Sunday, July 22th 2001
Life section

A wake-up call from China

Like it or not, the economic and social transformation that is taking place in China will impact greatly on Singapore, and attention must be paid to it.

THERE is a clear rule in print journalism, or at least in The Straits Times, that a news report should not also be a commentary on the subject being reported.

The reporter may feel strongly about the subject, but she should not inject her own views into the report, or slant it to suit her bias. She may, if she wants to, articulate her personal opinions about it in a separate article that is signalled clearly to the reader as a viewpoint or commentary piece.

She should put her byline to that piece. As former Cabinet minister S. Rajaratnam said, probably more than once, journalists should not be gutter-snipers''. Stand up and be counted. Pseudonyms have a place only in pieces that are meant to be entertaining and to be taken in that spirit, even if those pieces also aim to inform.

Other papers don't have to abide by this rule, but I believe it makes for sound and fair journalism. It's different on the Net, of course, where anyone with an opinion can simply shoot from her hips. There is no accountability, but as a result, no trust either.

So I was most disappointed by the page one report in the free sheet Today, last Saturday, which announced that Beijing had won its bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games. After the first two perfunctory paragraphs, the reporter, Kym-Kyna Tan, actually launched into a full-frontal assault on China that would not seem out of place in a rabid right-wing paper in the United States.

""But all those simplistic notions about how this would change China's face into a gentler one and pontifications about how the world's most populous nation has finally won global acceptance are just romantic daydreams,'' she pronounced by the third paragraph of what was supposed to be a news report.

There are as many supporters of China's win as there are naysayers for the reporter to pick soundbites from, to include in her report, and guess whom she chose to have that honour? A certain Robert Sheridan, director of fixed income, Standard and Poor's. Is he the most authoritative and balanced talking head to use in this first news report of a decision made by the International Olympic Committee? I doubt so. 

The great Sheridan was quoted thus: ""It'll just strengthen their strangle-hold on power... they'll rally this nationalistic fervour that will firm up their position to crack down, brutally, on any opposition.'' 

And in what we in the trade call a kicker, a punchy summary to round off a piece, he was allowed to expound: ""What they'll gain is international credibility, which is invaluable... this is the final green light for China that they can act and do as they please.'' 


I was disappointed by that report - it was really a bald commentary, but not sign-posted as one - because it wasn't written by some hackette, but by a young, bright, articulate reporter who has shown that she has the ""write stuff'' to become a very good journalist. 

But why the simplistic - to borrow her word - report, and the quick, summary judgement? And why the hostility towards a country which she obviously does not know enough of? Judging by that report, what she knows of China is what she has read of it in the Western media. 

Was my once-mentor and good friend P. N. Balji, the CEO of the paper, not around to clear it? Because as a sharp veteran with ink in his veins, he should have known better than to have allowed a piece like this through, especially on page one of a commuter paper which boasts a circulation of 250,000. 

While China hasn't exactly proven that it could be the benign dominant world power that the US is, it has, in the last 20 years, lifted tens of millions of lives in the country from hardscrabble poverty to a standard of living that is far superior to those who huddle in America's inner cities. 

And it looks set to do so for the next 20, if not 100 years, even if there will be the inevitable convulsions and chaos that come with rapid change in a society, especially in such a huge one like China's, and one which had essentially not seen much change at least in terms of widespread hardships - for the last 400 years, since the Ming emperor recalled Admiral Zheng He's bold naval expeditions and closed the doors of the Middle Kingdom to the rest of the world. 

Conghua Li, a leading China strategist in the international consulting group, Deloitte & Touche, who has access to both the Chinese mindset and the Western one, suggested in his 1998 report, China: The Consumer Revolution, that the country's GDP (Gross Domestic Product) will surpass that of the United States by 2015, without even taking into account Hongkong's and Macao's economic strengths. 

Despite the global slowdown this year, the latest despatch out of China reported the economy's growth by 7.9 per cent in the first half of the year. Its State Satistical Bureau spokesman predicted that the 2008 Beijing Olympics would add an average annual boost of 0.3 to 0.4 of a percentage point to the country's economic growth over the next seven years. 

The economic turnaround now taking place in China is accompanied by a social transformation unparallelled in the history of any country in the world. It took, for example, the consumer market in Shanghai only five years to reach a level of development comparable to that which was achieved by Taiwan in more than 20 years, according to Conghua Li. 

All media reports of alleged human rights abuse in China must be read against this larger context. 

Does making better the livelihoods of tens of millions of Chinese, including those of the minority races, not count as much as the supposed rights of a bunch of cultists headed by a wealthy, manipulative leader who lives in luxury abroad? 

I am not a Buddhist scholar, but I know enough of Buddhism to be certain that Falungong is not part of that contemplative way of life as it claims itself to be. 

Tibet is a different story altogether, which I shan't go into here, except to say that, as pointed out by the author Lynn Pan in her book The New Chinese Revolution (1987), the desecration of its Buddhist temples and monasteries was carried out largely by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution years, when no other Chinese province was spared either. 

In the last year, I had taken my 78-year-old father to Xiamen and Quanzhou in Fujian province; Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou; and most recently, Chengdu in Sichuan province. I had been to Fujian thrice, to Yunnan, and to Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou on my own, previously. In 1985, I visited Beijing, Guilin and Guangzhou. 

The changes I have witnessed in the Chinese cities - the toilets in many of the tourist destinations, for example, have become shiny examples of cleanliness, as if overnight - are astounding, if not alarming. 

Alarming, because China's transformation will impact greatly on Singapore, especially on the livelihoods of its less well-educated citizens. But despite our leaders' repeated expressions of their concerns, it appears to me that the younger, Western-educated elite shows little or no curiousity at all about what is going on in China. And I don't know if Kym-Kyna Tan's uninformed views reflect those of her peers. 

But the elite must pay attention to this social transformation in China, and to some extent, in India as well (for India is also in the process of remaking itself), for on them rests the promise - and burden - of Singapore's future. 

A younger colleague told me that as a Singaporean, her terms of reference are global. She is a citizen of the world. But the citizen of the world is nobody's child, a bastard, to use an unkind word, and global terms of reference are really a set of ever-shifting values shared only by a small mobile, global elite who sample cultures the way a rapper samples music - superficially. 

Every society's elite must care about its own people first, and then the world - global warming, etc - if they have the energies left over to do so. And at this point, in Singapore, to care means you had better pay attention to China and India, instead of worrying about whether Ally McBeal will find her elusive Prince Charming or not. 

And it is critical, now more than ever, that the English-language media cover not just the politics and economics of both countries, but also their social transformation. Forget about writing like Paul Theroux. Write like Colin Thubron - honestly, sympathetically. Bring back vivid pictures of the changes and explain what they mean to the larger public. 

The people must be made aware of what is happening, because their future, or their children's, is at stake.

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