Hardly had I introduced myself when the man seated by my side, a Lebanese, remarked: “It’s like Christians and Muslims are still killing one another in your country…” I could not contain myself as I reacted sharply, “from where did you get that?” He said
he had just finished watching on CNN the story of the bomb blast in Nigeria by “the Islamic terrorist group killing Christians…” Unsure of where to begin to lecture a person with such ignorance about my country, I mumbled a few words before finding a convenient excuse to change my seat in the bus. Incidentally, I had kept a night vigil as I followed on the internet and CNN the Kaduna bomb explosion that terminated the lives of several innocent people. But I could not allow a foreigner to compound the tragedy for me.
As I took my seat beside a Ghanaian, he said: “I am sorry for what happened yesterday in Nigeria. I don’t know what those Boko Haram people want but what I saw on CNN last night was an act of cowardice.” This was a reassuring assessment of the situation back home and I thanked my Ghanaian brother for his sympathy. The Boko Haram menace has indeed reached such a critical situation in which all men of goodwill, especially those who can intervene positively, should stand up and be counted in the bid to find a lasting solution to the problem.
I arrived here in Beijing, China, last Sunday as one of the 36 participants (drawn from Africa, Middle East, South East Asia and Eastern Europe), attending a three-week “Seminar on Press and Publications in Developing Countries” organised by the Chinese government. It is a programme designed for the Chinese authorities in charge of media and publications to share their experiences not only for us to know more about China but also as a way to project their growing power in the global arena.
When I was sounded out about the programme by the Chinese embassy in Abuja, I did not even hesitate before accepting because I had always wanted to find out how the media works under a regulated system. I was also curious to know whether there is a nexus between media operations in China and the country’s development model. On our visit to Xinhua, the leading publication in the country on Monday, the strategically placed inscription somehow resolved that riddle for me: “In October 1955, Chairman Mao Zedong instructed Xinhua to ‘span the globe and let the whole world hear our voice’”, it proclaimed, with the media house focusing its reportage “on the recording and adjustment of the national economy and reflected changes and achievements in various areas” while encouraging “the Chinese people to strive for the country’s prosperity in time of difficulty by giving publicity to a large number of progressive individuals…”
While this is my fourth time in China (including when I escorted my late principal on State Visit), this is the first time I would have the opportunity for serious interactions with their officials and this programme is particularly instructive in that we have been able to ask tough questions, including ones for which there are no coherent answers but for which we can make our own deductions. But the officials have also been frank enough to tell us where China is coming from and how things have evolved within a short period. Some of the issues under discourse in the programme include: Chinese news release system; development of China’s media and its exchange with foreign media; China’s economic reforms and opening-up; Development and governance of the Internet in China; Human rights in China; and the role of media in promoting China’s socio-economic development.
The interactions in the last couple of days have been interesting as we get to know more about media development in China. According to the statistics made available to us, China consumes 20 percent of the world total media coverage with 1,939 newspapers (816 of which are daily newspapers) and 9,884 magazines. China also has a television audience of 900 million with 257 radio and 277 TV stations. The mobile users hit the one billion mark in February while internet connectivity is 513 million people. Notwithstanding this Internet penetration, China is still very suspicious of new media which one of the officials say, “could be a force for good or evil”.
The role of the press in China (apparently as defined by the ruling Communist Peoples Party) include education and mobilization; information and entertainment; helping people to think critically; limiting corruption and exposing corporate scandal. The main concern, however, remains the “biased reporting by the Western press and the ignorance of Americans towards China”. An official who just returned to Beijing after a four-year stint in Washington, told us yesterday in the course of a lecture on China’s news dissemination methods that there is a misrepresentation of China viewed from what she called three Ts (Tiananmen, Tibet and Taiwan).
One thing that is fascinating about China is that the country sees itself differently from the way others see her and that should teach us something. For instance, Nigeria is by all accounts a poor nation (always has been, though with enormous potentials) yet we have for decades deceived ourselves into believing we are rich on account of mismanaged oil rent.
China sees itself as both big and small, old and new and rich and poor--all in equal measure. It has a population of 1.3 billion people and an urban population of 600 million and ranks third in territory after Russia and Canada. Even with its 189 billionaires as at last year, the Chinese authorities always remind us that while their country may be the second in economic size after United States (because of its Gross Domestic Product of $5.87 trillion), the Per Capita GDP of $4371 also ranks her as 95thin the world.
China is one of the oldest civilisations with a written history of 4,000 years, it has strong cultural tradition and many historical sites like Great Wall and Forbidden City where we visited on Monday. Originally called Palace Museum, the Forbidden City is located right in the middle of Beijing and the six expansive halls, their outer courts as well as inner palaces testify to a great past. Constructed over a period of 14 years from 1406 to 1420, it was the abode from which 24 emperors of the Ming and the Qing Dynasties ruled China for some 500 years and was constructed by a million workmen and 10,000 artisans. It took us almost two hours to complete the tour after which one of the participants, a lady from Zambia, whispered to me: “From this, it is obvious the ancient Chinese was a prosperous society, then they became so poor they were far more wretched than us in Africa, and now they are prosperous again. How did China do it?”
At the Foreign Languages Press office where we visited last Wednesday, Mr Gangyi Wang, President/Editor-in-Chief of the Beijing Review, spoke of growing concerns about whether China’s rise would present a threat or benefit to the world. And in a way, that was at the heart of the lecture 24 hours later by Dr Shi An Bin, a Professor of Media and Cultural Studies and Associate Dean, School of Journalism and Communication, Tsinghua University.
In a presentation titled, “China: The Fragile Superpower”, Dr Shi began by displaying on the screen two photographs of Yao Ming--one slam-dunking and the other on the floor, injured. He said the first shows Yao in all his strength and the second, his vulnerability. “The story of Yao’s career which is a combination of talent and injury is not different from the story of China,” he said. For the uninitiated, Yao is the first Chinese to star in the National Basketball Association (NBA) in the United States. For years, he dazzled and sparkled but in July last year, he announced his retirement from basketball, citing injuries, including a third fracture to his left foot. Reacting to the retirement, NBA great, Shaquille O'Neal said if Yao “didn't have those injuries he could've been up there in the top five centers to ever play the game.”
With all his talents, according to Dr Shi, Yao’s fragility meant he could easily be hurt by his colleagues and that, he said, is like China because “we have several social problems to deal with and a huge population to take care of”. He explained the domestic environment that has contributed to China not opening its market to foreign media before adding, in a lighter mood, that even marrying a Chinese wife has not allowed global media mogul, Mr. Rupert Murdoch, a foot in the door to the Chinese market, “but when he was attacked recently at a hearing in London, he knew the value of having a Chinese wife!”
One fact all Chinese officials never fail to highlight is that their country has 20 percent of the world population with 7 percent of its arable land which then gives China and its media a sense of perspective as to the nature of the challenges confronting their people. On the controversial Internet firewall built by the Chinese authority to censor certain kinds of information, Dr Shi explained the circumstances which necessitated the decision but added that it is fruitless as “every smart College kid in China can climb the so-called firewall to get whatever information he or she wants on the internet. But beyond that, we know what happened to the Berlin Wall. In this age, it’s a waste of time trying to erect any kind of wall, it will eventually collapse. Even the Great Wall of China has become a mere tourist attraction!”
Dr Shi who interspersed his lecture with humour, said the emergence of new media and the rise of middle class are catalysts for the changes in China essentially because the Chinese middle class do not share the same concerns as their Western counterparts whose preoccupation is usually “about their mortgage, their cats, their dogs etc.” Dr Shi, however, believes the main area where China seems to be failing is in the deployment of its soft power. He gave the example of his university which recently conducted a research among young people in Vietnam whose economy China virtually funds, a country that has an unpleasant history with the United States. Yet the research revealed that “80 percent of the people have a favourable disposition of the United States while only 17 percent of them are favourably disposed to China. This is a country where we expend huge resources and where US has a history of atrocities yet those Vietnamese kids either do not remember or simply do not care, essentially because the US has succeeded in using its soft power to conquer the country. The same thing is happening in most of South East Asia where they rely economically on China but politically look up to the US for direction.”
In concluding his presentation, Dr Shi said China is one country that needed to be explored and understood, “but I also believe we need to project our values and create the narrative of the Chinese Dream which is not conspicuous consumption but rather an affordable, contented and sustainable lifestyle.” The media, according to him, would be very crucial in creating such narrative and that makes the institution critical to Chinese development.
While we have had several lectures, I have dwelt extensively on Dr Shi’s presentation because he was more forthcoming than most of the other presenters and we have had interactions with senior officials in virtually all the critical institutions that deal with the media in China, including the State Council Information Office. The session on human rights was for instance almost acrimonious as some of my colleagues accused the presenter, Ms Yao Junmei, a top official at the China Society for Human Rights Studies, of refusing to respond to questions about the true state of human rights and press freedom in China. The session, however, produced an interesting aside. One of the participants had sought to know why China was supporting the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad “who has been killing his own people.” Hardly had the question been posed when the Syrian in our team stood up to interject: “You listen to the propaganda on CNN and other Western media to form your jaundiced opinion about President Assad and Syria when you don’t know the fact about what is actually going on in the country…”
With that, Ms Yao didn’t have to respond to the issue but she added that Chinese concerns go beyond the fixation of the West. “You need to visit our rural areas to understand the challenges our people still grapple with” she said, as she tried to explain the reason behind the one-child policy. “I am the 7thof eight children by my parents and going to school was difficult. In some families, only one child among many could go to school because of poverty. In my own case, things were so rough that I never ate banana until I graduated in 1981.”
With the population growing at an alarming proportion amid limited resources China, according to Ms Yao, had to adopt the population control measure without which she said the country might have been hitting almost two billion people by now. “When I go to Europe and they talk about Human Rights, I tell them that as a Chinese what I need more is bread,” she said before adding rather instructively, “when I visited Italy and the Prime Minister told me, ‘you Chinese are now so prosperous that you wear the same cloth as we do’, I replied: “On the contrary, it’s you who wear the same cloth as we do because we Chinese produce the materials that are then exported to Italy.”
The last two weeks have been an education for me and most of our lecturers have been as candid as they could possibly be. Even when I have a strong bias for market economy, I nonetheless still believe Nigeria has a lot to learn from the development model adopted by China which describes itself as the “world’s largest developing country”. Some of these lessons I will highlight as I conclude this series next week. But even as their officials try to sell the “Chinese Dream” of a happy and contented lifestyle based on some cherished values, it is evident that as the country opens itself to the world, members of their younger generation are also beginning to express their true desires. On Monday, our presenter told us the story of a Chinese girl who famously remarked: “I will rather cry inside a BMW than smile on a bike.”
• This piece was first published in THISDAY in April 2012