W. Joseph Campbell

‘What’s a couple of centuries’ when it comes to China and Zhou Enlai?

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Media myths on July 3, 2011 at 5:58 am

When Zhou Enlai observed that it was “too early” to assess the significance of political upheaval in France, he was speaking about the turmoil of 1968, and not, as is often believed, about the French Revolution that began in 1789.

Zhou greets Nixon, 1972

The Independent newspaper in London referred to the Zhou misunderstanding in an editorial posted yesterday, and essentially shrugged it off, stating :

“Revisionists now claim that he was commenting not on the storming of the Bastille in 1789, but on the student riots of 1968. But what’s a couple of centuries to a China still engaged in its own long march to modernity?”

The editorial’s snark and breezy dismissiveness may be because the “revisionists” include the Financial Times, a rival London newspaper.

The Financial Times was first to call attention to the mistaken interpretation of Zhou’s remark.

Zhou, the Chinese premier, said during President Richard Nixon’s trip to China in February 1972 that it was “too early to say” what were the implications of political upheaval in France.

Charles (Chas) Freeman, an American diplomat who was Nixon’s interpreter on the China visit, told a panel discussion in Washington, D.C., last month that Zhou clearly was speaking about the turmoil and student protests in France in 1968 — not the French revolution of nearly 200 years before.

A reporter for the Financial Times moderated the panel discussion and in his article wrote that Freeman said:

“There was a mis­understanding [about Zhou’s remark] that was too delicious to invite correction.”

In a subsequent interview with me, Freeman said:

“I cannot explain the confusion about Zhou’s comment, except in terms of the extent to which it conveniently bolstered a stereotype” about Chinese leaders’ taking an exceptionally long and patient view of history.

Stereotyping helps explain why Zhou’s comment has been so widely quoted — and why debunking its erroneous and more extravagant interpretation really does matter.

Stereotyping, as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, can be buoyed by media-driven myths, those dubious media-centric stories that masquerade as factual.

In Getting It Wrong, I note a number of examples of stereotypes that have been bolstered by media myths.

I write: “The misleading if euphonic epithet of ‘bra-burning‘ emerged from a demonstration on the Atlantic City boardwalk in 1968 to become shorthand for denigrating the emergent feminist movement and dismissing it as trivial and even a bit odd. The widely misreported pandemic of ‘crack babies‘ in the late 1980s and early 1990s seemed to confirm the worst pathologies associated with inner-city poor people.”

Rather than reflecting China’s supposedly long and patient view of history, Zhou’s “too early” observation was cautious analysis about events that were fairly recent and still under interpretation.

Zhou’s was a pragmatic observation, hardly sage or long-sighted.


Recent and related:

  1. […] The misconstrued comment fit nicely with “what people wanted to hear and believe,” Freeman said, “so it took” hold.  And is not infrequently repeated. […]

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