British Media’s Portrayal of China

On Tuesday 29 Nov., I took part in a debate entitled "Does British Media Give a Fair Portrayal of China" organised by the British Chamber of Commerce. The support side panelists consisted of the correspondents from the Daily Telegraph and The Times and Jeremy Gooldkorn or Daiwei. I was on the opposite side, together with Nick Thomas, the head of BCC and Tom Pattison, a freelance journalist who worked on the foreign desk of Sunday Times back in London.

below was my argument.

I am delighted to be here, to be the token Chinese and the representative from the other half of the sky.

I have to say that I don’t like this ‘black and white approach’. Things usually have a lot of grey areas. Still I would say that china has not been portrayed very fairly in the British media, just talking from my own experience as a freelance journalist who has filed stories for just about all the quality newspapers in Britain.

From my experience of pitching ideas, the bad news or sensational stories are more likely to be accepted and published. Good news is hardly worth their while. When I was stringing for the Independent, I wrote a story about Labrang Monastery in southern Gansu. Because it is outside the Tibet proper, the control was less strict. So the monastery was blossoming with lots of pilgrims from all over the places. I guess because it didn’t fit the image of oppressed and depressed Tibetans, the story was never published, well, by the Independent. I did publish it else where.

Another type of China stories that go down well with the British media is the quirky type. Recently, I wrote an opinion piece for the Guardian about the Brits’ obsession with Chinese food – not roast duck or gongbaojiding, but the so-called weird food. In this obsession, I smell the sour colonial hang-over.

A few years ago, when the British comedian Paul Merton came to China to make a TV documentary, I was invited to take part. I thought it was because I was an established journalist and social commentator but actually I don’t think they were interested in my China knowledge. As if by accident, Merton and I met at the night market in Donghuamen where people heartily ate cicadas, scorpions and worms. Merton sampled them but hated them all. Then I was instructed to tell him: “If you think this is disgusting, let me take you to some where interesting.” The interesting place I took him to was, well, I don’t know how to term it politely in front of our serious-minded audience. Well it is a penis restaurant which serves all sorts of animal’s male organs. Eating them can supposedly improve a man’s performance in bed as Chinese have a belief that eating certain animal part is good for the human equivalent.

Before we got there, Merton and I did walk up and down in the street, talking about serious matters of social changes, women’s position and my life story from a factory worker to a writer. At the restaurant, the crew spent hours, tirelessly filming us eating stir-fried bull’s penis, snake’s penis in a soup and a large boiled donkey’s penis, in its original shape! In the final version of the documentary, the donkey’s penis dominates the scene while none of our serious discussion survived! The documentary became such a hit. Even today at parties, people would come up to me and say: excuse me, are you the woman with Paul Morton at the penis restaurant?

There isn’t great substance in the travel program as if the British people are incapable of absorbing serious information. Yet, China is simply a paradise for journalists. As any society going through such fast transformation, there are always dramas and issues you can report on.

Of course, there’s free media in Britain but it is also very much driven by the market. To face the fierce competition, each media outlet has to produce stories or programs that can attract the readers and audience.

I wouldn’t want go down history as the woman who sucked donkey’s penis with Paul Morton. I want to be a cultural bridge between China and the west. As a native Chinese who have an insight into the society, I’d like to help people outside to understand where China was coming from and what’s happening now and why.

I don’t have a problem for the British media or western western media in general to run negative stories about china – many of my own stories are critical. What I don’t like to see is some of the western media criticize China, standing in a self-appointed high moral ground, especially when some of the accusations are not particular true, for example, the coverage on Lhasa’s unrest in March 2008. The reasons were so complicated. Still I doubt any government would tolerate the killing of innocent people. Now, Tibet issue is a complicated one. We have no time for that.

Back to the point, yes, I don’t think the British media has been totally fair to China. The overwhelming negative stories are partly due to the nature of journalism – when it bleeds it leads, there may be also a factor that the British society feels uneasy about China and China’s rapid rise. That’s why we need more understanding and communications between the two countries and we need more occasions like this.


4 thoughts on “British Media’s Portrayal of China

  1. Lijia, believe me, comapered to the British, the US ‘main stream media’ is worse.

    Every thing is judged here by ratings and after a day’s hard work (those who are still lucky to have work), most Americans switch light entertainment, soap or ball game. Not many people even bother to know about others…

  2. Lijia’s observations about the British media are certainly applicable to the US media, or frankly all media in the world. Bad news sells and the weird stuff that doesn’t conform to our expected norms get our attention. That’s human nature. I think we exist in a world where very few people, if anyone, can truly catalyze the masses to greater understanding. It’s not in people’s nature to challenge their own worldviews, to be in a state of anxiety and uncertainty. People don’t seek to have their notions of the world and other people challenged, they seek for them to be validated. So cherish the few people you can influence and hope that they in turn can influence those around them. There will never be a mass transformation, only a slow one that is fought for bitterly, and of course, it involves everyone on every side, who will likely resist as long as they can.

  3. The problem here in America is that our trade with China is depressing the living standards of average Americans, which the politicians do not want to admit because they are beholden to wealthy investors who are making much higher profits as a result. This is a serious political problem with the potential to destabilize our relationship. The honest answer is to admit the problem and address it with income redistribution policies. Trade has the potential to make everyone better off, but only if you take appropriate steps. This problem is bound to get worse. Maybe China should tell America the truth about this aspect of the matter. Now, that would be a change! See “Protection and Real Wages” by Paul Samuelson and an economist named Stolper. Very famous paper.

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