Noted China writer, Peter Hessler, just came out with his latest book - Country Driving. Instead of reading that, I'm reading his book that came out in 2006 - Oracle Bones.
I'm loving it. Hessler's perspective on China is great.
This following passage, about journalism in China, on pages 302 - 303 of Oracle Bones, particularly struck me:
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 problem, you exposed it, even if the rascal was the president of the United States.Hessler is implying that this was the case before September 11th. While it may not have been true in the months and years directly following 9/11, I feel that this idea applies again now.
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 or 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 looked 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 journalists were stuck in the old mindset, the old file cabinets:DEMOCRACYIn 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 best intentions become voyeurism.
I didn't want to write 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.
Anyway, that's how it looked before September of 2001.
A year ago at this time, I was blogging every single day about China news. There were a lot of reasons why. The biggest was that I had free time at my job to blog. I was sitting at a desk for hours every day with not enough work to fill the time. Another big reason was that I wasn't living with Qian. I had a lot of time to blog, study, or do whatever I wanted to at night when she was living at her parents' house. And another reason was that the world was still figuring out what it was doing after the meltdown of Lehman Brothers and the other troubled US financial institutions. That was a very turbulent and unsure time (as if now isn't).
I miss blogging as much as I did at that time. I miss being as into the Chinese news scene as I was at that time. But in the grand scheme of things, I think it is good that I have taken a step back from obsessing over every single news story relating to China. Blogspot being blocked in China was the first step in backing away from pouring over every story about China. Moving to America, getting married, readjusting to American culture, and starting work has been a much larger step (or steps).
Hessler's idea that China is largely impervious to the daily/weekly news cycle is very interesting. I agree. No matter what happens, China is going to continue being China and heading down the path it currently is. China is quickly developing and modernizing. The country is constantly changing. But that change is China's constant.
Sure, the country has a massive list of problems - both domestically and internationally. At times, I have a hard time seeing how it functions or will continue to thrive. But it is and is going to continue to.
Subconsciously, I'd come to agree with Hessler's passage above. I'm not trawling Google News for China News stories these days. Sure, I'm too busy to. But I also don't think it's necessary to be a news-junky to have a good understanding of China. Understanding its people and its culture, rather than the obsessing over daily headlines, can be far more insightful in a country that operates in the way China does.
That's not to say I think that China news is unimportant. Keeping abreast of what's going on there, and the rest of the world is important, but I now realize that one can be too caught up in current events.
I'm about to finish Oracle Bones, have a 30% off coupon from Border's bookstore, and am planning on buying Country Driving today. Can't wait to get going on Hessler's newest book, which will cover the time period in China that I was there: 2006 - 2009.