HONG KONG – And now, some good news about China.
Why? Because, it’s too easy to blast a country with superpower aspirations that chases after its own citizens like naughty schoolchildren, to restrict them from learning about China’s first-ever Nobel.
Sure, it wasn’t the Nobel that China has wanted. But why should anyone in the international community lend prestige to a state that demands the world’s respect, yet cannot tolerate any serious internal criticism of its domestic or foreign policies?
That said, it’s time for a more nuanced assessment of China. By me, especially.
China is obviously a very, very complex society. From my limited vantage point in Hong Kong — albeit surrounded by mainland Chinese students — I wouldn’t want to caricaturize the country, painting too black and white a picture. Which is why I spent time last week trying to see more of the grey. Including a trip to the mainland.
For example, even as Beijing threw a tantrum over the Nobel peace prize for jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao reiterated the need for “political reform” to join the capitalist transformation that has catapulted China to the world’s second-largest economy.
There’s more.Last week also saw some of China’s leading national and provincial papers echo the call for reform, notably press freedom. Then, a batch of retired Party luminaries published a rare appeal to end censorship, denouncing the “black hand” of the central propaganda department.
Oh, and in the can’t-beat-’em-join-’em category, some senior Beijing officials have now immersed themselves in social media. They’re learning how to monitor “public sentiment,” then shape it with blogging of their own, or by slipping pro-Beijing comments into online debates.
All this came in the run-up to a milestone plenary of the Party’s eminence grises, amid buzzing that Beijing would loosen its chokehold on freedom of expression. “Reform” is a sweet word, but it’s been broached before. No one anticipates change anytime soon – or without a fight.
“We can’t say there hasn’t been progress,” British journalist Mark O’Neill tells me. “But the media still has a long way to go before it plays that watchdog role.”
For me, consuming all this fresh material and analysis is crucial to even begin to grasp the reality on the mainland. Seeing things for myself is even more important.
So, when Mark, who’s reported from the region for 32 years, offered to take me to the mainland last week to see one sign of improvement, I couldn’t say no. First, though, I got to know Mark better.
(See Part II below.)