The regrettable rise of the ill-informed China journalists

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By Chris Devonshire-Ellis

The arrival of blogs, and commentators on China recently has created a weird world of chatter, gossip and innuendo over the past two years. While mainly to the good, however there are increasing numbers of commentators who are getting into trouble, or posting material that frankly makes me cringe.

Masquerading as genuine “China Hands” many of them are nothing of the sort. Just this week, as China celebrates a Miss World, we have an oddly slanted comment by Dan Harris, the Seattle based lawyer dealing with American business interests in the PRC on his very successful China Law Blog. He comments that the recent Miss World in China was inappropriately honored, and I quote: “I have to think her victory is somehow connected to the event being held in China.”

Dan generally writes an excellent and chatty blog – but here he’s wrong. It’s actually the first time in more than 50 years of Miss Worlds that China has won – and it has over 20% of the world’s women, so a Chinese victory is somewhat overdue. It’s the fourth of recent Miss Worlds to have been held in Sanya, and none of the previous winners were Chinese. And besides, she’s really pretty.

What concerns me is the general attitude that creeps in that promotes negativity about China – whatever the Chinese do. Questioning the ethics of Miss World on grounds of bias with nothing to support such a claim thrusts the writer into the dark caverns of an inherent distrust of the people. When you’re commenting on matters of law and legal disputes in China, that is a serious problem. The Chinese are automatically guilty, and everything they do cannot be trusted. That’s unfair, yet sadly, recently typical. A commentating negativity has crept into the blogosphere and English language media that has a tendency to be overly negative towards anything China does, even when it’s fantastic and fun news!

I also point to this week’s cover of City Weekend which picks up on the theme “The Expat Culture of Complaint.” Within, although the article is rather thin, expats are noted as complaining about everything from pollution to staring to squat toilets and broken contracts. One Western businessman interviewed said, “You could paper the Great Wall with all the broken contracts,” and claimed to have been in China for eight years. So to have been here that long, presumably the contracts he entered into that worked outweighed those that didn’t (Tip# 1: hire a lawyer), otherwise he’d have gone home long ago. It’s disproportionate, and not the whole story. Indeed, so familiar has the concept of “China bashing” become, that it’s become acceptable, even encouraged, and is so prevalent now that a national English language social magazine runs articles about it.

It’s not just sly negativity about Miss World or squat potties either. There’s an almost “political correctness” about deliberately not highlighting some of China’s achievements this past 18 months: a man in space, the Chang’e 1 mission taking close up shots of the moon. As a boy I thoroughly enjoyed the American Apollo missions, have we, in the 35 years since, become either so blasé at the achievements or so caustic we cannot bring ourselves to praise a nation trying to rebuild itself and embrace the world? Or has the recent attitude of global distrust sown its seeds so deeply that we now make a successful scientific mission to the moon by China an event to be despised and viewed with suspicion? Where is the English language media’s sense of grace?

Or again, some of the extraordinary architecture – much of it imported designs and by imported engineers – that China is having built? Disingenuous commentary on the displacement of locals (usually to better, air conditioned apartments with modern facilities) creeps into the foreign press, damning the progress of the Chinese every way they turn, even as they hire our contractors.

This general acceptance of writing negative commentary and an apparent ignoring of positive achievements is worrying. Not just because it signifies attempts to deliberately “dumb down” accessible knowledge about China, but because the foreign media and commentators have also been less than honest in their actual reporting; so much for the credibility of possessing the moral stance of a free press. In fact, it erodes it.

Take for example the case last year concerning the Guardian’s journalist, Benjamin Joffe-Walt. Reported extensively on EastSouthWestNorth, the British journalist was sent to cover riots in Guangdong province over land use rights and local villagers clashing with police and government over being dispossessed. Joffe-Walt reported, in a story that was published internationally, that he saw his driver dragged off and beaten up so badly one of his eyes hung out of its socket. He too, was dragged away, leaving his driver for dead he wrote. Unfortunately for Joffe-Walt, the same driver re-appeared two days later, totally unharmed. Yet the story had gone to print. The Guardian was immensely embarrassed, and Joffe-Walt’s actions put down (in ironically a Chinese style) to “mental illness.”

Yet the all-pervading sense I get when chatting to many “serious” foreign journalists is that most of the stories they are interested in are negative. But Joffe-Walt went one step further. To support the negative angle, he fabricated an entire piece, so believable in its negativity that his editors didn’t even check it. That’s also telling. The negativity surrounding the foreign media’s perception of China is so ingrained; it’s accepted as truth without question. That is extraordinarily dangerous in a Western culture that is supposed to uphold free speech for all and the concept of democracy.

Free speech however comes with a moral obligation – and that is to tell the truth. I am finding it hard to see that in much English language China commentary recently.

The Christian Science Monitor has also just run an op-ed about press freedom in China written by Nick Young, who ran a non-profit organization called “China Development Brief.” He published (without a license) and reported on efforts to promote “fair and sustainable development” in China. Although not being licensed to do so and therefore with no authoritative body overlooking his work, neatly implying “fair” yet actually leaving open the question of whose authority the moral value of his “fairness” was judged by – presumably the author’s own.

Eventually, Young interviews a Uighur separatist group. Hardly surprisingly, given Xinjiang province remains politically and ethnically “difficult” (as it has been for centuries), Young’s offices are raided, he’s warned off by the police, objects, and then has his entry visa cancelled. He then writes about it as if he’s been wronged. Quite how “reporting on fair and sustainable development” has to relate to contacting groups bent on overthrowing the Chinese government in Xinjiang matches up, I find difficult to comprehend. His apparent moral stance of his working for a non-profit organization makes his behavior even less palatable, and certainly does not give a “freedom of press” pass to dig into China’s difficult and occasionally troubled border areas, and then automatically take the side of the under-dog.

It’s not so simple, and neither is China. This writer and businessman for one, having lived here for twenty years, chose to do so. I have built up two magazine brands in the country and a successful consultancy practice, have seen plenty of sights and experienced plenty of problems. Yet I have prevailed. You can make money in China, you can succeed. I even pay full taxes and still make money! This is a developing country; I accept the risks and have still ultimately prospered. I owe China and its people a great deal. Yes, there is negativity in some aspects of life in China. However, I  am distressed by the on-going “China negativity” trend that seems to emanate from everyone from international press to foreign law firms trawling for China litigation advice to journalists commenting about squat toilets and businessmen complaining about broken contracts (Tip #2: Hire a lawyer. Tip #3: Subscribe to China Briefing magazine and read it. It’s free).

Writing about China does require a degree of sensitivity and a large amount of humbleness in accepting it for what it is: a developing country. But for 25 years the Chinese have been doing their darnedest to fix their problems, have succeeded beyond all expectations, and I for one applaud that. However neither do I endorse the poor treatment meted out to people in China either, and I detest the corrupt officials and occasional utter lack of humanity the Chinese can sometimes demonstrate. But it would be the same if I lived in India, Europe, South America, Africa or the United States. Humans have a global ability to be remarkably callous and greedy. I am not naive enough to think that kicking China sometimes is not the answer – I for one roundly applauded Peter Mandelson’s criticisms of China to Madame Wu Yi last week, and professional investigative media conducted by responsible organizations holds a candle to the gray areas China would rather us not look into, and I endorse this.

But this apparent acceptance and belief of a “China negativity” – well I do not accept that. And frankly, I am appalled by much of what I read. For those of you that write about China that do not live here – well some of us do, and I do not thank you for your sly and malicious commentary about the country. It’s a coward’s way of conducting business and an infantile, ill-advised and ultimately dishonest way of writing about it. To try and understand China, if you are to have any credibility when commenting on it, you have to properly engage with it. That means not just living here, but taking responsibilities in doing so. Far too many people are having their say in promoting a negative side to China, yet at the same time, do not live here, do not truly have or understand any responsibilities here, have ill-informed preconceptions about the country or are engaging in a professional vested interest in talking up the negatives. Regrettably, they seem to have corroded the ethics of decent reporting and objectivity and descended into a China full of parody.

Personally and professionally, I object to this state of affairs.

As a large publisher of foreign language material in China, I have had my say. Over to you.

16 thoughts on “The regrettable rise of the ill-informed China journalists

    This is bullshit and shows a complete misunderstanding both of what I said and of statistics. The Chicago Cubs went forever without winning a World Series, so I guess they should win next year. I just flipped a coin three times and it came up heads, so I guess it will come up tails next time.

    There is always going to be a hometown advantage. This is true with any competition. The referees want to rule in favor of the hometown entrant because they have just been wined and dined there and they want to reciprocate. My comment was not anti-Chinese and it is absurd and borderline slanderous for you to try to make it into that.

    I expected better.

    I was wrong.

    Atak says:

    It is true. Free news is not always true or unbiased news. Just look at Fox and CNN lately.

    A Lot of western news about China from news-goggle have overt or subtle negativities in them regardless of what the report is about.

    Chris Devonshire-Ellis says:

    Statistical misunderstanding? That’s not the issue, and neither is it linked to Miss World. She won. No-one here has any issue with the Chicago Cubs either. The issue is, there is a knee-jerk ill informed tendency to criticise anything that China does as automatically suspect. Informed commentary about China would be less prone to making sweeping statements that everything that goes on here is bad. Life may well be good from Seattle Dan but some of us live here – and guess what ? China works, pretty much, and what the Cubs do matters not a jot. As for hometown advantage, well if that was the case China would have a rather better record of Miss World titles from Sanya than played 4, won one, lost 3.

    However the tendency to criticise remains – even when China wins. It’s an unfortunate attitude, too prevalant amongst the recent China commentators, and far from “slanderous”. I would encourage you to break the habit. China has its problems, but it’s not all bad. Miss World won, fair and square, and comments about China generally implying a dishonest approach to everything going on here are just wrong.

    Brec Starhawk says:

    What a crock of ****. So what if you’ve made a living in China. As far as credibilty and common sense goes,Dan Harris will smoke you. And I’m no businessman or talking head. Just a regular guy that has lived here long enough and witnessed enough things that absolutely defy all logic to know you’re delusional. There’s a big difference between quirky Third World experiences and and flat-out wrong and stupid. There’s a reason why most of the foreigners that live here always seem to come to the same conclusions,no matter what part of China they live in. [comment edited]

    Chris Devonshire-Ellis says:

    This is not going to turn into a war of words between myself and Dan and I resent the implication and encouragement. I am not referring to him per se. I am referring to the untoward nonsense and unfair criticism of China that pervades much of the recent English language commentary about the country. Dan’s example is only a small one, yet symptomatic of a greater malise amongst many other commentators, which at it’s peak extends to the filing and publication of patently untrue statements as is illustrated by the Guardian and Christian Science Monitor’s absurd stories. It begins with silly accusations about Miss World being rigged and ends up with complete fabrications, and has developed into a foreign language media habit. It is unnecessary and paints a deliberately false impression about conducting business with and in the PRC. I feel this is unfair and deliberately inaccurate reporting used for the benefit of vested interests rather than any attempt at journalistic honesty.

    John Chapple says:

    Woah guys. It seems Chris’s article wasn’t directed just at Dan Haris, but using it as an example. (Albeit a bit harshly maybe Chris ) I too have been living here for sometime, and we all have to put up with all sorts of weird things in our business and daily lives 90% of it probably due to communication difficulties. On the other hand I have a fantastic group of young Chinese working for me that are exceeding all my expectations. I agree with Chris’s main point that there is just too much China bashing at the moment. There are remarkable things being achieved here, and the Chinese need a little encouragement and recognition of sucess sometimes just like the rest of us! And then quite rightly chastise them when they have done something really bad.

    I agree with Chris’s main point also. There is too much China bashing going on, but it is absurd to lead off with a story on my post where I simply wondered if Miss World had the home court advantage. I never even said she did and I made clear that the stupid competition (which I have never watched) mattered not a bit on the world stage. Surely there are better examples of this than my non-example.

    Chris Devonshire-Ellis says:

    It wasn’t a dig at Dan and I like the concept of ChinaLawBlog as an “Early Warning System” – it’s a great site with a lot of valuable legal comments, especially on IPR which is a big issue for American companies. I also like the idea of him sending flowers to Miss World to make up for his comments about her ! That was unfortunate and I’m sure he’ll do the right thing.

    Moving on, it is deflating when living in a country to constantly see it devalued or criticised unfairly, and a lot of that occurs when it comes to China. I think the journalists view that if the government provided more access maybe they’d get better treatment is valid, but then again it doesn’t excuse the deliberate writing of untruthful material by the media, or the attempts by ill considered individuals making contact with seperatist groups. That’s obviously inflammatory. There are a lot of egos when it comes to writing on China – as we have seen above -however there is a need to present a balanced commentary and not just a automatic negative assumption, and I would prefer to read more thought out pieces than the typical off the cuff and inaccurate remarks that tend to pass as legitimate comment these days. I’m tired of it and many of the journalists and bloggers concerned can do a lot better.

    Brec Starhawk says:

    Well,first of all to compare Mr. Harris with some reporter that purposely fabricates a story is very misleading. Look,I’ve never met Dan Harris and have only read his blog on occasion, but I’d bet he’ll be the first to tell you there’s no such thing as an “Old China Hand” but I do know he’s not a fraud and has just as much of a vested interest in China being seen in a favorable light as you do. I have no quarrel with you,just a difference of opinion and have no reason to spark a war of words. Anyway,boohoo. Poor little China. Sure,I read the news. Sometimes it seems like there’s a little over-criticism of China these days. That’s politics(duh) Nobody ever bashes the USA or Britain,right? Or the French. Maybe they needed to be offended.

    Chris Devonshire-Ellis says:

    That’s fine Brec, but it’s just the irritating habit of condemning China whenever it’s newsworthy that is my bugbear. Much of it is ill conceived, unnecessary and it’s becoming rather boring and predictable. The English language media and those taking responsibility for writing about China would, in my opinion, be advised to try another tack. As soon as I start reading an obviously biased or ill-considered comment about the country it loses credibility and I lose interest. I don’t see a great deal of decent China journalism out there, and thats a great shame when there is such a wealth of material. I have close to 2,000 retained multinational clients in the country – about 40% of them American, and you know what ? Nearly all of them make money. Shocking news huh? The actual reality of what is going on here is far different than the commonly observed perception of China as a dangerous or bad place to conduct business, and I’m fed up with the scaremongers.

    Derek says:

    Harris is right. You are trying to do a hatchet job on him and you seem to be veering far from the truth in doing so. Now, Chris, I know you are not a lawyer so you probably have difficulty appreciating China’s legal system, but Harris’s firm has never pursued IPR violations against Chinese companies nor can it.

    Worse than that though is how everyone is going after that blog for being based in the United States, while ignoring that its co-blogger, Steve Dickinson, has been living and working in China for more than 30 years. Steve speaks and reads Mandarin and Chris, I understand you do neither.

    I just think what you are doing here is appalling and I will not be back.

    Brec Starhawk says:

    I do understand what you mean although we are both on very different planes of existence. I can’t even get my own family to invest or even come visit because of so many misconceptions. But I believe the Chinese have brought most of it on themselves. If they would just get over themselves,shut up and move on with their business instead of touting their economic “miracle” and whining about every little slight (Talk about the culture of complaining) this kind of reporters would probably go pick on somebody else. Look,I’m just a construction worker and know little about international politics. I only know what I see and experience myself.

    Allroads says:

    Chris, Dan, et al Old China Hands, Writer, and Spectators.

    I must admit I am a little shocked by how far this has gone. What should have been a simple case of a reporter being called offsides has turned into something very personal for some.

    When I was in Beijing I was at TLI with a few reporters who were fresh to country. One was a well kown writer for a well known magazine. he had significant international experience, and one of the things he did was to learn the language to a high degree of proficiency. for him, it was important to know the language because it not only freed him of mistranslations, but also opened doors. For him, his job was about opening doors as what he wrote was read by those who were typically in other countries.

    the other reporter though had a very different approach. He was a semi-seasoned academic who had landed a job as chief reporter/ representative (can’t remember exact title) and it was his first international post. his view was that a month of the language was enough, and that his role was to really find a strong translator who would act as his gatekeeper in China.

    At the time, while I had already 10 years of Asia thrugh school, work, and travel, I was still green in China myself. But I recognized right away that both writers would have much different impacts, and that the second writer would be forced into a situation where his columns would only be as strong as his gatekeeper.

    Fast forward 6 years to today, and I still think the same can be said and I understand completely what drove Chris and Paul both to write the posts they did. they have seen enough of the standard “green reporter” pieces and decided to take Mr. Fallows to task.

    For me, here is where the spoon sits in the pudding.

    James Fallows is a well respected writer who has influence, and I am sure he takes care so that he does not abuse his influence. However, being a good writer does not mean that he should writing about anything. Paul at WSJ already has the “I am new in china” column, and he is doing a great job of it. He reports what he sees, feels, enjoys, and is conflicted with, and I enjoy his writing. James presented a very different report, on a topic that he stretched, and someone pointed it out…

    Paul Midler made a call. he had seen enough crap come through his RSS reader, and he decided to write 250 words on Fallows’s lack of China experience. Maybe it was a bit rough, maybe it wasn’t, but he had every right to push back. So far, the attacks on Paul have not been focused on Paul’s expertise, or on specific remarks he made towards Mr. Fallows. It is a mix of commentary about Old China Hands being grumpy and exclusionary and a bit of writers rights. For me, that just provides more proof that Midler was justified

    As for the rest of the actors, it is already got way to personal so I will stay away from it.

    With respect to what Chris has written though, I would agree on the whole:
    1) The quality of reporting in China by international press has deteriorated with the influx of large numbers of newbies.
    2) Recent events related to big items like product safety, the environment, and the RMB (as well as time wasting events like Miss World) show this to be true
    3) Reporters/ Writers are better if they have experience in country
    4) Reporter/ writers who don’t have experience in country expose themselves to criticism

    It is not whether or not someone is good at writing, or is respected for their ability to write, it is about whether or not they are qualified to cover a topic. I myself would say that I know a lot about China, on a limited basis, and I those topics 90% of the time on All Roads. the other 10% of the time I defer to an expert, a study that I know is important but I am myself not qualified to fully comment on, etc…

    This all becomes important because, as Chris points out, there is a lot of scare mongering and just bad reporting going on related to Chinese toys, food, stealing of jobs, etc… and if you look at the writers themselves, and where they come from, the vast majority of those writers come from outside of China, with little China experience, and could not explain the basic concepts of supply chain or monetary policy.

    Unfortunately, as the Olympics drives up the number of reporters in country, I am sure we are going to see a lot more reports that go outside the boundaries of reality… and I am sure one of us in the China blogosphere will take them to task… hell, there may even be an article that reunites us all in the name of all once again.


    Jonathan Cartu says:

    I have been reading Chris for about 4 years, and Dan since the CLB started up. You’re both excellent writers and I enjoy reading both of your commentaries, but I think that Chris has gone way overboard on his criticism of Dan’s comment.

    The CLB is one of the most kick-ass China blogs there is; his blog has given so much towards the understanding of China that I find it shameful for Chris to have lumped him in with “China bashers”, placing him directly at the top of a rather crummy list. You could have done just as well to give Dan his credit as someone who has gone above and beyond to promote China as a great place to do business (if you do your due diligence) in many of his blog entries. He has promoted understanding of China’s legal system (his series on “why the Chinese legal system works”) and China as a whole, and has always given thoughtful analysis of Chinese legal developments.

    I don’t recall what Dan has written that could leave people like Eve Ng to believe that he has a negative slant towards China. Personally I always thought that he was a huge China softy, which is probably why I didn’t take issue with this Miss China imbroglio. Anyways, if Miss Canada had one Miss World in Toronto, who wouldn’t think she won because she’s Canadian? Really, the comment was so meaningless!

    To wrap it up, Dan Harris is not an ill-informed China journalist as the title of this article would lead someone to believe. He is in fact a well-respected member of the Chinese blogging community, and no doubt a top-notch lawyer to boot. Chris, if something that someone said angers you so much that you must write an editorial about it, just make sure you include a qualifier next time so that people who aren’t familiar with that person don’t rush to ridiculous conclusions.

    Chris Devonshire-Ellis says:

    What I object to is the knee jerk reaction that when China does something, there’s bound to be a nefarious background to it. Dan himself implied this concerning the Miss World title going to a Chinese woman because it was held in Sanya. I feel this displays a concerning attitude towards the Chinese that has cropped up often recently and to other, more alarming lengths as I pointed out. To automatically leap to conclusions that because the Chinese win something or do something new and useful that there is something untoward behind it I think demeans the integrity of the reporter and the actual reality of doing business here. OK, I knocked him on the head, but I resent the attitude recently displayed that all Chinese are corrupt and that only America knows best. It’s rubbish, and I hear it far too often.

    In living here I am actually quite proud that a Chinese girl won Miss World and I also know from experience that most foreign businesses in China are successful and make money. We’re auditors after all and I see the accounts. Dan doesn’t compete with me – he provides litigation advice, we’re a tax consultancy – but in slipping into a negative China mode and making snide comments I think he misses the point of why we’re involved with the country. And that is because despite the problems that can and do often crop up, it is and remains a great place to come to to make money. And without that, neither Dan, me or anyone else reading this thread would be here or indeed writing about it.

    Dans comments point to a more subversive underlying mood of distrust in China and the Chinese which can and does grow into more dangerous commentary as I pointed out. It’s symptomatic, and I hope he recovers. None of us are above criticism and Dan made a bad call. What concerns me is not Dan but that the trend of this type of negative commentary becomes the accepted truth about China when all I see are foreign invested enterprises making tons of money. They may moan about the conditions, but they are by and large profitable. Now that is the real story about China, and in pointing out inaccuracies and by bucking the trend I prefer to put the record straight. I wish others who are widely read or pretend to know what they’re talking about would be a little less narrow-minded in their China commentary. It’s not a lot to ask.

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