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What do you need to know as a China watcher in 2023? (Part 1: narrative) | Following the yuan
The 'scary China, weird China' narrative intensifies as the country becomes increasingly like a black box. Let's talk about it (on June 13?🤓).
When I was briefly working at Sixth Tone last year, a Shanghai-based publication that despite its state ties, tells good human-centered stories and tries hard to defy censorship rules, I was stricken on my first day.
My very first piece for the site blew up. It was just a simple daily story about tech giant Tencent Games’ new time-sensitive facial recognition system. The parent who I interviewed was supportive of the rule, and I threw in a counter argument from an 17-year-old gamer for balance.
For a small publication that generates single-digit likes on regular days, We had great Twitter and Reddit engagement. It was one of the highlights at the staff meeting that week.
But when I scrolled down to the comments:
“That’s fucking creepy,” one Reddit user wrote, who got several thousands top votes. “It’s probably easier for china autocratic govt to install a chip in every person to track them,” said a Twitter user wrote.
I was confused. I believed the mother who I talked to had a genuine concern about her 7-year-old playing video games and what the company did was in favor of her. There’s a key difference in whether these comments are made based on 1. the tech and its utility; 2. it’s happening in China.
The sentiment reminds me of the long-lasting “scary China, weird China” narrative that intensified over the last few years.
Before that, the country’s global image honestly only noticeably improved after 2008 Beijing Olympics, years after it won the bid in 2001 and joined the World Trade Organization in the same year. As a result of the opening up, Chinese people could travel more freely with reduced visa restrictions, more cultural exchanges happened, more inbound business and tourism trips took place and the world realised China was less weird than they thought.
Human exchanges, the social fabric that kept the bond between China and the rest of the world, were cut off by the lasting zero-Covid policy and lacking of journalism on the ground, while the government continues to limit Chinese journalists’ capacity to work for foreign publications, kick out foreign journalists and intimidate those who stay (see below).
What’s left is propaganda-driven content, and the people involved in such reporting aren’t the complicated and nuanced humans we know of, but sweeping generalizations and political tools.
What doesn’t help is the country’s ‘wolf-worrior’ diplomacy [Chinese] and seemingly closed-door policies that draw China further away, and make it more seem like ‘the other’, a Sociology concept that defines the person/group as not belonging.
A subset of the ‘scary China’ narrative is a dystopia, and the image is actually quite flattering to a giant country that doesn’t really have all the shit together, as pointed out by Zeyi Yang (not in those exact words) in his latest explainer of China’s social credit system for MIT Tech Review.
“For most people outside China, the words ‘social credit system’ conjure up an instant image: a Black Mirror–esque web of technologies that automatically score all Chinese citizens according to what they did right and wrong. But the reality is, that terrifying system doesn’t exist, and the central government doesn’t seem to have much appetite to build it, either.”
The key to do good reporting and analysis, China or otherwise, is take people as individuals.
Human-centered stories, like this about a Chinese gay couple getting married in Utah over Zoom, this about Chinese social media users writing apology notes in attempt to get their access back, and this one about how after the pandemic, workers in a southern manufacturing town are not rushing back to low-paid jobs, I argue, reflect the complication of human emotions, motives and how they react to the political and business context that dictates their lives. They’re essential for journalism and investment, especially in a world where politics and business are increasingly intertwined.
The facial recognition story that I spent little time and energy on strangely gained traction among some journalism students in China, among questions about the angle, the perceived reaction, why I chose the header (I didn’t), one of their questions for me is how I would re-do the story.
I would simply interview more humans, the feature is built to target the people, therefore aren’t people’s individual views matter the most?
I am, as a Chinese slang says, only throwing away a brick in order to get a gem.
I will publish Part II of the discussion — not just with myself this time — next Tuesday, on the practical tips and tools for you, if your work or life is related to China in any way. And please join me and a group of China journalists, analysts, researchers for the live discussion on June 13 (Tuesday) 8AM EST/8PM CST/2PM CET. Set a reminder here on Twitter or add a one-hour slot to your calendar.
As a translator-turned-journalist, I aim to ensure the accuracy of communication between China and the English-speaking world throughout my career. Please support my work by considering making a pledge.