A while ago, I had a disagreement with Mark Anthony Jones, one of our regular commenters, over the issue of so-called “independent” ”verifiable” ”empirical” research on Tibet. I called into question the type of “independent authority” on Tibet that MAJ had extensively quoted to justify his assessment of the Chinese government’s policy on Tibet. The discussion has been cut short due to my extremely busy work schedule. An interesting piece of news at Friday’s the Guardian has prompted me to pick up where we left off. I would like to see whether we can ignite another round of debate.
Let’s have a look at this report from the Guardian:
The BBC should have informed listeners that an academic interviewed about Tibet on Radio 4’s Today programme was speaking from a pro-Chinese government viewpoint, the BBC Trust has ruled.
In its latest roundup of rulings, the BBC Trust’s editorial standards committee partly upheld a complaint about a Today Show item on demonstrations in Tibet aired in March 2008.
The complainant said Professor Barry Sautman of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology was allowed to express his views in support of the Chinese government’s policy on Tibet “virtually unchallenged”
[ … ]
The BBC Trust committee ruled that Sautman, who has published books on the subject of Tibet under Chinese rule and has contributed to other news outlets such as al-Jazeera and Voice of America, was a credible choice of interviewee.
Sautman’s use to counter the Tibetan viewpoint was also reasonable, given that the Chinese authorities rarely agree to interviews.
However, the committee said the programme breached the rules on impartiality by not making it clear that Sautman was associated with a particular viewpoint rather than giving an impartial view as an academic.
“Professor Sautman had been introduced only by his name and university, not by his affiliation to any particular viewpoint,” the ESC ruled. “The audience would not have been aware, for at least the first part of the interview, that he held any more than an observant academic’s opinions on the subject.”
The fact that Sautman had strong views only became clear when the interviewer asked if he had any sympathy with the Tibetan independence movement and he replied that he had none.
[ … ]
Before I proceed, I’d like to point out that I have no issue with Professor Sautman’s scholarship. I very much doubt it is fair to classify his viewpoints as entirely “pro-China”. Those who are familiar with Sautman’s earlier research will know that he has also been very critical of the ways in which the Chinese government aids and abets the spread of racial nationalism and Han chauvinism in China. When it comes to the 3.14 incident in Lhasa and the Dalai Lama though, Sautman’s position is very much in step with those of the CCP official line. Even so, it will not deter me from consulting his research or quoting him in my own writings. The only thing is: unlike MAJ, I will not claim that I am quoting from some independent and/or impartial authority. Nor would I use such description as “verifiable empirical evidence”.
Anyone who has formal training in conducting field research will know that the term “objective empirical research” is self-contradictory. Empirical data are usually collected based on observation. The researcher/observer plays a central role in this type of research. Data collected vary greatly, depending on: how the researchers plan their research, whom they choose (or exclude) as participants, and what questions are asked. In Social Sciences research in particularly, an observer’s academic vigour, that derives from his/her personal belief, political affiliation and bias, is known to be an important factor affecting the impartiality of his/her findings. So it is utterly legitimate for me to ask questions about the ideological affiliation of these “empirical” researchers, and to determine the validity of their argument based on such investigation.
For this reason, I concur with the BBC Trust’s ruling. What is objectionable is not Sautman’s scholarship or his political affiliation. It is the way in which the producer of Today Show has failed to notify viewers of Sautman’s pro-Chinese government viewpoint on the Tibetan issues discussed in the program. Similarly, I also find MAJ very dishonest when he attempts to disguise biased viewpoints by justifying them as the outcome of “independent research”.
There is no doubt that Amy Mountcastle and Jamyang Norbu are biased. But at least they do not pretend to be objective or try to disguise themselves as “independent researchers” who are neutral to the free Tibet movement. And I see no reason why I should not endorse their argument on merit basis.
Before I end this post, I’d like to draw MAJ’s attention once again to the US-China People’s Friendship Association. If you still think that it is “bollocks” to link this organisation to CCP’s United Front Department, then I suggest you should check out a couple of its founding members. Do names such as Clark Kissinger, Carl Davidson and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) ring a bell for anyone?