May 2008

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By Timothy Weston

In recent weeks, the Chinese press has struggled to cover a series of major and difficult stories. Moreover the Chinese press itself is being watched and critiqued by the Western world with intensity and curiosity. What we are seeing in the Chinese press now is a world in transition and flux.

First was the Chinese press’ discussion of the Tibetan demonstrations, its virtual refusal to acknowledge the validity of any foreign criticism, and its exposure of a reflexive, threatening, and brittle nationalism, especially among some Chinese youth. However, that was followed by its honest and educational reporting during the hand foot mouth crisis in Anhui in April and May, and then, of course, came the biblical earthquake of May 12. The earthquake may well have shot fissures into the long stalemated relationship between the Chinese media and the Chinese Party-State. In the West, the earthquake—in large part because of the way the Chinese media reported it—opened up another Chinese face, one that, following on several months of largely negative coverage, can be loved. The news stories about the earthquake have been truly moving. It appears that the Olympics will not be the “It’s Legit to Hate China Games,” after all, and that is a good thing.

The Chinese government encouraged full coverage of the natural disaster domestically and around the world (very different from the kind of “anti-coverage” it promotes in response to most human-caused disasters, such as mine collapses, about which I have written). The coverage in Shanghai on CCTV starting the day of the earthquake itself was much like it might be in the United States: the reporters wore resolved looks, humanized by a sense that they, too, were stricken by the sadness of the story. For what I saw, it seemed the network was truly trying to calm people, to be informative and to be caring. The loops on the videotapes from the earthquake zone that first night were tight. Not many images had come out yet, so the coverage was especially numbing. It reminded me of American disaster news coverage—such as of Hurricane Katrina– which panders to our prurient interests by showing us searing and horrific images of what most of us fortunately will never experience personally. Somehow, though, in China this amount of information—tragic though it was—felt like a healthy thing. Most important, it felt open and thorough.

After watching the first few days of the earthquake coverage on Chinese TV, I returned to the United States on May 14. During the flight home I had a strange experience that made me think more about Chinese press liberalism and public relations. This involved the recent, special issue of National Geographic on China that came out last month. I had taken that issue with me to China, started reading it, and found myself pulled in by Leslie Chang’s (who has recently contributed to The China Beat) story on middle class anxiety and stress in China. I wanted to read more, but before having a chance to do so I gave my copy of the magazine to an interested Chinese friend. So later, as I prepared to board my flight home at the sleek and modern Pudong International Airport in Shanghai just two days after the earthquake and the astounding openness of the early coverage, I bought a replacement copy of the special issue to read on the plane.

I was probably four hours from Shanghai and six from California, when I came to a couple places in the magazine that had very thick pages, which I realized were actually several pages stuck together. They didn’t just pull apart with a hissing static sound. They were really stuck together, with glue. They had been censored. I wondered, why was someone or some agency in China directing people to put glue stick X marks on certain stories in the special issue of National Geographic? Why were they trying to block people from viewing those stories? And why, of all things, people who read the magazine in English? What was it that we English readers should not see either? In any case, I found the clumsy attempt at censorship annoying and old school.

Of course, I wanted to read those sections of the magazine now more than ever. To my surprise, I was able to pull the pages (grudgingly) apart, to see what I was not supposed to see, though some strips of paper tore off at the ends of key explanatory sentences I wanted to read. Yet, the question for me after prying the pages apart was what in the world was anyone doing censoring those things in particular? After discovering what the censors had tried to prevent me from seeing, I couldn’t sustain feelings of anger. Instead, I was puzzled. The stakes seemed so minor.

The first pages that had been glued together were 44-45. After working for a few minutes to pull them apart, I have to admit that I was disappointed. They contained a country map of China. I saw nothing on those pages that could in any way be deemed new or sensitive. The lines of the glue stick X mark were unmistakable and the map was badly damaged by my efforts to get access to what had been denied me, but had this been a mistake? Had the censor not been paying attention to what he or she was doing? The next thing I was not supposed to view was a short piece entitled “Mao Now” (pages 100-101). At least this had to do with a political figure. Yet it is hard to see why the few pop-culture images of Mao Zedong reproduced there or the accompanying commentary were deemed sensitive. One need only spend a few days in China to see equally irreverent images of one sort or another. This really did not seem like dangerous stuff.

The last two off-limits sections made a bit more sense. The two-page map of China on pages 126-127 depicting the country’s ethnic minorities—where they live and how many of each there are—focuses on a subject that, owing to the recent demonstrations in Tibet, may be deemed “sensitive.” Still, it is hard to see why a map that simply illustrates China’s ethnic diversity (which, one would think, is a good thing to make known) without any accompanying commentary should be considered offensive. Only the last glued pages made any sense to me; the short entry entitled “Cutting off Dissent” that appears on pages 128-129 deals with an obviously political and sensitive subject. There is delicious irony in the fact that my pages on the suppression of dissent and censorship contain a bold X mark and are difficult to read. It would be a good image to show in a lecture on censorship.

But all in all, pretty tame stuff. Was this censorship really worth the effort, and if so, according to whom? Who actually glued the pages together? At what level was the decision to censor those pages made? Were those deciders the same people who are allowing more press openness now during the ongoing earthquake coverage? If so, they seem to have shifted direction very fast. If not, is the press opening the earthquake space on its own, with other muscle?

Would I have run into the same thing if I had instead bought the magazine at the new Beijing airport, or the one in Canton? Fresh from viewing the open coverage of the earthquake on Chinese TV, I realized this is a moment of incredible possibility in China, one when greater press openness is emerging around a natural disaster, but also one that feels like it could close down again at any moment, especially after the Olympics. And if the next disaster should be human caused, perhaps in a way that implicates the political leadership itself, the frightened and rather arbitrary logic of the page gluers may once more prevail.

By Pierre Fuller

China has shown a “dismayingly cavalier attitude toward the well-being of its people,” a British journalist turned pop historian determined recently in the pages of the New York Times. The Chinese, he explained, long ago handed over science – and by extension earthquake resistant engineering – to “the West,” leaving “themselves to become mired, time and again, in the kind of tragic events that we are witnessing this week.” The thrust of this piece by Simon Winchester (which simultaneously appeared in the International Herald Tribune and evidently stems from his latest books, The Man Who Loved China (2008), on Joseph Needham, the chronicler of the history of Chinese science, and A Crack in the Edge of the World (2005), on the San Francisco quake of 1906) was China’s fall in the sixteenth century from mankind’s technological pioneer to a “culture that turned its back on its remarkable and glittering history” and “became impoverished, backward and prey to the caprices of nature.”

On the face of it, this bestselling author is right to point out that China has a long way to go with quake-resistant construction. The fact that Sichuan, until recently China’s biggest province by population, is a mountainous area where landslides and cracked dams exacerbate such disasters does not help. But by asking why China has not kept pace with “America” on this, Winchester forgets that Western advances in this regard are remarkably recent. San Francisco, as he well knows, was reduced to a pancake in 1906. And I don’t know what he means by today’s “America” (trend-setting San Francisco? or the trailer home communities across the country that fly like poker cards from every tornado?) but the University of California from which I am writing started retro-fitting its buildings just in the last few decades. Winchester must then mean China is a few decades behind, but he makes it sound like centuries.

At what date did China become “impoverished” relative to Europe? By the standards of European welfare policies, eighteenth century Qing China saw as high a standard of living and remarkably thorough disaster relief measures. The very engineering feats Winchester sees abandoned after the sixteenth century continued for centuries to carry grain north through vast river control works and canals from the lush paddies of the south, a flow of food that the state consistently diverted to drought, flood, or earthquake struck areas. Only in the 1800s did silting and periodic neglect threaten the river engineering system. And only then did the Chinese state begin to feel the pinch of fiscal insolvency amid incessant rebellion and a bloated imperial bureaucracy. On this last factor, Winchester’s point that historically Chinese men simply wanted to be pencil-pushing bureaucrats in a Confucian mold overlooks the fact that being, say, a local magistrate and an engineer was not at all mutually exclusive; magistrates circulated from one post to the next reading dike or well-digging guidebooks written by their predecessors, revising them, sometimes putting out their own mass-produced editions on China’s printing block press. In sum, explaining historical change as an entire people consciously and collectively “turning their back,” without the internal divisions people usually see marking their own society, is dubious at best.

When determining that China fails to protect its people today, Winchester also confuses engineering know-how with the awesome sum of money required for its installation. The CCP’s Politburo is stocked with officials who were trained as engineers; China’s top leadership knows this stuff. But people want roofs over their heads today, not in a safer, richer tomorrow, which will come for China. The post-1949 regime saw faster increases in literacy (i.e. schools) and infant-survival and life-expectancy (i.e. clinics and hospitals) than ever before in human history, hardly a national “cavalier attitude” towards human welfare, and a policy that surely would have been stunted by requiring world-class building codes for these thousands of buildings. Of course, since Deng Xiaoping, China has exploded with foreign exchange – but this is spread thin by a population four times that of the U.S. And even when addressing the pervasive graft accompanying this veritable gold rush, different levels in the bureaucracy need to be distinguished. Many of the protests over neglected labor or environmental laws, or in this case, construction quality, are targeted at corrupt local officials in cahoots with private or family interests. If anything, the party leadership is bolstered in comparison. Think Premier Wen Jiabao, now affectionately dubbed “Grandpa Wen.” Regardless, after the fiasco of the New Orleans levee system and the Minneapolis bridge collapse, how different does this look from Winchester’s “America”? Maybe the problem here is one of perception. To us our problems are political or incidental: Bush’s fault, money diverted to Iraq, a single inspector’s negligence. But when people in Sichuan suffer, something is wrong with “China.” Then, it’s a cultural problem.

Pierre Fuller, a PhD candidate at the University of California, Irvine, is researching his dissertation on local famine relief in Republican China.

1. “Can we outsource FEMA to the Chinese?” asks one reader at MSNBC’s World Blog, in response to a post on the temporary villages the Chinese government is erecting in the disaster area. Other readers also make Katrina/China earthquake comparisons. The MSNBC World Blog has been providing continuing coverage of the earthquake.

2. One of the side effects of coverage of the earthquake has been an increase in “human interest” stories on quake survivors. For instance, the story of a couple who survived together, trapped under debris, was one of the New York Times’s top e-mailed stories in the days following its publication, and a feature on the wedding photograph couples aired on CNN yesterday.

3. Quake survivors were not the only ones “humanized” by the disaster. PLA soldiers, too, have been depicted as helpful and concerned (as they are primarily viewed within China itself). [Photo below is by Guang Niu of Getty Images; reprinted from the New York Times.] It is a depiction markedly different from the usual imagery of Chinese soldiers as menacing and thuggish (an imagery similar to the depiction of the uniformed, sunglass-wearing security guards who accompanied the torch on its run). Whether this has lasting impact on American views of the Chinese military—a perspective yet tainted by the most famous images of the Chinese military in the US, those of PLA tanks on the streets outside Tiananmen in 1989—remains to be seen.

4. Another figure humanized by the disaster, both inside and outside China, is Premier Wen Jiabao, who now even has his own Facebook page. (That links to an article at the Wall Street Journal; for Facebookers who want to become a Wen fan directly, you can view his page here, where you can also enjoy fan accolades like “You’re the hottest thing since penicillin.”) The enthusiasm for Wen is notable both for its youthful base (not seen to this degree for an official figure since the late 1980s) as well as for ways praise of Wen resonate historically (for instance, Danwei reported on efforts to preserve Wen’s chalkboard calligraphy—preserving, replicating, and distributing Chinese leaders’ calligraphy has a long history).

5. All this praise for and reconsideration of China in the earthquake’s wake is perhaps balanced by the increasing expressions of nationalism it has also engendered. China Law Blog draws attention to a slew of recent writings by bloggers doing business in China about what they see as a new and unprecendented Chinese nationalism.

By Pierre Fuller

A land of floods, fault lines and food crises, China has rarely been one of mercy in the Western imagination. Today, with millions of Chinese dealing with another world-class disaster on their soil, the Western press appears to be singing a different tune. For one, Tuesday’s New York Times heralded that “Many Hands, Not Held by China, Aid in Quake,” reporting that even official Chinese media sees private donations exceeding the state’s total so far of half a billion relief dollars. This “striking and unscripted public response” of “blood drives, cake sales, charity fund-raisers and art auctions” might even pose a threat, the paper ventures, to an authoritarian state whose monopoly on civil activity has been its mainstay. The question of political aftershocks from the recent tremor should be left to political scientists. More suitable for a historian is determining from where all this organized goodwill is stemming, unfortunately an area in which Western scholarship to date has been feeble at best.

Party sympathizers might lay claim to a social consciousness instilled by the 1949 revolution; others might say the seeds of civic activism were sown by Treaty Port-based New Culture modernizers of the 1920s; still others would credit the patriotic origins of the Chinese Red Cross or lay charity at the feet of nineteenth century missionary relief efforts. The tendency is to stress a singular introduction to China of certain ideals—Socialist, Western, Modern, Nationalist, Judeo-Christian—that are far more likely an amalgamation of disparate factors reaching as far back as China’s Classical past. Disentangling this Gordian knot is no easy task, requiring the study of a matrix of motives, voiced and unvoiced, cultural repertoires and historical contingencies.

Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley’s study of late Qing disaster, Tears from Iron: Cultural Responses to Famine in Nineteenth Century China, gets us closer to this goal. As implied in her title, Edgerton dismisses the idea of any singular “Chinese” reaction to the great drought famine of the 1870s. Instead, she argues that Chinese responses reflected diverging priorities: between the inland and Treaty-Port cultures, and between government factions split over how to run a state wracked by incessant rebellion, Indian opium foisted onto its markets, and the specter of vital grain producers in drought-prone regions switching en masse to poppies.

Edgerton presents two main relief actors: first, a struggling central state conflicted over its moral inheritance of High Qing state relief activism (as described in Pierre-Etienne Will’s scholarship on famine policy in the High Qing, a period of stability and wealth in the long eighteenth century); and second, lower-Yangzi philanthropists, whom she places squarely in the Shenbao-reading, self-strengthening-minded culture of treaty port Chinese elites. These latter philanthropists converted local charitable traditions into national programs to compete with foreign missionaries relieving a Chinese famine field largely for the first time. Notably little relief appears to come from the rural northern communities themselves. Focusing on hardest hit Shanxi Province (where once-thriving industries had just been sidelined by the economy’s coastal reorientation), Edgerton relates the “ground-level experience” of the famine’s horrors through the pens of several local literati. There, at ground zero, these accounts present a populace reduced to starvation, regardless of income, with village-level tensions exacerbated by famine effecting a total social breakdown. Still, a high expectation of aid from the center was expressed among these inland voices, who were no more than a few generations from the eighteenth century heyday of imperial relief. In contrast to earlier historical work, Edgerton defends “ultra-conservative” mid-level statesmen who lobbied to siphon funds from coastal defense and infrastructure projects to save what they saw as the foundation of the state, its rural population.

Edgerton does not focus on Western aid during this disaster, instead pointing out the tensions between the comparatively paltry Western relief efforts and the massively extractive Western commercial ventures. In an attempt to ease the state’s hemorrhaging of silver, one faction in the Chinese bureaucracy overturned the 1831 imperial ban on native opium production as a desperate import-substitution measure—just three years before the Great Famine. By the time of mass starvation, with one-tenth of Shanxi’s agricultural area planted with poppies, the London-based China Inland Mission journal China’s Millions remarked on how “humbling” it was that all of the money raised by the British public in a year to relieve famished North China amounted to the amount of silver the British Raj pocketed in just three days from its opium trade with China.

If the state and urban elite societies-turned-NGOs are the only actors of note in the 1870s crisis, what does this say of the ability of rural communities to help themselves? One suspects that back-to-back harvest failures might have translated into total famine in Shanxi, rendering a famine zone in which even nominal mutual assistance was impossible. But was this true all across the five-province famine belt? Maybe an example from current events could help raise the possibility of silent local activity there: What are we to make of the news that just a few days ago towards the southern end of the Asian continent, as foreign NGOs were kept at bay by a negligent junta, “wealthy Burmese” were seen depositing “enough” bags of rice at Buddhist temples serving as “makeshift camp(s) for refugees,” threadbare and ready to “do anything to survive.” Are these affluent locals and religious institutions consciously “stepping in” to a humanitarian vacuum? Or are they simply acting out another layer of local—and quite possibly ageless—charity that is often condemned to silence in the conventional sources from which histories are composed?

Pierre Fuller, PhD Candidate in History at the University of California, Irvine, is researching his dissertation on local famine relief in Republican China.

By Leslie T. Chang

I started writing my book on a March morning in 2006. About fifteen minutes into it, panic hit: I am no longer earning a salary just sitting here at my desk. By mid-morning, another realization had set in: I can’t go back to being a newspaper reporter.

The book, Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, opens inside the world of the young women working on assembly lines in the south China factory city of Dongguan:

When you met a girl from another factory, you quickly took her measure. “What year are you?” you asked each other, as if speaking not of human beings but of the makes of cars. “How much a month? Including room and board? How much for overtime?” Then you might ask what province she was from. You never asked her name.

To have a true friend inside the factory was not easy. Girls slept twelve to a room, and in the tight confines of the dorm it was better to keep your secrets. Some girls joined the factory with borrowed ID cards and never told anyone their real names. Some spoke only to those from their home provinces, but that had risks: Gossip traveled quickly from factory to village, and when you went home every auntie and granny would know how much you made and how much you saved and whether you went out with boys.

Almost everything is wrong with that opening, from a newspaper editor’s point of view. Who is speaking here? What is this story about? How do you know this? From the opening inside the factory, I move on to introduce a sixteen-year-old migrant worker named Lu Qingmin, tracing her arrival in Dongguan, her early job-hopping, and the overwhelming sense of isolation that is what most migrants remember from their first days in the city. Only ten pages into the book do I give some background: Today China has 130 million migrant workers…Together they represent the largest migration in human history, three times the number of people who immigrated to America from Europe over a century. But I have faith that the reader will stick with me—to be absorbed in the details of the factory world and a single young woman’s story before I stop to explain the broader context. Newspapers have no such faith: An editor would insist that these facts be up high. The reader must be told right away that this is a Very Important Story.

I hear the voice of this imaginary editor in my head all the time—I suspect that every newspaper reporter does. It is the voice that reminds you of all the rules you must follow in order to write an airtight story based on attributable facts. Journalism is a self-congratulatory profession; it likes to celebrate its courage in speaking truth to power and breaking taboos. What is almost never acknowledged is how rigid are its conventions when it comes to itself.

*

After graduating from college, I did a reporting internship at the Miami Herald and then worked at an expatriate newspaper in Prague. I joined the Wall Street Journal in 1993, first in Hong Kong, later moving to Taiwan and then China. I thought that newspapers offered the most writing opportunities to a young person. Only gradually did I realize that journalism is not writing, that its value lay elsewhere—particularly in explaining a place as complex and misunderstood as China. The Wall Street Journal, with its emphasis on long features that upset the conventional wisdom, suited me. Not every newspaper would run a series presenting grinding factory work as a path to upward mobility—as my bureau chief put it, “the happy face of exploitative capitalism.” I liked and respected my fellow reporters, and my editors as well. My quarrel has never been with them, but with the inflexible rules of the trade that they were called upon to enforce.

As I began writing my book, I realized I would have to unlearn a lot of what I had learned as a journalist. The biggest limitation in newspaper writing is its lack of a distinctive voice; use of the first person is frowned upon, perhaps because it detracts from the ideal of the neutral observer. When a journalist occasionally runs into himself in a story, the result is comically awkward: The subject of an article spoke to “a reporter” or “a foreign visitor” or perhaps “a correspondent for this newspaper”—any contortion to avoid the forbidden “I.” A journalist learns to write as if she does not exist.

Figuring out how to write about myself was the biggest challenge of the book. Along with following the lives of several young migrant women, my book also traces my own family’s migrations within China and to the West. That was my plan from the start, but carrying it out was painful. “You seem almost a frozen observer,” commented a friend after reading a first draft. “You are the connection between the stories of the girls and the family stories,” my editor reminded me. “Without you, the two parts don’t hold together!” It took two substantial revisions to write myself into my own book.

In place of the personal voice, journalism substitutes the voice of absolute authority. This posture is not only dangerous—it’s easy to be wrong—but it infects one’s writing style in subtle ways. Ideas are rendered in short, clipped statements of truth. Sentences follow an identical and repetitive structure, the better to hammer home a point. Paragraphs are frequently truncated—this is writing as PowerPoint presentation, one fact per paragraph, leading the reader to the inevitable conclusion.

The journalistic voice strangles the imagination. The editor’s eternal question—How do you know this?—leaves almost no room to bring a person or a place to life. In my book, this is how I describe Lu Qingmin, the sixteen-year-old migrant worker:

She was short and sturdily built, with curly hair and keen dark eyes that didn’t miss a thing. Like many young people from the Chinese countryside, she looked even younger than she was. She could have been fifteen, or fourteen, or even twelve—a tomboy in cargo pants and running shoes, waiting impatiently to grow up. She had a child’s face. It was round and open to the world, with the look of patient expectation that children’s faces sometimes wear.

In the Wall Street Journal story, I nailed her in one sentence: Min has a round face, curly hair and big eyes. I didn’t realize at the time the inadequacy of that description, because I was too busy fighting other battles against the newspaper’s rules of style. I didn’t want to refer to the teenage Min as “Ms. Lu,” which seemed jarringly formal; I argued against having to attribute every detail to a source, as is journalistic convention. I won those battles, but there were others I lost, and still others I didn’t even fight. As I said, the voice of the imaginary editor is always in my head.

The primary flaw of journalism is impatience. Ever mindful of the competition, editors always want the story sooner, and reporters internalize this urgency in their tendency to move in and out of places quickly. But this approach not only misses the nuances, it risks missing the story altogether. When I first met Min in February 2004, she had just finished a year at an electronics factory marked by bad conditions, low pay, and thirteen-hour workdays. Over three years, she jumped jobs six times, working her way up from the assembly line to a clerical position to human resources and finally a factory’s powerful purchasing department. At one point, she considered throwing it all away to follow her boyfriend to Beijing where he would work as a security guard; another time, she was robbed of her mobile phone and nine hundred yuan in cash as she slept in a cheap hostel. If a reporter had met her at any of those points, he would have come away with a grim story. Because I was able to follow Min for three years, I could see that migration, for all its ups and downs, had brought her opportunity and success.

The discoveries that come from patient observation are not necessarily things that your subjects will share with you. The lives of most Chinese have changed beyond recognition in the past two decades, yet it is rare to hear someone speak thoughtfully about this transformation. The instinct against introspection runs deep, and people are so caught up in the present that they often lack perspective. None of the factory girls I knew in Dongguan ever talked about what they had achieved since coming out from home; maybe they worried they would lose momentum if they looked backward. After my first article about Min was published in the Journal, I gave her a translated copy. She read the piece like a revelation—almost as if it were the story of someone else. Seeing the self I used to be, she wrote me in an e-mail afterward, I realize that I have really changed.

*

I don’t regret my years as a journalist. I learned how to get information, how to keep asking questions until I understood something, how to cobble together bits and pieces from multiple sources if there was no one Deep Throat—as there almost never is. Especially when reporting in a place as rapidly changing and statistically blurry as China, it is important to have faith that the truth can be found. For example, in my book I wanted to draw attention to the heavily female migrant population of Dongguan, but the city government did not have an official statistic; its figure, which counted only locally registered residents, was useless to me. So I did what I had been taught at the Journal: I began asking everyone I met what they thought the figure was. Eventually I combined the findings of a talent market executive, city officials, factory bosses, and a local newspaper survey to estimate that the city’s population was 70 percent female. The shortcomings and cautiousness of others should not keep you from making conclusions—this is one lesson you learn as a journalist.

Early in my newspaper career, I argued with a copyeditor who had changed a sentence in my story to something less graceful. “We’re not trying to be Emily Dickinson here,” he snapped—a remark whose sting lingered for years. I wish I had known then how many others had fought this fight before me. The young Mark Twain was regarded by his editors at the San Francisco Call as “incurably literary,” and his idiosyncratic writing style eventually got him fired. Ernest Hemingway, correspondent for the Toronto Star, complained, “this goddam newspaper stuff is gradually ruining me.” Both men became not only great novelists but also pioneers of literary nonfiction, using subjective impressions and the techniques of fiction to bring true experiences to life. As a longtime journalist, I feel some consolation to see the connections between the reporters they were and the writers they became.

Leslie T. Chang worked in China for a decade as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. Her book, Factory Girls, will be published in October by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of the Doubleday Publishing Group.

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