Wednesday, July 18, 2007


When thinking about China, everyone focuses on different issues. Academics have their particular interests, as do diplomats. Reporters, who are usually educated but not too educated (and I don’t necessarily mean that in a negative sense), tend to lie somewhere in between. An extremely large proportion of American and other Western countries' reportage about China focuses on China's human rights problems or its relations with Western countries: What does the lack of freedom of speech, crackdown on dissent, labor abuses and the lack of freedom of religion mean for China? How soon will China become a democracy? Will China be a threat to the "West," will China seek to militarize space, will China try to be dominant in Asia, what exactly is China's purpose in regions such as Africa? It's very difficult to find an accurate answer to any of these questions -- usually, there are no accurate answers. People form their conceptualizations of China through what questions they ask about it; in this respect, it may be that the questions themselves are more important than the answers. In the past few years I've studied or lived in China in various contexts and capacities, and I've found that what questions people ask, and how they ask them, is always a matter of perspective.

Perspective 1. University life in the US, 2005-2006. When I was a student, the general attitude in the East Asian Studies department regarding political issues in China was a strange mixture of frustration and support. The academic context and the distance from China itself gave us the freedom to explore how complicated what we were studying really was. We were always dismayed with the tactics of the Chinese government, but we were also dismayed with Western commentators for resorting to stereotypes and simplistic readings of Chinese history, culture, and politics. One professor of modern Chinese history who had been active in protest movements of the 1960s (and beyond) told me about the deep sense of betrayal and disappointment she felt after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. In various classes, I studied how the communist party has sought to define and package history to support itself; how Chinese nationalists focus on such abstract ideas as culture, ethnicity, and nation to promote the state or what is perceived as state interests; and how the government seeks to control religion and minority groups, and viciously cracks down on any hint of dissent, such as in Xinjiang.

At the same time, the statist focus was always complicated. We also examined the importance of subjectivity in historical retelling and the role of the subject and the impossibility of knowing; others who seek to impose their own narratives of Chinese history, such as Japanese and American commentators; the vilification of the communist party in Western narratives and the need to acknowledge the CCP and its actions as an enabling force. In short, on the one hand we constantly cautioned against being judgmental, and on the other hand we couldn't help but judge.

Perspective 2. U.S. Consulate, Guangzhou, Summer 2006. Priorities in the consulate were, quite naturally, focused on American interests. However, those interests varied widely, and often included simple information gathering for reports. Some officers were concerned with China’s economy; some dealt with immigration issues; as an intern in the Political/Economic section, I focused on such issues as media in South China, labor rights, intellectual property rights, and foreign communities living in Guangzhou. I gave a speech to a Chinese audience about Ronald Reagan as part of the consulate’s public diplomacy efforts – this too fell under the purview of “American interests.”

Attitudes in the consulate regarding China’s political environment tended to be very ad-hoc. We sympathized with activists, since they were seen to be striving for democracy. We worked with Chinese government officials, since they were, after all, the people in power. In short, the consulate’s stance towards Chinese politics was malleable in its efforts to find the right track, and sometimes seemed contradictory – much like American political culture in general.

Perspective 3. News agency, Shanghai, 2007. The news agency where I work deals mostly with business news. From our business articles it would seem that readers care only about how many megawatts of installation capacity certain power plants have; how soon TD-SCDMA, China’s 3G telecom technology, will be released; and how much money a computer game is making. This kind of reportage is designed to attract as little negative attention from the Chinese government as possible. However, it is impossible to be a foreign reporter with a foreign audience in China and not have other subjects on your mind (which often find their way, albeit obliquely, into our articles).

Mainstream Western audiences care about three broad issues related to China: geopolitical power issues; human/labor/political rights; and the “New China” (evidenced by the huge number of articles that seek to compare the “modern” and the “traditional”; take, for example, Howard French’s quest to photograph what he calls the “authentic” in Shanghai).

In addition, long-time foreign journalists working in China always have horror stories of their dealings with the Chinese government, such as Peter Hessler’s account in his book, Oracle Bones, of his ordeal when he happened to stumble onto a local village election, which are always tightly closed to foreigners, while hiking outside Beijing. The constant push-and-pull between Western reporters, who are used to press freedoms at home, and the government, which seeks to control them, constantly informs foreign reportage on China.

Perspective 4. My apartment, July 2007. When I get home, my roommates are almost finished making dinner. They buy fresh produce from a local market and make delicious food. It usually involves at least one dish of greens, a meat dish, rice, and soup. Two of them work at B2B (business-to-business) websites, and one works at an Irish export company. One wants to go back to school to study psychology. During dinner I try to understand what they talk about – usually stories from work, or gossip about their friends. After dinner, we do various things: lately, two of my roommates have been obsessed with a TV soap opera about drama in a Chinese business. It involves overseas Chinese living in Canada and Hong Kong. As far as I can make out, at least one of the characters is extremely evil, and at least one is extremely good. They also read a lot: a magazine of Chinese short stories, a memoir by a Chinese reporter, and Chinese translations of The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman, the Harry Potter books, a collection of American short stories, and Watership Down are a few of their recent selections. One night I said I thought Taiwan shouldn’t necessarily be a province of China, and a roommate got offended; another time, I argued that Uighurs should not necessarily be considered “Chinese.” Once I asked one of them whether she’d heard of the Tiananmen protests of 1989. “Sure,” she said. “Of course I’ve heard of that."

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