SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST, MARCH 11, 2004
Too high a price for being quoted
BY PAUL MOONEY IN BEIJING
China Wakes, By Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
Times Books, New York
Journalists who excel at writing should be approached with caution. Their style can take on an importance of its own, overshadowing the facts, delicately pushing them to the side.
Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof, reporters for The New York Times in Beijing from 1988-1994, are a textbook example of what reporters should do to get on top of their beat. This wife-husband reporting team assembled an impressive array of Chinese acquaintances, traveled to every province of China, and read all the right books. Yet, it would be hard to imagine two people seemingly more naïve, or more insensitive.
Could two Pulitzer prize-winning correspondents be so uninformed?
Could it be they took the advice of The New York Times’ veteran Abe Rosenthal to heart, who told them before they left for China: “Don’t pay attention to what has been written before you. Just go out there and write what you see and hear.”
Kristof is shocked to learn the communists of the 1940s were not always the good guys (none of the books he read in preparation mention this). He says that during the “first few decades of communist rule, people got used to the idea of honesty in government”, despite the widely reported excesses of the Party from the early 1950s. And so he is shocked by the “ubiquitousness of corruption” in China today.
Hewarns that when the skeletons are let out of the closet it could be traumatic for the Chinese. But are there many skeletons in the closet that the Chinese do not know about? Those who have survived that “honesty in government”-an estimated 30 million did not – are certainly aware.
An optimist about the changes in China, Kristof feels “betrayed” by the brutal 1989 crackdown on the democracy movement.
Visiting an inland village, WuDunn is upset the worst poverty she has even seen and cannot sleep that night. After becoming more familiar with China, she discovers that women in China do not have it as good as she earlier believed, confiding there is something “wrong with the picture of communist equality that I had initially absorbed”.
The pair is surprised on a visit to Zhongnanhai, the home of top Chinese leaders, to discover no coffee makers, dishwashers or waste disposals. How many Western homes have such gadgets? Cake box and bottle of wine in hand, WuDunn sets off one day for the home of the deposed leader Zhao Ziyang with hopes of helping him celebrate his birthday. She gets no further than the front door.
This is great colour, it is what the editors and the readers love to read. But is it a fair portrayal of China?
I would be kidding myself if I said I believed the Kristofs were naïve. The more I read, the more I felt I was being manipulated by two clever writers, masters of the art of sensationalism. This would be terribly amusing if not for the Chinese who were trampled over when the Kristofs passed through China. Kristof gives due credit to the “thousands of Chinese” with whom they talked. “Without them, and the courage they showed in meeting us, this book could never have been written.”
The problem is that more than a few paid the price. Kristof tells of a young Tibetan who is interrogated and has his motorcycle confiscated for offering him a ride. A young farmer and a student are forced to flee their homes, becoming fugitives, after be-friending the two. There are others.
Kristof says Chinese security watches his every move, but still tries to visit the home of the dissident Gao Xin. He waves away the possibility of danger, saying he was “particularly careful” while driving there. One page later he talks of people going to jail for life for helping foreign journalists. He expresses fears that a meeting with labour activist Han Dongfang might get Han into trouble, but says: “Still, I desperately wanted to see him…. I figured that he was a consenting adult, aware of the risks of talking to the press.”
Fair enough. But when a flustered Han attempts to shield his wife, Kristof insists on finding out her name and learns she is pregnant, but does not have permission to have a baby. “After some soul-searching, I mentioned that fact in my article. I thought it was relevant to their story that the authorities might punish them by forcing Chen to have an abortion….” This is despite Kristof’s admission that had he not mentioned it, the authorities might never have known about it.
Kristof insists he must use the name of Xu Yiruo, a young Catholic, in his story. “I laid out as fairly as I could the consequences for him, and I acknowledged that it would make it more difficult for him to escape from China,” explains ever-conscientious Kristof. The frightened man bravely agrees, and with tears in his eyes asks: “Do you think they’ll do anything to my parents? What about my sisters?” Would it not have been better to use a pseudonym?
During an interview with Fei Yuan, a man suspected of betraying fellow democracy activists, Kristof seethes with rage and wants to reach across and shake the man for his cowardice. The only discernible difference is that Fei’s betrayal was out of fear. Kristof’s betrayal of his friends is for a good read. My sympathies lie more with Fei.
Kristof expresses dissatisfaction that China has no Sakharov, and has the audacity to ask: “Where did the Chinese keep their principles? I began asking my friends why they were moral wimps.” He answers his own question, saying they do it for survival, and he gallantly admits he would do the same if he were Chinese. But does he really think Chinese are moral wimps?
China Wakes is a disappointment. Many of the stories- such as the reported cannibalism during the Cultural Revolution – appeared long ago in the pages of The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. Others were widely reported by the international and Chinese media. A huge gap is the omission of serious discussion of the wrenching economic changes taking place in China or any mention of China’s economic tsar, Vice Premier Zhu Rongji.
I cannot say the Kristofs did not mean well. Maybe they thought they were helping by publishing the excesses of the state.
Sadly, though, the commercial success of their book will be at the expense of many Chinese who considered the Kristofs their friends.The men had lost the battle to save their homes, but they had not given up the war to save other threatened structures. As Mr Fang takes the book, his face breaks into a characteristic grin. 'They're still at it,' he says with obvious relish.
© 2013 Paul J. Mooney