campaign desk

Not For All the News in China, Part Two

The second part of CJR's interview with Howard French
November 23, 2009

Howard French is the former Shanghai bureau chief for The New York Times. This is the second part of a two-part interview regarding the media’s coverage of Barack Obama’s recent trip to Asia. The first part of the interview can be found here.

“I am known for having had a pretty consistent focus on human rights in my work as a journalist, so the comments that will follow should not in any way suggest that I believe in a de-emphasis in human rights with regard to China. In fact, if the Obama administration had asked my opinion prior to this trip, I would have said this is a very good time to be upfront about human rights and there are a number of issues that deserve a very straightforward approach.

“But the problem with the way the press has covered this is there’s a kind of implicit premise in the complaint about the way that Obama avoided certain issues, human rights being one of them. So what are the big issues? Human rights—one of the big things he didn’t address in any vocal, public, in-your-face way—exchange rates, trade, Iran, those are the ones that come immediately to mind, I’m sure there are others. The implicit premise in the critical coverage that followed is misleading, I think. Maybe disingenuous is even a better word, because it seems to suggest that if Obama had pulled a Khrushchev and banged his shoe on the table on these issues and really jumped up and down and made a lot of noise, then this would have achieved a markedly different result for the better. I don’t think there’s any evidence of that. It may have made certain people in this society feel better about themselves, but if the goal is changing behaviors in China or obtaining political or diplomatic results with China, I think the evidence is the contrary. Where is it that we have had very vocal, remonstrative theatrics with China on thorny issues where China has laid down and simply done what we want to do simply because we’ve gotten loud about it? There are not a lot of examples you can point to.

“So Obama creates his own premise for the style of engagement that he’s beginning to undertake with China – emphasis on beginning – it’s his first trip to China, to East Asia as president. So he makes clear that he’s going to try a different approach to this. And we’re told he had a variety of private conversations on some of these important, sensitive issues, like human rights.

“The press coverage is misleading on both scores. It doesn’t give a realistic impression of what past behavior was like, diplomatically speaking, and what it achieved when we were really vocal and remonstrative; and it also doesn’t—in this critical, immediate insta-pundit analysis of what Obama achieved—it doesn’t allow for the fact that he, himself, said what he was going to do before he got on the airplane, so to what extent did his behavior actually fit the pattern of his own announced style and agenda? It’s like the press is on its own script without reference to either history or Obama’s announced intentions.

“I watched the [student forum in Shanghai] live, late at night here, and I was very curious to see how it would go. My feelings sort of see-sawed throughout the event. It took me about thirty seconds to understand that Obama had walked into a real fix. All the students looked like the Stepford wives or something, these were robot people. They were perfectly scrubbed and dressed and it was just obvious to me that this was totally pre-arranged on the Chinese side. So I’m thinking, uh oh. How’s he going to handle this?’

Sign up for CJR's daily email

“It got off to a slow start and I’m thinking this is really a missed opportunity on a number of levels. I didn’t know immediately, I found out subsequently, that Washington had been led to believe that there would be wider broadcast of this event within China than what happened. So that was a disappointment. But I thought there was something pretty astute about the way the [U.S.] ambassador [to China] lobbed that question about the Great Firewall and censorship in China to Obama. I thought that was good footwork on their part. So they walk into this thing and they’re getting questions of the order of, ‘So what’s your favorite color?’ and ‘Are you happy to be in Shanghai?’ These students had basically been prepped, with the exception of the Taiwan arms question, to give no opening for anything that would be troublesome from the official Chinese perspective. So they asked the most boring, milquetoast questions you could imagine.

“So [the ambassador] says, I’ve got a question; this one comes from the Embassy web site.’ That might not even be true—which would make my point even better; ‘Okay, you’re fixing your questions, we’re fixing our questions too.’ So the ambassador asks, ‘Have you ever heard of the Great Firewall and what do you think about censorship?’ I thought that was really clever. I don’t think Obama’s answer made the absolute most of the opportunity but he did make some interesting points there. The most interesting of which was, ‘You know, it’s important to hear unpleasant news.’ Here he’s walked into this setting where everything is fixed so that there could be nothing unpleasant. And he’s saying to this group of students and presumably to anyone who manages to follow this within China that setting yourselves vis a vis access to information so that anything that’s inconvenient gets filtered out or blocked, is a bad idea. That was a very good answer and it was very much appropriate to the circumstance, too.”

The wrong storyline

“To the extent that the American media embarks on this trip with some version of this very familiar storyline—that Obama, this great celebrity, this great speaker, this media star, this grand personality, is going to stroll through China and win the day—to the extent that they bought into that storyline and expected it to function, at any meaningful levels shows an extraordinary misunderstanding of China. You can fault that storyline on many other levels, but it shows a total misunderstanding of China. The Chinese doesn’t want to be part of our storyline. Everything about China is set up so that Chinese people don’t have foreign heroes. They do not wish for their culture to adopt foreign idols and to be subjected to foreign narratives. It’s not simply a question of accepting foreign political ideas. It’s a question of building up a Chinese nation and a Chinese sense of identity and a Chinese sense of destiny and of strength and of cultural depth. So everything about that society is arranged deliberately, from education to propaganda to censorship to the workings of nationalism to policing a kind of membrane between China and the outside world.

“So here you have this American press that’s used to writing very superficially about Obama along these lines of, ‘So he’s going to give a great speech and we’re going to watch him convince a lot of people and that’s going to be great theater for us and we can score this on that basis.’ One of the questions even before he even got there was, is there Obama-mania? There’s no Obama-mania in China! The Chinese authorities will not allow for that to happen. It doesn’t matter, whatever you think of Obama—how great he is, how poor he is—they simply will not allow for there to be an idol like that. The government, which sits above the media and supervises it, will not allow for a figure to emerge that way, will not allow a Chinese figure to emerge that way. So to think, ‘OK, here comes Obama and he’s going to really be allowed to have a presence in the Chinese media’—how do you become a celebrity that’s not through presence in the media, that’s going to begin to sway a lot of Chinese hearts and minds? Forget it. That’s totally naïve.

“The Chinese press were not allowed to build [Obama] up as a big story. This story is bothersome for China on any number of levels. China has its own minorities and its own minority problems. So the notion that a member of the minority of the United States that has the had most significant historical issues and problems can suddenly become the president of the United States and we’re going to build this up into this grand celebratory narrative? I mean, forget it! You think the Chinese are going to allow that to happen? No way. Never in a million years. But the press that doesn’t know China comes to this issue with all of those sensibilities. They ask, ‘I saw an Obama T-shirt and what does that mean?’ It’s silly and it’s dismaying and it’s naive and it’s unknowing, basically.”

The missed story

“Among what we know about the visit, we don’t everything that was said privately obviously, I think perhaps the most important single item or announcement is the matter of sending 100,000 American students to China. I think this is of huge importance, and I don’t think it got treated that way by the press at all. It got treated as a throwaway almost, like a footnote. It was presented as one in a list of things, no one broke it out and actually talked about what this could really mean.

“A generation ago, Chinese students started coming here in large numbers. Part of the theory behind that was, and this is somewhat naïve, they’ll come to our great country where we have all these wonderful values and we have openness and we have freedom and democracy and free enterprise, and they will absorb our values and take them back to China and change China. This was a piece of the thinking. So we’ve had a generation almost of this experience and guess what? It didn’t really altogether change China. You could argue that at the margins it did have some important effects, but certainly not to the extent that people who had this grand vision of it believed.

“So here comes the other shoe. We let hundreds of thousands of them into here in the belief that this would draw the two countries closer, and perhaps make China more like us and help change China in positive ways and show China the value of our values. The other shoe is, let’s send hundreds of thousands of our students there. So far it’s been a one-way street, though one thing that we have definitely gotten out of this arrangement, and it is no small thing, is an influx of brainpower of academically ambitious Chinese students who have remained in this country in large numbers after studying here. But most Chinese students came here and were exposed to really good education in things that—and I don’t begrudge this—helped China become more competitive and accelerate its economic progress. China benefitted hugely by sending this generation to the United States. They were really smart. So let’s do that with them. Let’s send hundreds of thousands of American students to China.

“What does that do for us? It may in fact achieve another piece of that original idealist vision—it’ll draw the two countries together, will expose them more to our ideas and ideals. But if you’ve accepted the notion that China is a nation very much on the rise, and it’s going to be our major competitor in the world and perhaps the dominant power in the foreseeable future, we have a real interest in understanding China—deeply. So let’s do that. How do you do that best? Not by having a few hundred or a few thousand weirdos like me go and become China-philes at some point in their life and are then are squirreled away in some faculty, but send wave after wave of Americans over there. And understand in a deep sense what makes this place tick. How is it put together, where do the fault lines lie, what’s the cast of characters here, to build relationships, to embed themselves in the economy.

“This strikes me as being a brilliant idea, and I don’t know whose idea it was — Obama announced it — but to the extent that he embraces it and makes it real, this is really a genius stroke. All the other stuff, you can see any administration talking about the same things. ‘Yeah, we have some human rights stuff, we have some trade stuff, we have some dollar stuff, some environmental stuff.’ This is the one meaningful innovation I see in the whole spectrum of issues that was discussed. And I think twenty years from now, if it is implemented, people will look back and they will say this was an important moment. ‘This happened then.’

“You see none of that in the press. Not even asking the question, and saying, so could this be important? Or what could this mean? Or how does it work or what is the history of this, or will it be real? It was just kind of dropped in the list like; here are the various talking points. . Some enterprising reporter somewhere in that world of Obama coverage in China should have jumped on this with both hands and said, ‘this is important’ or ‘this looks like it could be important or this is new and different. We knew all those other issues; we didn’t know this one before. What’s really behind this?’ The first question is, ‘So it sounds great—is it real? What kind of flesh are you going to put on those bones?’ Didn’t hear any of that.”

Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.