Framing China

[O]ne fine Beijing day in 1987, when I had been reporting in China for nearly three years, a “60 Minutes” crew arrived in town. They were looking to do some sort of story on China.

In his early research, the “60 Minutes” producer, Barry Lando, had come across some pieces I had written. The 10th anniversary of the death of Mao Zedong had recently passed by, and to mark the event I had done a couple of stories for The Los Angeles Times, pointing out that although China was in the midst of economic reforms, it remained in political terms a remarkably repressive place.

Lando was interested. He asked for the materials that had provided the basis for these stories, such as, for example, human rights reports on political prisoners like Wei Jingsheng. I was happy to oblige. When correspondent Mike Wallace arrived in town, Lando arranged a lunch, in which I tried to explain that the gee-whiz stories back in the United States about how “open” China had become bore only a vague resemblance to economic realities and none at all to politics.

Wallace looked at me dubiously. What I was saying was at odds with the images being purveyed at the time back in the United States of a happy, steadily opening China. A story about repression was clearly not the piece he had in mind.

Indeed, when that “60 Minutes” piece came out, it was like virtually every other American television and newsmagazine story of the 1980s period. It showed Chinese at discos and wearing Western clothes. The Communist Party secretary, Zhao Ziyang, was shown playing golf. As for political repression, it was nowhere to be found.

At least not then. After the Tiananmen crackdown of 1989, the idea that China was a pretty repressive place re-emerged. In fact, it came to dominate the television images of the 1990s, on “60 Minutes” and elsewhere. A Chinese-American cameraman who has lived in Beijing for decades complained a few years ago that when visiting TV correspondents arrive in China from abroad in the 1990s, they all manage to ask, in one form or another, “Take me to the repression.”

I reminded him that in the broadest sense, nothing has changed. In the 1980s, visiting reporters tended to arrive at the Beijing airport with the request: “Take me to the discos and the golf courses.”

The cardinal sin committed by American news organizations in covering China is to portray it, always, in one overly simplistic frame. The American frames of China change dramatically from decade to decade, but the underlying behavior of the news organizations does not.

What do I mean by a “frame”? I mean that stories in the American media tend to be governed at any given time by a single story, image or concept. In the 1950s and the 1960s, the “frame” was of China as little blue ants or automatons. In the 1970s, following the Nixon administration’s opening, the frame was of the virtuous (entertaining, cute) Chinese, displaying their timeless qualities even under communism. In the 1980s, the frame was that China was “going capitalist.” And for most of the 1990s, the frame was of a repressive China.

The reduction of China to a one-dimensional frame affects coverage of China in many ways, both direct and indirect. In the first place, the frame establishes the mindset for American visitors to China. Lacking sufficient time to see the country in any meaningful way, the visitors often fit it into their own preconceptions. One of the most famous stories about American travelers to China involves Shirley MacLaine, who visited China in the midst of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and was told by a physicist that his work picking tomatoes in the countryside was as important to him as learning how to split atoms. A few years later, after Mao’s death, the actress went to a state dinner in Washington and recounted this episode to Deng Xiaoping. “He lied to you,” Deng told her.

Visiting journalists to China, including editors and other news executives, are as subject as was Shirley MacLaine to being misled. Time magazine editor Henry Grunwald barnstormed briefly through China in 1985 with a group of the magazine’s advertisers and decreed that Deng should be named “Man of the Year.” Grunewald got his way although, in fact, 1985 was precisely the year Deng’s economic reforms veered off course, leading to the political upheavals that culminated four years later with the Tiananmen Square demonstrations.

The governing frame of China also establishes the mindset of editors back home, to whom correspondents based in China report. At news desks in the United States, the natural tendency of editors and producers is to look for stories that involve, in some way, the frame.

This is not to suggest that all stories in the American press always strictly conform to what ever frame governs at a particular time. To say that would be unfair to many conscientious news organizations. Yet the frame sets the background, the assumed context, which China stories usually must deal with in one form or another. A reporter can challenge or contradict the frame but can’t completely ignore it: he or she is often obliged to give at least a few paragraphs about the frame and then play off his or her story against that frame.

Thus, because the 1980s frame said that China was a steadily reforming place, then virtually any story about China needed to address in some way this image of steady reform even if the story itself was about a different subject, like female infanticide or the decline in arable farmland.

Now, by contrast, since the American frame of the 1990s says that China is a repressive regime, then virtually every story about China seems obliged at some point to mention the theme of political repression. Thus, when the Chinese Olympic team marched in for the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, NBC sportscaster Bob Costas felt compelled to observe, “Of course, there are problems with human rights. ” What he said was accurate, but he was also, in effect, making a sports story about the Olympics fit into the decade’s frame of China.

The problem for media coverage is that China itself changes far less than do the one-dimensional American frames of it. China was vastly less open and reforming than Americans believed in the 1980s and also sometimes less repressive than the United States thought in the mid-1990s. (However, the tide seems to be turning back once again: since Bill Clinton’s visit to China of June 1998, the image seems to have taken hold in America that all is well in China once again when, in fact, there are all sorts of contrary signs of continuing repression.)

Indeed, over time the American frames of China sometimes blatantly contradict one another. The image of dynamic change in China, which held sway in the 1980s (and, decades earlier, in Henry Luce’s portrayals of Chiang Kai-shek) conflicts with the image of China as essentially changeless, which governed at the time of the Nixon opening (and, earlier, in Pearl Buck’s novels).

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, it served America’s Cold War interests to gloss over the darker sides of Chinese behavior. China was the United States’ strategic ally against the Soviet Union, and the images in the American media helped to reinforce this relationship. The Chinese people were depicted as loyal, reliable, simple, stable, honest and trustworthy. The American stories and books of China during that era regularly passed on the following sympathetic anecdote to visitors from abroad: if you leave a used razor blade in your room at a Chinese hotel (it was said), a hotel attendant might run down the hallway to return it to you.

Now let’s look at the same situation — a foreign visitor staying in a Chinese hotel in a different decade with a different frame. In March 1994, I arrived in post-Tiananmen Beijing to accompany Secretary of State Warren Christopher on the trip where the Clinton administration was challenging China’s human rights policies. On the bus ride in from the airport, a U.S. Embassy official warned the visiting American reporters, at considerable length, not to leave any sensitive documents unattended in their rooms: the Chinese hotel attendants worked for the government, he said, and they might snoop through your room while you were away.

Had Chinese hotels really been transformed, or was it only the American images, attitudes and perceptions that had changed? Presumably, some of the hotel attendants of the 1970s were working with the Chinese security apparatus and were capable of going through hotel guests’ belongings.

The shallow frames that color American news stories go beyond politics to economics. Read The Economist or the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal these days, and you will find China pigeonholed into the frame of Western free-market ideology. The Chinese economy is regularly bifurcated into two simplistic categories: “thriving” private enterprises and “failing” state enterprises.

In the real-life Chinese economy, these distinctions blur. Many of the supposedly private companies bought and sold on China’s stock market are not only created from state enterprises but enjoy continuing, symbiotic relationships with state enterprises.

It works like this: Sinopec, the Chinese state petroleum ministry, decides to set up a private company, Shanghai Petrochemical Co. Ltd. Out of its massive complex of state facilities in Shanghai, Sinopec takes everything that can possibly make money and puts it into the new private company, which then sells stock to raise more capital from other Chinese or foreign investors. But Sinopec — that is the Chinese state — retains more than 60 percent, a controlling share, of the stock of the private company.

Meanwhile, all the Sinopec facilities that don’t make a profit — the factory hospital, clinics, nursery and elementary school — are left in the state enterprise. Under such circumstances, can we be surprised that the state enterprise is “money-losing?” It was designed to be that way, because the state enterprises function, in effect, as China’s welfare system. And should we exult that the profitability of the “private” company demonstrates the success of capitalism? The company depends on a state enterprise for its social safety net, and a majority of its shares are owned by the state.

In fact, Americans often assume the Chinese economy is more privatized than it is. When U.S. companies establish joint ventures in China, their Chinese partners are almost invariably state enterprises, not private companies. Three years ago, the American commercial officer at the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai told me he couldn’t think of a single American company that had set up a joint venture with a private Chinese company.

The lessons of the past news coverage of China are clear. Americans need to refrain from trying to fit China into any single one-sentence story. The urge to generalize is understandable, but China is too big, too complex, too diverse to capture in a single frame.

Correspondents working inside China need to spend as much time as possible developing stories whose messages, meanings or “significance paragraphs” aren’t worked out in advance. The more open-ended traveling and interviewing, the better. Unfortunately, the pressures of the job make such work ever more difficult. As China has become a more important news story, it has become harder for correspondents to leave Beijing uncovered for a few days.

Still, most China-based correspondents perform with remarkable skill. The more significant problems with framing lie elsewhere—at the headquarters of American television networks, newsmagazines and newspapers.

Producers, editors and news executives need to refrain from reducing China to a simple story. Editors and producers need to give their correspondents in China a greater range of subject matter, instead of concentrating on disco stories in one decade and tales of repression in another. And news executives should stop trying to define China on the basis of their own short-term visits there; the skill of the Chinese in entertaining and misleading foreign dignitaries is legendary.

Above all, American media coverage of China needs to challenge existing assumptions and be ready for the unexpected. By doing so, we can avoid the sense of shock that erupts in America at each swing of Chinese history, including most recently after the Tiananmen crackdown of 1989.


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