Serving professional journalism since 1912

Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

China through the looking glass

Some years ago I was in Beijing to deliver a lecture on Western media to an audience of elite foreign-language students at Beiwei University. I received an invitation to visit a newly opened Science Park. Later on, in the lobby of my hotel, I bumped into a British correspondent based in the city and invited her to accompany me to the Science Park. The reply took me by surprise. She said she was not interested as the editors back in London would not be interested. On further questioning, it became clear that, for this correspondent, to get a story there would have to be a controversial angle of some sort, such as human rights abuses or government corruption. A Chinese colleague explained that the West largely sees China through the three T’s – Tiananmen, Tibet and trade. 

It is undoubtedly true that President Xi Jinping is increasingly autocratic by inclination and design. It is also true that that the treatment of religious groups such as Falun Gong and ethnic communities such as the Uigurs is scandalous. The benchmark for a Western TV crew is a policeman or soldier blocking the camera lens with his hands. China’s security forces are, at best, obstructive and suspicious, and at worst, brutally repressive.

We see examples of this behaviour on our TV screens regularly. The BBC’s John Sudworth’s excellent investigation of the hidden camps for the re-education of Uigur Muslims in Xinjiang is a prime example of a story the Chinese government would have preferred the world not to see. And, of course, the hands blocking the camera’s view were ever present. It is a story that needs to be told. But, it is not the whole story.

At the Science Park I was introduced to new applications of solar power, grand designs for electric cars, energy-efficient town planning and software experts who were working on next generation communications. I met a group of young entrepreneurs who were developing their own brand coffee shops to take on Starbucks. We consider China a stealer of technology not an innovator. Throughout my day’s visit I was introduced to research work demonstrating creative ingenuity and global sales potential. 

Aggrieved

Talking to the students at Beiwei, they were aggrieved that China is often perceived as a monster and militarily expansionist. One student pointed out, leaving out the complex history of Tibet, that China had not generally been an invader of neighbouring countries, whereas the British had burnt down the Summer Palace in Beijing twice! The Opium Wars showed Britain and its own colonial expansionism in a terrible light. When I raise the question of a future democratic government in China, there is, invariably, silence.

I am told that Chinese politics is a little more complicated and beyond the understanding of a Mandarin non-speaker – a point I freely acknowledge but do not accept. The response that you are a foreigner and do not understand ‘our ways’ is more of an escape tactic to close a difficult conversation. But, their interest in learning about the world and engaging with it does not match the isolationist, controlled picture that we often see on our nightly news bulletins.

President Xi’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ is a 21st century economic Silk Road linking China to its neighbours and stretching across continents. Billions of dollars are being spent on new roads, ports, airports to, in Chinese government terms, enhance regional connectivity and a brighter future. To others, particularly Donald Trump, it is a strategic move to push Chinese dominance in global affairs. The new superpower on the block.

Foreign aid

China is providing 60 billion dollars of financial support to Africa when many other Western governments are cutting back on aid and investment.  In Pakistan, China is building a port city at Gwadar. From one point of view, this is another example of chequebook diplomacy or debt trap diplomacy.

From Beijing’s point of view, it is creating new trading opportunities in a developing country solely in need of investment and expertise. China’s motives are often seen as malign, underhand, devious. Chinese government officials see it differently. The wealth of the country is being used to improve lives within and outside the country. Who is right? Well, unfortunately it is probably a mix of self-interest and philanthropy. Was it not ever thus with foreign aid? 

A wise and urbane Chinese diplomat explained that China has too many of its own problems and therefore does not want to create problems for others. The doctrine of harmony drives policies in Beijing. It does not mean confrontation, but it does mean conformity to certain goals and behaviour. The Chinese government always pushes for a pragmatic approach, but it is jumpy over dissent and often overreacts to what it perceives as challenges to its authority. Human rights lawyers are harassed and imprisoned. Dissident writers and artists are often forced into exile.

In 2009, Ai Weiwei created a work called Remembering to honour the thousands of children who died in the Sichuan earthquake. This upset the Beijing government as it wanted to control information on the earthquake. Ai Weiwei set up a citizen investigation team to determine how many children had died. He identified 5,219 children who had died in the earthquake. The government responded by arresting members of the artist’s team. Later, the artist himself was jailed.

The government reaction was totally unjustified. It was pernicious and, perhaps, naïve. I like to think a lesson was learned in Beijing. It cannot control everything. All governments get things wrong. And we often get China wrong. There is a need for sensitivity, maturity and understanding both from us and them. That would be a start, at the very least.

Richard Dove