Changing the China News Narrative

“China is a breeding ground for heroes,” Foreign Policy contributing editor Christina Larson said at a roundtable discussion at the University of California, Irvine hosted by The China Beat yesterday.

Larson has done a lot of reporting on China’s environmental movement, where she has found great stories about a dynamic country. Environmentalists in China, she said, have created a legal space for their advocacy. Registered environmental nongovernmental organizations now make up the largest sector of civil society in China.

“None of these people think of themselves as dissidents,” Larson said. They are working to enforce existing laws, not make the current regime crumble.

But the China news narrative in the United States is often dominated by stories about dissidents and victims, corruption and communism, painting a narrow picture of what activism and political engagement can mean there.

The discussion concluded with this provocative question: “Can you think of any hero stories about China?” Larson asked. If not, you’ll find plenty of heroes in Larson’s own reporting. In particular, read her reports for Yale Environment 360.

This conversation made me think about another place — however unlikely — where the China narrative, and narratives about Asia writ large, has evolved considerably: the White House. President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday included praise for China, India and South Korea, countries recast as places to stir American ideas and energy rather than fear and derision. Here are a three Asia-related snippets:

Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They’re investing in research and new technologies. Just recently, China became the home to the world’s largest private solar research facility, and the world’s fastest computer.

Let’s also remember that after parents, the biggest impact on a child’s success comes from the man or woman at the front of the classroom. In South Korea, teachers are known as “nation builders.” Here in America, it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect.

Our infrastructure used to be the best, but our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater Internet access than we do. Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports. Meanwhile, when our own engineers graded our nation’s infrastructure, they gave us a “D.”

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