Here’s a pro tip for those of you living in China or planning to travel there. If you are approached by a member of the Chinese media (either national or local) and asked to give an interview or just answer some “quick” questions, JUST.SAY.NO!
I was reminded of that when I saw this cringe-worthy video that was making its way around the inter-webs last week. The Wall Street Journal posted the video under the headline, Xi Dada, So Cute: What Foreigners Think of China’s Leader (According to the People’s Daily).
I think a more accurate headline would have been What the Chinese Media Wants Chinese People to Think Foreigners Think about President Xi.
Now, some of the students featured in the piece are crying foul, claiming that they were duped; that they didn’t know they were going to be featured in a Party propaganda film; that the question about President Xi was just one of many that were asked.
To which I find myself responding, “but of course!”
I tend not to trust journalists in general, but even less so journalists in China. Maybe that’s because I’ve had my fair share of being duped as well (call me a slow learner).
Once when I was living in Changchun (in the 1990’s) the head of the foreign student department told me that a journalist from a local newspaper was in his office and wanted to interview a foreign student. Would I be willing? Knowing that Mr. Y. would probably lose face (who knows what promises had been exchanged between them), and against my better judgement, I agreed.
The reporter told me that he was doing a story about the life of a foreign student in Changchun. He asked me questions about my studies, how I liked the city, and how I was treated by people in town. I answered them politely and accurately, telling him that I was thoroughly enjoying my life in Changchun and that the people were great.
Apparently, that wasn’t good enough, though, because when the article was published in the paper the following week, the reporter told specific stories of my experiences in the city, which were obviously made up! That’s not to say they couldn’t have happened; they just hadn’t. Except for my name, where I was from, and what I was studying, the rest of the article “about me” was a complete work of fiction!
Obviously his assignment had been to tell a story that confirmed what the media wanted the Chinese people to think about what foreigners thought about the city.
And who could forget the other time I made it into the Changchun newspaper for engaging in a decidedly “non-foreigner” type of activity: buying a couch!
So remember, folks; if the media come calling, just say no!