For many, it was almost like being sent to the moon, tasked as they were with reporting on an unknown giant that was part rival, part ally, a new documentary about US reporters working in China shows.
In Taipei to present a segment of his Assignment: China — a multi-part series on US news coverage of China from the 1940s up to the present — Mike Chinoy, former senior Asia correspondent for CNN, said that despite China’s growing importance in global affairs, the world’s second-largest economy still doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
The series, reported by Chinoy and produced by the US-China Institute at the University of Southern California, is part of an ongoing effort to address that knowledge gap by giving voice to the pioneering US reporters who ventured into uncharted territory and, through their articles, broadcasts and photographs, shaped how the US came to see this enigmatic country.
Segment four of six, shown at a special dinner organized by the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei, the European Chamber of Commerce in Taipei and the Taiwan Foreign Correspondents’ Club held at the American Club on Tuesday night, looks at the first generation of US reporters dispatched to Beijing following the normalization of relations between the US and China in 1979.
Using archival footage and interviews with those who presented China on our TV screens and newspapers — legends such as Richard Bernstein, Jay and Linda Mathews, Fox Butterfield, Melinda Liu and Jim Laurie — the 45-minute segment shows China taking its first steps toward modernization under the guidance of former leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平). Not only are the glittering skylines still in the making, but the political situation is also markedly different, as US reporters confronted a wall of suspicion.
This is a time when ordinary Chinese would not dare speak to reporters lest they get in trouble with the authorities (which, to the reporters’ chagrin, did happen to those who broke the silence and discussed politics or even sexuality). This was also a time when the reporters’ local aides — translators and the like — also worked for the state, reporting the actions, movements and contacts of their guests back to security officials.
Covering this mix of state repression and extraordinary development, foreign correspondents became cheerleaders, critics, and cynics, struggling to make sense of a complex society with an opaque -political system, buffeted by pressure from the authorities in Beijing and Washington, not to mention from their editors, who often sought a romanticized version of events, and the remorseless demands of their profession.
Theirs is the story of a Boeing 707 that disappeared, hours-long briefings by local officials, a surprise visit to a hotel room by Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽) and Deng’s famous spittoon antics, of a world where tragedy cohabits with great comedy.
Following the presentation, Chinoy, accompanied by Peter Enav of The Associated Press, Ralph Jennings of Thomson Reuters and Don Shapiro of AmCham’s Topics, held a roundtable discussion and opened the floor for questions.
Contrasting the situation from the period depicted in the segment with today, the panelists agreed that reporters’ work since then had both become easier and more difficult — easier because the restrictions on talking to foreign reporters have been greatly loosened, more difficult by virtue of China’s sheer size and dynamism. As Jennings noted, a tendency among some journalists who perhaps feel overwhelmed by the challenge of covering China has been laziness, to turn to state-owned Xinhua news agency for information rather than do the legwork for a story, and then somehow “add value” to them. Conversely, based on his experiences reporting there (from 1999 to 2006), Jennings said Chinese journalists today were far more willing to exchange notes with their foreign counterparts than they were in the 1980s.
Despite the relative openness in contemporary China, the panelists said there was a major difference between China, which continues to look at foreign correspondents with suspicion, and Taiwan, which is extraordinarily open and where foreign reporters have tremendous access to all levels of society and government.
Part of this comes from different traditions and histories, Enav said, pointing to Taiwan’s unique experience and heavy US influence.
Despite the ease of access in Taiwan, however, Jennings said its story was “hard to sell,” as there was little overseas interest. To remedy that, innovative ways to present Taiwan to the world, such as comparing it with South Korea and Japan as part of the narrative of “a broader Asia story,” will be needed, he said.
“Taiwan is more Asian in a lot of ways than China,” Jennings said.
Asked whether there was any foundation to Beijing’s claims of a Western media bias against it — to which Enav replied “not just Beijing,” a reference to AP’s interview controversy with President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) last week — Chinoy, who opened the CNN bureau in Beijing in 1987, said the conflict largely stemmed from the Western tradition of journalism whereby reporters serve as “the voice of the voiceless” and see their role as “pointing a flashlight into a dark corner” to expose wrongdoing by the powerful, a philosophy that for various reasons has little appeal with Chinese authorities.
“Serious journalists do not frame it as anti-China or pro-China,” he said, adding that a long tradition by Chinese officials of lying, misleading and stonewalling reporters had turned the latter into cynics who were prone to be skeptical of everything the authorities said.
“But people are sensitive when outsiders come in and take out their dirty laundry and broadcast it all over the world,” he said.
In concluding remarks, Chinoy said the project was also looking into the possibility of producing a documentary on foreign reporters’ experiences in Taiwan.
The six-part series is still in the making and completion of the episodes will be contingent on funding, Chinoy said, adding that copyright permission to use some of the footage sometimes came at a cost of US$30 per second, making the project expensive.
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