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Friday, May 11, 2012

Ambiguity and Assumptions About Reporting in China

The Chinese government recently denied a visa for foreign correspondent Melissa Chan thereby making it not possible for her to continue delivering eye-opening reports in China. Mark MacKinnon explained why it mattered, Evan Osnos argued it was a sign that "China is moving backwards", Isaac Stone Fish suggested Chan's ethnicity and nationality played a role, William Moss observed that the "Chinese government has never been comfortable with an adversarial media", and Patrick Chovanec provided a list of Chan's work while describing her visa refusal as "China’s version of the Pulitzer Prize".

Official reasons for the visa denial have been hard to obtain as seen in an excerpt from a daily briefing by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. Spokesman Hong Lei did not clarify the "relevant Chinese laws and regulations" other than to say in a "relevant" statement:
I think our policies and laws regarding foreign journalists is very clear. In your work and exchanges with us we have briefed you on relevant Chinese laws and regulations which is also the basis for your work in China. With regard to relevant issue I think relevant media and journalists are clear about that.
From the relevant information I have seen, relevant journalists would still like some relevant clarification about the relevant rules. I would say that is relevant.

In the apparent quest to explain the "relevant issue", Shan Renping on The Global Times wrote an article that has already received the attention of James Fallows and others. It has inspired me to share my own thoughts. Below, I will provide excerpts of the article followed by my questions and comments.
In the past 14 years, there has been a lot of friction between China and other countries.
Yes, I look back wistfully to those frictionless days before 1998.
... Chinese officials acknowledge that it only makes things worse for a country's image if they take a confrontational position with foreign journalists.
What piece would be complete without ironic foreshadowing?
China didn't give a specific reason for expelling the reporter. This ambiguity cannot be criticized.
Pure gold. I suppose it stands to follow that the article itself cannot be criticized. Therefore, what I am writing here could not be criticism. Excellent, I would not want to upset anyone.
According to foreign journalist sources here in Beijing, Melissa Chan holds an aggressive political stance.
Which is...?
According to foreign reports, she has a tense relationship with the management authorities of foreign correspondents. She has produced some programs which are intolerable for China.
Which are...?

Oh, I see. Being ambiguous to justify someone else's ambiguity is unambiguously effective.
Interfering with foreign media's reporting is a retrograde act, and it is simply impossible to do.
After interfering has been described as "impossible to do", it will now be argued why an act of interference was justified.
However, foreign journalists in China must abide by journalistic ethics. They have their values and reporting angles, but the bottom line is that they should not turn facts upside down.
Like this: "˙sɹǝʇɹodǝɹ uƃıǝɹoɟ ɥʇıʍ sǝɹǝɟɹǝʇuı ʇuǝɯuɹǝʌoƃ ǝsǝuıɥɔ ǝɥʇ"? Or should I flip the text instead of rotating it? The ambiguity in the suggestion leaves me uncertain.
The scale of opinion expressed in the media, especially the Internet, has greatly expanded these last few years. The Chinese government's ability to accept criticism is greater than ever.
A clarification of "accept" would sure be interesting.
We don't want to see any confrontations between the Chinese government and foreign journalists here in China.
Not sure I agree. It depends on what is meant by "confrontations". But I would agree that an absence of hostile intent would be good.
Local authorities are more willing to cooperate with them, while foreign media should take an objective and balanced view toward the country.
I wonder what "less willing to cooperate" would look like for the local authorities in Linyi.
Foreign media should reflect on China's complexity, which is well-known to almost all foreigners in China. However, some media are only keen to show the wickedness of China to the world.
So a concern that foreigners will view China as "wicked" leads to an action that likely only increases any perception of "wickedness". This would not be the first time that a desire to avoid humiliation in foreign eyes has backfired in China.
According to some Chinese people who work or used to work in foreign media bureaus, it is common practice for some foreign journalists to just piece together materials based on their presuppositions when reporting on China.
Of course, The Global Times has high standards about piecing together materials. After all, I could never imagine someone saying, "they selected quotes from an interview, grossly modified my words on a key point, then made it look like my article". Oh, someone did. Well, at least The Global Times apologized after they were caught.
If a foreign reporter cannot stay in China, we can only assume that he or she has done something cross the line.
Which is...? Oh yes, ambiguity + assumptions = inarguable fact.

I have nothing more to say other than that I hope the conditions in China for foreign correspondents and Chinese journalists will improve. Among the numerous benefits of a free press will be more respect for China in the eyes of the rest of the world. This will in turn ensure more awareness of the many positive sides of China. But at the moment, even this example would be a less foolish display of interfering with people who want to report the truth--good or bad.



Added note: See Melissa Chan's new article "Goodbye to China, country of contradictions".

Added note 2: Removed a few superfluous sentences for clarity.

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