Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The People's Republic of Capitalism = Chongqing (2)

Thanks to Izzy Forman at the Discovery Channel, who sent the DVDs that provided me the opportunity to see Ted Koppel's 4-hour documentary, "The People's Republic of Capitalism."

For three evenings I watched the DVDs with great interest. Not only because I was from Chongqing; as a journalist myself I was amazed by Koppel's true journalist capacity. Koppel apparently has his own strong opinion about China, about what a country China is and what it should be. This is evident in his persistent questioning, sometimes even coaxing, of certain interviewees, trying - more often than not unsuccessfully - to get the answer he wants to hear. His biases, however, do not stop him from providing all points of view. That, to me, is a true journalist virtue. He has my admiration for that.

So, it is the disagreement that is the most interesting. As a friend once said, "If you agree with someone, you can't say much more than 'I agree' but if you disagree, there are lots of things to say!" In this, Koppel's documentary is thought provoking.

One of the curious characters Koppel repeatedly interviewed is an artistic fashion photographer, who speaks quite good English and goes by the name Alan. The young man, looking to be in his mid-twenties, apparently is very gifted in his art, but is either politically naïve or is 装糊涂 – playing dumb. Here is an amusing dialogue between the two:

Ted Koppel: My question is, if people want to get together, let's say in the countryside, and protest corruption, and the police will come, and break up the demonstration, and they will not allow it…
Alan: (innocently) Oh really?
Ted Koppel: You say 'oh really,' you don't know that?
Alan: I don't know that. I have never seen that…
Ted Koppel: I know. I know you haven't seen it. You know why you haven't seen it?
Alan: Why?
Ted Koppel: Because television can not report it, because the newspaper can not report it, because anyone who's there, if they take photograph, they will be arrested. That's why you don't know about it.
Alan: Okay.
Ted Koppel: I don't want to get you in trouble, but you don't seem to care about it.
Alan: Yeah.
Ted Koppel: You don't?
Alan: Not very care about that part, I don't.
Ted Koppel: Because?
Alan: There must be a reason for the government to do that. And, I really believe in the Chinese government. Because we can see that people here living a better life than before. And I don't think people who wrote something on the street or sitting on the street are smart. I don't think that's the best way to do that.

Despite Koppel's obvious disapproval of Alan's view, he nonetheless includes the conversation in the program, which, in my opinion, shows his quality as an honest journalist who respects a variety of viewpoints, and such respect precedes his own opinion.

Another scene that amazes me is when Koppel visits a 93-year-old in a rural area of Chongiqing. "She's an old lady, she has seen many things," Koppel narrates. Then he asks the old lady, "When was the best time to live in China?" "Right now," the toothless woman answers in local dialect, sitting on her bed. "We have clothes to wear, we have food to eat. It is right now."

Does this surprise you? If Koppel was surprised, he did not show it.

It occurs to me it's true that those common folks don't care much about the big political picture – democracy or not. "Food is the god of man" – 民以食为天, so goes an ancient Chinese adage. A higher level of political concern comes after a certain sufficiency of food and clothing. This brings me to a question that I'm sure has come up time and again: Is China doing the right thing to have the economic reform before political reform? Does a successful political reform require the foundation of good economic conditions? Or, could political reform succeed in the face of harsh economic conditions? From a slightly different angle, looking at the poor, struggling people in China, do they care what the "correct" political system is as long as their economic life is improving?

Somehow, those who think as long as China has democracy then everything would be fine and everyone would be happy remind me of a Cultural Revolution slogan: "We would rather have socialist weeds than capitalist seedlings" – in other words, a correct political system is everything.

In any case, Koppel is certainly not satisfied with the answers related to this question he has heard in his interviews. Toward the end of the program, after a businessman says that the Chinese government is the most pro-business government in the world, Koppel voices over the segment closing - "But pro-business is different from pro-democracy."

That businessman is Vincent Lou, a billionaire developer and one of the biggest investors in Chongqing. As if an old country lady and a young city artist were not enough, Koppel brings in the Western educated, mid-aged man with an elegant bearing. Vincent Lou has the appearance of a Chinese ethnic who is brought up in the West. On the wall of his spacious, beautiful office hang rolls of traditional Chinese calligraphy. That is where the following conversation takes place:

Vincent Lou: I believe the political system for China is very effective for this country.
Ted Koppel: I'm always told what the Chinese government fears the most is chaos.
Vincent Lou: I'm sure that's something we are all concerned, not just the government. If this is very chaotic, I don't think I'll be investing billions of dollars into the city. We need stability so we can do business.

Later Vincent Lou again says, "I've studied and lived in the Western world for about 40 years. Democracy, of course, it sounds good. But in practice it doesn't always bring the results. A lot of criticism has been put on China, saying it is a one-party system, human rights and everything else. But this is the system that has helped China come to where it is in such a short time, in the past 30 years." He does not sound very keen to have democracy for China.

Speaking of human rights, here is another dialogue between Koppel and the young artist, Alan, after a crashing Falun Gong scene:

Ted Koppel: It's okay for you to become a Christian…
Alan: Yeah.
Ted Koppel: …that's no problem.
Alan: Yeah.
Ted Koppel: But if you want to join Falun Gong…
Alan: (shaking head rapidly) Oh no no no…
Ted Koppel: …that will be a big problem.
Alan: Yeah!
Ted Koppel: Why?
Alan: Why? Because the government said it's bad…
Ted Koppel: (smile knowingly) I understand.
Alan: …We are citizens. It's (our) responsibility to follow the government's orders. And I think the government's order should be respected. There must be a reason for them to do it. I believe in my government… (a cute smile). Yeah.

In his narrative voice, Koppel then comments Alan's belief as "blind faith." He continues in a mocking tone, "Things in China are getting better, therefore, what the government is doing must be right."

While Alan's reasoning does sound naïve, many people in the US more mature than him use a logic that my teenage daughter would term "same difference." Taking Falun Gong as an example. People here in the States are sympathetic and supportive not because they know much about it, but simply because the Chinese government represses it. Using Koppel's tone of voice, "The Chinese government hates it, therefore, what Falun Gong is doing must be good."

This reminds me Chairman Mao's famous admonition, "Anything the enemy opposes, we must advocate. Anything the enemy advocates, we must oppose." :-)

Most Western media is one sided and that makes learning different views difficult. My mother-in-law, for example, only realized another side of Falun Gong after she read Lisa See's novel Dragon Bones. This time it is fiction that is doing the job of journalism.

On politics overall, though Koppel's voice is pretty strong in this series, he has given fair play to the voices of many others. One question that remains with me is what the people watching it, who know and trust him, will hear. Will his voice dominate, or will they hear the variety that he presents? I hope the latter, but I am unsure.

(I have more to say on economics. Coming soon.)

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Anonymous said...

Why do you believe that the young artist Koppel talked to would open up himself for trouble just for Koppel's cheap entertainment? Whatever his views are, he sure knows Ted Koppel will be leaving soon, covered by the umbrella of fame, a blue passport, and a dean of the "fourth estate". Who will remain to deal with the mess Koppel might create by airing a broadcast of some young man speaking badly about sensitive issues? That young man has absolutely nothing to gain by that.

You have access to a lot of people and information, I wish your judgement were a bit less starry-eyed when it comes to western opinions. There is a long history of reporters showing up in exotic locales, stirring up dookie then leaving the locals to clean up the mess and deal with the authorities. Kudos to Alan for playing coy with Ted Koppel, who once reported from Iraq and termed it "a vacation", and resisted (and is still resisting) calls to come out and admit that his early cheerleading in the run up to the war was based on erroneous facts spoonfed to him by Pentagon "leaks".

Anonymous said...

Exactly thats what so scary about China, the only pillar for the Chinese society is economic development, if you take that away what else do you have left?

Why is he biased? He merely tries to push the interviewed person to reveal some of his toughts.

The biggest trick of the CCCP is to make people forget who brought all the famine and poverty above them and now getting praised for just taking the lid of the peoples natural business drive.

Democracy is no panacea, but the Chinese system is deeply flawed, vested interests, corruption, etc.
But already there is to much at stakes for rich bureaucrats so that they muffle every voice for political reform.

Xujun said...

Heiheianan -

Starry-eyed with western opinions? LOL. I could be described as almost anything but that. Did you see the commenter below you who thought I was too harsh to Mr. Koppel? I hope you will be patient enough to finish reading this post and other posts on my blog. Further discussions are welcome.

The piece of information about Mr. Koppel you gave is interesting. Apparently you know about him more than I do. I read serious magazines and newspapers but hardly have time for TV.

Given the Western media biases toward China, I'd say Mr. Koppel did a fairly good job on this program. He at least let the audience hear a variety of views different from his own.

Anonymous -

Thanks for commenting. If you are interested in serious discussion though, please leave a name or cyber name. I think that would be more or less fair play.

alfaeco said...

"There is a long history of reporters showing up in exotic locales, stirring up dookie then leaving the locals to clean up the mess and deal with the authorities."

Where lies the problem then. With the reporter or with the austerities.

Fantastic way to control people. "Do not complain of any problem. Lest of all to a (foreign) reporter or else."

Not a way to progress IMHO.

When problems are kept intentionally hidden, they tend to grow up until they become unwieldy. CH has a lot of experience with that in the last decades.

Is not time to try another approach?

Unknown said...

wow! your daughter is quite a thinker, too.