The Understanding Gap

Written for Reporting & Writing course, Master of Journalism, Journalism and Media Studies Centre, HKU

Foreigners do not understand China any better today than they did 20 years ago, the former Chairman of Thompson Reuters China said yesterday at a University of Hong Kong forum.


There are more foreign correspondents in China than ever before, said David Schlesinger, who also served as Editor-in-Chief of Reuters News and worked with the agency for nearly 25 years.  However, the constant stream of China-related news does not mean that foreign audiences know China better, he said.


“This is not a numbers game.  This is an understanding issue,” said Schlesinger.


Foreign correspondents in China struggle to obtain reliable sources, according to Schlesinger.  Chinese people who speak to the press sometimes fear for their safety; others have a certain agenda to push.  By their second year working in China, most journalists might have a dozen sources – a small number by media standards, Schlesinger said.  The difficulty of career advancement leads many correspondents to leave just as they begin to form valuable relationships.


China’s media control adds to the difficulty for foreign journalists.  “The fundamental opacity of Chinese official life” frustrates reporters, Schlesinger said.  He called on China to become more open with both domestic and foreign press.


“[China’s] place in the world comes with a responsibility to be more transparent,” Schlesinger said.


Western audiences demand certain types of China stories, affecting coverage by foreign press, said Schlesinger.  He gave the example of dissident artist Ai Weiwei, whose detention last year on charges of tax evasion saw great coverage in western media.   No foreign reporters actually checked to see if Ai had committed a crime, said Schlesinger, because the “expected narrative” was one of a repressive government and a lone voice of dissent.


“In order to see China as it truly is, [the western audience] needs to open to a much more complex and nuanced narrative,” said Schlesinger.


For Florian Termin, an exchange student from California, Schlesinger’s assertion that foreigners do not understand China “was kind of a groundbreaker.”  He said the speech made him question the China reporting he had read back in the United States.


“A lot of the stuff I’m reading might not be that true or that well-researched,” said Termin.


The event, entitled “David Schlesinger on China: Political and Economics Outlook and How Media Can Play A Bigger Role,” was co-sponsored by the HKU Department of Politics and Public Administration and the International Relations Council.



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