Documentary explores work of journalists in China
If there ever is a creature that is equally feared, respected and mistrusted at the same time, itâs a journalist. Itâs common to imagine a journalist with his nose inquisitively sniffing about, always prying and probing for a sensational scoop.
But Assignment: China, a film that documents the work of foreign journalists in post-Mao China, goes beyond this perception to reveal the real problems that journalists face under this stigma.
Assignment: China is a new documentary project by the USC U.S.-China Institute, an organization dedicated to the research and advocacy of a symbiotic relationship between the United States and China.
The film is a collaborative work between USCI staff and students to research, transcribe, shoot and edit all the clips and interviews. Award-winning USCI senior fellow, former CNN Senior Asia Correspondent and eight-year CNN Beijing Bureau Chief Mike Chinoy handled the writing and reporting.
The institute screened a 35-minute segment of the 110-minute film Monday, followed by a round-table discussion with Chinoy. Perhaps it was because the multimedia project is still under progress, but the film quality was fuzzy and at times transitions between interviews were rough and clipped.
But because of his experience and knowledge in the field of broadcast news in Asia, Chinoyâs narration in the film is smooth, seamless and eloquent, without intersecting the intervieweesâ voices. In any case, the message that Assignment: China brought forth was clear and engaging.
The segment shown focuses on the period between 1979 and 1983, the initial years after China had begun opening up a diplomacy relationship with the United States in 1979.
It was also a time of much excitement and curiosity for the Americans. Finally, they would get the inside scoop on the happenings in China, where most foreigners were banned after the Cultural Revolution. The whole country had closed up under Chairman Maoâs regime, hiding behind a curtain of mystery on which the curious world could only speculate and often times fabricate.
Thus news coverage on Deng Xiaopingâs â Chinaâs lead figure at the time â visit to Washington, D.C. was sensational. Footage in the film shows him smiling and waving amiably, and to the delight of Americans at the time, donning a cowboy hat.
Chinese attitudes toward foreign medi,a however, was not so friendly, as the film shows. After Dengâs 1979 visit, China allowed a selection of journalists to visit the nation on a specialized excursion, but under strict supervision and rigid regulations.
Journalists â cynical by nature â knew it was not going to be easy to report on China. After all, Chinese doors had only just tentatively begun to slide open. But still, each of them left their homeland with a vision to finally reveal an accurate picture of China and its people, only to be frustrated by the opposition and animosity they faced as a foreigner and a journalist.
Although journalists were allowed to set up full-time bureaus in Beijing, they were hardly allowed to travel out of the city. It took weeks of preparation â begging, groveling and phone calling â for a journalist to receive permits to travel out of Beijing.
Even within Beijing walls, foreign journalists had a tough time finding citizens who would actually talk to them. There was an unwritten law forbidding ordinary Chinese citizens to communicate with foreign reporters, and even if the journalist got specific permission from the government, the people were still afraid to risk repercussions.
An interview with Richard Bernstein, the first Time Beijing correspondent, recounts how a Chinese man named Liu Ching got arrested and sentenced to three years of âre-educationâ in prison for acquainting with a foreign reporter. The man later sneaked a detailed account of life in prison to Bernstein and subsequently received eight more years of prison.
Despite all these complications, the impact of that these journalists made can be felt simply by the fact that the world knows about most of the major events in China during that period.
All of these stories were somehow churned and squeezed out by journalists, who sometimes had to take a 20-hour train ride just to snag interviews with the locals. Yet the bits and bites of information they conveyed to the American public were paramount in affecting the diplomatic policies between the United States and China.
In the discussion after the screening, Chinoy said that although some of the information reported might have been understated or overhyped, he believed that the work of these journalists all fit together into a mosaic â a big picture that grasps an accurate and fair view of China today, despite Chinese paranoia toward foreign media.
âChina shoots itself in the foot by heightening its secrecy and security towards the media,â Chinoy said. âWhen something happens and youâre not there, there is a greater likelihood of rumors and erroneous information.â
But China is increasingly opening up to media, Chinoy said. A big change came just before the 2008 Olympics, as can be seen by comparing the news coverage of the 1976 earthquake in Tangshan and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The media has finally started to penetrate the thick walls of China.
Assignment: China aims to share the battle of journalists to understand a dynamic, complex China shrouded by a rigid government throughout the tumultuous development of United States-China relations â struggling to scoop out stories, overcoming cultural and political challenges, rejoicing in their successes â all the while competing against rival journalists and meeting dreaded deadlines.