August 10, 2009
It was just a year ago that the media were predicting Russia, Iran and Venezuela would coalesce into a redoubtable bloc that would hasten the West’s demise; that Jetsonian Dubai was emerging as the world’s new playground and financial center; that the Beijing Olympics would boost China’s image (i.e. soft power reach); that China was conquering Africa; and that the West was morphing into both an evil monster and a sluggish dinosaur.
All counted as evidence that global power was shifting inexorably East. But a collective rethink of this neat tidy explanation of the future appears to be underway in the media, with even the prophecy’s most wide-eyed believers beginning to blink.
Coverage over the last week is illustrative. On Monday the Financial Times reported that China’s bid for African resources has been exaggerated, while another of China’s biggest cheerleaders, Asia Times, reported on Friday that “extensive anecdotal evidence and empirical research in New Zealand and Australia appears to suggest there has been a gross exaggeration of the demand for Mandarin and related Chinese culture courses among students and professional learners [in Africa].”
Meanwhile, some of America’s top dailies looked past the rosy economic data and glistening skyscrapers to stress how underdeveloped Asia’s upstarts in fact remain. A top story in the Washington Post Monday titled, “As Dubai’s Glitter Fades, Foreigners See Dark Side,” highlighted the dangers and messiness of doing business in the emirate. And the three articles the New York Times ran on Thursday’s international page dealt with unfair trade policies and copyright infringement; the Rio Tinto scandal; and, in a telling irony, a prominent artist who had helped design the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium on Wednesday was roughed and detained by police when he sought to go and testify on behalf of a civil rights advocate.
And it feels like a while since big magazines, from Time to the Economist, ran a cover story declaring that the future belongs to India or China.
Most fundamentally, time is catching up with the storyline. Time is the natural enemy of hype. It nibbles away at half-truths. It rips the veil off less flattering realities: corruption, defiance of international standards, broken institutions, blind devotion to God or state and other long-term enemies of development can hide behind robust growth figures – but only for so long.
Likewise, the longer Asia doesn’t live up to the projections – say that China doesn’t become a high tech powerhouse or become culturally more influential – the more the prophesy will be cast in doubt.
Two other issues that partly explain the shift in coverage are, not unrelated, the economic crisis and geopolitics. During the Bush era the media began to see the world in neat converging arcs – the West descending to the degree that the Rest was ascending. And they didn’t have to search hard for evidence.
But the economic crisis has turned everything on its head. The new data is murky if not contradictory. Nothing looks certain. Same is true in the shadowy, fickle world of geopolitics. With, for instance, Iran, Venezuela and Russia failing to diversify their economies and oil dropping dramatically from its peak of $147 last year before tumbling to $40 and then normalizing, projections that they would gel to potently undermine Western interests has quickly become passé. Meanwhile, a change in American administrations finds countries once again aligning with the US, while a number of those countries that were widely considered to be vital counterweights to US power have raised suspicions about their instincts and intentions. China brazenly defied its promise to respect human rights in return for the right to host the Olympics – and saw global opinion turn against it in the form of protests during the torch relay. It reputation has been further tarnished by crackdowns on its Muslim population, maritime skirmishes, and a secretive military buildup. Iran was discovered to have funded terrorists and plotted to destabilize the Middle East, before rigging its own elections and killing protestors – and the regime has had a hard time branding America the “Great Satan” ever since. Russia invaded Georgia. Hugo Chavez, the self-designated spokesperson against First World tyranny, is the one now being called a tyrant by his own neighbors. In sum, these countries have carelessly damaged their own credibility, an important source of soft power.
Challenges to the grand narrative come not only by way of new developments but flaws in the media’s approach to it. The media have tended to base their projections on the most observable indicators—high growth rates, building booms and the like—deemphasizing more elusive but no less significant factors influencing the fate of nations, like the soul and character of its people.
As well the media naturally gravitate to evidence of change, without which there is no news. This overlooks the potential resilience of the preexisting order of things – that new doesn’t just supplant the old but mixes with it in complex and unpredictable ways. That’s anathema to a soulless ratings-based machine that uses dramatic narrative arcs (East rising; West falling) and easily digestible snippets to let us in on where exactly the world is headed.
None of this is to suggest that the rise of the Rest isn’t a real and welcome element of the historical moment. Just to say that media projections tend to be based on simplified assumptions, and the world itself eventually speaks up to share its own unique story.