widow (hello, Oprah) and the personal ("Sixty Minutes"?) interview with his surviving wingman. China's thoroughly fettered press used the widow's genuine grief as emotional grease for agitprop.
No news here. Phonies always try to wear the clothes of the authentic. Clever lies appropriate the form and structure of the truth.
However, the use of these media techniques during the EP-3 fracas are further signs that Beijing seeks to implement strategic concepts advocated in "Unrestricted Warfare." Published by the Peoples Liberation Army, "Unrestricted Warfare" is a response to the Persian Gulf War. It examines tactics China and other nations can use to mitigate America's superior military and economic power. (On the Web try www.cryptome.org/cuw.htm. Cribbed ideas, keen perceptions and revealing misperceptions pack this flawed but fascinating document.
The idea that psychological "information" operations can be as strategically decisive as military power isn't new. The book's authors, however, identify "media warfare" (their definition: "manipulating what people see and hear in order to lead public opinion along") as a major form of modern "non-military" war. Speed and global dissemination make media warfare different from old-style propaganda campaigns: "Modern warfare differs from the past, with real-time ... reports turning warfare into a new program people can monitor directly via the media, and thus the media has become an immediate and integral part of warfare."
That's a view shared by many.
But the book's authors fundamentally misunderstand the Western press. Their misperception is a telling example of Beijing's struggle with and against modernity, and illustrates the subtle difficulties China's autocrats face if they really do pursue confrontation with America.
Forgive the long quote, but their own words damn them: "With the concerted assistance of the (Western) news reporters, (U.S.) battlefield commanders successfully influenced the eyes and ears of the entire world, getting people to see everything that the military wanted them to see, while no one was able to see anything that they did not want people to know. ... The powerful Western media deprived (Iraq) politically of its right to speak, to defend itself. ... It was precisely the lopsided media force together with the lopsided military force that dealt a vicious one-two blow to Iraq. ... An uncrowned king has now become the major force to win any battle. After 'Desert Storm' ... no longer would it be possible to rely on military force alone without the involvement of the media to achieve victory in a war."
Rampant journalistic connivance against Saddam is news to the U.S. military and anyone who remembers Peter Arnett reporting from Baghdad with pictures of a bombed-out powdered milk factory.
Beijing autocrats, however, can only see a coordinated conspiracy. Somewhere, they believe, an emperor must exert control. Free expression and a free press appear to be truly alien concepts.
Oprah's tears, Hollywood's pizzazz and "Sixty Minutes'" techniques -- these are means of structuring a message. They can be used to tell a lie or the truth. Western press effectiveness -- the free press' ability to convince over time -- isn't based on structural gimmicks. It's based on earned credibility, asking questions, reporting facts, testing authority. These rambunctious activities link to freedom of thought and expression.
Beijing's autocrats can hire PR flacks who'll generate slick ad campaigns, but their product is ultimately an unconvincing facsimile. It takes freedom to create a real media power -- and freedom is precisely what Beijing fears.