Anything worth reading on China?
Over the course of the last year, I have become increasingly concerned with what I would consider to be painfully shallow and trite China coverage on the part of many major American news outlets as well as other English language publications.
After speaking with a few friends who are working or have worked for the China bureaus of some of the leading English-language newspapers and magazines, I was given one startling piece of advice: If you want to be a journalist covering China, go home. If you are hired to research or freelance in China, you are not in line for your own byline for the office. Some of the world’s best news outlets hire their China reporters predominantly out of the US offices. They’re sent over with plenty of journalism background, but little understanding of China, and rarely any language skills.
(More ranting after the jump)
This reinforced my own personal experiences over the last year with a some news outlets covering environmental issues in Southwest China. None of the journalists I came in contact with, including those conducting e-interviews from the US AND those based in Beijing and Shanghai, could speak anything beyond very rudimentary Mandarin. Those based in China were accompanied by between one and a barrage of bilingual assistants who help them with all Chinese-language research, finding contacts and making appointments, conducting many interviews and fully translating others. While it is not unreasonable to expect some amount of language assistance and translation, I can’t imagine anyone being truly and deeply familiar with China without speaking pretty decent Mandarin, or else living here for a half a lifetime. My point being that many leading reporters have done neither.
I watched one fairly well-known journalist roll into Kunming and conduct at least 5 or 6 interviews in a day with many local NGOs. Little or no interesting information came out of this fishing expedition due to an absolute lack of cultural subtlety, incredible time constraints, and an insurmountable language barrier. (The journalist’s champion translator won my utmost respect, but no one on this earth can translate stuff like persistent organic pollutants without any background). In the end, one of my coworkers was misquoted in a major US newspaper, but we were not notified of the publication and failed to discover the error until a few weeks had passed.
Since Americans already know very little about China, reporters and their editors and publications can get away with murder in terms of everything from blatant errors and misquotes to sweeping stereotypes to outright drivel. Take, for example, this piece in Slate, wherein a very intelligent and well-qualified woman named Deb Fallows is guilty of making some of the most basic, generalized, and uninteresting observations about life in Shanghai I have ever read, and getting them published in a respected magazine with wide readership. I first read about her diary here, in the blog Shanghaiist. Over 50 Shanghaiist readers commented, some suggesting that the bloggers were arrogant and elitist for expecting better, while the majority supported the author’s perspective that this kind of China coverage is insubstantial, unchallenging, and empty.
A second example of is this article in the New Yorker about mathematician ShingTung Yau. He subsequently sued for defamation over inaccuracies in the article (warning: PDF). While it makes for a fascinating read, she gets away with a lot, because the general public (even the readership of New Yorker) views the math academe as mysterious and impenetrable. This sentiment is only intensified by weaving China and Chineseness into the story — again, a mysterious and impenetrable subject that American readers are willing to accept sweeping generalizations about. In effect, she writes for an audience who knows little or nothing about her subject matter and thus, her standards of accuracy (and decency?) slip.
Over lunch today, I had a conversation with a friend who has been living in China and working in a number of highly professional capacities for a few years now. Peter Hessler’s book, Oracle Bones, came up, and she said she never bothers to read the expat in China books, because most of the time she’s done all the stuff they describe, and much of the time she has gone through even more extreme experiences. I think that reflected some of the feelings of everyone at the table: while books like River Town and Iron and Silk and Foreign Babes in Beijing are exotic and interesting to a US audience, but they describe cultural friction that has become completely mundane to those of us here in China.
So we’re in a bit of a bind. The Times runs through its ever-recycling repertoire of “water story,” “dissident story,” and “mismanaged banking system” story — have you noticed that these recur every 2 months or so? Lately they’ve been peppering in the “China gives aid to Sudan/ Iran/ Myanmar” story. In the meantime, people like Nick Kristof and Peter Hessler write much more informed but still incredibly mundane pictures of daily life in China. And of course the Chinese state media continues to churn out its special flavor of schlock.
Leaving the international audience aside for a moment, you can see that even those of us living and working in China are somewhat at a loss as to what to read to become more informed.
But why should anyone, especially those of us over here in China who already have some idea of what is going on, really care?
Friedman’s November 10th op-ed in the New York Times argues that China is the country “most likely to shape US politics in 2008” and precipitate “the coming civil war among the Democrats.”
China, in other words, is inevitably going to move back to the center of U.S. politics, because it crystallizes the economic challenges faced by U.S. workers in the 21st century. The big question for me is, how will President Bush and the Democratic Congress use China: as a scapegoat or a Sputnik?
Gimmicky alliteration aside, if Friedman is right that China policy is about to divide the democratic party, I just wish I had some sense that Americans, particularly politicians who have a prominent role to play, had any source of decent information on what is happening over here — politically, economically, culturally.
I also wouldn’t mind having something more to read. Recommendations, anyone?