‘New Yorker’ Writers Reflect on ‘Extreme’ Reporting About China

ChinaFile Presents

While international reporting on China has improved by leaps and bounds since foreign journalists first started trickling into the country in the 1970s, major challenges remain in giving readers back home a balanced image. That was the message from a panel hosted by ChinaFile at Asia Society in New York on Thursday, where five current and former writers for The New Yorker took a critical look at media coverage on China.

ChinaFile Publisher and Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society Orville Schell, who went to China in the mid-1970s and later became a New Yorker correspondent, recounted what it was like reporting in Mao’s China. “I remember sitting in my room in the Beijing hotel … looking at the telephone and thinking, there’s literally no one to call,” he said. “One was really shut out [as a foreigner]. Nobody felt comfortable having an informal conversation with you.”

“I think in those days you pretty much had to resign yourself that the story was not to find out things through investigative reporting, through interviews,” Schell added. “The story was what China wanted to present itself as, what it wanted you to see, what the stagecraft was all about.”

In the 1980s, China began to open, and barriers between Chinese and outsiders broke down. But even though it’s now easy to move about in the country and speak with normal people, telling the story is still difficult. “The hardest problem with writing about China is figuring out what are the proportions of the portrait,” said Evan Osnos, a New Yorker correspondent based in China from 2005 to 2013. “Because any portrait has a certain composition of light and dark in China.” He noted that depending on where a reporter focuses their attention, he or she can find all sorts of uplifting stories signaling the country’s transformation and human development, while also finding plenty of dark stories of individuals caught up in the more concerning political atmosphere.

Zha Jianying, a New Yorker contributor and author of several books on China, said that stories in U.S. publications often focus on the darker aspects, and that over the past decade especially, there have been two distinct forms of “China-bashing.” “One line is this image of China as an ominous giant that’s been playing unfairly with us, stealing our jobs, and is going to crush us,” Zha said. “The other line is that it’s this paper tiger on the verge of imminent collapse… I think actually the reality is somewhere in between, and that’s where most Chinese I know sit.”

Jiayang Fan, an editorial staffer at The New Yorker, said China still too frequently appears as “the other” in popular media, and that exceptional phenomena are often over-generalized. “Whether it’s nationalists, or whether there’s a group of really rich Chinese, [it’s saying] ‘that’s so specifically Chinese,’ rather than contextualizing it in social and economic terms, and seeing that this is just an outgrowth that has cultural elements,” Fan said.

Fan, who was born and raised in China before immigrating to the United States as a young child, said that when she speaks to Chinese friends about political dissidents and what their significance is, she’s often met with defensiveness: “[They say], ‘Well that’s what you Westerners focus on. Your narrative is that they’re always heroes—that because they’re not part of the mainstream, they’re somehow better than us.’ And when I ask what concerns them, their idea of what’s relevant to their lives is often times so different than what I see in Western media.”

Peter Hessler, a New Yorker correspondent in China from 2000 to 2007 and bestselling author, recalled his time in the late 1990s teaching at a university in Sichuan province, where his students had developed warped perceptions of the U.S. by only hearing the “extreme” stories emanating from the country. “Either America is a place of constant crime or a place where everybody is rich,” he said. “When it did come time to writing about China, I became very conscious of not doing the same thing in the other direction.”

He opined that foreign media focusing on the extremes of China is similar to how American reporters focus on the extremes of their local beats while reporting domestically, because their role is to find things that are “messed up” and need to be fixed. “I think the problem is that that tradition is very deeply entrenched in American journalism,” he said. “Then foreign correspondents arrive in another country and they do the same kind of thing and they find the most extreme cases of things in China that need to be fixed or are egregious. But if there’s no context, I think it just kind of confuses Americans and it actually doesn’t end up fixing the problem anyway.”

He added, “I think the foreign reporter has to serve a very different function than a domestic reporter. Not everyone would agree with me—I was criticized a fair amount.”

Full-Length Video