The personal and professional interests of the foreign media in China have never had much in common with the average Chinese people with whom they cover. Sometimes, this is a good and necessary thing: if the foreign media won’t cover Chinese dissidents, who will? But often, this produces absurd results that distort – for readers and viewers outside of China – what matters to China.
Take, for example, the near obsession that China’s foreign correspondents have with Jia Zhangke, a very good Chinese filmmaker who makes “serious,” socially conscious films that have almost no audience in China, but which win awards abroad. This year, during the Expo, the New Yorker (to choose just one English language publication) devoted thousands of words to Mr. Jia. Fair enough, I suppose, except for the fact that – at the same time Jia Zhangke was appealing to a decidedly small audience of hyper-educated New Yorker writers, readers, and editors, the turnstiles at Expo 2010 – the Shanghai World’s Fair – were rotating at a rate that eclipsed Jia Zhangke’s entire Chinese audience by noon, every day, May to October. If New Yorker readers wanted to know something about why people were rushing through those turnstiles, they’d have to look elsewhere because, aside from a few blog posts, the magazine published nothing on Expo 2010 – the biggest and most expensive event that ever took place in China (and, some argue, anywhere). Of course, the New Yorker, and its terrific China correspondent weren’t along in this choice of coverage – they were joined in the decision by most of the China-based foreign media (and their overseas editors). What a pity.
If you believe the official figures, Expo 2010 was visited by more than 70 million people, many millions of whom waited in long ticket lines, outside of the gates, in the heat of July and August (to be sure, quite a few visitors also received their tickets for free), for the chance to wait in long lines within the Expo grounds. The obvious question is: what was the appeal? The less obvious question is: why didn’t the foreign media probe this question? More precisely, rather than ignore the phenomenon, why didn’t anyone pause to ask what was it about contemporary China that drove so many people to do something that most foreigners – especially foreign reporters who are lock-step disdainful of crowds and mass events enjoyed by Chinese – had no interest in doing?
I’ve been dismayed by the number of reporters and expatriates who’ve ascribed the huge attendance figures to lemming-like Chinese behavior, and free tickets (see recent posts and comments on my blog, for starters). Leaving, for another time, the elite mindset necessary for a foreigner (much less, a foreign reporter) to dismiss the interests of the locals as being mechanical and totally manipulated by the CCP, let’s just assume that rural Chinese aren’t much different than hyper-educated foreign reporters. And what I mean by that, as a foreign reporter who attended the Expo more than fifty times, is this: the folks who attended Expo, either in groups or on their own, were many things (aggressive, enthusiastic, patient), but never once did I sense that they were stupid, or so lacking in other options that they’d willingly spend hours in line, in the heat of August, for something that didn’t interest them – just because they received free tickets. [Below, Chinese visitors to the sublime Iceland pavilion.]