My Short March Through China

Gary Rosen – Commentary

Copyright Commentary
Of the ways one might choose to visit China for the first time, traveling with a delegation of American journalists, as I did in September, is not ideal. In addition to the usual frustrations of group touring, there is the burden of being “media friends,” as our Chinese hosts liked to call the nine of us (six from newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and Boston Globe, two from magazines, and one from a Texas television station). Our primary job was to attend official meetings—that is, to sit at long tables in dreary conference rooms, listening to bureaucrats run through their talking points and repeat the Delphic slogans (“peaceful rise,” “harmonious society,” “putting people first”) with which the Communist party makes known its priorities. If we were lucky, the bureaucrats spoke English; often, we had to endure line-by-line translations. Though the standard tourist stops were also on our itinerary—we wandered the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, sampled the shopping bounty of Shanghai, cruised Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor—free time was scarce. Leisurely exploration was not on the agenda.
But such travel has its advantages, too, especially in terms of access to the Chinese government, an organism notoriously closed to outsiders. One co-sponsor of our trip was the East-West Center, a Honolulu-based education and research institute funded primarily by the U.S. government and involved in various kinds of foreign-policy wonkery and trans-Pacific bridge-building. The other co-sponsor, the Better Hong Kong Foundation (BHKF), is a very different sort of enterprise.
When Fortune ran a cover story in 1995 entitled “The Death of Hong Kong,” arguing that the British colony’s handover to China in two years would make it a “global backwater,” the adverse publicity caused a panic among local business interests. Some of the savvier tycoons—many of them with substantial investments on the mainland—launched the BHKF in order to provide a brighter picture. In the common parlance of Hong Kong politics, the foundation is “pro-Beijing”: it has friends in high places and the standing to ask them for favors. As one member of our group, a writer who covers Asia for the Economist, told me about our itinerary, “Meetings like this are no easy thing to get.”
For the Chinese government, every visitor, even the casual tourist, represents an opportunity to make a positive impression—to let the world know of China’s progress under the sage guidance of the Communist party. But American journalists fresh off the plane are potential troublemakers and have to be handled with special care. Predisposed to criticize government policy and to distrust official pronouncements, they have to be brought around gently to the desired image of a dynamic, prudently modernizing China. There are several ways to try to shape the experience of “media friends” so as to bring about this result: through flattery and bonhomie, with creature comforts and small luxuries, and, most of all, by regulating the sort of contacts they make during their short stay.
To be on the receiving end of such treatment is no bad deal, I can attest; my two-week trip was a pleasure in many ways and, for a China neophyte like myself, an extraordinary education. But I was often reminded of Paul Hollander’s Political Pilgrims (1981), the cold-war classic about the manipulation of wide-eyed Western intellectuals who visited the Communist bloc. Today’s China is not the Soviet Union or Castro’s Cuba, and none of us was a credulous fellow traveler. But we, too, were subjected to what Hollander called, in his memorable phrase, the “techniques of hospitality.”
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