John Gittings

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Reporting China since the 1960s

[This essay is published in Lionel Jensen & Timothy Weston eds., China in Transformation: the stories beyond the headlines, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).]

Fascinated by China since I was a child, I took my degree in oriental studies at Oxford and then spent my adult life working in this field as academic or journalist. I first set eyes on China in 1968 -- from across the border in Hong Kong where I was writing for the Far Eastern Economic Review. I made my first visits in 1971 and 1976, and then travelled regularly to China over the next two decades. I joined the staff of The Guardian (UK) in 1983 (though I had contributed to it as a freelance since 1970) and covered most major events including the Beijing Massacre. The paper, which for non-British readers can be broadly labelled as centre-left, was regarded as relatively "balanced" in Beijing although this did not earn any special favours. I concluded my time at The Guardian by setting up the paper's first staff bureau on the mainland in Shanghai in 2001-03. While doing so, I began to research the work of my distant predecessors who had reported for what was then the Manchester Guardian during the anti-Japanese war. They included Harold Timperley, who wrote the first book on the Nanjing Massacre, and Agnes Smedley who sent a series of brilliant dispatches from the fighting front. (1) Their experiences led me to reflect more seriously upon the complexities of reporting from China, for most of the time in my case during a more recent (cold) war, on the pressures and constraints under which such work is done, and on its partial and often flawed results. This is the theme which, from a largely personal perspective, I shall now explore.

On that first visit to China in 1971, I travelled in a group from the UK-based Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) as a "friend of China", not as a journalist, although I had already spent a decade writing on Chinese affairs. After five years of Cultural Revolution, visas for visiting Western journalists were unobtainable. Nevertheless the appetite then for even the most slender glimpse of China was enormous: I returned wearing a Mao cap but I wrote a series of five articles for The Guardian which were run in full.

I still have my notes from that first train journey, heading inwards, across the bridge at Lowu to Guangzhou, when everything was fresh and new. I recorded the couplet from Mao Zedong on my tea mug, the view of green paddy, lychee trees and cabbages outside. At a station halt we saw conscripts wearing gymshoes, with matting, quilt and water bottle strapped to their backs. That evening in Guangzhou our host from the Chinese Committee for Friendship with Foreign Countries told us that the situation was getting better at home and abroad. More and more countries were recognising China -- he groped for the name of Kuwait and had to be prompted. In the streets outside, the slogans of the Cultural Revolution had been painted out -- even "the working-class must lead everything" -- but its spirit was still thriving. On the first full day we were taken to a school for deaf and mute children. Here there was a slogan: it read "Liu Shaoqi was a bad egg; he harmed the spirit of revolution; he made us deaf and dumb, we shall smash him to pieces". The children were told they would be cured by Mao Zedong Thought, though they were actually being given acupuncture and speech therapy.

By this time I had already been working for a number of years as a China specialist, first at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (RIIA) in London and then for the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER). The notion that one might write about mainland China without having visited the mainland was not considered unusual. Only a small number of European students, mostly from the Scandinavian countries, had the opportunity to study in China: those from the US were limited to Taiwan or Hong Kong. Most of the material available for research existed in written form and often in English translation. In a curious way, the study of contemporary China could be treated in a way not dissimilar to the study of classical China. There was a limited corpus of available material and textual analysis was carried to a fine art. Chinese officials clung to orthodox forms of expression, "rectifying the names" in proper Confucian style. As outside observers we developed a keen eye for any variation which might reveal a heterodox trend and the Cultural Revolution carried this obsession with verbal form to new heights. Many Chinese too read the official pronouncements for hints of political significance with as much attention as if they were seeking to decipher oracle bones.

These problems of access and interpretation did not exist in a vacuum. To the contrary, China scholarship was set in the highly politicised context of a cold -- sometimes hot -- war between the so-called free and communist worlds in which the Beijing government was assigned as time went on a particularly demonic role. As in other areas of contemporary studies, the funding and agenda were often linked, openly or covertly, to US government agencies and their requirements. Conversely, direct access to the top Chinese leadership and, during the Cultural Revolution, to the mainland itself was largely confined to a very small number of visitors whose sympathies were manifest. The difference was that these "friends of China" never hid their allegiance, whereas apparently objective scholarship in the West might be tarnished by unseen connections. The revolving door between academia and government, particularly in the US, was a further complication.

I do not intend to write here in detail about the skein of links between government and the rapidly expanding field of "area studies" which did so much to set the agenda for scholarship and journalism in the 1960s. The extent of this operation in the US came under attack during the Vietnam War from dissenting scholars, the Concerned Asian Scholars who organised around the bulletin (BCAS) of that name. The subject was very usefully revisited by the BCAS in a 1996 conference (2). Although the driving force for this project came from the US government and its agencies, its superior purchasing power also dictated the direction of research in Europe, and particularly in Britain. My own first research post at the RIIA was funded by the Ford Foundation.

With or without these covert institutional links, the cold war climate of the time influenced the questions asked about China, and the topics chosen for research, to an extent which it is hard to fully appreciate now. Whereas in most disciplines, it is taken for granted that scholars and journalists are likely to function better if they have some sympathy for their subject, here it was the reverse. Indeed China was an "object" - not a "subject" -- for investigation.

It was often argued that direct exposure to "Mao's China" was, or could be, harmful to academic or journalistic integrity. The term "brain-washed" was used, not always in jest, about those who had experienced the mainland at first hand. There was a tendency to ridicule rather than to try to understand the specifics of Chinese political culture. I recall a high-level academic conference on China where the US participants - some of the best-known names in the field -- rocked with laughter at a showing of the celebratory official Chinese film "The East is Red" rather than try to analyse the spirit it conveyed.

Meanwhile at meetings of the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding the same film was greeted with respectful applause. It was in this polarised atmosphere that I had paid my first visit to China -- as a member of a SACU delegation, after having been vetted by a SACU sub-committee to ensure that I would not "upset our Chinese friends". I would, half-literally, be wearing two caps. One was that of journalist: I had already worked for nearly two years in Hong Kong as the FEER's "China-watcher", and had previously published books on the Chinese army and on Sino-Soviet relations for the RIIA. The other was the Mao-cap which I bought in the Shanghai No. 1 department store and wore not only while travelling around the country but for some time after my return to England.

It has been instructive for me in preparing this article to reread both what I had previously written for the FEER and the five articles I wrote for The Guardian after my first visit to China (3). The conclusion which I reach, with some regret, is that I had been better able to resist the absolutes of the cold war in Hong Kong than during the first-hand experience of visiting China. The circumstances in both cases were very special though that does not absolve me from critical responsibility. In 1968-69, the written sources available for "understanding China" had been greatly enriched by the flood of so-called Red Guard material. This was not confined to the accounts of "bloody battles", often but not always exaggerated, which were headlined outside China. They also included unexpurgated texts of speeches by Mao, transcripts or summaries of internal leadership discussion and conflict, and a good deal of serious political thought and argument. It was as if we were watching, from Hong Kong, a vast stage on which several plays were being acted out at the same time. Given the highly theatrical and declamatory nature of the political culture and lexis of the time, we may have been better able to discern some overall sense and pattern than if we had been behind scenes and unable to see the whole stage.

In addition, the information brought by "refugees" and by "travellers from China" (though often spiced up by Western intelligence services), provided a degree of corroboration. A number of younger China scholars, mostly using the facilities of the Universities' Service Center in Hong Kong, and some of them BCAS members, helped to generate a debate on the Cultural Revolution (often hotly argued) which drew on all these sources. In this stimulating atmosphere, I came to the following conclusion in February 1969 when the Cultural Revolution, in the more limited sense of the period of Red Guard struggle, appeared to have come to an end.

"Neither sweet nor sour, the picture of the Chinese people which has now emerged from the Cultural Revolution assumes for the first time since 1949 something of a three-dimensional character. The mixture of idealism and opportunism which it has revealed, the remarkable variety of regional, cultural and occupational differences, the wide range of human activities and emotions, all add up to a much more complex picture which resists pigeon-holing to the last" (4).

This "three-dimensional" picture which I and other China-watchers sought to convey embraced both the violence and the idealism of the Cultural Revolution. We saw the bodies which had floated into the harbour all the way from Guangxi's extreme factional violence. We also read documents such as the Shengwulian manifesto from an iconoclastic group in Hunan which criticised both the Communist Party and the armed forces, calling for the creation of a "People's Commune of China".

Reviewing what I wrote for The Guardian three years later, after several weeks actually spent in China, I have to admit that the picture which I conveyed was more often two- than three-dimensional. Certainly we were able to observe the everyday detail of life in a way which was impossible from afar. Yet in judgement we focused on the idealism without acknowledging the warping effect of violence and the cult of Mao. I quote again, less happily, from my first article in The Guardian.

",…(I)t is the sense of a collective spirit which is perhaps, most impressive in education as it is in the rest of Chinese life. And the Thought of Mao Zedong, itself a rather offputting concept for eclectically minded visiting Western intellectuals, begins to make sense as the cement which holds the whole system together. It is not so much a cult of personality but more a collective way of life, which provides the moral imperatives for the youth of China who will inherit Mao's revolution" (5).

The balance could have been corrected if I had written a sixth article in which I listed, without comment, the incidents witnessed by us which hinted at a more troubled reality beneath the surface -- and which I still vividly recall. There was the visit I received early one morning from a village store-keeper who had sold me a couple of books some distance away the day before. Escorted by two officials and looking shaken, he explained that regulations did not allow the sale of "provincial titles" to foreigners: he thrust into my hands the exact sum I had paid in return for the books. There was the attempt some of us made to go by bus into Hangzhou one evening from the hotel where we were staying. We were pursued by our minders who forced the bus to stop while they explained their concern that we might "get lost." There was the army commander who joined his men in hoeing a field to demonstrate how "the army and the people are one". Either inexperienced or impatient with the performance, he pushed too vigorously and the tool snapped in his hands.

I shall always regret I did not write that sixth article for The Guardian.





No one imagined in the early to mid 1970s that within little more than a decade the feature of Maoist socialism that had seemed most distinctive -- the People’s Communes with their system of collective distribution -- would have been jettisoned all over China.

Even after the factional struggles of 1975-76 between Deng Xiaoping and the ultra-left, followed by the death of Mao Zedong and arrest of the Gang of Four, the extent of impending change was not easily foreseen. Foreign observers tended to look for continuity (and foreign diplomats had a vested interest in predicting it): Chinese who had lived through the upheavals of the past two decades were more realistic. Urged on by one clear-sighted Chinese intellectual in 1978, I predicted that the Cultural Revolution would soon be repudiated. This seemed a bold and even shocking forecast, as was my report on the return of meritocratic selection -- the revival of elite "key schools".

The 1980s was the golden time for reporting from China. The upheaval following Mao's death ensured that editorial interest remained high. There was a real desire to know in which direction the Chinese would now move and how far along the chosen road. Even the smallest details were revealing -- the new magazines with titles like World Cinema and Modern Living, the three-piece suites carried home on pedicabs, the notices pinned to lampposts advertising private English lessons, domestic maids for hire, burial plots for sale in the countryside, and the lists of bonus rates on the factory blackboards.

As I wrote in October 1978, "if there was one thing of which most observers outside China were thoroughly convinced during the Cultural Revolution, it was that bonuses had died a decisive death….(T)he Shanghai dockers had surely got it right when, rejecting a proposed bonus scheme in 1974, they proclaimed that 'We shall be masters of the wharf, not of tonnage!'" How wrong, I now had to admit, we all had been (6).

Yet it was not yet taken for granted that China had entirely forsaken Mao’s road to socialism and there was still talk of the need to maintain a balance between public and private interest. As I was told in the Fujian countryside in 1983, on the authority (it was claimed) of Deng Xiaoping himself, "we have to create a new spirit of enthusiasm and a new form of collective" (7). Such questions of the "whither China" variety, which had been raised at intervals throughout the 20th century ever since the 1919 student movement, were still worth asking in the 1980s. Already raised by the Shengwulian in Hunan and other radical groups or individuals, they were posed in new ways by the authors of the pamphlets and wall newspapers of Democracy Wall (1978-80) who had been politicised by the Cultural Revolution.

It was not only Western academics and journalists who sought an answer to "whither China". The itineraries of many tour groups -- a fast expanding business -- continued to feature didactic visits to school, factories or communes, just as they had under the more limited conditions of friendship travel. Of course they now included more visits to carpet factories as well, but it was only in the 1990s that tourism in China (except for a very small number of specialised tours) would become reduced to visiting famous sites, staying in four star hotels, and shopping endlessly.

The political scene grew increasingly lively in the 1980s with the officially sponsored reforms of Mr Deng and those of Party Secretary-general Hu Yaobang who encouraged a number of reform-minded scholars such as Su Shaozhi and Li Yining who took the debate further. They were opposed by those who resisted changes that challenged the basis of Mao's socialist vision (and threatened to diminish their own prerogatives). Regrettably though, this lively intellectual ferment was often disparaged at the time by Western diplomats and business people. For them, the most important changes were taking place in foreign policy, where China had formed an opportunistic entente with the West against the Soviet Union, and in the new opportunities for foreign business offered by the Special Economic Zones and Joint Ventures. The significance of the student movement was also talked down and its protagonists were often dismissed as politically immature. In May 1989, as the students were massing in the square, and the Party leadership split over how to deal with them, the British embassy in Beijing advised the Foreign Office in London not to expect a great upheaval. What was happening was merely part of "the cyclical process of Chinese politics." Indeed, none of us foresaw the truly seismic nature of this event.



The Beijing Massacre changed the terms of reference under which China was reported in the West and -- to a lesser extent -- the way in which the ruling regime was viewed by Western governments. After the relative optimism of the 1980s, the reactionary backlash of the old guard in the leadership was a dismal shock. What happened on the night on June 3-4, 1989 (and on subsequent days when random killings continued), and the repression of the next several years, seemed to present a definitively negative answer to all those questions about whether the Communist Party could accommodate itself to peaceful political change. Many journalists including myself felt fully entitled to editorialise on the Party’s illegitimacy, which many of our Chinese friends now took for granted. During those heady weeks of May in Beijing, we had seen a new force emerge in the streets -- not just the students who poured in from all over the country -- but the people of Beijing themselves, reproaching the confused young soldiers who had been ordered in, staffing the citizens‘ checkpoints which sought to keep the army away from the city centre, and displaying a sense of comradeship which recalled the early years after Liberation. The apparently terminal opposition between Party and popular values was dramatised in the contrast between the tired old official slogan "Long live the Communist Party of China" -- now confined to official statements on press and television -- and the newly revived mass slogan "Long live the People" which was carried on banners in Tiananmen Square, and shouted by the students with thanks to the people of Beijing.

The inhumanity of a regime which, in the view of so many ordinary Beijingers (and The Guardian's front page on June 4), had "declared war on its own people," was exposed after the massacre in endless replays on global television. As Eastern Europe began to stir restlessly (in part -- especially in Czechoslovakia-- because of the Chinese example) it did not seem na´ve to postulate that the Party might crumble or be overthrown. At best, as I suggested three weeks after the massacre, there was a chance that a "responsible leadership" would regain control and put those who had authorised the bloodshed (I included Deng Xiaoping among them) on trial.

It was also hard to dissent from the over-simplified picture of what had actually happened during those terrible nights and days. A ruthless army had blasted its way into Beijing under orders from the Party conservatives; thousands had been killed in the process including large numbers of the students mown down in Tiananmen Square -- some of them still sleeping in their tents. In reality, and however dreadful the event, it was more complicated than that. Massacres tend to get over-reported, particularly when those who do the reporting are committed to one side and lack previous experience of such situations. .

Most of those killed by the soldiers were non-student citizens of Beijing who sought to bar their way with remarkable and mostly unarmed heroism. Others were bystanders or even spectators who had flocked into the centre to join the excitement. Body counts are notoriously hard in such situations. The army did not kill several thousands, nor did it mow down hundreds in the square itself or burn their bodies. These subsequent rumours distracted us from extrapolating a more accurate figure from the numbers seen in hospitals. The reality was bad enough.

. The massacre and its aftermath largely swept away the memory of the Western media's collective misjudgment in generally concluding that it could not happen. On the spot the mood was so exhilarating that I and most of my colleagues had no time or patience for the chore of traditional China Watching. Yet a daily reading of official messages of loyalty in the press would have shown that the reluctant army was being brought inexorably into line. We were also confused because a section of the Chinese media, having broken away from central control, was printing its own over-optimistic assessment of the popular movement.

The nature of the power struggle at the centre was also imperfectly understood,
not only by us but by the great majority of student demonstrators. Optimism
should have been dispelled when the moderate leader Zhao Ziyang was ousted just
before martial law was declared. Instead we and the demonstrators believed that
the victors in the struggle, Premier Li Peng and President Yang Shangkun, could
somehow be evicted by an obscure constitutional process involving the National
People's Congress. This was defective logic. The students were demonstrating in order to bring about a constitutionality which did not yet exist. It could hardly now materialise to save them. The error was compounded just days before the massacre when hundreds of thousands marched to the single slogan of 'Down with Li Peng' -- a futile demand since he had already been victorious in the internal power struggle.

The death toll resulting from these events is still unclear and will remain so until a proper enquiry can be carried out in Beijing. Only a very few correspondents (not including myself) remained in the centre of the square where thousands of students waited quietly around the Martyrs' Memorial. There they witnessed the final retreat of most of the students through the south-east corner several hours later, after negotiations with the army and a voice vote in favour of withdrawing. There was a horrific incident when a tank ploughed through a line of students at Liubukou, to the west of the square, after they had marched away, yet the official claim that "no one died in the square" was probably true.

Who then were the victims of what we are still justified in calling the Beijing (not the Tiananmen) Massacre? The army had orders to spare the students if possible, but had been authorised to use all necessary means to reach and then defend the Square. Most of the attested deaths took place on the approach roads -- the vast majority on and around the western section of Changanjie. Some of those shot were targeted because they were throwing missiles, others were part of crowds seeking to block the way, and quite a number were killed by ricochet shots -- including some in their apartments overlooking the avenue. On the next day, several dozen people were shot as they attempted to approach the army lines around the square to remonstrate. In the next few days, there were cases where soldiers shot at isolated groups of civilians, either fearing hostile intent or out of panic or indiscipline. The overall total was, I believe, in the hundreds, not thousands. (The routine formula used to this day by Associated Press seeks to avoid judgement by saying that "hundreds, if not thousands, died"). However many actually died, it remained of course an entirely unacceptable action for a government to take against its own people (8).



For some time after the Beijing Massacre, it seemed reasonable to suppose that the days -- or at least the years -- of the Chinese Communist Party were numbered. The examples of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European regimes was close at hand. In Beijing, the sense of the people being stifled by an arid as well as repressive reaction was overwhelming. Nothing much might be happening, but as one dissident writer described it, the democracy movement was like "a bamboo shoot crushed beneath a stone (and) the Chinese people are waiting for the spring rain to fall" so that the bamboo would start growing and push the stone aside (9).

Yet depression, even despair, does not necessarily lead to rebellion. A few activists continued to bravely challenge the authorities; many others concluded that (in the words of one analysis produced by a Beijing group) "(only) economic development will guarantee the pursuit of democracy." The changes set in motion, deliberately or otherwise, by the reforms of the 1980s continued to gather pace: there was more social mobility and more entrepreneurial activity, as well as more crime and corruption. Those former students who put economic development in first place joined the flow heading for the economic zones on the coast. After Deng Xiaoping had embarked on his Southern Expedition and kick-started the economic revolution back to life in 1993 -- and in a higher gear too -- the tentative political revolution which had made a faltering start during the late 1980s began to appear dated and, as a new urban boom developed, irrelevant.

It was about this time that I detected a significant waning of media concern in the sort of "whither China" query which had attracted such lively interest in the previous decade. Mr Deng's foray confirmed beyond doubt that China was taking the capitalist road: no one talked any longer a return to genuine socialist alternatives, and there were no longer any open questions about the destination. The speed of Chinese economic progress swept all before it: as British prime minister John Major remarked, when told that it was generating significant social problems, "there can't be much wrong with eight per cent GDP growth".

A new set of images began to appear on the front covers of Western news magazines, embodying a mixture of admiration and fear at the Chinese advance. To quote from a few in the early months of 1996:

"China" A billion consumers" (The Economist)
"The 21st Century Starts Here: China Booms. The World Holds its Breath" (
New York Times Magazine)
"China on the Move" (Newsweek).

The sub-heading of the Newsweek cover story indicated the question which predominated in the US media (the British media was temporarily more interested in the fate of Hong Kong):

"After 500 years of humiliation, a surging China is about to reclaim its historical position as one of the world's great powers. But will the reborn China be a friend to the West ? or a daunting foe?" (10).

These threatening images of China's putative menace often came close to re-evoking the old myth of the "yellow peril". Bizarrely, the notion that China might become a dangerous threat to the Western world existed alongside an entirely opposed set of images focused on the decline and even collapse of the Chinese state. These were no longer related to the suggestion that the Chinese people would become impatient for the democracy which they had been denied in 1989. The argument rather was that rapid economic and social change was creating new tensions which could not be contained indefinitely. Certainly there were grounds for this view in the growth of urban unemployment, the failure of the regime to check corruption, the creation of a new underclass of migrant workers, and the emergence of new cults such as the Falun Gong to fill the ethical void left by the collapse of most of the earlier socialist values.

Yet the metaphors of swirling disintegration were also more seductive because they helped to maintain interest -- not least among media editors -- in a story which seemed to have otherwise no end in sight. Thus when the death of Deng Xiaoping appeared imminent, it was almost obligatory to ask "will China collapse?": the idea that post-Deng China would probably get by under the post-Deng leadership which he himself had approved was much less arresting. Hong Kong’s handover in the same year of 1997 prompted widespread speculation that its freedoms would disappear almost overnight. The entry of People’s Liberation Army units into the territory, crossing the border within hours of the handover, was widely reported as a symbolic turning-point. When these stark predictions proved groundless, much of the Western media overlooked the more gradual erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy in the coming years. The dispute over the "right of abode" which led to a "re-interpretation" of the Basic Law by Beijing to the detriment of the powers of Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal, seemed too complex and legalistic. Beijing’s sponsorship of the unpopular chief executive Tung Chee-hwa for a second term was also under-reported. My own newspaper did not think it worthwhile to send me from Shanghai to Hong Kong to cover the fifth anniversary of the handover. Media interest only revived in 2003 when public unhappiness over a new security law (the "Article 23" controversy) brought a million into the streets on the sixth anniversary.


Coverage of China in the late 1990s included some excellent reporting, particularly by a number of energetic journalists from the US where interest in China, and therefore space, was more sustained. The best of American journalism, I have to admit, outstripped our own British efforts which sometimes seemed casual and under-researched. (French reporting, notably in Le Monde and Liberation, was often more thoughtful than either). The main US bureaux based in China were better resourced and staffed: they often had superior access to the Chinese authorities who are particularly sensitive to their media image in the country they love best, or hate worst. Serious reporting also benefited from being given "more words" to do so: the Washington Post or Los Angeles Times could often spare 1,500-2,000 words on a story to which The Guardian or Daily Telegraph could only assign 7-800 words. Two examples of effective reporting by the US media at the end of the decade were the Wall Street Journal's coverage of the suppression of the Falun Gong and the New York Times's expose of the HIV-AIDS epidemic in Henan province (caused by contaminated blood collection).

Many young Chinese journalists admire such reporting and look forward to the day when they too will be able to tackle sensitive social issues without government constraint. Yet it also true that many Chinese who have lived and worked abroad, however critical of their own government, often complain of unbalanced coverage especially in the US media. They say that while it is absolutely correct for the foreign media to focus on human rights abuses and China’s lack of political freedom, there is an overall lack of balance -- a failure to report positively -- which to them often appears to reflect deliberate bias.

One reason for this was the restrictive regulations covering the activities of foreign journalists in China which encouraged an antagonistic relationship with the authorities who imposed them. Anyone who sought to report on a sensitive story without prior permission (which would not be granted -- certainly not in time to satisfy impatient news editors at home) risked a reprimand for 'unauthorised news gathering'. The stories written by those who did break the rules were necessarily written without official cooperation and relied on informants whose evidence was usually difficult to check, and whose own safety might be compromised (and sometimes was, with disastrous effects) by having "given unauthorised information" or even for having "revealed state secrets". Many of these stories thus lacked the minimum balance which would be thought essential elsewhere. If a dissident claimed to have been tortured in prison, there was rarely even a formal denial, let alone the opportunity to investigate the claim. Inevitably, some of this reporting suffered from one-sidedness or exaggeration which then gave ammunition to conservative elements in the Beijing control apparatus who argued against a more open policy.

More information became available as time went on from Western and Chinese academics, or from NGOs, who could communicate more fruitfully with Chinese counterparts and to some extent with Chinese government sources. by the late 1990s a growing number of Chinese newspapers led by Nanfang Zhoumo (Southern Weekend), were developing skills in investigative journalism in spite of intermittent government harassment or shut-downs. The most successful reporting from China drew from all these sources to provide a more balanced picture, but on high-profile issues the correspondent might have difficulty in overcoming an editorial desire to produce a black-and-white account.

Another problem was the persistence of a simplistic view, with its origins in the cold war era, which regarded "Chinese communism" as both uniquely reprehensible and incapable of improvement. The dominance of US media ensured that the partial view from Washington often set the context for Western news reporting of the major stories from China even though its parameters might shift abruptly. This became particularly noticeable in coverage of US-China relations in the late 1990s and early 2000s when these were complicated by the transition from the Clinton to the Bush administration.

During Bill Clinton’s visit to China in June 1998 the media had first focused upon the plight of Chinese political dissidents, but many reports took a more complacent view after the president was allowed to call for democracy in an address broadcast live on television. The White House’s simplistic view that Mr Clinton had established a special rapport with President Jiang Zemin was widely echoed: in fact Mr Jiang clamped down within months upon the fledgling Chinese Democracy Party. However a year later, after the US had bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war, there was little sympathy for China which was frequently accused of over-reacting. The stage-managed character of anti-US demonstrations received more attention than the genuine anger that they reflected -- and which the Chinese government’s control measures sought partly to contain.

Western coverage tended to miss the real point that in spite of this provocation the Jiang regime was determined to maintain, if at all possible, good relations with the US. (While there were "ups and downs" in US-China relations, said the People’s Daily, friendly ties between them were "of great importance to the whole world.") Official and popular Chinese reaction in April 2001 to the incident when a US spy plane made a forced landing on Hainan island was also often looked through a critical American lens. Chinese reaction to the September 11 terrorist attack on New York was again subjected to misinterpretation. By its usual standards, the Chinese media had reported the attack with unusual speed and official condolences were quickly sent. Popular opinion on the street, and on the Chinese internet chatrooms, was more varied, with some expressing the view that the US had only got what it deserved. Yet Western commentators were too quick to reproach Beijing for an alleged lack of sympathy: the Wall Street Journal even accused "an isolated China (of) seek(ing) friends among the rogue nations of the world."

The reality was that Beijing wanted to maintain the momentum of improved US-China relations after the spy plane crisis, and that it had its own domestic reasons for supporting an international "war against terror." There was also satisfaction in Beijing that the Bush administration now had a "real enemy" on which to focus instead of demonising China as several leading neo-conservative figures in Washington had done since the inauguration of George W Bush. September 11 was described by the People’s Daily as "a turning-point in the post-cold war pattern" and Beijing took advantage of it to step up repression, with tacit US approval, of its own (mostly peaceful) Muslim separatists in North-west China.



In the long-term, our ability to report China accurately depends above all on the further improvement of mainland journalism. Foreign reporters in all countries rely heavily (whether they admit it or not) on the work of their domestic colleagues and China is already no exception. As already indicated, a small but growing number of newspapers has acquired a reputation for investigative journalism. More critical writing, including theoretical argument which implicitly criticises the Party, can be found on the internet. Some websites also carry material which originates among critical scholars in Hong Kong or even Taiwan and the US. Finally, open criticism of the Party both from "right" (liberal) and "left" (neo-Maoist) perspectives is aired on popular web discussion groups, though the most outspoken contributions will be spiked by website monitors.

A Nanfang Zhoumo issue in October 2001 gives an idea of the range of material which astute editors have been able to publish. The front page splash, headlined "Will growing Chinese soya beans infringe American 'rights'?", was a detailed critique of the US agribusiness Monsanto's attempts to secure a broad species patent based upon work it has done with a wild soya originating from South China. The article, based on briefings from Greenpeace and Chinese environmentalists, was sensitive at the time because China was about to enter the World Trade Organisation to a fanfare of self-congratulation: Monsanto's case against Chinese growers, the article warned, would be strengthened by the application of "WTO rules."

In the same issue, an inside full-page expose of illegal timber felling in a county in southwest Hunan revealed how strict government restrictions had been regularly flouted for the past ten years. It made it clear that this was being done with the complicity of the local forestry bureau. While Beijing in principle approves of such exposes, this one came at an awkward time when it was being officially claimed that logging restrictions (tightened up in the previous three years) were now working well. Another short but devastating piece, with grim pictures, took the reader into a privately-owned Shaanxi goldmine where poor peasants, several of whom had already died, worked without masks in filthy conditions. The reporter who wrote the article masqueraded as a miner in order to obtain first-hand information: Chinese journalists who investigate abuses of this kind may be beaten or harassed if their identities are discovered. Again, he article raised a serious question about the laxity of government controls.

The use of modern communications -- particularly the internet and mobile technology -- to break down the walls of official secrecy in China was illustrated powerfully by the SARS crisis in 2003. When Beijing sought to minimise the spread of the virus, many thousands of Chinese accessed foreign reports and circulated information by email. As Caijing (another outspoken magazine) commented, the choice was between "listening to backstreet gossip and going on the web". Later the government issued regulations banning the circulation of "electronic rumours", but to no effect. This was the latest round in an ongoing struggle between the regime and civil society which intensified in the early 2000s when more than twenty journalists and civil rights campaigners were jailed for using the internet to disseminate "subversive" material. Yet the traffic in electronic news and comment continued to grow, with a wealth of material on sensitive social issues such as the widening gap between rich and poor, official corruption, discrimination against migrant workers, and HIV-AIDS. Many of the arguments openly made would in the past have been denounced as "counter-revolutionary" or "poisonous weeds.


Press freedom in China remains a patchy field, in which the mood relaxes and then tightens, where editors who "go too far" may be demoted and publications and websites may be censured or closed down. However many younger Chinese journalists feel that the system is improving slowly and are poised to seize any opportunity which arises. Foreign journalists who complain about restrictions on their own freedom should give full credit to the determination of our Chinese counterparts. We should also be prepared to admit that such restrictions are not an acceptable excuse for shoddy or biased reporting. Unglamorous as it may sound to Western news desks, especially in the new world of pressurised round-the-clock coverage, reporting from China still needs balance and consideration -- and the foreign media does not have a monopoly of the truth.

Looking back over nearly four decades writing about China, mostly in a journalistic frame, I have to concur with the judgement of a very senior Chinese official who once said to me "You have written many articles about our country: some are comparatively correct; others are not so correct." To the obstacles placed in our way by the official's own bureaucrats must be added the barriers imposed by cold war politics, which have not yet been wholly demolished, and by more long-standing cultural misconceptions towards China in the West. The sheer gap between our societies -- including differences in class structure, style of life and expectations -- also played a significant part. On my first visit to Beijing with the SACU delegation, we stayed at the Beijing Hotel which at that time, we were told, possessed the only automatic entrance and exit doors in the country. Crowds of fascinated Chinese visitors, mostly from outside the capital, gathered beyond the security guards on the pavement to watch the foreigners emerge through this amazing device. It was an appropriate metaphor for our partial vision of those spectators (and theirs of us): much later when I published a collection of my reports over the years I gave it the title "China Through the Sliding Door". Nowadays, when there are probably as many sliding doors in Beijing or Shanghai as in London or New York, the gap has been significantly narrowed but there is still a long way to go.


1. See further (a) "Japanese rewrite Guardian history", The Guardian, Oct. 4, 2002; (b) "Agnes Smedley and the Manchester Guardian", posted on

2. "Asia, Asian Studies and the National Security State", Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, vol.29, no.1, ed. Mark Selden.

3. Extracts from both in John Gittings, China Through the Sliding Door (London: Simon & Schuster, 1999), chs. 1-2.

4. ibid., p.29.

5. ibid, p.40.

6. ibid, p. 63

7. ibid, pp. 88-89.

8. This account of media coverage of the Beijing Massacre is based upon my essay "Accuracy and chaos: reporting Tiananmen" in Robin Porter, ed., Reporting the News from China (London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1992).

9. "Chinese spirit begins to stir after blood and fire", The Guardian, May 31 1990.

10. "China on the move", Newsweek, April 1, 1996.