Custer's Latest Stand Reveals Sensitivity
May 23, 2012
By Tom Fearon
Unless you're a foreigner with an expired visa and haven't left your hideout since Beijing launched its crackdown on illegal aliens earlier this month, the chances are you're aware of the row ignited by CCTV host Yang Rui's microblog posting that advocated "cleaning out the foreign trash," "arresting foreign thugs" and "identifying foreign spies who live with Chinese women." He also took a personal swipe at Melissa Chan, the expelled China correspondent for Al Jazeera.
I'm more familiar than most with Yang's work, having worked at CCTV during China's political sessions last year. I know that he often preferred to adlib the monologues that bookend his program, shrugging off the crutch of the teleprompter. He might walk with the swagger of a TV host, but those who know him off camera attest to his sharp mind, sharper wit, and ever readiness to greet foreign guests with a warm handshake.
This is why I found his hyperbole bizarre. Even more ironic was that it came from someone whose fame has been built on hosting an English-language show targeting a foreign audience.
But the uproar generated since has been nonsense. Interestingly, it seems to have been overlooked that Yang doesn't denounce all foreigners as "trash" or "spies." The other fallout of this saga is that it shows just how thin-skinned foreigners can be in China.
Let's face it, foreigners don't hesitate to complain about Chinese people or customs in public. They might not do it online in Chinese to an audience of millions, but unleashing expletives directed at locals in English is equally inexcusable.
Yang's opponent in his Weibo war of words is the young American writer and filmmaker behind popular blog China Geeks, Charlie Custer. Custer labeled Yang a "xenophobe," called for him to be fired and urged a boycott of foreign guests on his program, Dialogue. It's an emotional, knee-jerk response that would further restrict free speech in our media and encourage TV hosts to be dull and unopinionated.
Yang recently upped the ante on his Weibo by threatening to sue Custer for tarnishing his reputation. This, too, is an excessive response that if pursued would lead to Web users thinking twice before voicing their opinion. For a host who promotes his program with the tagline "ideas matter," it seems unlikely he would want to restrict them.
Beijing's crackdown on illegal aliens has been blamed for raising tensions. But it's worth remembering that the only people who need worry are those who are here illegally. All countries routinely deport or detain those who have breached visa or immigration laws. Why has Beijing hit such a raw nerve with its crackdown?
Finally, it's no secret most Western countries have opinionated TV and radio show hosts whose viewers and listeners tune in specifically to hear what they have to say. In the US, Rush Limbaugh, Don Imus and Bill O'Reilly routinely court controversy with their remarks, as does Jeremy Clarkson in the UK. Naturally, some people are offended and call for them to be sacked. But the truth is that we as media consumers choose who we want to watch or listen to. If ratings dive, so do advertisers and public interest.