Air Date: September 9, 1997 Program 9736


Mike Chinoy, CNN Bureau Chief, Hong Kong; author, China Live: Two Decades in the Heart of the Dragon

(This text has been professionally transcribed, However, for timely
distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.)

MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: This is Common Ground.

MIKE CHINOY: The critical theme, it seems to me, in China now is can this leadership and this system manage this transition that it has set in motion? We have an incredible change underway in which the lives of hundreds of millions of people have been changed in an extraordinarily short period of time with a lot of good things and a lot of bad things.

DAVIDSON: Covering China in this edition of Common Ground. Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It's produced by the Stanley Foundation. I'm Mary Gray-Davidson.

Mike Chinoy is the Cable News Network's Hong Kong bureau chief. Prior to this post where he covered this summer's handover of Hong Kong to China, Chinoy was CNN's bureau chief in Beijing. He has recounted his two decades covering China in his new book China Live. I began my conversation with Mike Chinoy by asking him with what he considers the most important events in China during the past twenty years.

CHINOY: Well, China is so big that it's very hard to generalize. I think Tiananmen Square was, and still to a large degree, remains the defining moment in shaping American perception of China. I covered Tiananmen Square for CNN and what I have found in the years following Tiananmen Square is that the power of those images that we broadcast in 1989, the man standing in front of the tank, the goddess of democracy, and the sheer horror of what happened, magnified by the fact that people saw it in their living rooms more or less as it happened, has created a very, very deeply held impression of China as a country of brutal dictators and beleaguered dissidents and corrupt deal makers, a very kind of one dimensional picture. The fact is, it's been over 8 years since Tiananmen Square and although China remains politically a very, very repressive place, one of the things that I have concluded after many years of traveling the country and following events there since Tiananmen Square is that it is both a much more complicated and multi-dimensional society than people give it credit for and much more open on many, many levels, although not on a political level, than many people believe. And so today I think one of the problems in the national debate on China in the United States is that many people are talking about a country that is really a caricature of a vastly more complicated and multi-dimensional reality.

DAVIDSON: Well as you said, Tiananmen Square does loom large in American perceptions of China and that is the major story in your book, China Live, the democracy movement led by the students in Beijing, which ended in the government's massacre of people in Tiananmen Square and around the city. Is it possible to say in this post-Tiananmen period what China's young people are striving for today? Is it possible to name some defining characteristics of this generation?

CHINOY: One of the very interesting transformations over the last eight or so years since Tiananmen Square has been in the aspirations of many young people in China. What you get is a lot of people now feel that in terms of conventional politics, there isn't really much hope. And yet at the same time in many other areas of life there are a great many more opportunities, and so a lot of young people in China have embraced going into business and trying to find personal meaning and satisfaction in those areas. I think there is relatively little love for the Chinese Communist Party among the younger generation in China. There is a tremendous amount of cynicism, but it doesn't translate into opposition to or confrontation to the Communist Party. It translates more into trying to find something to do with one's life in which the party is not involved. As I said, for example, going into business, getting rich, personal creature comforts. That's where a lot of Chinese are putting their energies now and because the society is, in many ways more open than it was before, these kinds of opportunities exist. From the government's point of view that's a kind of safety valve in the sense that there's a trade-off that this government has made implicitly with the population which is, "We'll give you opportunities to get rich, to have a better standard of living, more personal control over your personal life, and in return, you lay off open political challenges to the Communist Party leadership." So that is my sense of the dynamic that's at work now in China, which makes the prospect of a Tiananmen II, led by students and intellectuals, I think very, very unlikely.

DAVIDSON: Or at least, not in the near future.

CHINOY: Well, because I think that there are other and very serious sources of discontent in China that hold out the possibility of political trouble, possibly even trouble on the streets, but not from the same sources and not with the same dynamic as we saw with the students in Beijing in 1989.

DAVIDSON: Well, what are some of the discontents that you see among people in China today?

CHINOY: As I've traveled around China over the years, I think the overriding dynamic, and this is something that when I was based in Beijing for CNN, I struggled a lot to try and convey because it's not an easy concept to convey. The critical theme it seems to me, in China now, is can this leadership and this system manage this transition that it has set in motion? In my book China Live I write about how difficult it is to report what is really a process of transition because process makes for bad television whereas students protesting in the streets and tanks in the streets makes for very riveting television. But you have an incredible change underway in which the lives of hundreds of millions of people have been changed in an extraordinarily short period of time with a lot of good things and a lot of bad things. And among the bad things that are potential sources of trouble are first of all, a very sharp gap between those who've done well out of the reforms and those who haven't done well—exploited workers or peasants in the rural hinterland who haven't received the same benefits of foreign investment and greater contact with the outside world and the market style economics that you see in the coastal area. That's a big problem. Corruption is a huge problem. You really can't get anything done in China without some kind of backdoor connection or bribe. It's just the way the system has evolved and people are very, very angry about it and the government itself is well aware of the problem. In fact, just a few days ago, there was a very highly publicized decision to jail the son of the former Communist Party chief in Beijing who was known as a real wheeler-dealer in Beijing and finally was brought low by his extravagant exploits, as a signal that even the children of the top elite are not immune from this sort of thing. But above and beyond everything else, the really big problem that the Chinese are grappling with now, that could be the source of real instability, is what to do with the state-run industries. The state sector is the linchpin of any socialist economy and in China it employs tens of millions of people, accounts for almost half the national economy and most of these state-run industries are sort of socialist dinosaurs. They lose vast quantities of money, they're a huge drain on the government, they need to be privatized, they need to be streamlined and made more efficient to operate successfully in a market economy. At the same time, the state sector provided a kind of social safety net for tens of millions of urban workers. It provided housing, schooling, medical care, and if you reform it, the possibility of millions of people losing their jobs, losing their benefits, being thrown out on the street with no alternative, is very real. It's a real dilemma and depending on how it's dealt with you could easily have strikes, riots, that kind of trouble, and I think the government is very aware of it and is trying to find a way to move ahead and deal with it. But that's really the big issue, and in the upcoming Chinese Communist Party Congress which is going to be held in September, that's going to be number one on the agenda.

DAVIDSON: I'm thinking of a comparison with the former Soviet Union. No one predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union which was preceded by Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms. Is it possible that China could be going the way of the former Soviet Union?

CHINOY: Well, having spent more than twenty years following China, one of the conclusions that I stress in my book China Live is the paradoxical and ambiguous nature and uncertain nature of China and how difficult it is to make these kinds of sweeping judgments. It's terribly easy to be wrong about China. There are certainly some factors in the Chinese equation that could lead to all kinds of chaos and instability, but I must say that when you look at the scale of changes in China in the last twenty years, the former U.S. ambassador in Beijing, Stapleton Roy, was fond of saying that every other society in the world that has changed as rapidly as China has in that short a period of time collapsed. And I think the fact that China has gone through this remarkable transformation with really only one Tiananmen Square is pretty remarkable given the nature of the social and economic change and upheaval. So my own best guess is that what you're most likely to see is more of the same; a kind of gradual muddling along, trying to keep this market experiment alive because of its economic importance, but efforts by the Communist Party to balance that with hanging onto power. I don't think—China's a very homogenous nation—I mean they're all ethnic, the vast majority are ethnically the same, they speak the same language, they have the same writing. So there are not quite as many divisive forces as there were in the former Soviet Union, but implosion and collapse is certainly not impossible. China's been through enough upheavals in the last 30 or 40 years that one can't rule it out. But my own judgment is, at least in the near term, it's not likely.

DAVIDSON: Earlier, you talked about the exploited labor which is an important issue to Americans and with so many products sold in the United States made in China, how can an American consumer be confident that underpaid workers or even forced laborers, didn't make what they're buying?

CHINOY: Well, you can't be confident. I think the amount of material that goes into the U.S. that's made from forced prison labor is probably pretty small. And while the conditions for prison labor is pretty appalling in China, having prisoners produce goods that are sold elsewhere is not a practice exclusively confined to China. But the issue about exploited labor is a very interesting and complicated one. There's no question, for example, that a lot of the workers in the shops making goods for export in China are underpaid and overworked and so on. At the same time, for a lot of these workers, most of whom have come from rural areas, the choice of spending 10 hours a day in a factory getting a halfway decent wage as opposed to spending 12 hours a day behind a water buffalo in a rice paddy is a choice that a lot of Chinese would vote with their feet because what you see are more and more rural people coming into the areas that are opened up for development and for foreign investment looking for these kinds of jobs. So to some degree, it's an uncomfortable issue. At the same time, China is to a certain extent, passing through a developmental process that other Asian countries that are now at a much higher level of development, like South Korea, Taiwan, so forth, have also passed through. It's just in China, it's complicated and of course it's more complicated because you have a repressive political system and so grievances can't be articulated easily and there's more, sort of room for exploitation. But I think it's like a lot of questions in China, it's a very ambiguous issue.

DAVIDSON: Every spring here in the U.S. we have this debate over whether the United States should renew China's Most Favored Nation status and that seems to pit U.S. human rights activists against the business interests. Is it that simple an issue?

CHINOY: Like everything in China, the MFN debate is not that simple. As a reporter, I don't take a position on, for or against MFN as a policy, but I think the issues are very, very complicated and I think you're beginning to see in the nature of the debate in the United States some recognition of that complexity. The fact of the matter is, that there's a kind of irony here. The forces in China that are those contributing most to the impetus for more market reform, greater reduction in the power of the Chinese Communist Party to micro-manage daily life and economic life, greater engagement with the international economy are precisely those forces that would be most adversely affected by the withdrawal of MFN. That is to say, foreign investment and Chinese projects with foreign companies and so on. So you have this ironic situation that punishing that particular sector would actually hurt the part of Chinese society that is at the forefront of the changes for the better in China that go along with all the things that are not changing for the better. And I think in the debate last spring you began to see some awareness of this in Washington because there was much more discussion about how can the U.S. help promote the rule of law and legal institutions and so on, and more discussions of whether or not MFN is the right instrument to press for those kinds of changes. It is a very complicated issue, no question about it.

DAVIDSON: If you've just joined us, you're listening to Common Ground. My guest is Mike Chinoy, Hong Kong Bureau Chief for CNN and author of the book China Live: Two Decades in the Heart of the Dragon. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs, meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs. Printed transcripts and audio cassettes are available of this Common Ground program, and at the end of the broadcast I'll give you details on how you can order.

I'm sure this is obvious to you, but I want to talk about why China is so important to the U.S.

CHINOY: China is the most populous country in the world. It has nuclear weapons. It has a seat on and a veto in the U.N. Security Council. It can be a force both for good or for ill on a host of questions. I've always been fascinated by China. In my book China Live I describe my fascination with the country, going back to the early 1970's when it was really off limits to Americans and was a kind of forbidden, remote, isolated, exotic place, about which we knew almost nothing, and therefore, going to China was a kind of process of exploration of a new unknown frontier. And that's in large part what drew me, and how I got there and what I found in those early years makes up a big chunk of the first part of my book. But now, as China's come out of its shell and is taking a higher role on the world stage, it's hugely important. It influences, its economic policies can influence the American economy. If China doesn't cooperate on issues like dealing with North Korea where there are 30,000-35,000 U.S. troops just on the other side of the Korean demilitarized zone in South Korea, that's a potential for conflict. If you look at the places where the U.S. could conceivably get involved in a shooting war in the next decade, two of the most potentially dangerous are Korea and Taiwan and both of those are areas where China is intimately involved. So, it's hugely important to U.S. national interests as well as being intrinsically, purely from a journalistic point of view, a fascinating and a very, very good story. And it's interesting to me now that there is the beginnings of the perception, it seems to me in the United States, that how the U.S. deals with China is emerging as one of the, if not the most important foreign policy issue for the next few years.

DAVIDSON: During your years in China, you've reported on the deaths of two of its modern leaders, Mao Tse Deng and Deng Xiaoping. Which one do you think has had the greater impact on shaping modern China?

CHINOY: That's the kind of question that historians love to debate. I think one could make a very credible case that the changes that Deng Xiaoping brought were as great and perhaps over time even greater than those of Mao. And in some ways more profound in part because they were not accompanied by a violent revolution. Deng undid the worst excesses of the Maoist revolution. He took a totally isolated, inward-looking, impoverished country and brought it into or set it on its way to joining the modern world and he did it without massive social disorder, and chaos, without a bloody civil war. Tiananmen will remain permanently a blot on his reputation but I think you have to give Deng enormous credit for how far he took the country. Anybody who had anything to do with China back in the '70s, when I first went there—and I write in my book China Live about going there in 1973, barely a year after Nixon—everybody was dressed in uniform colors of blue and gray. People talked like they were reading the official Communist Party propaganda organ The People's Daily. There was uniform poverty and political repression, social repression, cultural repression. To go back barely 20 years later and see how much it's changed, I think it's fair to call it a revolution, although a largely peaceful one.

DAVIDSON: I want to switch now to the topic of Hong Kong since you're now CNN's Hong Kong Bureau Chief and you covered the handover from Britain to China of Hong Kong earlier this summer. I have two questions regarding that. One is, what struck you in particular about the whole handover process? And how do the people of Hong Kong, particularly those who cannot leave, feel now about being governed by Beijing?

CHINOY: Well, one of, I think what is striking now with the benefit of almost two months after the handover, is how little actually happened. The handover was one of these moments in time where the meaning of the event in some ways was greater than the event itself. The handover, my own feeling is, resonated around the world among the media and among people watching and reading, because it encapsulated several themes that touch people. One was the end of the British Empire, the end of the Western imperial adventure in the Orient, coming to a close with the British lowering the Union Jack. The second was the rise of China, which is a phenomenon now on the world stage and which was symbolized and accelerated by Hong Kong returning to Chinese control. The third was the fascination of this extraordinarily vibrant center of capitalism at a stroke of the clock literally switching masters from a benign, democratic British government to an authoritarian, repressive Chinese government. So all those themes played a role. But the fact of the matter is, that since the hand-over, for us journalists the story is that there really isn't a story. Very little feels different on the ground. There have been some changes in the political system, but people are still out demonstrating, reporters are still reporting, pro-democracy activists are still being interviewed, business is still being done, foreigners are still coming and going, investment is still flowing in. The Chinese have been extraordinarily scrupulous so far in essentially saying to the Hong Kong government, "It's your business, you manage it." So there is no feeling whatever that Hong Kong is under the yoke of the butchers of Beijing or any of those fears that were articulated before. That's not to say it couldn't happen if things go wrong here or more worryingly, if things went wrong inside China. A power struggle in the leadership or political convulsions in China could have a devastating impact on Hong Kong. But the fact is so far it's remarkably life as normal. The Chinese Army units which came in here, the 4,000 People's Liberation Army soldiers which came in amidst great fanfare and considerable anxiety on the morning of the handover, they're absolutely invisible. You can't see them; they take a totally low profile. Top Chinese officials here are taking a low profile and letting the Hong Kong administration get on with it. So I think the general feeling is on balance, so far so good.

DAVIDSON: Just one final question. This is a media-related question. As a journalist for CNN you've been part of a real media revolution. Many of the major events of this past decade were covered live and people involved in the events could even watch as they unfold. How has new technology, and not just live television coverage, but cell phones, the Internet, affected China? And how far can the Chinese government or any government for that matter, go in censoring or cutting off access to these new avenues of communication?

CHINOY: That's a very, very interesting question. One of the, the rise of CNN is one of the major themes that I write about. I joined CNN shortly after it began when it was still jokingly referred to as "Chicken Noodle News" because it was so new and amateurish and so on, and have been with it as it has become this kind of global medial colossus. Interestingly, the Tiananmen Square events in 1989 were a turning point for China, but they were also really a turning point for CNN and therefore for international media in general. I write in my book about how this was the first event of its kind in a distant, difficult, remote location to be conveyed live on television screens around the world as it happened. People forget that today when they take for granted the Gulf War, the coup in Moscow, the crisis in Rwanda, the war in Bosnia—you expect to see that as it happens on your TV screen. It's hard to imagine that less than a decade ago putting something like that on TV live was absolutely revolutionary. In Chinese terms what it has meant is that the Chinese Communist Party, which had an absolute monopoly on the control and flow of information for many years, has increasingly lost control of that crucial political commodity. That began with CNN's Tiananmen Square coverage. Now today CNN is surprisingly widely seen in China, and this is part of, this goes back to the point I'm making about how complex and multi-layered a society China is. The same society that imprisons dissidents for no valid reason, is a society where people can log into the Internet, where they can watch CNN, where they have access to a wide range of influences from outside that they never did. And while it's not producing overnight political change, it's gradually eroding the Communist Party's, the range of areas over which the Communist Party can micro-manage people's lives. So it's a very important dynamic in this process of peaceful evolution of China away from the most odious aspects of its authoritarian past.

DAVIDSON: Mike Chinoy has been my guest on Common Ground. He is the Hong Kong Bureau Chief for CNN. For Common Ground, I'm Mary Gray Davidson.

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