In the wake of Chinese president Hu Jintao’s four-day U.S. trip, CJR assistant editor Joel Meares discussed the media’s take with Howard French, former Shanghai bureau chief for the Times and now teacher of the Covering China seminar at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Part One of the interview focused on the stilted joint press conference held by President Hu and President Obama last week. The interview continues below.
There are those which have said that the very definition of human rights is something that is difficult to translate—that for China, it means economic prosperity, and that for Americans, it mean freedom and freedom of speech. Thus, China can rightly say it has made progress, as President Hi did last week. Is there a difference in the two nations’ understanding of human rights and do we need to consider that in reporting on China?
I am wary of expressions about what the Chinese view is on something. First of all, as we know, China is a country of 1.3 billion people—it’s very hard to boil that down to a particular view. Second of all, the point of view you expressed is, if anything, best described as the Chinese official view of what human rights are. In other words, the Chinese Communist Party has defined human rights in this very broad way for its own purposes. Yes, we’re delivering a lot of material progress to the people of the country and therefore, for our purposes, it’s very convenient to include material progress in the definition of human rights. That being said, China is signatory to any number of international conventions that apply standard definitions of human rights that are much closer to what you and I would understand the term to mean. This Chinese official response, however true in substance, doesn’t get us away from the demands of the more traditional definition of what human rights are. This is another instance where follow-up questions would have been helpful. An interesting follow-up question scenario would have been to suss out what we mean by human rights. If we grant the progress on the side of the tableau that you seek to emphasize, what about the other side of the tableau.
The regretful thing here is there is a story to be told about how in the last ten years what you and I see as human rights have improved in China. Liu Xiaobo is a very high profile dissident who received the Nobel Prize and is now in prison, and that’s awful. And it’s condemnable and we all understand why this is unseemly. But that does nothing to change the fact that the opportunities for expression have changed drastically in China for the better over the past ten or twenty years. Many other human rights, as traditionally defined, have also improved substantially. This isn’t always because the Chinese government has taken an enlightened view of these questions—one wishes they would. But the change in fact has happened and that should be recognized.
Are these changes visible in the Chinese press?
The Chinese press is much more vigorous now than it was twenty years ago. It is much more able to push the envelope, to challenge.
What did you make of the analysis and the broader reporting on the Chinese visit—were reporters able to draw into their reporting, and clearly explain, a lot of the complex issues of trade and currency and rights that were focused on before the trip?
The American press right now is particularly caught up in a moment of naval gazing about larger decline and its implications. A lot of what we read about China these days, particularly in the run-up to President Hu’s visit, is dominated by questions about what kind of historical moment this is, and whether China’s rise is inevitable. I think that question was actually conceded in most of what was written about China recently. The next step of the question then is what it means for the United States and the rest of the world.
Those are legitimate questions. But I think that there is a danger—if your aim is to understand China and to convey an understanding of China—in obsessing about one’s own fate or fortune relative to China. It’s distorting if used that is a lens through which to look at China itself. Some of that coverage became excessive after a while, and not always helpful.
Is that naval-gazing view we have—that China is ascendant, the U.S. is declining, and we should be worrying—shared by people in China and the press? Or is there a sense of the reverse: where we fear, they gloat?