BEIJING, March 26, 2008 — -- China isn't particularly known for prizing free speech.
But in the weeks since riots in Tibet broke out and Chinese troops clamped down on them, many Chinese have found their voice. It is loud, angry and aimed at us.
"Us" being Western journalists who have reported on the Tibet protests and the ensuing political fallout. ABC News' office in Beijing has received dozens of calls from all over China berating Western media's "biased" reports.
The backlash appears organized around an Internet propaganda campaign that some suggest the Chinese government is secretly feeding.
Since Friday, a new Web site called anti-cnn.com has been documenting what it sees as distorted foreign media coverage. CNN has been the focus of protest, even though CNN is not available in the vast majority of Chinese homes.
Bloggers were the first to point out that CNN.com was running an Agence France-Presse photo of a Chinese military vehicle that cropped out the Tibetan protesters throwing rocks at the vehicle.
The cropped photo, juxtaposed with the original photo, quickly spread through the Chinese blogosphere as supposed proof of the Western media bias.
Other photos on the Web site show reportedly misleading headlines and captions -- one dispatch describes a Chinese crackdown, but shows Nepalese or Indian troops beating protesters.
A German television station issued an apology for using pictures in the wrong context, and other Web sites have made changes to their captions.
And a front-page story on the English-language China Daily read "Chinese citizens … are fighting back to discredit often distorted, and sometimes dishonest, reports by Western media."
The Chinese are getting an inadvertent taste of the power of free speech to effect change. But how free is it?
A few days after the unrest, when global media attention was shining a bright spotlight on China's policies in Tibet, China's state-run television network, CCTV, aired a 15-minute documentary showing the Chinese version of the riots.
The documentary was wallpapered with footage of Tibetans rampaging through Lhasa and carried emotional interviews with Chinese who had lost loved ones, injured victims and distressed shopkeepers who had been looted.
This was the only version of events people in China saw. Even those who can understand English and might have been illegally receiving CNN or BBC would have seen their screens switch to black by government censors almost every time a report about Tibet was aired.
As Jamie Metzl, the executive vice president of the Asia Society, said in a phone interview, "While the Chinese government is trying to tell a story internally within China for Chinese consumption that tells only of the victimization of the ethnic Chinese in Tibet, that one-sided story isn't going to fly internationally and so China is going to need to show a greater sensitivity to both sides of this conflict."
But as much as China has allowed its citizens to vent their frustration at Western journalists this week, it still hasn't allowed a public discourse on why many Tibetans felt the need to rise up in the first place.
And surprisingly, the accompanying conversations about ethnic tensions that would normally arise in a society after such ethnically charged riots have not occurred in China.
Instead, the State Council held a news conference today featuring Tibetan scholars, one of whom told incredulous reporters, "Relations between ethnic groups in Lhasa are extremely harmonious."
If China wonders why its version of what happened in Tibet is not wholly believed, perhaps it is because of statements like that, which undermine its overall credibility.
A Chinese caller to our office asked the other day, "Why do you people believe what the Dalai Lama says? Why don't you believe what China says?"
It's a simple question with a difficult answer. First, as journalists, we try to hear what all sides are saying and fashion what we believe to be the closest thing to the truth from that.
But how do you start a conversation when you're working with such different premises?
In China, the Dalai Lama is regularly portrayed as an illegitimate leader, a fraud, even a criminal. But in the rest of the world, the Tibetan spiritual leader is a respected Nobel Peace Prize winner on par with Mother Theresa for his humanitarianism. That is part of it. Perhaps both sides are biased. On the other hand, it somehow comes down to the powerful versus the oppressed. As my colleague pointed out, "The Dalai Lama doesn't have an army."