Diary of a Shanghai Agenda
I am sceptical about how much commonality there is between Asians. So going to China to attend my first Common Agenda Roundtable meeting of Asia-Pacific editors I wasn’t expecting too much in the way of unity of thought. One of the Thai speakers asked rhetorically at one point, “Is there such a thing as an Asian view?” My response was that there wasn’t really such a thing as an Indian view so to expect the continent to have one was a stretch.
But it proved a suitably genial experience, not least because of the hospitality of the Japan Foundation and Shanghai Daily, the two hosts. Media men across the world have common concerns and a remarkably homogenous set of problems and answers to their professional concerns.
It was inevitable that China dominated a large chunk of the conversation. The economic opportunity it represents attracts everyone. The new-found assertiveness of Beijing, however, troubles many. And the seeming unpredictability of China’s leaders is confusing their Asian peers.
It is always a bit difficult to judge how frank a Chinese journalist is being when he talks to you. Is that his line or the party line? Is he being wary of the other Chinese person at the table?
But the ones present this time seemed authentic in their conversations, both public and private.
One young reporter from the South China Oriental Morning Post worried that everyone in the world thought the Global Times was the voice of China. In truth, he said, the paper had a circulation of only one million and represented nothing more than itself. Global Times is a hardline and nationalist whose profile is much higher overseas than at home. And how close were they to the government line? “When Beijing says there should be a dialogue over the South China Sea, Global Times says ‘Teach Philippines a Lesson,’” he complained.
One issue I was interested in getting a sense for us how China was taking the European debt crisis. The answer seemed to be phlegmatically. But surely, I thought, Beijing had to be worried.
However, Chinese journalists gave an explanation as to why the European Union would find it harder to extract a few billions from China. This was the Macedonian Bus Case.
The Chinese foreign ministry had to stumble its way through hostile press after it announced the dispatch of a bunch of buses to Macedonia as part of an aid programme. Unfortunately a bus accident that killed tens of schoolkids took place before the press conference. If we don’t have enough buses for our own kids, why are we sending them to Macedonia? And the press wasn’t friendly about this.
Given this situation, it is unthinkable that Beijing would give away billions to Europe. Sure enough, before the roundtable was over, the Chinese vice-minister of something or another had announced that Beijing wasn’t going to pay off Europe’s debt.
Online in China
One of the interesting developments that the China correspondent of a US newspaper noted was the rise of the Chinese editions of Western publications.
The Wall Street Journal’s Chinese web edition had 40 million unique viewers. The Financial Times’s had nearly 15 million. And Beijing wasn’t putting any gags on them, making them particularly popular with Chinese looking for a non-government line.
“I suppose a crackdown is going to happen at some point,” this well-known China veteran said. After all, these sites were essentially becoming rivals to Xinhua, the official news agency.
Privately Chinese journalists complained to me about the Indian media’s negative point of view of their country. This mimicked the official government line that many of the problems between India and China were caused by media hysteria.
While I didn’t disagree that some of the Sino-Indian problems were a consequence of bad coverage. But there were genuine issues between the two countries, the most notable one being China’s sudden decision to staple visas of Kashmiris and then it’s equally sudden decision to stop the practice.
“There is a lack of communication between the two countries,” concluded a senior diplomatic writer for the Chinese news agency.
One got a glimpse though of China’s media policy overseas. Bambang Harymurti, head of Indonesia’s Tempo newspaper, described how the Chinese state was paying for stories on China and entire pages of Indonesian papers. “All Indonesian papers do this,” he said. He estimated China spent a few billion dollars a year on this sort of thing.
What’s In a Name
When I pointed out the Sanskrit origins of his name, Harymurti told an anecdote. “I once met a Pakistani ambassador who grumbled that a Muslim should have such a name. He insisted on calling him Ahmad throughout his stay in Jakarta.