A Chinese Journalist’s Journey to the West

Reprinted with permission of The McGill Report, August 29, 2006

ROCHESTER, MN — First: Don’t peek below for the answer! Now take a look at the following four headlines and guess in which newspaper they recently appeared: 

“Strip Poker Champ Bares All After Win”
“Boy Falls Asleep in Class, Sues Teacher”
“Newborn Albino Pygmy Marmoset”
“Jen Hits Fashion Heights”

Are we talking The National Enquirer here? The Star? Any of those tabloids in the grocery checkout line? The New York Post on a slow news day?

Nope, to all of the above. The correct answer is the China Daily, the state-controlled English-language newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party.

Hongyong Lu, a reporter at the China Daily, explained to an audience at the Rochester Public Library the other day that the flood of tabloid-style stories in his and other Chinese newspapers reflects modern China’s adoption of a brand of capitalism so bare-knuckled it would make Bill Gates blush.

“The catchword in China today is the economy,” Lu said. “You need cash to do anything, and sensational stories increase newsstand sales.”

History and Language 

Even the official Chinese-language newspaper of the Communist Party, the People’ Daily, which for decades was distributed free as a means of social control, now costs 1 yuan (about 13 cents) at the newsstand. The newspaper’s web site carries ads for Coca Cola next to Communist Party ads.   

The 37-year-old Lu, now in the U.S. on a 16-week program of study and cultural visits sponsored by the World Press Institute at Macalester College, said one of his most memorable moments so far was his first night as a home-stay guest in Ely in northern Minnesota.

“It was the best night’s sleep I have had in a decade,” he said. “The air was so clean and fresh compared to Shanghai, where I live.”

A native of the rural Chinese province of Anhui, Lu’s career choice traces, oddly enough, to a one-year hospital stay as a young boy, during which he read constantly and fell in love with history and language.
Propped up on pillows in his hospital bed, recovering from complications of appendicitis, he read straight through all four of the great Chinese literary classics — A Dream of Red Mansions, Journey to the West, the Romance of Three Kingdoms, and Outlaws of the Marsh. 

A Goose for Company

“For a little child the sense of history is strange,” Lu said. “It gave me my first dose of interest in the liberal arts, and for a while I thought I would become a novelist.” But he veered towards journalism because high English exam scores paved the way for scholarships at his county school, then in his provincial capital city, and finally in the nation’s capital, Beijing.

Lu says he’s often struck by a surreal sense of the path his life has taken, compared to how it might have turned out.

“I was born in a peasant village,” he said. “My world was confined to a limited space, the sun rose on one side and fell on the other, and I had maybe a goose for company.”

Lu vividly recalls the day he was promoted to the China Daily’s elite “state affairs” team of journalists who travel with top Chinese officials.

“For a country boy who struggled every day for survival, now to be in an office sipping coffee and flying around the world with the Prime Minister of China, I felt a ‘wow!’ at the changes in my life.”

Rich-Poor Gap

In his one-hour talk at the Rochester library, Lu cited China statistics that described a colossus propped on sticks, with multiple overlapping social crises created by China’s shift from a centrally-controlled to a capitalist economy.

China’s vast and growing rich-poor gap is among the worst results of that shift, Lu said, not least because China now has the very class-structured society that Communism tried to abolish.
Joblessness in rural areas is especially acute, with some 200 million peasants now moving to live in China’s cities in a rural-to-urban migration of unprecedented scale.

This horde is creating giant urban slums as peasants take the factory jobs that make the cheap goods Americans buy at Wal-Mart and other retailers.

Education for these workers would offer a gateway out of poverty, Lu said, but a government policy change is cementing the rich-poor gap instead.

In 1989, China started cutting back on university scholarships the state had traditionally given to promising students, while at the same time charging steep fees and tuition. As a result, increasingly only children from wealthy families can go to college, while promising poor children have no chance.

Only when someone asked about Taiwan did the temperature noticeably rise in the room. China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province and repeatedly warns it will go to war to “reunify” the territory with mainland China if provoked by certain conditions, such as if Taiwan, supported by U.S. military protection, were to formally declare independence from China.

“Will the U.S. and China go to war someday?” Lu said, visibly roused. “The answer is yes, we will, if the U.S. really means business about the protection of Taiwan. China has to fulfill the reunification with Taiwan. I would emotionally support for us to go to war if there is a need.”

Copyright @ 2006 The McGill Report