Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Jack He and the Media: Running in Circles

(image from secretchina.com)

In February of this year I analyzed the case of Anna Mae He with sympathy to the He family and hoped their return to China would bring peace to the young girl. After my article was published on New America Media, one of the reader emails I received was from Ann Marie Curling, who had been corresponding with the He family. "I find him a very charming and kind man. I'm glad to have made his acquaintance," Ms. Curling commented on Jack He (贺绍强) in her email to me. In the next email she mentioned that she might be contacting me for help on one thing on that subject in the next week or so, "with Mr. He's permission of course."

Half a year later, one day in August while I browsed the Chinese oversea students and immigrants forum, mitbbs.com, I was surprised to see a post that reprinted a report from wmctv.com, "Anna Mae He: Coming Home?" That Chinese post itself was titled "给挺贺绍强的爱国人士一记耳光" – A slap on the face of patriotic supporters of He Shaoqiang [Jack He]. Under the post were quite a few comments that derided Jack He's "shameless" behavior. (Now the link to that post no longer works.)

If memory serves me right, early this year when the He family was about to leave for China, Jack He said in an interview that he would never return to the US again. I had thought that vow was a bit too dramatic, but I certainly did not expect him to change face so soon. After reading the wmctv report and watching the video, I shook my head at Jack He's plea for help to bring his family back to the US. There is a Chinese adage ‘事不过三’ – nothing passes the third time. First Jack He solicited the Bakers' help to raise his daughter, which led to a seven-year lawsuit between the two families; second Jack He plead for, and received, the American Chinese community's help to finance his lawsuit, which he eventually won while the Bakers who got no outside support went bankrupt; now, the third time, Jack He is pleading for help from his American sympathizers so he can return. Whether to return to America is his personal choice, but why he has to get a lot of people to open their purses time and again, that's beyond me. Apparently generosity from kind hearts can also feed greed.

Still, at the time I regarded what Jack He was doing as an individual affair. Just as I thought my personal curiosity was waning on this subject, two weeks ago the Chinese Y-Weekend interview brought another twist to the case, in which Jack He categorically announced that "I definitely don't want to return to the US." Despite the interviewer's obvious reservations on Jack He's accusations against the wmctv report, the published interview is nonetheless titled 美媒扭曲报道"贺梅回国" – American media's distorted report "Anna Mae He: Coming Home". In the interview Jack He denied his own words broadcast in the wmctv video, however he was hardly consistent or convincing in doing so: at first, under the interviewer's persistent questioning, Jack He admitted that he did say it was a mistake to bring Anna Mae back to China in a hurry; a moment later he changed his words, saying the word "mistake" was used when he was talking about Anna Mae's entering an international school, not about her returning to China.

On the other hand, Jack He's criticism of Americans as "megalomaniacs" and "psychologically unbalanced" could easily resonate with many Chinese. "In their [Americans'] eyes," Jack He said, "America is the best in the world. Everything America does is good. Any thought different from theirs is wrong. … They think they are considering [my] kids' interest; in fact the interest is according to their standard." There is a bit of truth in this, but he applied the criticism to the wrong reporter and I think he knew that.

Two days after the Y-Weekend interview appeared, a journalist blog in Memphis titled Mediaverse published a partial English translation of the Chinese interview and a response from wmctv's reporter, Brook Sanders, who did the story "Anna Mae He: Coming Home?" Sanders said,

Since our most recent story, Anna Mae Coming Home, Mr. He has contacted me several times requesting help to return to the US, even asking me to get the show "Friends" on dvd so that he may use it as a tool to teach English.

Meanwhile, on September 11th, Chinanews.com published a commentary titled "看美媒如何导演罗生门" or "Look How American Media Directed Rashomon", in which the commentator claims that, after reading the Y-Weekend interview, he found the wmctv video indeed had traces of editing and agenda setting. The article, in turn, echoed Jack He's accusation of how "American media" distorted the story and on purposely changed the complaint about an international school to the complaint about the country (China).

At this point it occurred to me, now that the media in two of the world's largest countries were running in circles painted by one man named Jack He, or He Shaoqiang, the case no longer belongs to the category of personal life style choice. Rather I wanted to know what was really going on, and who was reporting it correctly. I decided to contact Ann Marie Curling again in search for the truth.

And here is one of Ms. Curling's emails (quoted with permission) in response to my question whether it is true that Jack He was trying to bring his family back to the US:

"Well, according to the latest news story out of China he denies ever trying to do that. But, what I find very strange is that he contacted me twice within the past two months begging for my assistance to do just that. So I put out feelers all over the internet contacts that I know, etc. Even searched for people in Memphis through my LinkedIn contacts. Now he's saying that some reporter took what he said out of context which is so incredibly pretentious because that's indeed what he was trying to get me to assist him with. It's all strange, I think in some ways that Jack He loves the limelight. In another email he asked me to purchase DVDs for him so he could play them on his computer since the ones he gets over there don't work on his American computer. I don't know what to think of him truthfully."

Consequently, Ms. Curling forwarded me her email correspondences with Jack He, who wrote Ms. Curling 5 times between June 3rd and August 4th. In four of his emails Jack He requested Ms. Curling's help to return to USA, which she did try, and one email requested that she buy him DVDs of the TV series "Friends." She told him that it would cost her a lot of money in shipping, etc, and she wasn't sure what to get. She never got another response on that subject.

I must point out that Jack He did express his motivation as the concern of his American-born kids. In one of his emails, Jack He wrote: "My kids miss USA very much, and they don't have the peace of mind in China. Please help us return." Judging from those emails, I have no reason to doubt the genuineness of his concern for the kids.

However such genuineness was all lost when he lied to the Y-Weekend reporter by betraying his American sympathizers, including Brook Sanders and Ms. Curling. This way he effectively burned the bridge for his kids to return to the US.

Ms. Curling later wrote me again: "The more I think about this now (that you’ve brought it to my attention again) this guy is definitely a media hog. It just doesn’t make sense to me. How he would say that a reporter is mischaracterizing what he said when he was actively asking me to help him find work in the US. It just doesn’t jive."

Jack He's motivations for lying could be anything; it could be for media attention, or for saving face (as Mediaverse reasoned), or even for fear of practical or political consequences. But at this point I'm less interested in that than in how he has so easily fooled the media – apparently reporters in both countries had bought into his sincerity.

The answer seems: by combining lies and truth. When part of what he says rings true, we tend to believe in the entire thing and ignore the false part. We believe what we want. For Americans, and American reporters, it is obvious he should want to return. For Chinese, and Chinese reporters, it is obvious he should want to stay. What he really wants, who knows, but we should not give much credence to the words he says, much less tie his words to our feelings toward either country.

9 comments:

chamberoftenthousandflowers said...

Until I read this article I knew next to nothing of this affair - 2 hours of trawling across the internet I know a little more but understand very little.

The story begins in a straightforward way and He Shaoqiang does seem to have hit some very bad luck in his early years in America. After that nothing is simple.

There is nothing wrong about a change of mind; everyone makes mistakes, but so many times? Whether He Shaoqiang is stressed, feeling confused or just wants to be in the limelight, who knows.

Taking He Mei from the Bakers may have been the right thing to do, but placing her in this situation I think not.

CLC said...

Jack He is obviously a person with serious character flaws. However, I don't think the media was fooled. The reporters from either country got what they wanted from him.

Xujun Eberlein said...

CoTTF - agreed.

clc - that's a good question: whether the reporters were fooled or they wanted to fool us.

Anonymous said...

My humble opinion is that the press knew quite a bit about Jack He, but the hunger was for the "story." The truth did not matter, as long as the story was theirs to report.

maddogsandenglishmen said...

Yes, maybe everyone got what they wanted from the story except the children and those who offered help.

Anonymous said...

I wrote the commentary that is originally titled " Jack He and the Rashomon of Media", in which I am saying that the truth may not be one-sided as one had thought. Some agenda-setting and gate-setting may be going on, while we may not see all the truth, the whole truth which gets filtered for the media's specific needs.
My original commentary was published here:
http://www.usqiaobao.com:81/qiaobao/html/2008-09/10/content_85819.htm
In which you will see that I didn't say that "US media directed Rashomon". However, when my commentary was quoted by many Chinese-language media, it became "Look how US Media Directed Rashomon", which puts words in my mouths and say that I claim the US media directed "Rashomon". I wouldn't say that.
That being said, I am still suspicious of media in general, US or Chinese, and I do believe they twist things to make audience hear what they want them to hear, or what they want their audiences to hear. A story of Anna Mae coming home would indeed make TN audiences feel good about themselves as one living in a superior country. I don't believe in that.
My personal interpretation is that Jack He wouldn't want to go back to the US himself, but he does want his kids to. He couldn’t possibly find a decent job in the US while he teaches in a University in China. But it is difficult for his kids to adapt in China, which may well be the fact. The educational systems are way too different.
But that's where all the dillemma lies. He’s kids cannot go back themselves, without their parents going there with them, so that's probably where his own struggles and inconsistencies exist.
It is ironic that sometimes fiction probably gives us more truth than a news report, because the former captures the nuances of human condition. The later tells stories. Most Chinese think that he is morally bankrupt in spite of his victory in the US lawsuit. But who are we to pass judgments? And what are we to gain by simply putting a label on him and than hang his reputation? Would that make us feel better about ourselves. I see a great lack of sympathy here. I see a struggling soul.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Nan Qiao, thanks for the note and the link. We all judge, but we should judge based on evidence.

Anonymous said...

I think this confusion comes from a basic misunderstanding of what people are required to do in a totalitarian society. I have no doubt that Mr. He wants to come back to the US, but as he is living in Communist China right now, he must play the part of a proud patriotic Communist.

If he carries on being "unpatriotic," he will endanger his family and his livelihood, and may be arrested for unpatriotic sentiments. People must realize this when reading any Chinese media.

Ann Marie Curling said...

Well, Mr. He has now abandoned his family...

What a piece of work he is...

http://www.wmctv.com/global/story.asp?s=9142643