Mike Chinoy, CNN Bureau Chief, Hong Kong; author, China Live: Two Decades in the Heart of the Dragon
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: This is Common Ground.
MIKE CHINOY: The critical theme, it seems to me, in China now is can this leadership
and this system manage this transition that it has set in motion? We have an incredible change
underway in which the lives of hundreds of millions of people have been changed in an extraordinarily
short period of time with a lot of good things and a lot of bad things.
DAVIDSON: Covering China in this edition of Common Ground. Common Ground is a
program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley
Foundation. I’m Mary Gray-Davidson.
Mike Chinoy is the Cable News Network’s Hong Kong bureau chief. Prior to this post where he
covered this summer’s handover of Hong Kong to China, Chinoy was CNN’s bureau chief in Beijing.
He has recounted his two decades covering China in his new book China Live. I began
my conversation with Mike Chinoy by asking him with what he considers the most important
events in China during the past twenty years.
CHINOY: Well, China is so big that it’s very hard to generalize. I think Tiananmen
Square was, and still to a large degree, remains the defining moment in shaping American
perception of China. I covered Tiananmen Square for CNN and what I have found in the years
following Tiananmen Square is that the power of those images that we broadcast in 1989, the
man standing in front of the tank, the goddess of democracy, and the sheer horror of what
happened, magnified by the fact that people saw it in their living rooms more or less as it
happened, has created a very, very deeply held impression of China as a country of brutal
dictators and beleaguered dissidents and corrupt deal makers, a very kind of one dimensional
picture. The fact is, it’s been over 8 years since Tiananmen Square and although China
remains politically a very, very repressive place, one of the things that I have concluded
after many years of traveling the country and following events there since Tiananmen Square
is that it is both a much more complicated and multi-dimensional society than people give it
credit for and much more open on many, many levels, although not on a political level, than
many people believe. And so today I think one of the problems in the national debate on China
in the United States is that many people are talking about a country that is really a
caricature of a vastly more complicated and multi-dimensional reality.
DAVIDSON: Well as you said, Tiananmen Square does loom large in American perceptions
of China and that is the major story in your book, China Live, the democracy movement
led by the students in Beijing, which ended in the government’s massacre of people in Tiananmen
Square and around the city. Is it possible to say in this post-Tiananmen period what China’s
young people are striving for today? Is it possible to name some defining characteristics of
CHINOY: One of the very interesting transformations over the last eight or so years
since Tiananmen Square has been in the aspirations of many young people in China. What you
get is a lot of people now feel that in terms of conventional politics, there isn’t really
much hope. And yet at the same time in many other areas of life there are a great many more
opportunities, and so a lot of young people in China have embraced going into business and
trying to find personal meaning and satisfaction in those areas. I think there is relatively
little love for the Chinese Communist Party among the younger generation in China. There is
a tremendous amount of cynicism, but it doesn’t translate into opposition to or confrontation
to the Communist Party. It translates more into trying to find something to do with one’s
life in which the party is not involved. As I said, for example, going into business, getting
rich, personal creature comforts. That’s where a lot of Chinese are putting their energies
now and because the society is, in many ways more open than it was before, these kinds of
opportunities exist. From the government’s point of view that’s a kind of safety valve in
the sense that there’s a trade-off that this government has made implicitly with the population
which is, “We’ll give you opportunities to get rich, to have a better standard of living,
more personal control over your personal life, and in return, you lay off open political
challenges to the Communist Party leadership.” So that is my sense of the dynamic that’s at
work now in China, which makes the prospect of a Tiananmen II, led by students and intellectuals,
I think very, very unlikely.
DAVIDSON: Or at least, not in the near future.
CHINOY: Well, because I think that there are other and very serious sources of discontent
in China that hold out the possibility of political trouble, possibly even trouble on the streets,
but not from the same sources and not with the same dynamic as we saw with the students in
Beijing in 1989.
DAVIDSON: Well, what are some of the discontents that you see among people in China
CHINOY: As I’ve traveled around China over the years, I think the overriding dynamic,
and this is something that when I was based in Beijing for CNN, I struggled a lot to try and
convey because it’s not an easy concept to convey. The critical theme it seems to me, in
China now, is can this leadership and this system manage this transition that it has set in
motion? In my book China Live I write about how difficult it is to report what is
really a process of transition because process makes for bad television whereas students
protesting in the streets and tanks in the streets makes for very riveting television. But
you have an incredible change underway in which the lives of hundreds of millions of people
have been changed in an extraordinarily short period of time with a lot of good things and a
lot of bad things. And among the bad things that are potential sources of trouble are first of
all, a very sharp gap between those who’ve done well out of the reforms and those who haven’t
done well—exploited workers or peasants in the rural hinterland who haven’t received the same
benefits of foreign investment and greater contact with the outside world and the market style
economics that you see in the coastal area. That’s a big problem. Corruption is a huge
problem. You really can’t get anything done in China without some kind of backdoor connection
or bribe. It’s just the way the system has evolved and people are very, very angry about it
and the government itself is well aware of the problem. In fact, just a few days ago, there
was a very highly publicized decision to jail the son of the former Communist Party chief in
Beijing who was known as a real wheeler-dealer in Beijing and finally was brought low by his
extravagant exploits, as a signal that even the children of the top elite are not immune from
this sort of thing. But above and beyond everything else, the really big problem that the
Chinese are grappling with now, that could be the source of real instability, is what to do
with the state-run industries. The state sector is the linchpin of any socialist economy and
in China it employs tens of millions of people, accounts for almost half the national economy
and most of these state-run industries are sort of socialist dinosaurs. They lose vast
quantities of money, they’re a huge drain on the government, they need to be privatized, they
need to be streamlined and made more efficient to operate successfully in a market economy.
At the same time, the state sector provided a kind of social safety net for tens of millions
of urban workers. It provided housing, schooling, medical care, and if you reform it, the
possibility of millions of people losing their jobs, losing their benefits, being thrown out
on the street with no alternative, is very real. It’s a real dilemma and depending on how
it’s dealt with you could easily have strikes, riots, that kind of trouble, and I think the
government is very aware of it and is trying to find a way to move ahead and deal with it.
But that’s really the big issue, and in the upcoming Chinese Communist Party Congress which
is going to be held in September, that’s going to be number one on the agenda.
DAVIDSON: I’m thinking of a comparison with the former Soviet Union. No one predicted
the collapse of the Soviet Union which was preceded by Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms. Is it
possible that China could be going the way of the former Soviet Union?
CHINOY: Well, having spent more than twenty years following China, one of the
conclusions that I stress in my book China Live is the paradoxical and ambiguous
nature and uncertain nature of China and how difficult it is to make these kinds of sweeping
judgments. It’s terribly easy to be wrong about China. There are certainly some factors in
the Chinese equation that could lead to all kinds of chaos and instability, but I must say
that when you look at the scale of changes in China in the last twenty years, the former U.S.
ambassador in Beijing, Stapleton Roy, was fond of saying that every other society in the world
that has changed as rapidly as China has in that short a period of time collapsed. And I think
the fact that China has gone through this remarkable transformation with really only one
Tiananmen Square is pretty remarkable given the nature of the social and economic change and
upheaval. So my own best guess is that what you’re most likely to see is more of the same; a
kind of gradual muddling along, trying to keep this market experiment alive because of its
economic importance, but efforts by the Communist Party to balance that with hanging onto
power. I don’t think—China’s a very homogenous nation—I mean they’re all ethnic, the vast
majority are ethnically the same, they speak the same language, they have the same writing.
So there are not quite as many divisive forces as there were in the former Soviet Union, but
implosion and collapse is certainly not impossible. China’s been through enough upheavals in
the last 30 or 40 years that one can’t rule it out. But my own judgment is, at least in the
near term, it’s not likely.
DAVIDSON: Earlier, you talked about the exploited labor which is an important issue to
Americans and with so many products sold in the United States made in China, how can an
American consumer be confident that underpaid workers or even forced laborers, didn’t make
what they’re buying?
CHINOY: Well, you can’t be confident. I think the amount of material that goes into
the U.S. that’s made from forced prison labor is probably pretty small. And while the
conditions for prison labor is pretty appalling in China, having prisoners produce goods that
are sold elsewhere is not a practice exclusively confined to China. But the issue about
exploited labor is a very interesting and complicated one. There’s no question, for example,
that a lot of the workers in the shops making goods for export in China are underpaid and
overworked and so on. At the same time, for a lot of these workers, most of whom have come
from rural areas, the choice of spending 10 hours a day in a factory getting a halfway decent
wage as opposed to spending 12 hours a day behind a water buffalo in a rice paddy is a choice
that a lot of Chinese would vote with their feet because what you see are more and more rural
people coming into the areas that are opened up for development and for foreign investment
looking for these kinds of jobs. So to some degree, it’s an uncomfortable issue. At the same
time, China is to a certain extent, passing through a developmental process that other Asian
countries that are now at a much higher level of development, like South Korea, Taiwan, so
forth, have also passed through. It’s just in China, it’s complicated and of course it’s more
complicated because you have a repressive political system and so grievances can’t be articulated
easily and there’s more, sort of room for exploitation. But I think it’s like a lot of
questions in China, it’s a very ambiguous issue.
DAVIDSON: Every spring here in the U.S. we have this debate over whether the United
States should renew China’s Most Favored Nation status and that seems to pit U.S. human rights
activists against the business interests. Is it that simple an issue?
CHINOY: Like everything in China, the MFN debate is not that simple. As a reporter, I
don’t take a position on, for or against MFN as a policy, but I think the issues are very,
very complicated and I think you’re beginning to see in the nature of the debate in the United
States some recognition of that complexity. The fact of the matter is, that there’s a kind of
irony here. The forces in China that are those contributing most to the impetus for more
market reform, greater reduction in the power of the Chinese Communist Party to micro-manage
daily life and economic life, greater engagement with the international economy are precisely
those forces that would be most adversely affected by the withdrawal of MFN. That is to say,
foreign investment and Chinese projects with foreign companies and so on. So you have this
ironic situation that punishing that particular sector would actually hurt the part of Chinese
society that is at the forefront of the changes for the better in China that go along with all
the things that are not changing for the better. And I think in the debate last spring you
began to see some awareness of this in Washington because there was much more discussion about
how can the U.S. help promote the rule of law and legal institutions and so on, and more
discussions of whether or not MFN is the right instrument to press for those kinds of changes.
It is a very complicated issue, no question about it.
DAVIDSON: If you’ve just joined us, you’re listening to Common Ground. My guest
is Mike Chinoy, Hong Kong Bureau Chief for CNN and author of the book China Live: Two
Decades in the Heart of the Dragon. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation,
a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs,
meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs. Printed transcripts and
audio cassettes are available of this Common Ground program, and at the end of the
broadcast I’ll give you details on how you can order.
I’m sure this is obvious to you, but I want to talk about why China is so important to the U.S.
CHINOY: China is the most populous country in the world. It has nuclear weapons. It
has a seat on and a veto in the U.N. Security Council. It can be a force both for good or for
ill on a host of questions. I’ve always been fascinated by China. In my book
China Live I describe my fascination with the country, going back to the early 1970’s
when it was really off limits to Americans and was a kind of forbidden, remote, isolated,
exotic place, about which we knew almost nothing, and therefore, going to China was a kind of
process of exploration of a new unknown frontier. And that’s in large part what drew me, and
how I got there and what I found in those early years makes up a big chunk of the first part
of my book. But now, as China’s come out of its shell and is taking a higher role on the
world stage, it’s hugely important. It influences, its economic policies can influence the
American economy. If China doesn’t cooperate on issues like dealing with North Korea where
there are 30,000-35,000 U.S. troops just on the other side of the Korean demilitarized zone
in South Korea, that’s a potential for conflict. If you look at the places where the U.S.
could conceivably get involved in a shooting war in the next decade, two of the most
potentially dangerous are Korea and Taiwan and both of those are areas where China is
intimately involved. So, it’s hugely important to U.S. national interests as well as being
intrinsically, purely from a journalistic point of view, a fascinating and a very, very good
story. And it’s interesting to me now that there is the beginnings of the perception, it
seems to me in the United States, that how the U.S. deals with China is emerging as one of
the, if not the most important foreign policy issue for the next few years.
DAVIDSON: During your years in China, you’ve reported on the deaths of two of its
modern leaders, Mao Tse Deng and Deng Xiaoping. Which one do you think has had the greater
impact on shaping modern China?
CHINOY: That’s the kind of question that historians love to debate. I think one could
make a very credible case that the changes that Deng Xiaoping brought were as great and
perhaps over time even greater than those of Mao. And in some ways more profound in part
because they were not accompanied by a violent revolution. Deng undid the worst excesses of
the Maoist revolution. He took a totally isolated, inward-looking, impoverished country and
brought it into or set it on its way to joining the modern world and he did it without massive
social disorder, and chaos, without a bloody civil war. Tiananmen will remain permanently a
blot on his reputation but I think you have to give Deng enormous credit for how far he took
the country. Anybody who had anything to do with China back in the ’70s, when I first went
there—and I write in my book China Live about going there in 1973, barely a year after
Nixon—everybody was dressed in uniform colors of blue and gray. People talked like they were
reading the official Communist Party propaganda organ The People’s Daily. There was
uniform poverty and political repression, social repression, cultural repression. To go back
barely 20 years later and see how much it’s changed, I think it’s fair to call it a revolution,
although a largely peaceful one.
DAVIDSON: I want to switch now to the topic of Hong Kong since you’re now CNN’s Hong
Kong Bureau Chief and you covered the handover from Britain to China of Hong Kong earlier this
summer. I have two questions regarding that. One is, what struck you in particular about
the whole handover process? And how do the people of Hong Kong, particularly those who cannot
leave, feel now about being governed by Beijing?
CHINOY: Well, one of, I think what is striking now with the benefit of almost two
months after the handover, is how little actually happened. The handover was one of these
moments in time where the meaning of the event in some ways was greater than the event itself.
The handover, my own feeling is, resonated around the world among the media and among people
watching and reading, because it encapsulated several themes that touch people. One was the
end of the British Empire, the end of the Western imperial adventure in the Orient, coming to
a close with the British lowering the Union Jack. The second was the rise of China, which is
a phenomenon now on the world stage and which was symbolized and accelerated by Hong Kong
returning to Chinese control. The third was the fascination of this extraordinarily vibrant
center of capitalism at a stroke of the clock literally switching masters from a benign,
democratic British government to an authoritarian, repressive Chinese government. So all
those themes played a role. But the fact of the matter is, that since the hand-over, for us
journalists the story is that there really isn’t a story. Very little feels different on the
ground. There have been some changes in the political system, but people are still out
demonstrating, reporters are still reporting, pro-democracy activists are still being
interviewed, business is still being done, foreigners are still coming and going, investment
is still flowing in. The Chinese have been extraordinarily scrupulous so far in essentially
saying to the Hong Kong government, “It’s your business, you manage it.” So there is no
feeling whatever that Hong Kong is under the yoke of the butchers of Beijing or any of those
fears that were articulated before. That’s not to say it couldn’t happen if things go wrong
here or more worryingly, if things went wrong inside China. A power struggle in the
leadership or political convulsions in China could have a devastating impact on Hong Kong.
But the fact is so far it’s remarkably life as normal. The Chinese Army units which came in
here, the 4,000 People’s Liberation Army soldiers which came in amidst great fanfare and
considerable anxiety on the morning of the handover, they’re absolutely invisible. You can’t
see them; they take a totally low profile. Top Chinese officials here are taking a low
profile and letting the Hong Kong administration get on with it. So I think the general
feeling is on balance, so far so good.
DAVIDSON: Just one final question. This is a media-related question. As a journalist
for CNN you’ve been part of a real media revolution. Many of the major events of this past
decade were covered live and people involved in the events could even watch as they unfold.
How has new technology, and not just live television coverage, but cell phones, the Internet,
affected China? And how far can the Chinese government or any government for that matter, go
in censoring or cutting off access to these new avenues of communication?
CHINOY: That’s a very, very interesting question. One of the, the rise of CNN is one
of the major themes that I write about. I joined CNN shortly after it began when it was still
jokingly referred to as “Chicken Noodle News” because it was so new and amateurish and so on,
and have been with it as it has become this kind of global medial colossus. Interestingly,
the Tiananmen Square events in 1989 were a turning point for China, but they were also really
a turning point for CNN and therefore for international media in general. I write in my book
about how this was the first event of its kind in a distant, difficult, remote location to be
conveyed live on television screens around the world as it happened. People forget that today
when they take for granted the Gulf War, the coup in Moscow, the crisis in Rwanda, the war in
Bosnia—you expect to see that as it happens on your TV screen. It’s hard to imagine that
less than a decade ago putting something like that on TV live was absolutely revolutionary.
In Chinese terms what it has meant is that the Chinese Communist Party, which had an absolute
monopoly on the control and flow of information for many years, has increasingly lost control
of that crucial political commodity. That began with CNN’s Tiananmen Square coverage. Now
today CNN is surprisingly widely seen in China, and this is part of, this goes back to the
point I’m making about how complex and multi-layered a society China is. The same society
that imprisons dissidents for no valid reason, is a society where people can log into the
Internet, where they can watch CNN, where they have access to a wide range of influences from
outside that they never did. And while it’s not producing overnight political change, it’s
gradually eroding the Communist Party’s, the range of areas over which the Communist Party
can micro-manage people’s lives. So it’s a very important dynamic in this process of peaceful
evolution of China away from the most odious aspects of its authoritarian past.
DAVIDSON: Mike Chinoy has been my guest on Common Ground. He is the Hong Kong
Bureau Chief for CNN. For Common Ground, I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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