Friday, January 11, 2008

Could the NY Times Have Done a Better Job?

This week, the New York Times managed to surprise me with a report titled "1977 Exam Opened Escape Route Into China’s Elite." It was curious that the Times would take up a subject whose significance is difficult for Americans to comprehend, while a disappointment that the reporter apparently failed to grasp, let alone convey, the significance of the event in question.

This report falls short in three ways: it uses an incongruous headline, unillustrative examples, and an unresourceful reporter.

Incongruous headline: since winter 1977, China has been holding exams for university entrance every year. And every year the exams open an escape route for some people. The top scorers get into the top schools. This is to say, producing elites is hardly the unique significance of the 1977 exam.

Unillustrative examples: so, assuming the headline holds, who are the elites from the 1977 class (which happened to be my class)? According to the report, a couple of unheard of Chinese immigrants in the US, and a couple of teachers in unheard of Chinese universities. Hardly elites, unless being American implies such an ascension. The report mentions in passing a few famous names such as Zhang Yimou, but fails to provide any story about those people.

Wrong reporter: apparently the reporter, who might otherwise be quite competent, was unable to find more representative or interesting sources from the class of 1977. I don't blame him. To have deep connections in China or deep understanding of China's history is too much to ask from an American newsroom journalist.

What I don't understand is why the Times does not use a Chinese writer or reporter who has better grasp and sources for things like the 1977 exam. I have been reading the Times for many years and have yet to see a major report on China with a Chinese-name byline.

If I were to write a report on this subject, I would not focus on how the 1977 exam changed a few people's life but instead how it generated a class with no precedence or antecedence. It was the first and the last exam of the lost generation of idealists, and it picked out a collection of the most aspiring students who, with no university to go to for ten years, had labored at the bottom of society and gained real understanding of China's problems. This unique, often painful, experience was what made them a class with unparalleled dedication to learning and, subsequently, a practical mainstay of China's transition to modernization.

I would have no problem to find representative members of this class.


Charles Burton said...

Yes. I agree with you. The experience of being zhiqing and other forms of experience of life of workers and farmers is key. But where did the high ideals we all earnestly espoused in that spirit of comradeship and optimism in the dorm and cafeteria go 30 years later?

Xujun Eberlein said...

You are spot on. A good topic for a discussion in its own right. Let's come back to that.