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.

Upcoming Events

While I am working on, well, all the different things I am working on, I am excited to be a part of two upcoming events in Southern California. One is a UCLA Extension writing seminar, “Writing in the Digital Age” on May 8. On June 7, I’ll be in conversation with Ian Johnson at UC Irvine, an event hosted by The China Beat, about his new book on the Muslim Brotherhood and his work in China.

Here’s the published blurbs about these events, but let me know if you want more information or if you have thoughts about what we should cover:

Writing is Rewarding

One of the best feelings I have as a writer is when something I’ve worked on sparks a conversation I could have never even imagined. That’s why I was so thrilled to find this post at the China Beat:

Learning from Lai Changxing?

Last year, Angilee Shah wrote a review at China Beat of Oliver August’s Inside the Red Mansion. The review inspired Simon Fraser University Professor Jeremy Brown to assign the text to a class and he recently invited the book’s protaganist, Lai Changxing, to join his class for a day. Brown and one of his students provide an account of the day’s visit below…

I enjoy writing book reviews, but it never occurred to me that readers might take any action other than a trip to their local library or bookstore. It certainly never occurred to me that Lai might agree to being questioned by a classroom full of students. I only wish I could have been there.

good feelings and the Olympics

After visiting grand Shanghai and glittering Chongqing, it was in a taxi in Dongguan that my view of China took a small, but important shift. I was traveling with a friend to the South China Mall, down the main road that stretches from the city’s train station all the way out to the suburbs. It was Olympics time, but we were a far cry from Beijing’s impressive Bird’s Nest.

The train station was bustling with passengers, laborers and managers who clogged up nearby cafes and bars, eating cost-efficient meals before getting on buses to their offices or factories or wholesale shops. We were trying to get to a magical place, though, a place hailed as the world’s largest shopping mall. But we knew something was not quite right as the crowds thinned out and the buildings got taller but the streets got emptier. The downtown megacity was full of half-empty towers and ambitious but abandoned construction projects for new skyscrapers. The media, even China’s state-media Xinhua, was already reporting on falling property prices and demand well before the Olympics, and  in Dongguan, it was obvious, even to our taxi driver, that things were not as great as so many people thought they were.

At a University of Southern California conference on Friday, scholars gave more academic perspectives on China’s Olympics. Anthropologist Susan Brownell discussed China’s goals as hosts. Contrary to popular belief, she said, most of their efforts were turned toward their domestic audience. They did not have a “master plan to promote a positive image of China to the outside world.” She outlines this argument in a post on The China Beat and in her book, Beijing’s Games: What the Olympics Mean to China.

China promised to host a “People’s Olympics,” but can that kind of agenda survive, or even have any effect on the post-Olympics ground reality? Stanley Rosen raised the question, citing the warnings of state-run weekly magazine Outlook. Because of rising unemployment, reporter Huang Huo wrote that China is entering a “peak period for mass incidents.” Rosen, a USC professor of political science, pointed out significant, and emotional, upcoming anniversaries; May 4 will mark the 90 year anniversary of Beijing student protests that sparked the May Fourth Movement for populism and June 4 will mark the 20 year anniversary of the violent put-down of the Tiananmen Square protests.

Economist Jeffrey Owen stressed that the Olympics did not provide direct financial benefit to Beijing or China. With a $40 billion price tag, including Olympics and Olympics-related costs, the gains come more in the form of less quantifiable “legacy effects,” the good feelings, China brand building, and the international education received by volunteers, students and residents of Beijing. Certainly, Chinese residents of the second-tier cities, like Chongqing and Shenzen, felt pride for the country’s successes, even though they were far-removed from the glamor and cameras. But still, they, like me and my traveling companion, became very tired of the Game’s soundtrack.

 

Last week’s conference, hosted by the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, the Center for International Studies and the US-China Institute, was filled with interesting food for thought. But it was hard to get the repetetive refrains Beijing Huan Ying Ni out of my head every time I thought about my time in China. A friend in Chongqing told me the young people there were alternately pulling their hair out and making lewd parodies of the song, just to make its constant presence bearable. So while Premeir Wen Jiabao does his best to spread hope for China’s near future on his global financial goodwill tour, it’s still difficult to figure out if the Beijing Olympics gave China any significant leg up, if it was, as the conference asked, a “Public Diplomacy Triumph or Public Relations Spectacle?”

So what happened when we finally got to the world’s biggest mall? My friend, Anka Lee, wrote about it for NBC in San Francisco. But I think you can guess that it was not as triumphant as Beijng’s fantastic opening ceremonies.

NPR correspondence by email and me in print

The China Beat just ran an email interview I did with Louisa Lim, the dynamic Shanghai correspondent for National Public Radio, formerly of the BBC. My favorite part?

When we arrived at their office, their faces fell. We sat around, drinking tea and waiting. In the next room, we could hear the government officials conferring with each other worriedly, “What’s the BBC doing?”, they were asking. “Do you think these are real reporters? They look more like kids on work experience.”

Writing for The China Beat has been pretty exciting lately, not least because my name is now inexplicably in the same sentence as Peter Hessler’s and in the table of contents of a bonafied book. Thanks, China Beat folks, for letting me interlope.

The best reporting on the Sichuan Earthquake you’ll never see

When I was at the Pusan International Film Festival in Korea, I went to a hotel on the beach to meet a documentary filmmaker from Beijing. I was very impressed by his film, Who Killed Our Children.

Pan Jianlin was frank with his opinions and generous with his time. He chain smokes and makes self-depricating jokes. He offered me a beer at 9:30 in the morning. When I met him he was wearing a Slipknot t-shirt. I asked him if he liked Slipknot; he replied, “Who’s Slipknot?”

I wanted to write about him and his film. Two versions of the story ran, one in US-China Today and the other on The China Beat.

I wrote the headline, also the title of this post. I hope I’m totally wrong on that count.