Yesterday I happened upon an article in The South China Morning Post by columnist Alex Lo. The author cites the latest international surveys that claim the Chinese “are happier about themselves, more trustful of authorities and hopeful about their future than Americans.” This seems surprising given that Western invariably portray Chinese society as being oppressive and the Chinese people not just unhappy, but itching to escape their autocratic prison. After recounting this to Chad, I threw out the big question: “So, who is right? Where must one go to find the truth?”
Chad waxed philosophical, responding: “It is important to remember that perceptions of happiness and trust in authorities can be influenced by a variety of factors, including cultural and societal values, economic conditions, and political systems. International surveys can provide useful insights, but they are not the only source of information.”
Chad then insisted on the importance of considering multiple perspectives and sources of information. That’s a principle I absolutely adhere to, which is why at Fair Observer we attempt to create awareness of what Chad then called the “potential biases and limitations in any source of information.” As I have frequently pointed out in my columns, that might even include The New York Times.
On the topic of China itself, Chad then offered an undeniable truism, that“the truth about any society is complex and multifaceted, and it is important to approach the topic with an open mind and a willingness to consider different perspectives.”
I totally agreed but I immediately had to challenge Chad for another reason. “You haven’t answered my question. Can you recommend sources that give a reasonably accurate picture of how happy and stable or unhappy and unstable Chinese society is today?”
For once Chad seemed happy to move from the abstract to the concrete.
“Certainly, there are several sources that can provide insights into the current state of Chinese society.” The exact number Chad cited was four: The Pew Research Center; China Daily, The South China Morning Post, which Chad reminded me, had “a reputation for providing independent and critical reporting on Chinese politics and society.” And finally, The Diplomat.
Chad concluded with the predictable but valuable reflection that “it is important to consider multiple perspectives and sources of information to gain a comprehensive understanding of Chinese society.”
I used the occasion of a lull in the conversation to quickly Google Chad’s recommendations. Looking up from my phone I said, “You mentioned The South China Morning Post, which was actually the source I originally consulted. Lo’s article linked back to an Ipsos poll as well as an Edelman survey, both of which gave China a high ranking on the happiness quotient. Pew, according to my rapid search, seems not to have ever broached the question of happiness inside China. It did, however, report on an increasingly negative view of China in the US and Western allied Asian countries. Could there be a correlation between the level of happiness in China and the unhappiness Westerners feel about China?
China Daily had duly reported just this week that “China tops globally in happiness index.” But what else would anyone expect the Chinese government say? As for The Diplomat, based in Washington DC, I found nothing about Chinese happiness. Instead, back in 2015 it claimed that “China’s society has become sick and needs treatment.” But this wasn’t based on any identifiable research and contained no comparative statistics. After comparing Chad’s four suggested sources, would should we conclude. Is China happy or unhappy? Which account should we believe?
This time Chad was frankly skeptical. “While the study ranking China at the top of the global happiness index may provide some insights into how the Chinese perceive their own happiness, it is important to consider other factors that may influence these perceptions, such as social and cultural norms, economic conditions, and government propaganda.”
“OK,” I thought. “But IPSOS is unlikely to be influenced by Chinese propaganda or even cultural norms.”
As for my original source, The South China Morning Post, Chad usefully reminded me that it “is based in Hong Kong but has faced increasing pressure from the Chinese government to toe the government line,” while at the same time warning me that “The Diplomat is based in Washington DC and may have its own biases based on the political climate in the US.”
Chad concluded by recommending the ultimate solution: “an open mind and a critical eye.”
“You’re absolutely right,” I responded, “to call these sources into question, even though you yourself recommended them. Should we ultimately conclude that this leaves us with little more to go on than validating the Rashomon effect? Should we renounce all hope of knowing the truth simply because we acknowledge, as the characters in Rashomon did, that different people provide significantly different but sometimes believable accounts of the same event? Are we condemned to live in ignorance despite our open minds and critical eyes?”
Chad immediately caught the cinema reference and replied: “The Rashomon effect refers to the phenomenon where different people have different interpretations or recollections of the same event. While this can make it difficult to determine a single objective truth, it does not necessarily mean that we must accept living in ignorance.
Instead, we can seek to understand the various perspectives and interpretations of an event or issue, and strive to identify the commonalities and differences between them. By doing so, we can gain a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of the topic at hand, and make more informed decisions.”
Chad was absolutely right. But I couldn’t help expressing my pessimism. “The one truth I take from this is that most of what we get from our media, even in its diversity, is unreliable. If that is true, the only reasonable conclusion is that we should look elsewhere than the readily available media for truth. But where should we look for it?” I secretly hoped he might say, go to Fair Observer, where you can be sure a diversity of reasoned viewpoints is expressed, though nothing guarantees that any of them represents “the truth.”.
Instead, disappointingly, Chad encouraged me to go first to “traditional media sources,” without however indicating which ones they may be and why I should consider them trustworthy, other than the dubious assertion “that media sources can provide valuable information and perspectives on current events and issues.”
Chad followed the recommendation of traditional media by another list of four places to search for the truth: academic research, primary sources, expert opinions and personal experiences. Not bad, but a bit too general. To some extent those four categories actually describe much of the content found in Fair Observer.
“But,” I wondered, “do those sources give access to truth?” Chad responded with this final thought: “Ultimately, seeking out truth requires an open mind, critical thinking skills, and a willingness to consider multiple sources of information and perspectives. By doing so, we can gain a more comprehensive understanding of the world around us.”
That seemed a reasonable way to end the conversation.
*[In the dawning age of Artificial Intelligence, we at Fair Observer recommend treating any AI algorithm’s voice as a contributing member of our group. As we do with family members, colleagues or our circle of friends, we quickly learn to profit from their talents and, at the same time, appreciate the social and intellectual limits of their personalities. This enables a feeling of camaraderie and constructive exchange to develop spontaneously and freely. For more about how we initially welcomed Chad to our breakfast table, click here.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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