I received an email on May 4th from my friend Lily Lee Chen, the only woman Chinese American Mayor I know of, urging me to watch a documentary, entitled, Finding Cleveland. May 4th is a sentimental day, a day in 1919, Chinese intellects and youth protested against the Chinese government’s weak response to the Treaty of Versailles which awarded German rights (occupying Shandong since 1914) to Japan after Germany surrendered at the end of WW I. China was on the victors’ side, but being too weak to be heard on the international stage. The May 4th movement did not succeed in changing the government but it woke up the Chinese pride and nationalism. Thus, this day is still remembered by many People who has some knowledge of the Chinese history. I wrote an article last year, The Significance of May 4th Movement in Beijing, in memory of its 100th Anniversary.
The documentary, Finding Cleveland, produced by Baldwin Chiu and directed by Larissa Lam in cooperation with MS Delta Chinese Heritage Museum, Delta State University, touched my heart by their story, searching for the tombstone of their grandfather. Every living thing has a root, especially human being. Human species were immigrants from their ape ancestors onward. Every human being was an immigrant at some point of time, if one traces back his or her family history. The director and producer of this short film shared their family story and wished to make this film to be included in the teaching material of American schools. I fully support that idea since the two key elements this film teaches us are: One, do respect your family history, everyone should know where one comes from and Two, do not discriminate fellow human beings, everyone is created equal no matter where his or her origin is. I urge you to watch this film while it is available on a private link below and bring its attention to your communities, especially schools. Due to the pandemic quarantine, this film will not be shown in many public settings except at the online Oxford Film Festival in June.
Password: AAPImonthFC (case sensitive)
This documentary film also reminded me again how Chinese people were discriminated against by the Chinese Exclusion Act (enacted by the Congress in 1882). Chiu and Lam are present generation of Chinese Americans who probably never have experienced any serious discrimination in their lives, but through their journey seeking their roots to Cleveland, Mississippi, they have learned how their grandfather and great grandmother along with tens of thousands of blacks were discriminated in the South. From making this short film, they are motivated to produce a longer version (70 min), to be named, Far East Deep South, to reveal a portion of history that we should never forget but learn from it. Chinese Americans are generally less vocal in their social manners, but in a society advocating freedom of speech, everyone must exercise the speech right, especially in public media. I applaud Lam and Chiu for their effort and wish them a speedy and successful production of their next film.
Watching Finding Cleveland on May 4th also triggered my thoughts going back to 1919. The intellectuals at that time had little means to make their voice heard. The best they could do was to produce a ‘newspaper’, secretly printed and distributed a few hundred or a thousand copies. Their actions might put their lives at risk, but they took the risk. Their brave action laid foundation for Chinese citizens demanding dignity and rights including speech. The freedom of speech is now written in many constitutions, including the constitutions of the Mainland China (PRC) and Taiwan (ROC), of course in the U.S. Constitution as well. Having the freedom of speech written in the constitution is one thing and how the government (with her legal arm) and the media industry actually function is another matter. Finding Cleveland perhaps gave a positive answer to freedom of speech in American media, but how freedom of speech is really practiced in the U.S. and China deserves some honest comments.
The U.S. constitution gives everyone freedom of speech, but the effect of a citizen’s speech can be obscured. The U.S. media is highly divided and controlled by money and interest groups. The liberals and conservatives all control their own media forcing folks to choose sides. A conservative writer can hardly get his or her opinion published in a liberal media and vice versa. This polarizing effect divides the country, that is why we have two polarized parties, Democrats against Republicans splitting the Congress and the nation. The ordinary citizens have speech rights but no avenues to speak with effect. For example, women being sex abused rarely voice their experience until years later when the media offer them a chance because the sex offender has become a desired target of the media. The libel law protects the rich but not much the justice. The wealthy and powerful often get away with their big mouth or bad deeds.
In China, media is controlled and less flourishing like media in the U.S., but the media is quite ‘transparent’. One is not allowed to make arbitrary verbal attack on the government and officials thus there are very little sensational reports and fake news to obscure the public. Chinese Citizens can easily diagnose their media and differentiate the news from the propaganda. The rich American media is rather ‘opaque’ because there are so much in it, more fake (paid) news than genuine (unbiased) stories, all disguised to hide the propaganda or brainwashing effect. The fake news phenomenon in U.S. media today is so burdensome that common citizens either willingly get misled by accepting whatever they receive or stubbornly stick to a narrowly selected media and become polarized or chose to reject the media entirely, all creating sad outcome.
The Internet can be a true blessing for human communication if either money control or government control can be prevented. Unfortunately, the Control is not only unavoidable but also corruptible just like the print or broadcast media due to its highly interactive nature. Take the Taiwan 2020 election for example, the incumbent was able to hire a large group of ‘net army’ to penetrate social media groups large or small circles to attack her opponent. The effect was so powerful, the challenging candidate withdrew his candidacy and begged for truce. The same technique was used to win against the opposite party. In the non-political arena, the proliferation of Internet media also has a great effect in poisoning people’s minds through pornography, hate crimes, racial discrimination, terrorism, and religious extremism. China chose to apply a tight control to censor the above listed poison media, of course she would be blamed for political censorship whether justified or not.
The present world pandemic has put a severe test to all governments on their ability to manage the COVID-19 crisis, thus raised the question of comparing the effectiveness of a democratic versus an authoritarian government. In fact, the pandemic is also a good test on the media in its effectiveness in helping the society to cope with the virus attack. In my observation, the media did miss the early opportunity to alert the world about the seriousness of this new corona-virus but the current reporting on tracking its status and disseminating scientific information are adequate. On comparing different countries preparedness and ability to manage the pandemic, the entire West media are impotent in reporting the honest truth. The worst is that the media engage in a political smear campaign or blame game (which never happened in SARS, AIDS, H1N1, or other infectious diseases) designed to shift citizens’ attention away from the real issue – is my government effective in handling the pandemic?!