The Chinese People Are Talking, But Is The World Listening?

(Boxun)  The Chinese People Are Talking, But Is The World Listening?  By Yang Hengjun.  April 4, 2007.

[in translation]

One chance encounter is a coincidence.  Two chance encounters is no longer coincidental.  Within just over one month's time, I met the founder and the Chinese-language editor of Global Voices Online in two separate chance encounters, which made me look at that website with increased respect.

In early February, I went to Hong Kong to attend the Asian-Pacific regional conference of the International PEN and I was due to give a speech.  When I got on the podium, I observed that there were two empty chairs to the left.  The chairs had been reserved for Xiao Qiao from Shanghai and Dagong from Shenzhen, but they had been prevented from attending.  My heart was obviously as empty as those chairs on this account.  Then I turned around and then I saw that a foreign woman with an oriental attraction was seated on my right.  I smiled and I composed myself to deliver my speech.

But I could not fully recover myself, because in that brief glance, I somehow discovered that this foreign woman looked familiar.  It seemed that we had known each other before; in fact, we must have a close friendship.  But she was sitting on my right side and I could only see her profile.  There was no reason for me to keep turning around to look at her.  After all, there were more than a hundred people looking at us.

When the master of ceremony introduced us, I suddenly understood.  The woman on my right is the person whom I woke up every morning for many years to look at before I even washed my face!  I had been watching her for many years ...

This woman was the former China bureau chief of CNN, Rebecca MacKinnon.  During that period, I got news about China almost everyday from CNN.  I did that when I was in China and Hong Kong, and when I went overseas, even in the United States.  In the United States, there was not a lot of news about China.  But CNN had some news almost every day, and the Beijing news came from this round-faced and attractive western woman.  Most of the time, I kept my eyes on her mouth (in order to practice pronunciation) and I paid attention to what she said.  So I never realized how young she was (she was supposed to have become the CNN Beijing bureau chief when she was still in her twenties).  Besides, in my memory, the Rebecca on the television screen was always reporting serious news and I had practically never seen her smile.  So she looked completely different from the smiling person next to me on that day.

I did not know when Rebecca left CNN.  When the Internet came around, I seldom watched television because I got more information and news from the Internet.  The title of my speech was My Publisher -- The Internet.  It was significant that Rebecca's speech that day was also about the Internet.  She spoke about freedom of press and speech on the Internet, and the Chinese and other authorities who used high technology to suppress freedom of speech and press on the Internet.

I had to be wistful about how the times, things and people have changed.  Rebecca provided me with a sense of familiarity.  After all, I had persisted in watching CNN over those years and, in the latter years, I was specifically waiting for Rebecca's news reporting from Beijing.  Without exaggeration, during that period, even my English pronunciation was influenced by CNN, including Rebecca who frequently stood solemnly on Tiananmen Square.

After the conference, Rebecca told me that she had left CNN and she is presently doing teaching and research at the Hong Kong University.  She is the founder of a website.  When I returned to mainland China, I went to visit that website, Global Voices Online.

Rebecca left CNN and started a website in virtual space.  This website is obviously not as famous as CNN, so I was obviously somewhat sorry.  But an event that took place after I returned to Guangzhou made me feel better.

About three weeks ago, a friend recommended an essay for me to read.  This was the special feature article How Foreign Correspondents Covered the Two Congresses.  There was a short paragraph with the heading: "Which is more important: democracy or livelihood?"  There was this paragraph: CNN correspondent FlorCruz said, "But compared to free education, medical insurance and inequality of wealth, democracy cannot be said to be the most urgent thing that the common Chinese people want."

My friend asked me whether these big international media have fallen?  Or does Beijing actually have the ability to co-opt them?  Do they fail to notice the hundreds of thousands of acts of violent resistance each year?  Do they pretend not to see that an undemocratic system creates corruption, wealth disparity and social injustice?  Can a CNN reporter not see the connection between free education, medical insurance, wealth disparity and democracy in a country without democracy and individual human rights?

The big international media want to survive and make money in China and they are capable of doing anything for that purpose.  In this essay, the correspondents from CNN and other international media are happily praising the simplification of the interviewing process!  This reporter forgot that it was wrong to have rigorous controls to begin with.  Besides, he must surely be aware that Beijing knows how to put on a show by showering small favors on big media such as CNN.  Meanwhile, even as these big international media reporters are heaping nauseating praise on Beijing becoming more open, Jie Mu who was the Nanjing correspondent for Boxun (a website started by a Chinese person in the United States) just had his press card confiscated without cause.

A small citizen like me is beyond getting angry over this sort of thing anymore.  But I thought about Rebecca who had resigned as the CNN Beijing bureau chief.  I don't know why she left.  But I am obviously happy for her.  At a time when big media such as CNN are carefully dancing with the wolves in Beijing, Rebecca's website is creating a different voice on the Internet.

Global Voices is a bridge which connects two main bodies in the world that had always been separated.  On one side, there is the vast virtual space based mainly upon civilian reporters who use news websites, blogs and BBS, especially about the events in those countries that lack freedom of press and speech.  On the other side, there is the broad number of readers, especially those readers in the western world.  Global Voices Online has a team of high-quality translators.  I can see all sorts of news events and subjects that people care about, but had been intentionally or unintentionally ignored by mainstream media -- events in Kampuchea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa and North Korea, and obviously plenty more from China.  Topics that interest many Chinese citizens are translated in timely manner for western readers.

This is the first time that I have ever seen such a website.  In the past, when westerners write stuff (especially about the China issue), there are Chinese translations.  But many events that occur in China (including those that its people are interested in) never appear in English translation.  For many things, the Chinese people had to rely on the few big international media and hope that they can be perceptive and present the things that truly matter to the Chinese people in an accurate manner.  Unfortunately, these big media are being misled by Beijing and they are increasingly detached from the Chinese people.  In recent years, the big international media pay attention to Chinese events coming from two extremes: at one extreme are those events that represent the Beijing government; at the other extreme are those events that represent a few extreme individuals or organizations.  As for the voices of the broad masses in the middle, they are seldom heard.

The website co-founded by Rebecca works as a bridge to communication and exchange, and it makes up for the existing inadequacies to some extent.  If I have the chance, I would look for more articles to read and I am willing to introduce this website to more friends.  But at this time, something happened and it was very interesting.

A netizen friend sent me mail to recommend a Guangzhou blogger known as Feng37.  He said that this was an interesting website which contains translations from my novel Fatal Weakness.  I went there and I found that the quality of translation was extremely good.  The use of language attained the level of a native American.  This was strange.  Previously, two Chinese companies wanted to translate this story, but they needed my personal participation because they said that the novel was too complicated (perhaps too many synonyms).  Without my direct participation, the translation could not be easily accomplished.  Since I did not have the time, the projects were postponed.  But all of a sudden, an excellent translator in Guangzhou has quietly started a translation?

Out of curiosity, I asked netizen Feng37 for a meeting.  We agreed to meet in front of the Yuxiu Library so that we go together to listen to the lecture at Lingnan Lecture Hall (this speaker of the weak was professor Qin Hui talking about The Rise of Great Nations) and have lunch afterwards.  When I got there, I saw a few old men and ladies doing their early morning exercises but not my Guangzhou elite person who commanded such fluent English.  I walked around once and then I noted a tall white young man leaning on the railing with a Chinese newspaper in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other hand.  I looked at him and he smiled at me and said hello ...

So this Chinese-language blogger Feng37 was an authentic young Canadian man!  He told me that he came to China five years ago.  He did not attend any school and he learned everything on his own.  I discovered that his fluency in Chinese is just as good as any local citizen on the streets of Guangzhou.  So even though he was a tall and handsome young white man, he has thoroughly melted into Guangzhou city.  He apparently knew many of the media people who came to listen to the speech.  After the meeting, a dozen people went out to eat together.  The person who directed us to the nearest and most suitable restaurant was Feng37, whose English name is John Kennedy.

When Feng37 produced his name card, I was even more astonished.  He is the Chinese-language editor of the Global Voices Online website founded by Rebecca.  Many of the Chinese-to-English translations were done by him, and he had just completed the translation of a long report on the most awesome nail house (China: Nationís first citizen reporter?).  During the meal, Feng37 explained Global Voices Online further and those writers inside and outside of the system and the rights defenders were interested in this English-language website and looked forward to the presentation of the voices of China to the world better and quicker.

During these years, "the voices of China" are everywhere.  Unfortunately, "the voices of China" have actually been the voices of Beijing, the voices of the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party.  Beijing is now rich and powerful (actually, the money belongs to the Chinese people) and they spend their money to extend the functions of the illegal organization known as the Publicity Department (which does not even allow people to use the Constitution of China as the basis of judgment) to overseas.  During these years, the overseas Chinese-language media are full of praises, and even the big western media are been effected to join in the excitement.

But the common Chinese people and the intellectuals who care about the future of China are alert and practical.  Many netizens use websites, blogs, BBS's and QQ groups to express different voices.  But these voices are either overwhelmed by the Beijing rulers (who cannot distinguish between government and party) and their big media monopolies, or else they are intentionally or unintentionally ignored by overseas mainstream media.  When the netizens complain, how many people are listening?  How many people can hear them?  This is not even talking about the western masses who have language barriers.  This was one reason why I have been pessimistic these years.  It is understandable that the ordinary Chinese people may not understand the west, because China is still closely sealed up like an iron bucket.  This is particularly true for the ordinary Chinese people who cannot get on the Internet.  But I also discovered that westerners are actually just as ignorant and misinformed about the lives and thoughts of ordinary Chinese citizens.

I think that Global Voices Online is a successful attempt to break through the various obstructions and barriers.  It is a bridge that connects the various corners of the world.  The first line at the Global Voices Online website is this eye-catching sentence: "The world is talking, are you listening?"

I want to ask: The Chinese people are talking.  Is the world listening?