The regrettable rise of the ill-informed China journalists

Posted by Reading Time: 6 minutes

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.