Saturday, March 6, 2010

Sometimes the More Information You Have, the Less You Know

This blog isn't so cutting edge.

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.

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:
In 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.
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.

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.


Ramesh said...

Wonderful post Mark. Very perceptive , your take on news in China. Yes, sometimes when we step back a little, we understand more.

China is truly a fascinating country.

Richard said...

Good to see you back in the groove Mark with these last few posts. I agree wholeheartedly with your observations above although I am at present trying to get myself a little more acquainted with the other side of this particular coin.

ank - lo lo lo said...

right. but i'm not sure your are saying to inspire, you are speaking out the facts.

Anonymous said...

Going back to River Town for a second, Hessler made an analogy I use constantly about western media and Chinese media and this entry today further reiterates it.

Western media activism is so often times misinterpreted as western governmemtal meddling, because in China, the media is, well, a mouthpiece of the government. I am glad to see small time corruption scandals being exposed in Chinese media nowadays, but could you ever imagine something like Watergate going down in China? yeah, me neither.

Again, great insights from you and Peter and I look forward to how the two of your views compare over the same time period of being in China.

Mark said...

@Ramesh - Thanks a lot. China is indeed a fun place to observe.

@Richard - Go for it! As a blogger, it'll be fun to get well into everything going on in China.

@ank - lo lo lo - I'm just speaking out my observations. Last year, when I spent tons and tons of time trying to read everything going on in China, I learned a lot. But I also got a little bit too focused on minutiae. Stepping back can be useful.

@Hopfrog - Oh, I remember the discussion(s) with Pugster about the Western media! Like you, I agree that a critical media is a very important aspect of a functioning society. It's a shame China doesn't have a better one and America's has devolved so terribly (excluding NPR, of course). ;)

Hessler is the man. Such a great writer and insightful person. Am a few pages from finishing Oracle Bones and beginning Country Driving.

Adam Daniel Mezei said...

Mark, I love the web and nice to meet you. I came across this latest post after catching up at Dan Harris' blog (China Law Blog).

I strongly second your views about Hessler's stuff. Pete definitely has the gift and practically everything he writes which I read affects me similarly: profoundly and with deep lingering sentiment.

I just finished Country Driving last night:

and I'd say it's more on the Factory Girls (Leslie Chang, his wife) tip, but nevertheless there's lots of stuff there to choose and plenty of points of conversational departure. Actually, I like how it reveals more about Hessler's personality more than anything, rather than the various subjects (and there are plenty to be found within its pages) which he chooses to place under his writerly microscope.

If you haven't yet read Rob Gifford's China Road, Hessler's Country Driving will be interesting. Gifford's book will shock you. I prefer the former as a travelogue, but this is Peter Hessler we're talking about. :-)

Good to see you here.

Maitreya Bhakal said...

Good Post.

Many journalists and analysts in the western media often let their own personal prejudice cloud their professionalism.

I'm often surprised and appalled at the amount of misrepresentation that China receives in the west.

It might be simply to make their news more dramatic and headlines eye-catching, or it may simply amount to spreading misinformation about China.

Or, it just might be that some people are concerned about the eventual end of western domination.

The restriction on journalistic access to some regions of China is further used as an excuse to print biased reports and unverified facts. But that is certainly no excuse to print downright lies and misleading statements.

I think that a large part of the western media acts rather irresponsibly when publishing news about China.
- Maitreya

Josh said...

I really enjoy reading Hessler's stuff, too. I actually read Oracle Bones twice, and I think I liked it so much because of how much information I was able to learn about Xinjiang. His bibliography was gold!

Like you, I can't wait to buy the newest one. Glad to see you blogging.

Mark said...

@Adam - Thanks a lot for the comments. I started to read your review but had to stop since I don't want to spoil any of my reading of the book! I'm on page 50 or so. Am looking forward to getting more into it.

Your site looks really well done. Will definitely keep checking in on it. Thanks for those book recommendations as well.

@Maitreya - I can see what you're saying.

Personally, I didn't mean for this post to be a critique of western journalism in China. Sure, there are lots of examples of shoddy work. Especially when it comes to major American media outlets like Fox News, CNN, network news. But when diggin a little bit deeper, I think that there is some good and worthwhile reporting in newspapers and news services.

And like you say, China doesn't make it any easier to do good work with the way they handle those writing the stories.

I suppose the main point of this post is that, a year ago, I was looking to news as a way for me to understand China better. In many ways, it did help me understand the landscape and the nuances of the country in a more defined way. But at the same time, it did have its limitations. Trying to figure what's going on using a news cycle can paint a skewed and sensationalistic picture.

I lived in China for three and a half years. I'm married to a Chinese woman. I have a lot of Chinese friends. Those experiences, more than knowing about geo-political politics or economics, help me understand China.

Despite how much time and energy I've put into China, I still feel perplexed on a frequent basis.

@Josh - It's good to hear from you again. I just checked out your blog and see that you and your Mrs. moved out of Xinjiang. Are you guys going to go back ever? Regardless, I'm glad that you'll have internet access again. Look forward to checking up on your blog again.

Richard said...

Just while I think of it Mark, here's a link that fits nicely with your topic here:

Mark said...

Great link, 李治. Pretty much echoes what I'm trying to say in this article. China's a tough nut to crack.

Richard said...

I'm finishing Country Driving now. I have to admit, I liked Oracle Bones more, and River Town even more. But Hessler set the bar very high with River Town; Country Driving is still a wonderful read, but it can't compete with River Town. What can?

Mark said...

I'm about half-way through with Country Driving and I agree with you, Richard.

Except for me, I think Oracle Bones is my favorite. Then River Town. Then Country Driving.

But as you say, we're splitting hairs. They're all wonderful and I recommend them all to anyone interested in deepening their understanding of China.

A friend of mine recently joked that Neil Conan on NPR's "Talk of the Nation" is his hero. I totally understood what he meant by that. We laughed at how big of nerds we are.

I then said that "Peter Hessler is my Neil Conan" and explained who Hessler is to him. Hessler's writing and thoughts on China are inspiring to me. I'm in awe. He and Michael Lewis (can't wait to read his new book) make me very happy when I read their books.

Anonymous said...

Ah, "the plane dispute" story... yes, a highly significant event in the life of the young author...