Ever since the Amercian press corps wandered into dusty Yanan in the rumpled personage of a 30-year old named Edgar Snow in 1935, it seems that Western views of the Chinese Communist Party, and of China itself, have oscillated greatly. At times, China and the West come into convergence as to how to view politics on the mainland. In the late 1930s, both China and the non-Axis West (including the Soviet Union) viewed China as an embattled, noble, and besieged bulwark against Japanese expansionism. A united front of news! For proof, just read Edgar Snow’s unjustly neglected piece of war reportage/propaganda written on the eve of Pearl Harbor, The War for Asia.
Then things took a divergent turn in the late 1940s, during which time the maelstrom of Chinese domestic politics wrenched Western views out of their idealistic mode and towards criticism, while Chiang Kai-shek nevertheless tried to build himself up as some warrior-cum-Confucian scholar with such ghost-written tracts as China’s Destiny. (Chiang’s text, I might add, was no less pretentious, and arguably more useless, than Jiang Zemin’s opus of the 1990s, the collected essays of the Three Represents, whose absolutely numbing prose at least had the purpose of getting capitalists back into the CCP.)
In the early 1950s, another vast disconnect opened up between how the Chinese people view themselves and the way they were viewed from the West. A savage portrait emerged from without, replete with references to Genghis Khan and tales of Christian torture and expulsion. But no sooner had the Korean War finished than the European left revived their idealizations of the Middle Kingdom as if lifting the weight of the pillars of the Yuanmingyuan, reconstructing mental edifices of China as an industrious harbinger of a gender-equal, egalitarian, progressive utopia. Social philosophers like Simone de Beauvoir went to China, spreading great tracts upon their return, arguing for a fundamental congruity with China’s positive and rising self-image in the years of the first five-year plan (1953-1958). Even influential French journalists like Robert Guillain evinced a grudging respect for the ardent, if unthinking, nature of Chinese development in those years by calling the Chinese people “blue ants,” borrowing from a French idiom for “diligent.” (Unfortunately it picked up in the West with all the exterminationist and mind-control connotations in George Horvath’s Mao Tse-tung: Emepror of the Blue Ants, about the worst example of a published mixed metaphor that one could hope to find.)
And so to today: If China did something right, would anyone notice? In today’s Shijie Ribao [世界日报], page A2, we get basically a whole page of coverage about how actively the Chinese government is focusing on environmental issues with the American leadership, both current and former. Hu Jintao had a talk with Obama about this issue and the Copenhaugen Forum on October 20, and yesterday, former Vice President Al Gore was in Zhongnanhai, the Chinese leadership compound in Beijing adjacent to the Forbidden City and the Egg.
Gore’s visit in particular was worth noting. He met with Wen Jiabao in Diaoyutai guest house (where I believe Mao first met with Nixon), but then he was also given a podium from which to speak directly and at length to the Chinese assembled there to discuss global warming. None of this seems to be available on the Anglophone internet. (All my Chinese sources for the images, other than the kick-ass print version of the paper which I bought this morning in San Francisco which shows Gore lecturing like a champion, are on Flash players and I can’t save them on this deadly Stanford machine I’m blogging on tonight — sorry!).
The Chinese take this kind of thing quite seriously. A former vice-president, in Chinese terms, is usually considered to be still a part of the power circles. Hosting Gore in Diaoyutai is therefore a very significant gesture of Beijing’s willingness to engage with Washington on the environmental front.
I still believe the U.S. can outflank the North Koreans and the Chinese by insisting that environmental issues be part and parcel of any revived Six-Party Talks! After all, if the Japanese are allowed to bring in an abduction case from 1977 as a central part of their own strategy, I think the future of environmental catastrophe can also be considered. That, and the North Koreans have been amenable in the past to overtures on environmental conservation from the U.S. and UN.
What depresses me is the total lack of coverage of this issue in the major American news outlets. Exactly nothing in the New York Times. Ditto on the Los Angeles Times. Although we do learn from the L.A. paper that Current TV is back with a vengeance in the wake of their North Korean debacle!
Fortunately we have China Daily to tell us that Hu Jintao is focused on a climate accord. Damned if it isn’t a useful and important article.
Media consolidation and the dropping of Western newspapers like, well, hornets from a wasp nest hit with a blast of DDT, may be having an effect on the question of media outlets that drop big stories. If the New York Times is lacking a vigorous bureau in Beijing, the danger becomes that stories about dissidents aren’t balanced by other political news of the day. Like, what did Hu Jintao do today? With which American officials did Wen Jiabao meet? Is it up to Danwei.org or bloggers to cover the Premier’s every move instead? Do we all just need therefore to read the China Daily instead of the New York Times? I’m as interested as anyone else in Ribiya Khadeer, seizures of Uighurs in Xinjiang, and I am delighted to get another perspective on the tangled goings-on at the Frankfurt Book Fair. But when there is an insubstantial difference between the Epoch and the New York Times on the Frankfurt story and JustRecently covers it nearly as well, can the New York Times be considered an essential source on Chinese news?
I would argue that it is, but a paper that just shed another 10% of its staff (even with the generosity of a new non-Sulzberger patron) is lacking the resources to put on an all-out blitz at the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is what it deserves. Germans get that in spades with Die Zeit, with in-depth coverage on the literary and political fronts. And my august mentor Donald Jordan, of whom I need to be particularly mindful when in the shadow of the Hoover Institute and his documents on the Northern Expedition, always maintained that the Wall Street Journal was a better Asia paper.
Al Gore’s interesting blog, with a crease in a print photo, says it all: nothing about the trip to China. Has he been reading the giant-print book The Year of the Rat and hoping no one ever again photographs him with a Chinese man? This makes no sense, Al.
Or are you still peeved you couldn’t go to Pyongyang yourself? Don’t worry, with the environmental catastrophes sure to follow, you’ll be in demand.
the European left revived their idealizations of the Middle Kingdom as if lifting the weight of the pillars of the Yuanmingyuan, reconstructing mental edifices of China as an industrious harbinger of a gender-equal, egalitarian, progressive utopia.
*snickers* indeed. Shirley MacLaine, too
But when there is an insubstantial difference between the Epoch and the New York Times on the Frankfurt story and JustRecently covers it nearly as well, can the New York Times be considered an essential source on Chinese news?
I’d agree that a lot of papers offer too little information about China, and adapt to the Zeitgeist more than they should. At present, bad news about China seems to sell best, or only.
But the papers are still providing most of the material for most of the blogs, mine included. Blogging is usually pretty mainstream-referential.
Western onlookers are probably terribly distracted by images such as these!