Q&A: Former NYT Shanghai Bureau Chief Howard French, Part Two

On how the press covered Hu's visit

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?

There’s not really one clear answer. The Chinese government is doing two things at once. On one hand, it is trying to take credit for the country’s striking success over the past couple of decades, to foster a feeling of confidence in the country. At the same time, I think the Chinese state is very careful about appearing not to gloat and not to be feeding excessive expectations. They’re two different problems. Gloating, because gloating can bring costly reactions from other people—if you gloat about your adversaries or rivals then you stir your rivals to passions that are not in your best interest.

Expectations are a problem for another reason. China just went through these last couple of decades with extraordinary growth. You essentially have this whole generation of people who have grown up not knowing anything resembling a fully blown economic crisis—they think it’s normal to grow at 8-10 percent per year. This is to them the Chinese rate of growth. Although the Chinese government wants to see this growth for as long as possible, there are no guarantees that such things can be sustained forever. At some point the country will face—either through a crisis or a gradual but definitive slowdown—a period of much lower growth in the future. Perhaps even negative growth for a period of time. Feeding expectations is dangerous because if people believe in growth like they do religion, and it doesn’t work out that way, the first ones they blame are the government. The state doesn’t want to be in that position.

Does the press work with the government to manage those expectations?

Yes. First of all the Chinese state is very careful in its language about gloating and claims to global leadership and not making statements about superseding the United States, both politically and economically.

There’s a further problem here, too. China is a really big and diverse country. There are 500-600 million people who are not by any stretch of the imagination rich or terribly successful, or overjoyed with the material state of their lives. Talking about one’s success and talking about being on top of the world sounds otherworldly and unseemly to a very large segment of the Chinese population. It’s potentially insulting. They have this very complicated message that they have to manage.

We often hear complaints here about the Chinese media. What are some of the complaints that people in China have about the American media?

The most typical complaint is that the American media is excessively critical of China. I’ve worked as a journalist in China for five years and I’ve taught in China for the last couple of years, and I’ve had more of these conversations with Chinese journalists and ordinary Chinese people than I care to remember.

There is an element of truth to the notion that Western journalism about China tends toward the negative. But there’s a danger in seeing this in isolation. There are two factors here that need to be kept in mind. One is that American news coverage as a general proposition is about problems. You don’t see front-page news articles about how all of the mail was delivered on time in Akron, Ohio today. But if the mail doesn’t get delivered in Akron, Ohio today, then that’s going to be a big story somewhere. This is a predisposition in the American press that is poorly understood in China.

The second thing is that Chinese people see the question of how the U.S. media covers China in isolation from how the American media covered the Soviet Union in the past, or Russia today, or country X, Y, or Z. The same proposition of looking for the problem applies. Every now and then you will read a story about a country that has put it all together and is having this otherworldly success. But in Thailand the story is about the problems between the Muslim south and the mainstream Buddhist population. In Brazil it’s the Amazon being cut down. There is this tendency to look for the weak points in other societies, to analyze them and come to terms with them, that’s what the American media tends to do.

The Chinese see this as something that is aimed particularly at them. And that’s basically not true. I spent a lot of my career working in Africa and what’s so striking about what I hear from Chinese people is that I’ve heard almost the exact same thing from Africans about American and Western coverage of Africa. “All you do is focus on coups and human rights atrocities and rape—what about the good news?” As with many broad observations, and perhaps clich├ęs, there is an element of truth in that.

The final thing I’d say about China is that if you stopped one hundred people on the street right now, and you asked them, “What are the first three things you know about China?” I can guarantee you that the first one—and maybe all three—would have to do with the country’s recent successes. The first thing they would say is not that China is a country of awful human rights, or is a country of 500 million poor people. I can almost guarantee you that they would emphasize the success of the recent rich before they would emphasize the continued existence of the poor.

The question then becomes something else. Most of these people you stop have never been to China. Which means they have had to receive these viewpoints from somewhere. I would posit that they got these viewpoints from the media. So you have these two somewhat difficult to sustain points of view. The Chinese view is that the Western media is so tough on them, always beating up on them, and always emphasizing bad things. And then the fact that the public point of view of China is predominated, I would say, by word of China’s recent successes.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , ,