Breaking China

A few weeks before moving to Beijing I bumped into Frontline colleague Fergal Keane.”China will be fascinating” he said, “but your problem will be to turn history into the news.”

His words have echoed around my head throughout my first five months here. The explosion of capitalism in China is like nothing any of us have seen before, and it’s changing our world. I live it: every week I see old buildings demolished and new high-rises erected. The air is thick with concrete dust; every day a thousand new cars come onto the streets of the capital. The climate-changing gases produced will affect all of us in the end – for now, I just breathe the pollution. I’ve been to the biggest open-cast coal mine in Asia. I’ve reported on the unfair trials of human rights lawyers, pensioners’ protests, endemic corruption and four years of double-digit economic growth. I covered the biggest summit of African leaders ever – an emblem of China’s new diplomatic reach and thirst for natural resources.

I return again and again to the environment and China’s role in global warming. But the only time we led Channel 4 News was when the North Koreans carried out a nuclear test. That was the news. The rest is just history. Here, I’ve learnt, you have to be a real journalist. No hanging about in the Frontline Club until something horrible happens in the Middle East, scrambling to get on the plane and filing as fast as you can. No walking onto the streets of Baghdad after the Americans arrived and reporting whatever happened in front of the camera, because – whatever it was – it was bound to be news.

Now I have to go and find out what’s really happening. And if I manage that, I have to persuade the Channel 4 Newsdesk that it’s news, and can’t sit on the shelf until there’s a hole in the programme.

My use of the word “I” is disingenuous. Three Chinese lessons a week for five months and I can just about direct a taxi driver and say “Two cold beers please.” I am entirely reliant on my bi-lingual producer, Bessie Du, and cameraman, Matt Jasper, an Australian who’s been here four years and is a dab hand at hiding the tape when the local Communist Party officials show up. Early on I realised that I was not only superfluous but in fact an impediment to reporting. Matt is essential to take the pictures, so he dons a black baseball cap (for some reason he refuses to dye his ginger hair) and tries to look inconspicuous. Bessie looks and speaks Chinese so she asks the questions and negotiates access. Me? “Why don’t you stay in the car?” suggests Bessie. “You’ll attract attention if you get out.”

To some extent, this is easing. On January 1st the Chinese government lifted the rule which said foreign correspondents must ask permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before travelling outside Beijing and Shanghai. We used to ignore this and just travel anyway, but now local officials are on shaky ground if they try to arrest us. This is good news in that obviously it’s easier to report – sadly, it means I may never share the experience of my colleagues who have been forced to write “self criticisms” when detained.

We already saw the difference, when we went to Xiditou, a village where the cancer rate is 30 times the national average – a fact which may, or may not, be related to the effluent discharged into the river by paint and chemical factories.In the new spirit of openness, we went to find the Village Chief, who happens to own one of the offending factories. He said he’d love to give us an interview but unfortunately he needed the approval of the Propaganda Secretary. Fine, we said. The room filled up with more baffled officials. The Propaganda Secretary arrived. “Have you called the police?” he asked. (All this in Chinese of course – Bessie was giving me a running commentary.)

The Propaganda Secretary disappeared and then reappeared looking worried.”I’ve just been told the rules have changed,” he said. “You can interview the Village Chief.” “WHAT???” The Village Chief looked as if he’d been hit by a hammer between the eyes. He was a well built, rather arrogant youngish man with a round face, but now he was very unhappy.

A long conversation ensued, during which he said he was far too modest to appear on television and Bessie apparently told him that the foreigners would think very badly of the Chinese if he backed out of the interview. So for the first time in his life he sat down in front of a camera.”You’re famous now,” said his colleague as we miked him up. “Saddam Hussein was famous,” he quipped.

Lacking the benefits of media training, he was not worried about internal consistency so his responses were, roughly: the official cancer figures are wrong; anyway people die of cancer everywhere; there’s nothing wrong with the water; look at me I’m healthy. So, despite the continued detention of several Chinese journalists, and the blocking of certain internet sites, there are signs that China is opening up just a little, as well as getting a lot richer – another change to report.

The Channel 4 News editors are right that the Middle East and Somalia and all the stories I used to cover have to lead the news. Iraq is the most important story of our journalistic lives, and the most cataclysmic disaster of the age – I read Patrick Cockburn’s piece in the last newsletter with a mixture of admiration for his bravery and guilt for no longer being there.

It’s not that I am missing out, but I feel I have somehow been unfaithful by moving on.I believe historians will see Iraq as the catastrophe which heralded the end of the American century. But it is China which will rise to become the new superpower, and I am chronicling its preparation for that role. Such thumb-sucking is worthy of a bar-room chat at Frontline. It may not be the news. But it is history, and, after five months, I still can’t quite believe that I’m getting to live it.