Foreign media on China
Posted by Alice Xin Liu on Monday, March 23, 2009 at 2:40 PM
Richard Spencer is now in Dubai. He was The Daily Telegraph's China bureau chief and principal reporter for the past six years. As one of the first foreign correspondents to start blogging, Spencer's insights into daily reporting in China as well as news that doesn't make the cut are worth a read, offering a collection of interesting, informative snippets.
With the British sense of humor intact, and showing little sentimentality for his departure, Spencer talks about all the major issues that he reported on in the last year or more, including his feelings about being the first Western journalist to reach Yingxiu and historical and cultural understanding between China and the West.
You recently wrote about the looted Christies bronze heads, and speculated on who actually looted them in the first place. Do you think that without its history China will lose the basis for most of their arguments?
The view of history with which I grew up was that it had to be questioned and argued over. Even when I was young – not so very long ago – there was a tendency to see British history as nothing but a march towards civilization and progress, and this is of course seen in a very different light now. China, or the Chinese government, has a different view, in which historical understanding is subordinate to the overall propaganda aims of the Communist Party. If the Party changed its view of history, in the same way as if it changed its view of journalism, that would change everything. But I don’t think that would necessarily destroy the argument that China was, for example, badly treated by Britain in the 19th Century – it would just set such arguments in a different narrative. It fact it might strengthen the Chinese case, since one problem some Chinese have in defending their arguments is that they are suddenly presented with counter-arguments and even indisputable historical facts which they haven’t really encountered before, which obviously undermines their cause.
The shoe-throwing incident in Cambridge this year － do you think that Chinese-British relations will really be damaged?
Not in itself. The British side pretty much groveled their apologies – the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University made a special visit to the Chinese embassy to hand over a letter of regret. But it does underline a growing problem, namely the differences in attitude to politicians between China and the West. A lot of Chinese – at least, if you believe the web, which you shouldn’t always – seem to regard protests like these as part of the decadence of the West (Chinese protest but in a very different and more respectful way). Westerners read comments by Chinese saying they were so upset by the shoe-throwing that they wanted to cry and think that’s a bit pathetic and a sign that they can’t stand up to their own government. Both responses are exaggerated but it’s a growing culture clash.
You were the first Western journalist to get into Yingxiu after the May 12 earthquake last year － what was that like and did you feel the burden of exclusivity?
I felt the burden to get an exclusive! Actually Emma Graham-Harrison of Reuters turned up on foot not long after I did, but luckily I had been able to borrow a satellite phone to get a story back already. I was also told a couple of weeks later that a German journalist had been there before me and gone already – but I never found his article so I don’t know if that’s the case. Maybe the dateline claim was rash and a bit boastful. However I was on something of a high – I had managed to muscle my way on to a PLA motor boat heading upriver from Dujiangyan with a couple of guys from Shenzhen TV and then walk for a couple of hours. Taking a PLA boat was not something I would ever expected to have been allowed to do a year or two before.
The actual scene was pretty startling, and some sights – such as the collapsed primary school – were very upsetting.
At the time you wrote on your blog that it was too early to predict what effect the earthquake might have on Chinese society. Do you have a clearer picture now?
It was obviously a terrible disaster, but the upside was that there was an upsurge in goodwill towards China from abroad. That’s a good thing for two particular reasons. Firstly, China and its people deserve more goodwill than they get, since both tend to get tarred with the brush of their government’s poor image, which is unfair to them. I think people abroad were genuinely and rightly impressed by the speed and humanity of the response by the volunteers, health services and army. As a result I felt that a lot of Chinese people felt better about themselves too, if that’s not a patronising thing to say. One thing I hope my successor correspondents don’t have to deal with as often as I did, particularly in my earlier days here, is people asking me in all sincerity, “Do you really look down on us Chinese?”
Secondly, that goodwill made it harder for China to see criticism of its politics from abroad as motivated by some instinctive hostility to China or even racism.
I think those two will definitely last. The third great development – the sudden openness – may or may not last. But it certainly seems to have raised expectations of greater openness.
You're a well-known blogger, writing about Uighurs in Guantanamo Bay, noting down funny anecdotes inspired by China's news. Do you think blogging platforms should be used to express opinions, humor and things which you can't do in print?
Blogging covers a multitude of sins, even on one platform like the Telegraph’s blogsite. Some reporters use it to give quick updates, or progress reports on some event they are covering. Others use it for instant opinion. I used mine to try and explain a bit about how foreign journalists operate in China and why we report the way we do – something which existing blogs in China suggested was not very well understood – and also to show off a few of my own views and attitudes, which don’t fit in a news story. But I have to say that wasn’t really a plan, it was just how it turned out. In part I reacted to what commenters seemed to be interested in. I originally wanted to write lots about food, which I love, but it seemed people thought that a bit boring. Understandably.
As for the funny anecdotes, well that’s just because I have always found being a journalist to be a very funny way of making a living, but you have to button yourself up when you write a lot of the time. So a blog is a great outlet when you find an 85-year-old up a hillside in Yunnan who says he still has to do everything his mother tells him, or the like.
You have written a lot about investment lately － especially for the Sunday Telegraph, like your story on China's purchase of Western oil companies. What do you think will be the impact of all these Chinese investment and takeovers in the future?
(Actually Alice － that was for the Daily Telegraph, it appeared online on the Sunday evening but in the Daily the next morning. End of quibble).
That’s the million dollar question. China’s trying to avoid the fate of Japan which spent a lot of foreign exchange buying showpiece companies abroad in the 80s, many of which then crashed. So it’s buying many more smaller, strategic stakes in companies and sectors like energy and resources round the world. On the face of it that’s a much more sensible approach and gives it the chance to build up long-term relationships and use them as a launch-pad for greater control later. But of course there’s a danger with the downturn that they will have the same problem in a different way – small stakes of declining value in which their stakes aren’t big enough to give them influence. It’s a tough one for them. But one thing is for sure – the forex reserves are the national pension plan.
Where are you going now?
I’m in the process of moving to Dubai to set up a bureau covering the Gulf for both Daily and Sunday Telegraphs. I’ve done six years in China so sad though I am to leave it’s time to try something new.
We are one of the few papers opening foreign bureaus rather than closing them at the moment – as you know, we opened a bureau in Shanghai with Malcolm Moore last summer. One focus is obviously business and economics (in both places): the financial crisis has shown the interest around the world and particularly online in this. But I’ll also be covering the wider Middle East, in conjunction with our correspondent in Jerusalem.
Will we be seeing Malcolm Moore reporting from Shanghai, for The Telegraph in China?
My replacement in Beijing, Peter Foster, is now on base and has already started both reporting and blogging. He was our New Delhi correspondent until last year, and he and I were the first Telegraph bloggers – he had a big following in India, so he is just carrying on where he left off.
Ah, here's Malcolm talking to me over Twitter: he wants to ask you about your funniest story on the road in China.
Funniest story. Hmm, will have to think about that.
My funniest day was visiting Xihai, in Qinghai province, where China’s first atom bomb was built. It was a perfect example of what reporting in China was like when I first arrived. First of all I was told the city (which used to be secret and was not on the maps) was still absolutely closed to foreigners. But everyone was very friendly and when I didn’t go away showed me round anyway on the grounds that it would be rude to do otherwise since I had made all that effort to get there. Then, while constantly telling me how sensitive everything was, my guides proceeded to tell me all these amazing stories about how people were blown up while mixing uranium in buckets (OK, that shouldn’t be funny, but there was something in the way they said it… “So they stirred it like so, and later all they found was one finger,” I was told at one point.) and how the nuclear waste was all “buried under that hill where the Tibetan yak herd is – they tell us it’s all very safe”. Then a local doctor told us how no-one had known what the “secret factory” was making – most people thought it was a giant car that was going to be bigger than any car made in America.
Your writings about Tibet last year were partly about media bias. Do you think going elsewhere will give you a fresher perspective on the situation?
I’m not sure, as a foreigner, where you are makes much of a difference to your perspective on Tibet, unless you are lucky enough to spend a lot of time in the place itself. But I think perspectives will change generally, and maybe quite fast in the next few years.
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