While it’s not new (but new to me), here is an interesting talk on C-SPAN by Peter Hessler, best known as the author of River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze and Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China. Hessler does a great job of reminding us (even several years since this talk) that despite its massive amount of change, when you get outside of the first and second tier cities, China is still a whole different world.

Particularly interesting for people new to China or looking for some even-handed information on China is the Q&A period mid-way through the talk. If you don’t have much time (the whole video is nearly an hour), I suggest jumping over to the source page and checking out the chapter breakdown to cherry pick some of the more interesting questions.

The Summary from FORA.tv

Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present featuring Peter Hessler

Hessler discusses his book Oracle Bones, which compares modern day China to its past. The title is derived from an archaeological site in China where the earliest form of writing was found inscribed on shells and bones. During this discussion, Mr. Hessler reads letters from young Chinese students who migrated from the countryside to the rapidly growing cities.

Peter Hessler is Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker. He also writes for National Geographic. His earlier book on being a Peace Corps volunteer in China is called “River Town.”

H/T to FORA.tv and Adam Daniel Mezei.


  1. Pingback: The Happy Laowai : WaZup! Asia

  2. Hessler is quite possibly a nice enough guy — we actually corresponded once (by email), very briefly, back in 2006/06, when he sent some original copy to the magazine I was at the time editing. He was accommodating, sincere, and I presume understanding when the local government (at the 11th hour) demanded I pull the piece. But here are my problems with Hessler.

    Let me say that, in fact, none of my issues have anything to do with his writing qua writing. He has matured as a wordsmith, and Oracle Bones is very well-crafted. It’s rather how he got into the China-writing game that bothers me — and if you care about good China-writing it should bother you too.

    So far as I can tell, Hessler’s stint in the Peace Corps (which got him to Fuling) seems to have been calculated to get him on the fast-track to publishing — he’s shared with readers enough about personal life, background, and his time at the feet of John McPhee to warrant that inference. Not that there’s anything wrong with that per se; its just that, when someone sets out to discover a place or a people with a specific view to writing about it or them, they tend to see things in editorial terms — how to describe this, how to explain that, etc.

    I know this from my personal experience as a travel and feature writer. When my team and I descended upon, say, some village in Lishui (Zhejiang Province) with the publisher’s brief to bring back photos and stories about where to go and what to see and what to eat (etc), we hit the ground focused on that task. We taste the food knowing that every mouthful is a rough draft; we tune-in to the sounds of our assigned locale with a journalist’s ear, and scan the horizon with a photographer’s eye. That’s a casualty of writing for a living, and it is tricky to get around.
    One can’t fault Hessler too much for sins endemic to the profession.

    Its just that, the younger Hessler of River Town landed in China not merely the innocent abroad who turned to writing, but a MSWord mercenary, knowing rather clearly that this country and her people were grist for his future mill. (If you’ve done a lot of traveling and writing, you can smell this kind of thing.) What’s more, his observations suggest strongly that he has never really engaged China, so much as siphoned just enough color, tone, and pedestrian insight to satisfy his readers’ hankering for dirt on ‘the real China’. Little wonder his editors/publishers adore him. Like his mentor McPhee, Hessler is safe, formulaic, witty, and after a while totally predictable — the Garrison Keillor of the Far East.

    Hessler’s China might be fascinating for those who don’t know the place or people, but for those who do, the content of his admittedly well-written essays and books is trite and aenemic. It is a pity that he is feted as a kind China expert. He is not. He’s a long-term tourist with a laptop and expense account from America’s intellectual-Lite clearinghouses for NPR-style voyeurism.

    This might sound harsh, and needlessly ad hominem; but, you need to read Hessler carefully, and pause now and then to think about the man telling you the story. In Fuling, he comes down awfully hard (shamefully so, in fact) on the young girl he assumes is a prostitute — pity, because he would have learned a lot more about Fuling and about China if he didn’t brush her off with brahminic disgust. He also took part in a local road-race (read: by the locals, for the locals) that he surely knew he was likely to win (not a very friendly gesture from out Peace Corps ambassador), and – at his school’s banquet – got drunk and ran around shooting plastic pellets at his lao’wai fellow teacher. (Oxford graduate? Is that right?) These behaviours say loads about the man; and if it is ‘ad hominem’ to evaluate a foreign correspondent partially in terms of his actions, so be it. I do not see how someone who gets squeamish at the thought of chatting with a hooker (if hooker/’sanpei’ she was) can be a very good journalist, in a country where business and government involve copious amounts of Chivas, cigarettes, and ass.

    The older, wiser Hessler of Oracle Bones again gets fidgety in the presence of sexual vice, this time in a bar/ktv joint (I forget which) in Beijing — there’s that good Catholic upbringing again, being judgmental and a-prioristic. He complains when Chinese law enforcement personnel demand to see his passport (etc) when Hessler pitches a tent on/near the Great Wall, as if it is old-school Red thuggery for the Chinese constabulary to require a foreigner to obey the law. Most puzzling perhaps is when Hessler very bizarrely devotes a few paragraphs to tell the reader about his attempts to persuade his former student to feed a live baby duck to an alligator/crocodile in a Shenzhen zoo. (Shrinks from contact with prostitutes; awkward and self-conscious at a KTV; wants desperately to see a large reptile eat a duckling. Hmm. You connect the dots).

    Throughout the book plays fast and lose with (eg) prices/wages (now in $USD, now in RMB, depending on whether he wants something to seem expensive or insanely cheap), and in general packages a vision of China that is not too offensive to his Chinese hosts/friends/et al. but which hits enough of the right points to ensure that Chinwatchers will love it — love it like crocs love fresh young poultry.

    Hessler is to China-writing what Sue Williams is to China-filmmaking: Better than a hamfisted hack, for sure, but no more than another bright middle class yahoo hopelessly compromised by his prejudices, weak-kneed, and and soft around the middle — no doubt the latter condition coming from being suckled so long on the teat of The New Yorker. It’s not his fault that he was born with a silver spoon up his arse, and I don’t begrudge him his good fortune.

    Well, actually, I do. He enjoys his commercial success because his academic pedigree and connections – and not his talent as an observer – opened doors for him.

    Read his books, because they are not terrible. But read them on library loan. Let someone else subsidize undeserving mediocrity.

      • Mr Bryant is, perhaps, Mr Hessler’s agent?

        I regret that I do not understand the comment about being subsidized, however, and I will be grateful for you pointing out where I am hypocritical. I have written nothing about Mr Hessler that is not – at very least – an arguable observation.

        If Mr Bryant thinks I am being unkind to Mr Hessler, perhaps he should consider the following. In a recent interview in The World of Chinese magazine (2010, Vol.1: Beijing), Hessler mentions picking up hitchhikers during his drive across parts of China’s outback. He says,

        “Often we [and the hitchhikers] would chat for maybe ten minutes, and then they would say, ‘You’re not Chinese, are you? Are you Mongolian? Are you a Hui? A Muslim?’ In China, people always know that I’m a foreigner, immediately. But because I was driving, something about it was a little different. For some reason it made me belong a little more”.

        But that’s nonsense — and if Hessler was half as bright as he is credited with being, he would have known that the something “a little different” was(a) he was driving and (b) he was speaking (no doubt very good) Chinese. Period. He didn’t (doesn’t) “belong” any more or any less because he was driving; rather, his presence at the helm and his command of Mandarin caused the Chinese hitchhikers some serious acute cognitive dissonance.

        Why? Because in the long list of things that foreigners don’t/can’t/aren’t supposed to do (speak a Chinese language; use chopsticks; eat pi’dan; wear bu’xie, etc.) you’ll find “driving/having a valid Chinese license”. Hessler wasn’t more accepted. He was perceptually confusing.

        I’ve been road legal since 2002, and have owned/operated both motorcycles and a jeep. Like Hessler, I have dark hair — black, in my case. Non-blonde, language capable, and driving an old Fuqi 4×4 — it was not what the average Chinese expects of a foreigner; and therefore when I met people while riding/driving, they had a difficult time “seeing” a foreigner. It wasn’t intimacy, bonding, overcoming the usual barriers that divide lao’nei and lao’wai, etc — nothing nearly as sublime and PBS as that. It is rather like like when you think you’re drinking orange juice when it is in fact grapefruit juice: you continue taste/experience ‘orange’ until the sensory input overpowers expectations. It’s that simple.

        Mr Hessler deserves full credit for his hard work – we don’t see my books on Amazon, do we? – but let’s not overstate his talent. Any one of the long-term expats I know would be capable of writing an informed and engaging book or two about China and her people, and the only two things that distinguish Mr Hessler from half the Americans I know in China is (a) his guts, confidence, and discipline to keep putting pen to paper, and (b) his very supportive network of liberal media assets. I have never denied that I envy both his success and his drive, or that I read his books; but the fact remains, that Mr Hessler is successful in spite of his talent, not because of it. The (fashionable) acquisition of a Chinese wife won’t hurt — although it seems to have done nothing for Mr J Pomfret.

        Mr Bryant — you, sir, are the asshole. Screaming asshole.

  3. So Mr Cameron’s problem with Hessler is…he (Cameron) knows China better than Hessler/Perry Link/anyone alive, and Hessler’s a johnny-come-lately who’s stolen the success as a China-hand Cameron believes should be his, as shown by Cameron’s tortuous, over-worked prose and worryingly voluminous posts.

    No one’s paying you for these things, or are they? But I believe it’s 5 cents per post, not word. Re-read your contract and maybe give your fingers (and over-heated brain) a break next time. Peter Hessler sleeps well at night regardless.

    • That’s *brilliant*. Cheers.

      Forgive me for not understanding why some people seem to get so agitated by my comments — I trust the reference to Perry Link is on account of:


      Whatever. My comments are *not* consistently well-written, and are often riddled with typos, grammatical errors, and a host of infelicities that reveal my second-rate primary education, working-class background, and general lack of intelligence. It is undeniably true, too, that most of what I have written/posted/published about China reads as if I have *one* (terrifically unpopular) idea only ; and you might as well suggest that *I* can sleep nights only if I have an on-line tantrum somewhere — I’ll grant you that it probably seems that way. Not everything I write is like this, however; FYI:


      [‘Hannibal Souza’ is a name I publish some prose [etc.] under.]

      But for what it is worth – and I’m writing, now, to *anyone* who might be following this discussion – your sensitivity (like the previous commentator on this thread, and like Mr Eagles [supra]) about my criticism of “China-experts” (scare-quotes not needed for Professor Link) and my open-mind about the CCP is,… well, not a credit to you, really. In fact, there is something sad and suck-uppy about you, and I hope neither of you are American citizens with degrees from accredited institutions of higher learning. (If you are: Shame on your professors.)

      I have *never* denied – and never would deny – that I envy Mr Hessler’s success, or, that I wish I had his drive, discipline, and support-structure to write something worth editing and maybe even worthy of being published. (Why do I think I have said this already — perhaps many times?)

      What I find objectionable about Hessler’s work (that bit with which I am familiar) is that it seems (a) very naive and not particularly insightful, and (b) strategically crafted to strike the right chord with the publisher’s targeted readership — a demographic swollen with Volvo-driving, Chardonnay-sipping, soccer-mom lefty pinheads. Hessler reads as if he is a patient, observant insider, feeling his way around China for our benefit — a semi-scholarly innocent abroad; but if one knows China well enough, his quality is gappy, and the genius of his books is an artefact of editing and marketing. Anyone who disagrees with this very likely doesn’t know much about China — and *that* is not a comment on whether Hessler’s books are, in the main, *enjoyable* to read, which I think they are.

      ((For the record: I have elsewhere praised “China Road”, works by Jonathan Spence, and the work of Reischauer & Fairbank; I am a bit Terrel fan. I had my reservations about Hanes’/Sanello’s “The Opium War”, and Owens’ introduction to the Norton volume of Chinese literature; and while I loved the Kristof/WuDunn “China Wakes”, it reeks of their shared biases, and I preferred “Red China Blues” to the sanctimonious rant of Mr Kristoff. I’m not some venal, half-wit prick who hates anyone who has written about China.))

      “Understanding the Chinese”, and informing people about China and the peoples of China — this is a high-stakes game, guys, and I take it seriously. You should too.

      I lecture to undergrads at an insignificant but pretty state university in New England. We have an Asian Studies concentration/program, and this summer a group of our students traveled to China for language study and the whole cultural experience. The trip was chaperoned by a lovely man from the English Department who doesn’t speak a work of any China-language, who knows f**k-all about China, and whose advanced-briefing consisted of having the kiddies watch some Zhang Yimo films and read some contemporary Chinese literature.

      If this doesn’t sound to you like a very less-than-ideal arrangement, then perhaps I do need some form of therapy; but to me, this seemed a great way to ensure that our students get to China and confirm immediately what they’ve picked-up in their Chinese history and literature-in-translation classes; viz: that the Chinese are a poor but hardworking spiritually in-tune people, big lovers of harmony, screwed six ways from Sunday by a government of superbeings who *look* Chinese but actually are not, and who are hell-bent on truncating the social, personal, and political development and flourishing of the masses. I’m sure a few fun nights in the “everything-for-10rmb” bars will confirm prove to our undergrads that China rocks and the Party are cocks (BOO’yah!). Perhaps if Western expats spent less time in the clubs, bars, pinklights, and a tad bit more time getting to know Party members they would have a slightly more balanced view — and *that* is all I’m bitching about. (Hint: Befriend a Party member; he’ll use the People’s money to pick up the tab at the KTV and sauna — “win win!”)

      An hour or so up the road from our leafy campus, at Harvard, a recent fellow of the Fairbank Center is resting on the laurels garnered by completion of his masterful study of the Chinese media industry. He was a poli-sci major as an undergrad (from Columbia, if memory serves), and so far as i could tell spent very little time in China *or* getting to know actual living breathing mainland media people. These fact will not however interfere with his masterpiece becoming the gold-standard in the field. (It’s from Harvard, you see.)

      And so on. So, no, gentlemen — I am not posturing as, and never have claimed to be, among the most China-knowledgeable persons walking the Earth today, or anything like that. What I am hoping to do is encourage sheep like yourself to think more critically, more objectively, and in general be less susceptible to the tyranny of groupthink. *That* is the irony in all this, you see: The best propaganda is that which flows forth from a source that we trust so implicitly and regard so highly that we no longer think to question it.

      Call a spade a spade, mate: Hessler (“River Town”) was hard on that hooker (if she was a hooker), and he was a dickhead for running in that roadrace, and a twat for getting bent out of shape when the PSB busted him for camping on/near the Wall, and a weirdo for wanted to feed the duck to the gator (“Oracle Bones”). I have no complaint with Professor Link; but one hardly does justice to his work by deferring to him or prostrating oneself before him — or before any expert, in any domain.

      I don’t know whether you live, or have lived in China, and if so for how long. The expats i know (in Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Ningbo) are pretty much in agreement that unless one *lives* in China for at least three years and has (minimally!) conversational-command of Mandarin (at least), then one is virtually incapable of really getting a handle on the people of one’s town, city, or community. I will probably be panning this book by-and-by(http://www.danwei.org/china_books/lisa_brackmanns_rock_paper_tig.php), on the grounds that (a) the author seems not to have spent enough time in China to get more than visa or two in her passport and a sensory buzz from the people, and (b) the formula “woman author + contemporary China + ‘tiger’ or ‘dragon’ in the title” = B&N Pick-of-the-Month, irrespective of whether how she portrays China is accurate or not. (Heck: The book might even end up being part of the required reading list for a group of American students traveling to China on a study-tour — that is, if it is chosen by someone who, say, visited China even less than she did.)

      Popular opinion about a people and a country filters into the reservoir of politics, and hence into realpolitik and diplomacy — that’s why getting it right matters. I am sure that Professor Link would not disagree.

      Most Americans seem misinformed about T***t, and this impacts upon the US-Sino relationship. (I shook hands with the DL when he appeared at Middlebury College in VT, sometime in 1989, I think. Seems like a nice guy; that doesn’t mean he *might not be* a troublemaker. Why does the logic seem always to be: “Beijing says X; therefore X is probably not true; the NYTimes and left-leaning academics say Y (~X) is true; therefore it probably is”? That’s a handy heuristic that probably works most of the time; but that is precisely what makes it dangerous — because that other 20% could be the remainder that matters most.)

      Yes, I work in the propaganda industry, and so I know better than most that it is very easy to write copy and edit footage to makes China seem whatever the author and director wants it to seem like — I know, because this is part of what I am paid to do. If you’re a Chinese language user, compare the actual words of the interviewees with the subtitles in Sue William’s 2008 poppy/melancholy documentary “Young and Restless in China”. See also her interview with Charlie Rose — it is crystal clear, from the first 2 minutes of the interview, that she *enjoys” posturing as a thorn in the side of Beijing. Self-righteousness is always dangerous, whatever the cause — why is someone an asshole for pointing out that (e,g,) Ms Williams’ beautifully-edited film is *very* misleading and *highly* crafted so as to ensure Ms Williams’ perspective? How does her slick, nicely-soundtracked packaging of China’s sad stories differ from other forms of propaganda?

      Here’s another one you can check: The AP ran a story (2006? 2007?) about a riot with “several injured” in Xiaoshan (from wire reports filed by some human rights group based in Hong Kong, concerning an illegally-built place of worship that “the government” was tearing down). One of my friends is an earnest and committed Xtian, and as her mother lives in Xiaoshan she is out there part of most weekends (which is when the events are said to have happened.) So, I checked it out — checked with her, and since at the time I lived 20 minutes from there and was driving an old, beat-up tank of a BJ-Jeep, drove out to Xiaoshan myself. Guess what? It didn’t go down as reported; not even close. (Since it was a church, and since spooky authoritarian regimes do things like that, everyone assumed that it was another classic example of PSB thuggery. Thing is, the event took place just before the opening of the World Leisure Expo — the grounds for which was in Xiaoshan. In other words: this was in all likelihood tactical misinformation, intended [inter alia] to leave egg on the face of Beijing.)

      Last example, then a summary, and then I’m going to bed.

      I was in Wenzhou on business sometime in 2006, and with my own eyes
      I saw a crowd of worker-types gathering at the main gate of the government building I was then in (in Rui’an, I think). I was in the lobby chain-smoking a softpack of Chunghwa’s some low-level cadre tossed me, and I had a perfect view of what was going on. The mob grew to as many as 50 people, who launched themselves like a colonial invertebrate at a black sedan attempting to drive into the gated complex. Things heated up a bit, and push came to shove between the guards and the crowd. Eventually the crowd – shouting, but no more than shouting – shuffled off.

      What was it about? I don’t know. It wasn’t any of my business. I’m not a Chinese national, I’m not from Wenzhou, I’m not on the Reuters payroll, and whatever it was it wasn’t any concern of mine. To assume that I *ought* to have taken photos, investigated, etc., would be one hell of an assumption, requiring rather a lot of justification.

      Did I take photos with the camera I had around my neck? No, because I was at the time the editor of a state-sponsored magazine, and was a guest in Wenzhou, and thought I was lucky to be left unattended in the lobby to work patiently on my COPD and emphysema. My camera was not confiscated by the guards inside the building, nor was it checked to make sure I didn’t pop-off a round or two.

      Because I behave like a good neighbor – meaning: don’t insert myself to things that were none of my concern, do not trespass the boundaries of a good resident-alien, etc. – I maintained my access to a number of minor-league (little league is more accurate) government officials; and over the course of a few years met and chatted with a few provincial leaders of industry. Feeling comfortable with me, they often times let their hair down a bit, spoke their mind, and fielded sometimes challenging questions. I don’t prostitute the answers to The New York Times, because of the voluntary assumption of an amicable fiduciary relationship between myself and Officialdom.

      This afforded me the chance to discover for myself that demonizing “The Party” (rather than individual cadres), and forcing an unsustainable distinction between “the Chinese” and “the Chinese government”, completely and utterly f***s-up the perspective of what is really going on over there. I have learned, too, that nearly all security personnel are former soldiers, and are often from the poorest of the poor regions of the Chinese outback; that they do not understand the topolects of the locals any more than the locals understand the strained Mandarin of the guards; and that when pushing starts between “peasants”, migrant workers, etc., and security personnel, there is generally a lot of mixed and complicated emotions involved, not in the least because of communication problems, *and* the fact that the two groups are often from the same class/socio-economic cohort. “Police battle with protesters” hardly does justice to what’s really going on in such cases. What, then, about the role of the professional foreign correspondent or photographer who sells copy or photos to major news services, knowing full well that – back in Peoria, or Manhattan, or San Francisco – American readers are going to assume that the security forces are soulless government automatons and the “peasants” poor oppressed wretches? There’s no avoiding the question, but, how exactly is that fair and balanced reporting when the very value of the copy is determined by how well it conforms to reader expectations? These are legitimate ethical questions.

      Distortions like the kinds I mention above are dangerous, for reasons I will in due course address with the patience – and I hope: clarity and intelligence – the subject deserves. For now, I simply would like to retract my profanity and tit-for-tat name-calling, and recommend that you try *really* to take a slightly more enlightened and much more mature view of things.

      I don’t think either Mr Hessler or Professor Link are much bothered by my comments (although perhaps Mr Hessler should be), and I am amused that, to date, two, possibly three people have rushed to their defense. They aren’t paying you either, I gather, and I neither know or care how Mr Hessler sleeps at night. (He is a fellow American, and I therefore hope he is sleeping safe and sound and well.)

      And *that*, lrhd, is tortuous, over-worked prose and a worryingly voluminous post. It’s yours for free — which is good for you, because when I *do* freelance, I’m payed by the 1/2-hour, and its a pretty good rate.

      PS If you *genuinely* care about this issue, and the details/implications of it, by all means, write me: ztvlaoli@gmail.com — I have extended the offer to Professor Link’s catamite, too. I have always welcomed correspondence, and opportunities to benefit from criticism and correction.


      • Jack — I suppose you recall my response, several weeks ago, to your comment on Professor Link’s article at NY Review of Books, which you mention above. I was browsing some China blogs this evening and stumbled across this page. I’m the one you refer to here as “Professor Link’s catamite.”

        I did not know what “catamite” meant, so I looked it up: “a boy kept for homosexual purposes.” That’s a pretty insulting thing to say (not to mention absurd). It strikes me as the pompous, 10-dollar version of the 5-cent epithet “faggot.” I suspect your colleagues at Bridgewater State wouldn’t look upon your use of that word too favorably.

        Nevertheless, you’re obviously a smart guy, and you have some interesting ideas. I happen to agree with many of them — things you wrote in response to my comment at nybooks.com, and things you have written here. I differ with you on aspects of your opinion of Hessler, but I’ll save that for another time, perhaps.

        For now, my observation is that unfortunately, your good ideas seem often to be obscured behind a haze of nasty personal criticism that, for whatever reason, goes beyond mere disagreement.

        I came across this page and now see that you suggest I am an idiot (“I hope neither of you are American citizens with degrees from accredited institutions of higher learning”) and call people like me “sad and suck-uppy” for defending Professor Link or other China experts — as if, in doing so, we could not possibly have been employing any critical thinking of our own. Not only that, but you slander me (and Professor Link) by referring to me as a “catamite.” Call it a joke if you want to; make the excuse again that you stayed up too late and didn’t mean it; whatever — but it’s part of a clear pattern of rudeness that makes it ironic, even ridiculous, for you to invite correspondence from people who “genuinely care about this issue.”

        There is enough needlessly rude commentary on the Internet already. I feel sure that more people, including myself, would have greater interest in what you have to say and in sincerely engaging with you if you didn’t come off as such a jerk.

      • Dan —

        Hi. Aye, I think I do recall your name. Hope this find you well. Your comment here is dated 12 October — it has been a while since I’ve chimed-in on this or other related threads, and I’m surprised to see this one here. (Automatic e-mail notification alerted me that there’s been activity here.)

        Let me get this part out of the way: I wouldn’t have intended ‘catamite’ as a ten-dollar word for “faggot”. That’s not cool, and although I have a very bad habit of writing first and thinking second (and proofreading: never), that’s not my style. ‘Catamite’ as ‘cup-bearer’, and all the baggage that comes with that. (“Sex-boy”? No. That would have been just plain… weird.)

        Thank you for allowing that I often/always/generally “come off as a jerk” — it was gentlemanly and gracious of you to distinguish between my being a jerk as opposed to seeming like one only. (Grazzie.) I will try (and have indeed been making an effort) not to seem sniping and petty and mean-spirited when attempting to engage in debate or discussion —– and you are right: being sleepy or punchy or melancholy is no excuse. (In partial defense, the context – here- is interlocutors who, if believe, referred to me as a sniveling asshole; and that rather set the tone.)

        I would like to know where we are, or may be, in agreement — I am forever on the lookout for falsification rather than confirmation of my views. Sincerely. My email is here, somewhere — I would no doubt benefit from correspondence with you.

        Jack Cameron

  4. Dear Jack,

    Could you kindly advise which pieces of your journalism you are most proud of? Have you done any investigative journalism, or is it mostly shiney-happy feel good pieces about water skiing dachshunds?

    • Dear Mr Cordon,

      A great question. And the answer is: none. Zero. It has all been exactly the sort of thing that The Ministry of Feelgood loves, or at least can stomach.

      Because that’s what I’m paid to do. That’s why I’m issued a visa. That’s why I am allowed to live in the country (when I’m there — I’m in the US now, as noted above).

      If the day came that I was on the Reuters or AP payroll, then, the question would be: What kind of reporting (about China) would be balanced, fair, and not likely to feed the presuppositions of a readership that doesn’t really get China? It is not difficult to knock-out articles based on reports that “could not be confirmed by the local authorities” (because: “the chief of the local constabulary did not return our telephone calls”, etc.) I discuss this in greater length in “Take A Proper Gander”, also published in Ningbo Guide magazine (2009, I think).

      My position on the matter is simple — and always open to revision and re-think, which I why I invite critics to engage me. That position is as follows:

      1. CCP members – the low- and high-ranking alike – are Chinese nationals, and “ethnic Chinese” — and let’s grant in arguendo that there is some supra-Han category we can designate as “ethnic Chinese” (although this is not really the case). These are citizens of the sovereign state The P R of C, who – though perhaps nudged into signing-up – have decided to be with the in-grouop rather than the out-group. It was very likely (it usually is) a practical, tactical decision, based more on strategy than ideology.

      2. The bifurcation – “the Chinese” vs “the government” consistently fails to preserve the fact that “the government” is made of real, breathing, breeding, eating, shitting Chinese citizens. Demonizing the latter is therefore necessarily demonizing a subset of the former.

      3. Criticizing and condemning all cadres, and the Party, does not serve anyone’s interests —- except those in academia and the media who require a non-moving target – a bogeyman in dayglow colors. Many party members do indeed use and attempt to leverage their positions, power, and access to these in efforts to push things in the right direction. Slamming the Party wholesale only frustrates Chinese nationals working and attempting to work within the existing structure, and leads to fanning the flames of ethno-nationalism. (Because: The real living, breathing, breeding, eating, shitting Chinese who are also CCP members will most likely live and die in China, and therefore have the kind of material stake in national affairs that alien-residents, visitors, and remote Chinawatchers do not have.)

      What bothers me about my job (i.e., being on the media payroll) is the way that lao’wai are framed, managed, and used as walk-on parts in the national tragecomedy. If you’ve followed domestic media, you will not have failed to notice how foreign nationals are used on television and low-budget teleplays, and how we’re discussed and written about. When we speak Chinese, we’re talking dogs — curiosities who prove how irresistible and compelling Chinese culture is.

      I needn’t say more – you either get the idea, or not – and, aye, I play and have played into that for years. And I hate it. And I try my best to use my position to change that.

      Now, here’s the rub: First, that’s not the Party making lao’wai out to be some tolerated-only weird alien species (cf the lostlaowai.com article about Han Han); that’s the good old lao’bai’xin. (State media responds to national prejudices about lao’wai; it might feed them, but it hasn’t created them). I stick with the game, because I’m hoping bit by bit – from the inside – to help change the way resident aliens in China are regarded and portrayed.

      How so? I insist that foreigners mentioned in new/feature copy are designated by their full name (rather than just their first name), that subtitles designate their nationality (rather than just read “lao’wai”). I have refused to rope-in a gaggle of white teachers to appear in a photo-shoot or on-stage at some live gala, and stuff like this.

      I’m not having much luck, in part because new-arrivals to China think it’s fun to be celebrity-for-a-day, and don’t realize that they are incrementally worsening things — viz., they’re helping not only to perpetuate stereotypes, but to show that a good doggie will do tricks for a biscuit. Or box of moon cakes. (Ironically: These are the same white folk who will blog about how terrible the Party propaganda machine is. Do you see my point?)

      Working within the existing structure, and moving slowly, is the only proven means of getting things done in the PRC. Shock-tactics tend not to work well, and then it is a foreigner or foreign-entity behind the stunt, the result is usually (a) a clampdown on foreigners/foreigner mobility within China, and/or media, and (b) nationalistic backlash.

      Tell me where I’ve got it wrong.


  5. Obviously there is nothing wrong with water-skiing dachshunds, as long as everyone understands it’s entertainment and not journalism.

    I’m just curious, how was your TV show evaluated for audience appeal? Are there some sort of Nielson ratings?

    Also, given your experience, what’s the best method of bringing social issues to the attention of the authorities? Since there is no democratic process, it seems like a waste of time to publish muckraking journalism.

  6. Pingback: Welcome back ! Take a detour with me to South Africa before heading off to China | Comunicazione interculturale d'Impresa

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