Mike Chinoy, Yuhong Li & Jan Servaes (in Hong Kong in 2019) (Credit: JS) - Photo: 2023

American Journalists in China

By Jan Servaes*

BRUSSELS, 2 April 2023 (IDN) — After the success of the ‘Assignment China’ TV-series, Columbia University Press. recently published the book with the same title: “Assignment China: An Oral History of American Journalists in the People’s Republic”. The themes already covered in the TV series have been updated and expanded to 25 chapters.

In this book project, Mike Chinoy tries to answer questions that are central to the way foreign correspondents operate:

  • Who were the people reporting on China for the US media?
  • How did they collect, understand and pass on the news?
  • What kind of intellectual/cultural baggage did they bring with them?
  • How did they usually interact with the Chinese government: hostile, suspicious, or uncooperative?
  • How did they deal with language and cultural differences, and how did they deal with relationships with ordinary Chinese citizens they came into contact with?
  • What kind of in-fights they had with their editors and bosses?
  • To what extent were they influenced by the policy priorities of the US government?
  • How have the dramatic changes in media technology—from print and radio to television, satellites, the twenty-four-hour news cycle, the internet and social media—affected the way they covered China?
  • How accurate was the picture they presented of China?
  • What were some of the consequences of how the country was reported?

A central theme in any discussion of China coverage is the difficulty of finding the truth in a vast, complex country with a long history of mistrust of outsiders and a secretive and authoritarian political system.

Kill Chicken to Scare Monkey (杀鸡儆猴)

This often yields interesting insights and at times fascinating stories. Like Melissa Chan, the Hong Kong-born Chinese-American who, as a Beijing correspondent for Al Jazeera in 2007, reported what she believed to be an innocent story about a child living in the countryside while parents worked in the city: “I was so naive. I thought, ‘What’s the harm in that?’

We spent the morning with this little girl. She mostly took care of herself. She cooked her breakfast, went to school and then came back. It was rural, pastoral. There were chickens running around, a Chinese village and a cottage. I thought it was just a nice human interest story.

The local authorities were terrified when we filmed the little girl going to school. Suddenly we were surrounded. They even closed the courtyard, refused to let us out and started asking a lot of questions. Eventually everything was resolved, and we were released. But back in Beijing, I got a call. I think the local authorities in Anhui reported it. And the State Department said very angrily,

‘If Al Jazeera is going to act like BBC and CNN, we’re going to treat Al Jazeera like BBC and CNN’. And then they threw down the phone (pp. 295-6).

After a few more tense moments following visits to Xinjiang, Urumqi, Kashgar, and Hotan, “At the end of 2011 I knew I was in trouble. They gave me a two-month visa. I don’t believe this had already happened and there was a strategy behind it. They kept me very busy on a very tight leash. After the two months the visa had expired. I went in to get an extension, and they only gave me a month. That’s when I knew I was really in trouble.” (p. 336).

In April 2012, the Chinese authorities refused to renew Al Jazeera’s Melissa Chan’s visa. They accused her of unspecified violations of the Chinese law. Chan had repeatedly angered the Chinese, especially with her harsh reporting, her exposure of what were known as “black prisons,” a network of secret detention centers.

“After I left, they decided to continue to ‘character assassinate’ me, for lack of a better word, saying I had broken laws. I was never able to figure out exactly what they meant. They were really focused on the fact that I am supposedly very aggressive, and that I upset police officers in China” (p. 348). After her expulsion, life also became more difficult for many other foreign correspondents.

“I kept thinking of that Chinese proverb where you kill the chicken to frighten the monkeys. I was the proverbial chicken” (p. 349)

Exploring boundaries

< Credit: Columbia University Press

The relationship between Western TV crews and the Chinese authorities was often complex and varied over time, situation and setting. Sometimes they seemed more receptive to Western journalists reporting in their countries, and other times they tried to silence them. As CBS News’ Bruce Dunning noted, “They knew how to handle print people, but TV kind of scared them, so they were very careful” (p. 118).

It seems as if from the 1970s, after China opened up, both foreign reporters and government officials were experimenting with the limits of what was acceptable, and they both seemed unsure of where they were. Chinese officials previously seemed unsure about where the limits should be.

In recent years, some of these limitations have become more apparent. A good example is the issue of the Uighurs. Melissa Chan remembers a funny incident. Chan went to Xinjiang province with a Chinese woman and a European. Local authorities wanted to avoid reporting when they learned that Al Jazeera was there.

However, they assumed that since it was an Arab network, “they were literally looking for three Arabs in turbans”. Authorities spotted the three with cameras, but because they “didn’t look Arab”, they ran away (p. 323).

Some reporters have gone to great lengths to cover the story that the Chinese state does not want told. Megha Rajagopalan of Buzzfeed (formerly Reuters), for example, slipped out of her hotel in Kashgar to gain access to the so-called Uyghur ‘re-education’ camps. She wrote: “It was a huge area with very high walls… They had big gates and there was a small police kiosk… I took a picture and got yelled at by police guards.” (p. 396).

American reporters who poked fun at Chinese authorities were often expelled; a relatively light sentence compared to the way the Chinese state treats its own dissidents.

The party

The journalists interviewed by Chinoy almost automatically refer to the Chinese Communist Party, at the national or local level, as responsible for the lack of freedom for journalists to do their job. This results in easily readable anecdotes that sound recognizable after a while.

However, those looking for a more systematic analysis of the party’s role and impact, are left unsatisfied. Then it is better to check out Richard McGregor’s book: The Party. The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers.

McGregor is an Australian journalist, currently serving as a Senior Fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. He was previously a Shanghai correspondent and Beijing and Washington bureau chief for the Financial Times.

As McGregor emphasizes in his prologue, the main concern of his book is to show how the Chinese Communist Party has remained in power for so long. “After each catastrophe, such as the implosion of the Soviet Union,” he writes, “the party has reassembled itself, repaired its armor and strengthened its flank.

Somehow she has survived, outwitted, outperformed or simply banned her critics, baffling the pundits who have predicted its demise on countless occasions.”

An academic analysis

And for a more academic analysis, I refer to the PhD of Yuan Zeng, my former student, now at Leeds University: Yuan Zeng (2018). Reporting China on the Rise: A Study on the Field of Foreign Correspondence in Contemporary China (Doctoral dissertation, City University of Hong Kong).

In the midst of the debate about a “global journalistic culture”, Yuan Zeng, building on Hallin and Mancini’s typology of media systems and Hanitzsch’s deconstruction of journalistic role perceptions, examines how foreign correspondents in China perceive their professional role, and how their role perception differ between different media systems.

Based on a research analysis of 101 journalists, she identifies three types of roles among Chinese correspondents: detached disseminator, populist watchdog and facilitative change agent.

A majority of respondents view their professional role as non-facilitating and non-activist, disputing the claim of ‘hostile foreign forces’ that China commonly uses to discredit foreign correspondents.

No significant national variance is detected in the relative size of the three role types, and journalists from different media systems all value objectivity, neutrality, detachment and a strong audience orientation, following global homogenization tendencies in certain components of journalistic culture.

Still, there is strong national variance in key dimensions, including a watchdog role for the host nation, advocacy orientation, and power distance with the domestic government, largely consistent with the respective journalistic culture in each media system, suggesting that the national journalistic culture still has a strong hold on foreign news.

In other words: China is viewed through American glasses. [IDN-InDepthNews]

*Jan Servaes is editor of the 2020 Handbook on Communication for Development and Social Change (https://link.springer.com/referencework/10.1007/978-981-10-7035-8) and co-editor of SDG18 Communication for All, Volumes 1 & 2, 2023 (https://link.springer.com/book/9783031191411)

Image: Mike Chinoy, Yuhong Li & Jan Servaes (in Hong Kong in 2019) (Credit: JS) 

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