The third interview in our ongoing series is with Tania Branigan, who covers China for the Guardian. I’m very grateful to her, not only for taking the time to sit down with me but also for helping me dig up lots of relevant links to stories that help contextualize some of the things she says in this interview. Enjoy!
How long have you been in China?
I got here in January of 2008, just in time for the run-up to the Beijing Olympics and all the big news stories that hit that year. I’d wanted to come out here for a while and then we pitched it to the paper because we thought it would be a good time to increase the staff […] I think inevitably [The Guardian] has been thinking about what you do in the long run in terms of staffing, because historically for British papers there’s always been a big bias towards Europe and the States, and so you used to have this crazy number of people scattered across those places and one person doing the whole of China. And I think everybody has been looking at redressing that.
Do you have “news assistants” [Chinese people who help with reporting and research] and how does that work?
Yes, almost everyone does. Even people who are superb Chinese speakers in many cases need somebody to help out just with the volume of research and endless sending of faxes. They are not allowed to do independent reporting, but they help us with background material and interviews, and a lot of them are very smart, very talented people.
Do you find Chinese people are easier or harder to approach for interviews or stories, compared with people in the UK?
It totally varies depending on the subject. I did a piece on thirty years of economic reform when the anniversary came up and what really struck me was that I was walking up to people in a very classy shopping mall saying, “How much do you earn? How much do you save? What did your parents earn? What was the last thing you bought? How much did it cost?” and I guess in the States you’re maybe slightly more open about that kind of thing, but I think you might well get punched if you tried that in the UK. So there are things like that, where people are much more open.
Sometimes people are nervous about talking to the press, and not necessarily about the obvious things. There are obviously some very sensitive subjects but some people can be more anxious about saying anything. But it really does vary. I know people sometimes say ‘the Western media just go off and talks to the same usual suspects, you only go and talk to liberal people,’ but that just isn’t true [For example: “China at the crossroads: Young, Gifted, and Red”]. Anyway, when you talk to people you never know what you’re going to get. Sometimes you jump in a taxi and the driver will rail about the Party without knowing that you are a journalist or without you raising politics in any way. And other times people who you think will be pissed off are actually quite mild and moderate.
There’s a problem that the press now generally has, which is that people are quite cynical of the media. They think you’re only there to get a certain angle or they think you’re going to distort and twist what they say. That applies in China and in the UK, it’s basically the same sort of sentiment: “I don’t know what you will do with this [story].”
Do you think the so-called Western media is “biased” on China?
There’s a lot of fantastic reporting on China. Sometimes I see stuff which is misleading, or badly reported – not usually from people who are based here. I have to say, I think there’s bad reporting and misleading reporting about everywhere in the world. If you look at what British newspapers write about Britain, you could tear your hair out pointing to the misrepresentations or the distortions. So I don’t think that’s something that’s unique to China.
I think the biggest problem you have as a foreign correspondent is that your readers have a knowledge of the context when you’re talking about your own country. People know how common it is to encounter corruption or not be able to get your child into a certain school, or they know how much of a problem it is to buy property or for police brutality to happen or any of those things. But when you’re a foreign correspondent people really don’t have the same background knowledge. So you can try to contextualize to some degree, but ultimately we’re not here to be writing an encyclopedia of China. Yes, we’re trying to write things that enlighten people and I think it’s important to add context where you can, but news by its nature tends to be what’s striking or important.
Is what we write fully representative of every aspect of China or does it sum up the total Chinese experience? No, I’m sure it doesn’t, but that’s not really the job of news.
The other thing is what Johann Hari has described as the “what about” factor, which is: you write an article about X in China and someone says “Well, what about the Iraq war?” or anything else. My response is that we write a lot about bad news wherever it happens, including in Britain. If people want to go to the UK and criticize the UK, I’m down with that as well. I don’t have a problem with it.
I think maybe that comes out of a misconception that journalists are speaking for the West. People talk about misunderstanding China as a monolithic bloc but I think sometimes people are guilty of thinking that not just the Western media but the West is a monolithic bloc as well. To take an obvious example, the Guardian is a center-left paper that’s always been a liberal voice – it was set up to support social reform…we’re not owned by shareholders, we’re set up through a trust that basically exists to promote fair, honest, ethical journalism. We opposed the Iraq war, for example. We’ve written a lot about working conditions. So the idea that we are the voice of the British government, or of Western capitalist fat cats, is bizarre. It’s certainly not something [The Guardian] would recognize.
With that said, we all frame things from our own perspective. You try to be aware of that. You have to write a story that is going to speak to your readers, so it’s not bad to start with a “Western question,” but what I don’t like is when you see a story that’s basically “This place is backwards, how long will it take to catch up?”
To give an example, if you write about gay culture in China, it’s very easy to write those stories about how gay people really struggle here and how there aren’t any out role models and there’s this huge pressure to have kids — all of which is true — but I think it’s also quite useful to point out what a lot of Chinese gays and lesbians have said to me which is that on the other hand, you don’t have the kind of aggression and hostility toward gays and lesbians here that you have in the States. You don’t get gay-bashers. [Relevant piece: Beijing’s ‘happy couples’ launch campaign for same-sex marriages]
So to use a model of “has China caught up yet” is not that helpful or informative. I think what’s more informative is ‘to what extent do we recognize this and to what extent is it different?’
Having been here for several years, do you have to consciously think about the difference between your context and your readers’ when you’re writing a story?
It’s very easy when you have any specialty — I used to do politics in the UK — to lose touch with your primary readers and actually, I’m not writing for 500 people who live in Beijing, I’m supposed to be writing for an audience that doesn’t know very much about China in many cases, and doesn’t necessarily have a burning desire to find out more. It’s really easy to take things for granted, but sometimes you have to state the obvious.
I think it’s actually quite a useful discipline for the way one thinks about things as well. I like complexity and nuance, but it makes you think, OK, if I boil this down, what am I actually saying?
Context is important because a lot of our readers don’t know a lot about China so if, for example, you talk about inequality in China growing fast I think it’s quite useful to say that it’s at about the same level it is in the US, because that means something to people. You don’t always have enough space to include that much context, but it’s sometimes useful to include those kinds of details. Or when you’re talking about how bad somebody’s standard of living is, it may be relevant to say that living standards have risen considerably in China over the last thirty years. That’s something that casual readers aren’t aware of necessarily.
Do you find the Beijing crowd of China watchers and bloggers annoying from time to time because people can be critical of pieces that report things they consider obvious?
The good thing about all the blogging in China is that it keeps us on our toes. People will say to me, ‘Why do you quote that person, I don’t think they’re credible’ or whatever and it’s often quite useful and informative because we’re not experts.
It’s always difficult when you see somebody write about something that you know about and have passion for because you think, ‘Well, I would have done a bit more with that, and why didn’t they quote so-and-so’. But most people are pretty reasonable about it. I’ve had a couple of times where people have said ‘I didn’t like that piece you wrote, and why did you do it that way,’ and when you write back and say ‘This is my thinking, and that’s why I chose that fact,’ actually people engage and quite often I’ve had really nice emails from people saying, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, that was a bit snarky, and you made a perfectly fair point.’
How much of what you write about do you decide yourself, and how much is suggested other people at the Guardian in the UK?
It’s mostly directed by me, which is one of the nice things about being a specialist – if you can be a specialist when you’re covering a country of 1.3 billion people. So to a great extent it’s me ringing up and saying ‘Here’s this story that’s come up today’ or ‘Here’s this snippet I’ve seen, let’s have a look at this.’ Or there are certain things I’m kind of interested in long-term, certain themes, so I think about how to do them. And some of it will come out of the London end, people say ‘We’re interested in this issue at the moment, what’s it like in China?’ or ‘I heard about this, that sounded quite interesting…’ But it’s more led by me, I’d say. Obviously they get to say yes or no to whatever I pitch.
Being a specialist on “everything in China except the environment” — the environment is covered by Jonathan Watts, who has recently written an excellent book about it called When a Billion Chinese Jump — is it difficult to develop sources because there are so many different areas of life you’re responsible for?
There are certain people you get to know, sometimes partly as sounding boards; people who are usually informative on the broad themes or can explain to you particular areas, but I think it’s quite a difficult place to develop sources. That’s not just because you’re looking at such a broad area – I think it’s the nature of things here; certainly in terms of Chinese officialdom. I think you just have to accept that that’s the nature of the beast.
It is slightly strange coming from Westminster, where, if you have a row in Westminster you’ll have heard about it within 24 hours, you’ll probably have a pretty good rundown within the week, and certainly within a few years you’ll have four different versions of exactly what happened and who said what to whom at 10:39 on Sunday the 12th of October.
But there’s so much here [in China] that just remains opaque.
Is there a favorite person you’ve interviewed?
The thing I love about China is that it’s full of people with fascinating stories. If you talk to anybody over 40, and probably frankly anybody over 20, they’ve got this incredible tale to tell because they have lived changes that are bigger than I think most people from the UK or the US have experienced in their lifetime. That’s one of the things that draws me here, that you’ve got these extraordinary human stories.
We did a story that was all about a guy who used to be a military missile researcher. He tried to get married three times and was told he couldn’t because his prospective brides had a bad class background and so forth. He’s now in his retirement, and he has become a matchmaker and “matchmakes” people for free in Shenzhen. He takes this very very seriously and says it’s his way of “serving the people.”
I thought this was really fascinating because you would think he would think that young people have it so easy these days, but actually he was saying it’s terrible because now it’s all about money, many people are really lonely, and young people are just worried about whether you can get a car or a house and they don’t realize that marriage is for the long haul. And it seemed to me that it spoke to a lot of things about China’s changes and, in a way, the changes you see in other countries as well.
Do you have a favorite story you’ve written?
No, I like the variety. Obviously I’m prouder of some stories than others […] One of the things I like about this job is that you don’t always know what the story is when you go out. You’ve pitched the story, so you know what you are planning to write about, but then you can find things out that are quite surprising and quite counter-intuitive.
A really good example would be when I went to Yushu to cover the earthquake. I was talking to this Tibetan man who was saying the house had collapsed on him and he and his family were inside. He hauled one of his grandkids out because he was right beside the kid, but then instead of checking the rest of his family, he ran along the hillside to see if the lama was affected. When the lama was injured, he was going to try and rescue him, but the lama said ‘No, get back to your family.’ And he was also saying, ‘Well, I’ve lost three grandchildren, but the fact that the monastery has collapsed is much worse. It’s more serious.’
Now, that’s just not the way I think. It’s not something I instantly empathize with. I can’t see myself in that situation. And to me, that was really interesting because it really did challenge the way I think or the things I value. It’s not that he was wrong, it’s just different. And the difference is what, to me, was really fascinating.
From a news perspective, do you feel like there’s just more happening in China than in the West? Sometimes it feels that way to me, but perhaps I’m just more used to the West…
Well, it’s huge, and it’s developing very fast. You’ve got this enormous number of people going through this incredible social transition which is touching everything from how much money they save to the way that people fall in love […] It just feels as if no part of people’s lives is untouched here.
Actually, changes don’t always smack you in the face. I went to Mongolia [the country, not Inner Mongolia] recently, and I was writing about the herders, who are about a third of the population. On one level, it’s sort of amazing that they have this nomadic lifestyle where they live in the traditional gers and they have their goats and they ride around on horses. It looks as if almost nothing has changed since Genghis Khan’s day. And yet at the same time, when you actually look at it, why are there so many goats? Well, because cashmere prices shot up with all the luxury buyers in the West. They all went and bought goats, which overgrazed because goats actually damage those kinds of ecosystems, so then you’ve got a problem with overgrazing. Then you get the financial crisis, cashmere prices plummet, and suddenly you realize that all these herders who, in a superficial sense are living this unchanged, timeless lifestyle – actually they’re really intricately caught up in the modern global economy. Nobody is really insulated anymore.
So when you’ve got that played out over a country of 1.3 billion people…
With the increasing popularity of blogging and micro-blogging, we’re seeing stories that previously journalists could never have published in the domestic news finding their way onto the internet. What are your thoughts on that?
It’s easy for outsiders to see the internet as being all about the things that are controlled in China, but actually what’s really interesting is the things that are opening up, the spaces that are less controlled and the places where people are contesting the boundaries. And the fact that so many of these journalists, they write these stories and you look at what’s appeared and think, ‘that’s really interesting.’ And then you go and look at their blog and you think ‘Blimey!’ because there’s more stuff there.
In many ways it seems to me that the internet in China is more important or more powerful than it is elsewhere, because the press are so fettered in so many ways. Yes, things are taken down from the internet, but it’s a more important space, and discussions that would probably go on in the mainstream media in most places are conducted on the internet here.
[Referring back to an earlier part of the conversation], another thing you sometimes see in foreign coverage […] is the tendency to frame people in less developed countries as people who things happen to, rather than people who do things. To me what’s interesting is that with something like the internet, yes, there are lots of restrictions, but at the same time there are lots of people who are pushing at the edges. They are using it to highlight injustices. Maybe not always very successfully. Maybe sometimes the repercussions for them aren’t particularly good. But these are people who are very active; they’re not just sitting there being kicked around. [Relevant piece: How China’s internet generation broke the silence
Do you get feedback from readers about which stories they like or don’t like?
Sometimes. The paper doesn’t tell us what is most successful and what isn’t. We have a tally of our most read stories on the site, and sometimes I’ll be in there. I have to say, I think the most read story I did by a long way, certainly last year and probably in all the time I’ve been here, was a story about the world’s longest sea bridge.
It wasn’t something I’d been pursuing for a long time, it’s just one of those things where for some reason a story takes off. I have to say I never anticipated [it getting as many reads as it did] when I wrote it, and it certainly wouldn’t be the story I chose to point to as being my biggest success.
You can read Tania Branigan’s latest stories here, and follow her on Twitter here.