Mike Chinoy’s documentary reviews Chinese history

By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly


A multi-part documentary explores Chinese issues.

Mike Chinoy is a Senior Fellow at the University of Southern California (USC)’s U.S.-China Institute. He served as a foreign correspondent to CNN for 24 years, including eight years’ service as the network’s Beijing Bureau Chief, from 1987 to 1995, for which he collected Emmy, Peabody, and Dupont awards.  He is the writer and narrator of the new series “Assignment China,” providing an overview of Chinese history over the last century.  He took some questions over e-mail.

NWAW:  Please describe your journalism background.  What were your earliest assignments and for which publications?  What were the most important lessons you learned at school and in your early years as a professional?

Mike Chinoy:  I became interested in journalism in the mid-1970s because I was interested in China. Back in those days, becoming a foreign correspondent seemed to be one of the few ways that an American could get to China. I’d done a Chinese Studies degree at Yale and had been lucky enough to get on a student trip to China in 1973. That whetted my appetite. So after doing a Master’s in journalism at Columbia, I moved to Hong Kong in late 1975 and became a stringer for CBS News.

I was quite lucky, because 1976, my first full year of trying to make it as a foreign correspondent, turned out to be one of the most tumultuous years in modern Chinese history. It began with the death of Premier Zhou Enlai in January, followed by the horrendous Tangshan earthquake in July, which killed 250,000 people, the death of Chairman Mao in September, and the ouster of his widow, Jiang Qing and her so-called radical “Gang of Four” in October. So for someone with limited journalism experience but some knowledge of China, it was an opportunity to break in.

I originally thought I’d spend a year in Hong Kong and move on. Here I am now, still working on China issues.

I think one of the most important lessons I learned is that having a specialization — in my case China — matters. In the world of journalism, “parachute journalism” — where someone flies in for  the immediate crisis or big story and then flies out — was common when I began and has become even more common, especially for TV. There is no question that a good journalist, who is a quick study and has a capable local assistant or interpreter, can do terrific work. But with a story as complex as China, I found that knowing the language, having a familiarity with the culture, politics, history etc. made a big difference in terms of the kind of insights and observations I could offer to the audience.

NWAW:  What were your early experiences with China like?  How has the country changed over the decades?

Mike Chinoy: My first trip to China was in 1973. Chairman Mao was still alive and the Cultural Revolution, which he had launched in the mid-1960s to revive China’s “revolutionary spirit,” was still underway. The country was dominated by Maoist ideology. Everyone wore little Mao buttons on their lapels. At every factory, commune, school, or work unit we visit, our hosts spouted the party line. This always involved praising Mao for all their alleged achievements.

At that time, the state controlled virtually every aspect of peoples’ lives — where they lived, where they worked, where they studied, how they dressed, what they could read, watch, or listen to, whether they could travel.

Internationally, the country was isolated, and for Americans, it was still a remote, exotic destination. The experience of being a foreigner there was strange and unsettling. Large crowds gathered whenever my group walked down the street. It was as if we had come from another planet.

Today, China has changed almost beyond recognition. Thirty years of economic reform and opening to the world has turned the country into an economic powerhouse. Its factories have become the workshop of the world, and its cities are full of skyscrapers, traffic jams, luxury hotels, and enormous wealth. China’s people have more personal freedom — as distinct from political liberty —than at any time since the communist revolution.  The rise of China has become arguably the most important trend in the world today.

However, the scale of the changes, compressed into such a short period — in historical terms — has also produced a host of internal tensions and challenges. These include a widening gap between the rich and poor and the prosperous eastern coast and the less developed west, rampant corruption, an environmental crisis of staggering proportions, compounded by the lack of a social safety net and an authoritarian political system.

The central challenge for foreign correspondents covering China is how to make sense of this astonishing transformation, and how to explain it to audiences that, while generally interested in China, are unfamiliar with the country. How American journalists have tried to do that is one of the central issues explored in “Assignment China.”

China has never been an easy assignment. A combination of an inward-looking culture long suspicious of foreigners, and a tightly controlled political system in which the Communist Party has long sought to monopolize the flow of information, has made getting the story a daunting challenge. Until recent years, reporters had to get permission in advance to travel out of Beijing, and official approval for interviews.

One of the fascinating things about the crisis in Beijing in 1989 was that, for a brief period, as the protestors took over the city center, it became possible to talk to people with virtually no restrictions. And in the heady atmosphere before the crackdown, ordinary citizens were willing to say what they thought in a way that I had not previously encountered.

NWAW:  What in your view, are the most important aspects of Chinese history given by this set of documentaries?

Mike Chinoy:  There is an old saying that journalists write the first rough draft of history. One of the goals of the “Assignment China” series is to explain how that was done, and what it was like to do so. The journalists featured in these films covered virtually all the key stories in China from the late 1940s onwards–the triumph of Mao’s revolution, the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, the Cultural Revolution, the opening to the United States, the death of Mao, the reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping, Tiananmen Square etc. They were witnesses to many of these and other events. However, from 1949 until the 1970s, China was largely closed to American journalists, so a whole generation of correspondents became “China-Watchers,” covering the country from Hong Kong, in the process developing a whole net of tools–media analysis, refugee interviews etc.–to help them figure out what was going on.

In looking through the coverage over these many years, what was striking to me was the degree to which the reporters got the broad outlines right. Despite frequent errors and inaccurate or incomplete information at key moments, my own view is that they did accurately convey the main trends, issues, and developments in a country that is extremely difficult to cover.

NWAW:  Which are the most important aspects of the Tiananmen Square saga?  Do you feel we are losing perspective on the entire thing?  What needs to be remembered most?

Mike Chinoy: The legacy of Tiananmen Square is a complex one. In terms of journalism, especially TV,  it was unquestionably a watershed moment–the first time an upheaval on that scale in a previously remote and isolated nation was broadcast live around the world. The coverage of Tiananmen was full of what were, at the time, dramatic technical breakthroughs, which set the stage for the next dramatic development in news, the live coverage of the Iraq war in 1991.

Tiananmen obviously was also a turning point for China. It led to the crushing of the student movement, but also convinced China’s then-senior leader Deng Xiaoping that the country had to accelerate market-style economic reforms for the Communist Party to hold on to power. The fallout from 1989 was one of the factors behind Deng’s push in the early 1990s to speed up reforms, which laved the way for the remarkable economic development China has witnessed since then.

At the same time, however, the power of the images from the coverage of Tiananmen, such as the man in front of the tank, also had an enormous impact on perceptions of China around the world. This influenced the policies of many Western governments, and, to a surprising degree, still helps to shape public discussion about China outside the country. (end)

For more information on the “Assignment China” series, visit http://china.usc.edu/ShowArticle.aspx?articleID=2526

Andrew Hamlin can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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