The China Watchers

A description from Roy Rowan's book, Chasing The Dragon, about the history of China watching:

I would be almost a quarter of century [after 1949] before China opened again to American reporters.  Mao immediately slammed down the Bamboo curtain, closing off the vast land to all Americans but a few Communist sympathizers, just as his mentors in the Kremlin had done with the Iron Curtain.  So it was impossible back then to guess how drastically things might chance.  


We reporters, shut out of the mainland during most this turmoil, were forced to cover what transpired there from Hong Kong or Taiwan as so-called "China-watchers."  To do that, I moved the Time-Life bureau in the bridal suite of the posh Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon.  For a mere $300 per month (today, that same suite costs $800 per day), it met our temporary needs perfectly.  The living room became the office, the bedroom my home.  There were plenty of spry young bellhops to whisk messages back and forth to the Cable and Wireless office, locate in the ornate hangar-sized lobby, where gold smugglers, arms traders, and other wheeler-dealers of the East conducted their nefarious business over afternoon tea.

Trying to peek through the Bamboo Curtain was frustrating, to say the least.  We interviewed defectors and foreign travelers, relied on translators to monitor Communist broadcasts and newspapers, leaned heavily on the political officers at the Consulate General, and, above all, kept meticulous files.  We even noted where party leaders stood in relation to Mao during their appearances atop the great gate of the Forbidden City.  Still, it was almost impossible to keep track of the rise and fall and rise again of mercurial leaders like Deng Xiaoping, who was vilified one day and praised the next.  So, at best, most of our reports filed from Hong Kong were highly speculative.

That was once upon a time in China.

Do you think that things are different now?  It is true that the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian and other news media have bureaus in China today.  But does that get them any closer to what is 'really' happening in China?

To answer that question, I would have to know what is 'really' happening and compare it against what is being reported.  For want of that knowledge, I don't know the answer.

But I will try to use some examples to make inferences.  I will separate the Chinese reality into the social and the political spheres.

In the social sphere, I will illustrate with the Huaxi/Huankantou riot as covered by Didi Kirsten Tatlow, whose two reports for the unlinkable South China Morning Post are posted at Simon World.  Here, I have extracted the experience of the journalist and re-arranged them into a chronologically consistent account.  Even if you have seen this before, it deserves another reading for the bizarre nature:

A week ago, I was driving out of Huaxi on my way back to Hangzhou , the provincial capital, with the story - literally - in the bag. Villagers had been happy to tell their tale, though their accents were hard to follow.  But I knew that I could not stay long without attracting attention - someone was bound to call the Dongyang police.

Towards the end of my two-hour stay in the village, a couple of black cars pulled up and several young men got out and stared hard at me. Their sour expressions contrasted sharply with the villagers' joy; it was time to leave. I hurried back to the car and we left town.

About 10 minutes down the road, my driver checked his side-view mirror. "We're being followed," he said. A police siren whined and, over a loudspeaker, we were ordered to pull over.  A policeman stuck his head into the window and gave us a giant grin, setting the tone for what was to become a surreal detention where we were handled with kid gloves - although threat was never far from the surface.  "Please come with me," he said to the driver. They conferred in the police car for 10 minutes. Then the driver came back. "We have to go to Dongyang city," he said.

At Dongyang's best hotel, the Splendid Plaza, a cohort of officials was waiting for me and my three companions, two other foreign journalists I had asked along - knowing there was safety in numbers - and a Chinese assistant.  "Please have dinner with us," they said, smiling and smiling. "We would prefer to continue our journey to Hangzhou," we said. "That won't be possible," said Mr Zhang, the foreign affairs director.

We were shown into a large, red-carpeted room. The men were served tea, the women hot water. About eight officials sat around the dining table, though their numbers changed as they came and went, fielding urgent phone calls on their mobiles. Only Mr Zhang and Mr Chen, the government spokesman, were introduced.  The first of a score of excellent dishes arrived. This was a banquet. "We did that for you because you are foreigners," explained Mr Zhang, smiling. "Can you use chopsticks?"

The questioning began, too. Interspersed with commands to toast each other, the officials asked the questions we knew we could not evade: "Where were you? What were you doing in Huaxi? Had you applied for permission to come to Dongyang?"

Dinner dragged on, and at about 8pm - we were picked up at 6pm - Mr Zhang's assistant put the knife in. With a smile. "We must destroy your reporting notes, and you must give us your pictures.  "Also, we will interview you separately and you must sign a confession that you have broken the law."

Chinese regulations governing the activities of reporters are strict. Non-mainland journalists must apply for permission to travel anywhere outside of Beijing.  In practice, many do not, as the system is slow and designed to make reporting virtually impossible.  It is a key mechanism in the government's efforts to stop a clearer picture of the mainland circulating abroad.

We complied, but registered our protest, telling the officials that our notes were actually the property of our employers. We signed a two-page confession that we had violated Chinese reporting regulations.  Memory cards in digital cameras were wiped clean. They insisted on swapping the empty cards for new ones, to make sure the pictures could not be reconstructed.

Finally, at 11.30pm, we insisted on going. "We have co-operated with you," we said. "Now let us return to Hangzhou."  They argued we should stay the night in Dongyang, and, bizarrely, go out tomorrow and "play" in the city.  After much to-ing and fro-ing, we won, and returned to Hangzhou in the early hours of Tuesday.  Our detention had been a golden cage - but a cage nonetheless.

For lack of physical access due to constraints, it is sometimes necessary to start calling random people in the area, or rely on uncertain local informants, or send in the bureau's Chinese staff at some risk.  In the Huaxi/Huankantou story, this caused some wavering on a specific piece of key but unverified information:

Reuters: Two of the women were killed, two villagers said. "They were run over by police cars," one said.  A source with knowledge of the incident who requested anonymity said the two had died during arrest. He did not elaborate.

Guardian:  Initial reports suggested that it started after the death of two elderly women, who were run over when police attempted to clear their protest against a chemical factory in a nearby industrial park. 

SCMP:  Early on Sunday, rumors started spreading that two elderly women had died when police tried to storm the village and angry villagers poured out of their homes, driving police into the school yard.

UPI: There were unconfirmed reports that two elderly protesters were killed in the riot, and more than a hundred people were treated for minor injuries.

New York Times:  There were conflicting reports of injuries, and Mr. Lu said two elderly female protesters were gravely injured after being run over by a police vehicle.

CNN:  According to reports, the riot was triggered by the deaths of two elderly women, killed when police moved in to clear about 200 anti-pollution protesters from the gates of a nearby chemical factory.  Whether anyone actually died or not has not been confirmed. But the rumor, at least, was enough to ignite a firestorm.

Based upon these western media reports, do you think two elderly women died or not?  At this point in time, this is almost sure to be a false rumor since no one has been able to name the two alleged dead women when that information can be forwarded anonymously without danger.

In the political sphere, the western media may be reduced to pondering the imponderable such as Are The Anti-Japanese Demonstrations Spontaneous or Stage-Managed?.  The fact is that the official political information comes from the official channels of communications such as Xinhua, People's Daily and China Daily.  Most of the other national and local media merely re-print the Xinhua press releases on national political news. 

The western media do not usually get exclusives.  No heavyweight politico is going to invite them for a personal interview to leak one or two secrets to damage someone else.  At least, not yet, and we should be grateful for that.  There are no 'unnamed senior officials' that are cited so often in American politics in the Washington Post or New York Times.  At best, western media can accept the 'facts' given in the official press release, and put in a spin that fits their particular ideological lens.

In summary, things are probably better than when Roy Rowan was watching China in his Peninsula Hotel suite a long time ago.  As for a fair and balanced picture of the reality of China in the western media, don't bank on it yet!  It is not necessarily their fault, because their information access is still restricted.

(Reuters via Deepika Globa)  Markets tip-toe through China media minefield.  May 15, 2005.

When China speaks, markets listen, and for decades Beijing has been known to communicate policy through its largely state-run media.  So after a poorly translated report on the Web site of the flagship People's Daily appeared to announce an imminent yuan revaluation and sent the dollar and euro skittering against the yen, investors were left to wonder: What went wrong? After all, anything printed in this newspaper's pages dating back to Mao Zedong has carried the weight of the Communist Party.

Analysts say an increasingly dog-eat-dog press, a phasing out of decades of government subsidies to the industry and a proliferation of new papers, magazines and Web sites with looser ties to the state has made it hard to tell which ones to believe.

''People are moving up the learning curve very quickly, remembering that these guys knew nothing about China two years ago,'' said J.P. Morgan economist Ben Simpfendorfer.  ''What's actually more useful is identifying the backers,'' he said, adding he monitored clearly official media such as the Xinhua News Agency and three securities journals.

China specialists prefer to place their trust -- and their wallets -- in a handful of government-overseen publications ranging from the central bank-controlled Financial News and the Xinhua-linked China Securities Journal, which is authorised by the official markets watchdog.  But even some long-time veterans were bitten by the People's Daily report -- even though the Web site is largely independent from the print edition. Like many portals in China, it is known to post news from various sources, sometimes without attribution.

China, the world's third-biggest trading nation and seventh-largest economy, is attracting intense scrutiny these days from Asian and Western nations increasingly relying on its domestic market and low-cost manufacturing base.  But the country often announces economic policy without warning or time sensitivity. Beijing told the world it had raised interest rates for the first time in October by quietly slipping a notice on the central bank's Web site (  Most analysts expect the yuan announcement to follow a similar route -- coming from the central bank after it isapproved by the State Council, or cabinet.

Industry experts have a long history of focusing on Chinese media for clues to Beijing's internal mullings and policy pronouncements.  Its last major experiment with currency reform came in 1994, in a brief story on the official Xinhua news agency wire around New Year's Eve saying China would unify its dual exchange rates effective after the holiday.  But after a series of missteps by the media, long-time China watchers have begun to be more suspicious and they increasingly look to official sources.

In November the China Business News quoted a central bank official as saying Beijing had sold U.S. Treasury bonds, sending the dollar to a record low versus the euro and a multi-year low against the yen. The newspaper, just weeks old, later said it had mis-spoken. The central bank publicly criticised the paper.  The China Business Post in February 2004 raised alarm bells worldwide after a headline appeared to declare a 5 percent revaluation the next month. In reality, the story had no official sources and merely described a poll of analysts.

On Wednesday, when the People's Daily reported on its online edition that a yuan appreciation would be announced, possibly by widening the band in which it is allowed to trade against the dollar, the U.S. currency immediately fell.

But some analysts were suspicious.  ''It didn't feel right,'' said Standard Chartered economist Stephen Green in Shanghai.  ''If something appears and directly states the State Council has announced such and such, then that's something you can rely on,'' he said, adding a yuan move would be blanket-distributed across a number of official government and media sites.

The central bank later discredited the People's Daily report, posted on the newspaper's English site, as a mis-translation of a report from a few days earlier on China News Service wire.  A tweak of the yuan -- pegged at 8.28 per dollar since the 1997/98 Asian financial crisis -- might address concerns that the currency is undervalued but would have wide implications for both its economy and its import-export relationship with the world.

China's young financial media are desperate to be first with the story. The industry boasts thousands of local papers that plagiarise each other, mimic foreign reports, take bribes in the guise of ''cab fares'' and indulge in speculation. In past years, Beijing had also trimmed subsidies and downsized or shut papers, exacerbating competition and encouraging increasing enterprise among a legion of often lowly paid, over-worked reporters.

Even with affiliated media, it is not always straight-forward.  English-language Web sites operated by Xinhua and the People's Daily often re-publish or re-hash local and foreign news reports in addition to carrying their own items.