The Dirt on China Reporting

By Pierre Fuller

Reporting China for a Western readership gets a whole lot easier once you master the discursive montage of cheap China associations. When discussing the Chinese state, for example, plug in Orwell. When referencing anything in the period 1949-1976, plug in Mao. If, say, your topic is changing environmental behavior among the Chinese, ascribe it only to orders from the “new emperors” above; national pride could also do. And so on. A recent International Herald Tribune and New York Times website report, “Smoke Clears, Dust Does Not in Beijing,” follows the formula to a T.

In it, Mao makes his first appearance as the explanation for Beijing’s sooty sky. His “vision” for China, we learn, produced the many smokestacks belching out pollutants into the capital. “Mao got his wish,” the report continues, “everybody else got a persistent cough.” In other words, constructing heavy industry (i.e. capital goods) across China in the past was a single man’s project – and resulted in anything from cancer and climate change to an eyesore of a skyline, but not in the industrial foundation for the production of consumer goods that propels China in world stature today. But the thrust of the article is that this type of pollution, curbed for the Olympics, has been replaced by dust from the growing Gobi desert, which sweeps past where Beijing’s old city gates were “demolished by Mao and other visionaries.” This is our second Mao in a short report, and our second variant on the word “vision.” Note that when “vision” or its variants is used in the Chinese context, one must often read rash “delusion.” I suppose this journalist thought of conveniently balancing or bookending his piece with the odious constructions and familiar destructions of a favorite media character. Finally, the Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games, or Bocog, is said to sport “an Orwellian acronym that suggests James Bond’s more ambitious villains.” For their nefarious ends, I hadn’t realized Bond villains ever looked to beautifying a city.

In Beijing, we are told, “dust never sleeps.” Neither, it seems, does the China cliché.


iain.e.marlow said...

I agree that China reporting is full of terrible cliches. And I enjoyed your post. Travel writing is unusually plagued by cliche; and Morrisson's piece is particularly egregious in this respect.

However, as a journalist / China-studier, I would like to add that it might be a tad disingenuous to hold up what seems to be an informal, first-person, blog-esque post as a "web report," especially since it appears in the Travel section.

This isn't a news piece, and I'm sure that you -- as well as I -- rely on French's, Yardley's, Barboza's, et al's deliciously informative pieces from/on China in the New York Times.

Jeff Wasserstrom said...

Iain--Very nice to get a comment from a journalist on one of our blog's pieces about journalism. This might be a China Beat first, though we've run interviews with journalists (Ian Johnson, James Miles) and had posts contributed by working journalists or at least people with a background in journalism as opposed to the academy ( Leslie T. Chang, Peter Hessler, Angilee Shah, Caroline Finlay, and former reporter turned mystery writer Catherine Sampson). Plus one of our goals from the start has been to encourage a new sort of dialogue across the journalism/academic divide--not that this will mean a lack of criticism (running both ways across that border). As for other New York Times coverage, we pointed our readers to a fine piece on by French in one of our wrap-ups of good reporting on current events: http://thechinabeat.blogspot.com/2008/05/mid-week-reader.html

Dan Harris said...

Nothing all that evil here, just the need to churn out daily copy.

Addie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

"In other words, constructing heavy industry (i.e. capital goods) across China in the past was a single man’s project – and resulted in anything from cancer and climate change to an eyesore of a skyline, but not in the industrial foundation for the production of consumer goods that propels China in world stature today. "

In fact, the heavy industry foundation of China had very little if anything to do with the boom in production of consumer goods. In fact, for many of the early years (1988-1995 or so), the focus on heavy industry really hampered the consumer product production side in China.

In those days, producing just about anything of decent quality required large inputs of IMPORTED raw materials and parts. They simply were not available and could not be produced in China; this situation continued for more than 10 years. I should also mention that the finished goods production facilities were completely unrelated to the heavy industry sites that were massively built up in the 1950-80 period.

You know, I have to say it...after nearly 20 years in China, I am still astounded at the very surface level of western reporters' understanding of the Chinese economy. From the Wall Street Journal to the Herald Tribune, it is consistently hyper-simplified if not completely wrong and misleading. Readers beware.

Richard Spencer said...

Actually, Fuller is dead wrong on all counts. This brief travel piece if you look closely challenges and does not reinforce commonly held views of pollution in Beijing.
The first view it challenges is that pollution in Beijing has been solely the result of China's post-1980 economic growth. In fact, the initial cause was, as Morrison says, the decision - which was, indeed, taken personally by Mao and in rejection of advice by people like Liang Sicheng - that Beijing would become an industrial as well as administrative city, as it had been previously. Mao said he wanted to look out from Tiananmen and see smoke stacks. This is well-recorded (see recent histories of Beijing by Michael Alldrich and Jasper Becker) but little remembered, particularly in the west. It had incalculable consequences - there were good reasons why Beijing was not previously a major industrial centre, and its climatic conditions are particularly favourable to the retention of pollution of all sorts.
(To Anonymous above: it is Fuller, not the original journalist, who links Mao's preference for heavy industry to China's consumer goods boom.)
The destruction of the city walls and gates - also Mao's personal decision - is also little remembered in the west, despite being so recent, and so it is surely worth reminding prospective visitors who might want to know a little of this important history.
The second view challenged is that Beijing's pollution is getting steadily worse - it has actually gone up, down and up since the 1980s, and as Morrison says, may be getting better this year.
The third "myth" is that the pollution which remains in Beijing is the result of China failing to impose its will on power stations, steel plants etc as far as the environment is concerned. Morrison focuses on dust - including Gobi dust. I do not know for sure if he is right but again it is a different tack from that most commonly followed.
Morrison is surely right to focus attention on Mao's personal contribution to what has happened to modern Beijing. Again this counters most less well-informed writing which concentrates on post-1980s development. While the rest of the country may indeed now be returning to a pre-Communist Chinese model, Mao's personal intervention laid the framework for the cultural and personal experience of the modern capital. He himself once wondered whether his power extended beyond the city limits: one can argue with that, but it would be unwise to underplay his power and influence within them, surely.
(and I'm a journalist too!)

Peter said...

I'm with Richard Spencer on this.

Believing is seeing. For those who look for "cheap China associations" and "clichés" they will find them in virtually all reporting on China. The question is what to do with such associations: Use them to discredit all China reporting for a Western readership, or question them, look for underlying meanings, and do it better?

If we discredit what is actually being said just because we perceive it as formulaic or cliche'd then we allowed our perceptions and subjective preferences to get in the way of gaining new knowledge. Fuller's post follows this formula to a T.

Old Tales Retold said...

Richard Spencer makes good points above. But I agree with the general thrust of the original post.

In particular, I think there is a tendency in the media to deal with China's pre-reform past in a very reductive manner.

Too many reporters treat Mao as a garden-variety tyrant, perhaps more destructive than some tyrants but with no other distinguishing characteristics. China up until 1976 is treated as if it was essentially the same as the Soviet Union.

Mao's anti-elitist, decentralized and big campaign-driven style of policy implementation is not delved into in any serious manner. And the consequences of these policies today---the people they empowered, the people they hurt---are therefore not portrayed in their full complexity.

Andy Field said...

I like what you guys are doing here. Bridging the gap between academia and journalism with regards to China reporting is important. On the other hand, Pierre Fuller's article strikes me as a case of "using a sledgehammer to swat a fly" as the Chinese saying goes. Journalism operates on a different logic and for a different audience to academia. Cliches, in the positive sense of a shared language and set of understandings, must be used on occasion to clarify points. Academics by contrast have a lot more time to write and a lot more space to express their ideas. But even academics are guilty of cliches. Think of all the cliched references to Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, or other modern Kabbalists you come across in the average academic paper.

Pierre Fuller said...

If blogging is fishing for reactions in the sea of cyberspace, then my last post brought up a furious catch. I’m more than happy to defer to readers with greater economic grounding than I (although I wonder how the exponential infrastructural gains of roads and rail in the post-revolution decades or energy generating capacities did not contribute considerably to the 1980s boom in production). Still, having myself started out briefly as a journalist in China, my aim was to point out the discursive effect of Morrison’s travel piece, not to challenge his findings. Morrison sets Mao against “everybody else,” as though the Chinese population were a kowtowing mass with no interest in or enthusiasm for any of his policies. For one such policy, consider Morrison’s example of the razing of the city walls by “Mao and his visionaries,” for which he offers no contextualization. Is such destruction peculiarly Maoist? Or is it part of a larger 1960s modernist bug that destroyed beautiful Penn Station in my hometown of New York, the colorful Les Halles central market in Paris, and other landmarks around the world? These examples are also related in another, more practical, way: they were connected to changes in the respective cities’ metro networks, and in the case of Beijing, the city’s first subway line, which was built where the city wall had once stood instead of displacing thousands of families. Would this fact not complicate Beijing history and Mao’s polluting legacy as drawn by Morrison? (And including such a fact in his travel piece would not have been overly academic to any of his readership heading to this summer’s Olympics.) In short, if we took events simply as moments of Mao’s madness, then China would have been nothing but a maniac’s playground, which, I still maintain, was the cliché served up by Morrison’s piece.

Andy Field said...

Pierre, I came back to this blog to check if my comment had been posted, and found your own rejoinder to the comments on your blog. Your follow-up remarks greatly substantiate and clarify your original post and perhaps should have been in there in the beginning. But then again, this points to the nature of blogging, which is more of an extended conversation than regular journalism, and maybe you could have only added these insights after receiving the feedback from your original post. Anyhow, keep up the good work!

As for Mao and the destruction of Beijing's city wall, the Helmsman was really continuing the logic of early twentieth century Chinese modernization schemes, which saw the old city walls as an impediment to modern urban development. The KMT had done the same in Canton in the early 20th century (see Michael Tsin's book _Nation, Governance, Modernity_). I'm not sure how many city walls built in the Ming period were razed prior to 1949, but I believe that the trend was already well under way before the PRC government began to model the new national capital on Soviet-style cities and displaced the wall with the second ring road. In fact, many of the PRC's modernization policies were drawn from earlier 20th century visions of China's modernity, including the Three Gorges Dam. But environmental degradation and erosion in China goes much further back in time, as Mark Elvin's magnum opus _The Retreat of the Elephants_ makes all too clear. So I agree, let's stop blaming China's environmental woes on Mao!