Ten Thousand Data Points

The EastSouthWestNorth blog was started around April 2003, and the current China-themed version (v. 2.0) began around March 2005.  Over time, I have learned that it is less controversial if I do not inject my own thoughts into the blog posts (unless I have to).  But I ought to explain the process in greater detail.

I happened to be a person who does not have a real full-time job.  I live in Hong Kong and my job position is in New York City (a 12-hour time zone difference away).  My 'office hours' are Hong Kong time 9pm-midnight (which is 9am-noon Eastern Standard Time in New York City) when I will take telephone calls (if any).  If the phone does not ring, I am free to do whatever I want.  [Everybody tells me that this is the job arrangement that they want, but you have no idea what it takes to arrive at this point]  That means that I have the entire day to myself.  Most days, I wake up and I start reading the online newspapers from Hong Kong, mainland China and Taiwan and I check out the BBS forums and blogs.  I make a short list of interesting items (on the average, about five items per day) and I begin researching/translating/summarizing.  Necessarily, the choice of those five items out of the numerous items that I have read reflects my own preferences.  I cannot escape the fact that I am an individual person and my choices are necessarily personal and therefore 'biased.'  It is not as if there is such a thing as a truly objective, fair and balanced selection by anyone anywhere anytime.  I leave it up to my readers as to whether they like my choices or not.  If they don't like it, they don't have to come here.  If I start trying to guess what others prefer and try to accommodate them, then this project might as well as be terminated.  In that sense, I am a believer in market-oriented principles.

So this leaves the EastSouthWestNorth blog with a peculiar tone.  This blog seems like ten thousand data points from Greater China, each illuminating some specific aspect but without any attempt to come up with a grand narrative.  On a given day, you might be reading about youth gangs in Hong Kong, fist fights in the Taiwan Parliament, Chinese reporters getting banged on the head or yet another Internet manhunt in China.  What is the sense of it?  While this might be not be controversial in the sense that these events are reported (being fully documented) to be happening, it is not necessarily a good thing either.  You get ten thousand data points, but you don't know what is really going on.  What is the big picture here?

For this purpose, I would like to cite a section from Peter Hessler's remarkable book: Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present (p. 302-303).

In Fuling, during my time as a teacher, ... my students used a textbook called Survey of America, which included a chapter about "Social Problems":

In 1981, in California University, robbery and rape increased one hundred and fifty percent.  In a Cathedral school of Washington District, a girl student was raped and robbed by a criminal with a hunting knife while she was studying alone in a classroom.  In a California university, a football coach was robbed on campus by someone with a gun.  It is said that, in South Carolina University, gangs of rascals have been taking girl students, women teachers and wives of teachers working in this university as their targets of rape, which has caused a great fear.

It was hard to teach from a book like that.  The details themselves are probably true -- certainly, there were rascals in South Carolina -- but that didn't make this information a useful starting point for a student in a remote Chinese city.  They needed context, not trivia; a bunch of scattered facts only confused them.

Probably, these details had been culled from American newspapers, where they had actually served a purpose.  In the United States, journalists worked within a community, and often their stories inspired change.  This was one of the noblest aspects of the field, as well as the most widely celebrated.  Any American journalist knew the history of Watergate: how dedicated reporters helped bring down a corrupt administration.  That was the model for a good journalist -- if your community had a rascal, you exposed it, even if the rascal was the president of the United States.

At big papers, successful journalists became foreign correspondents, and then they brought their work patterns overseas.  Usually, they searched for dramatic, unresolved problems; if they didn't speak the language, they hired interpreters and fixers.  Sometimes, their stories made a difference.  In African countries, journalists who covered famines or genocide could be instrumental in motivating international organizations to step in.  Reporters functioned within an international community because the local community had broken down.

But China was completely different.  The country received some international aid, mostly in the form of loans, but the economy had been built primarily through Chinese effort and determination.  In the past, the American government had responded to Chinese human rights violations by periodic threats to impose economic sanctions, but those days were gone: trade had become too important.  Essentially, China had outgrown the traditional limits of a developing country.  Despite its problems, the nation was stable, functioning, independent, and increasingly powerful.  When Americans look across the Pacific, the critical question wasn't how they could change China.  It was far more important to understand the country and the people who lived there.

But most foreign journalists were stuck in the old mindset, the old file cabinets:


In a typical foreign bureau, Chinese assistants searched local newspapers for potential stories, and they received tips from disgruntled citizens.  When something dramatic caught the foreigner's eye, he pursued it; child-selling in Gansu, female sterilization in Guangxi, jailed labor activists in Shandong.  The articles appeared in American newspapers, where the readers couldn't solve the problems and didn't have the background necessary to keep everything in context.  It was like the Fuling textbook: sometimes, the more information you have, the less you know.  And there is a point at which even the intentions become voyeurism.

I didn't want to write such features, which meant that the main appeal of working for a newspaper was news.  And news in China seemed pointless: the country changed every year, but the pace was steady and it moved subtly.  There weren't any great leaders, and supposedly important events like the plane dispute fizzled out; they were like splashes of foam on the surface of a massive sea change.  We had escaped history; news no longer mattered.  Brave new world.

It is in this sense that I wonder about the value of my ten thousand data points.  "The more information you have, the less you know."  Now I went through this project more for myself than everybody else.  I had been away from Greater China for more than three decades, and the EastSouthWestNorth blog was more for my own edification than anyone else's.  If I have no data points, I shouldn't have the right to speak.  But at some point I ought to develop some opinion or the other after recording ten thousand data points.  So what have I learned?

At this point, I know that I do not have a grand narrative.  What is a grand narrative?  I think of it as one of those fundamentalist beliefs in the manner of "The Iraq project is going great and we've got freedom and democracy over there" or "Rick Santorum is going to win the Senate election in Pennsylvania."  A person accepts the grand narrative and hereafter interprets all data points as being supportive, however absurd and counterfactual.  When events on the ground seem to contradict the grand narrative, one merely raises the ante and argues for exactly the opposite.  Thus, the fact that the number of attacks against the coalition in Iraq has increased only means that the insurgency is in its last throes, etc.  In the case of China, a grand narrative might be the "Coming Collapse of China" or the "Democracy is the inevitable trend of history all over the world" theses.  I am simply not capable (in terms of intellect or integrity) of engaging in these kinds of grandstanding.

I believe that there is some room for building up narratives from the ground up.  If I have recorded so many instances of reporters being physically assaulted, then in what way have their responses changed over time?  Are the reporters forming a power bloc through nationwide coverage whenever such assaults occur?  I believe so.  If I have recorded so many instances of Internet manhunts, then in what way have citizens recognized their collective powers to uncover the truth?  I believe so.  It will require someone to analyze the individual events and track the changes over time.  That is the direction that I would like to shift towards over time.