For Years, I've Been A Correspondent In China. This Month, I Became A Viral Star

Mar 18, 2017
Originally published on July 6, 2017 9:24 am

In Chinese, the back story to a movie or news item is called huaxu, or flower catkins. In other words, fluff.

That's the headline describing a video clip of me on Sina Weibo, China's answer to Twitter, and the country's main microblogging platform, with more than 500 million registered users.

The clip shows me asking a question at a government press conference on March 6. Less than a day after its posting, the clip had been viewed 5 million times.

Not bad for an admittedly wonky foreign correspondent, who couldn't make his own reporting go viral even if he injected it with smallpox.

I went to the press conference to get some official comment for a story I'm working on about a signature policy of President Xi Jinping: plans for a megaregion around Beijing, with a projected population roughly one-third that of the U.S.

The presser, on the sidelines of the annual session of China's legislature, was given by officials of the National Development and Reform Commission, China's top economic planning agency. They're in charge of the megaregion plans and are normally very difficult for reporters to get interviews with.

I had just interviewed merchants who are being relocated outside the city as part of the megaregion policy, and a farmer living in abject poverty just 3 miles outside Beijing's city limits, whose situation the policy is meant to improve.

I asked the officials about these two types of people, and how they planned to help them.

After asking my question in Chinese, I grabbed back the mic and decided to translate the question into English myself. It's not that I didn't trust the government translator sitting next to the officials. I just wanted to put it in my own words.

There was some nervous giggling in the room, as He Lifeng, director of the development commission, complimented my language skills.

Without directly answering the details of my question, the officials' basic response was that the megaregion plan is being successfully implemented, but that it's very complex, and they are dealing with whatever problems come up.

A quick look at the more than 3,000 comments our exchange elicited on Weibo make it clear that the post did not go viral simply because it was entertaining "fluff." A little context here may help to explain the response.

A large number of the comments were about language. Part of this has to do with Chinese expectations of foreigners. I've been living and studying in China on and off for more than two decades now and have been learning the language since my first visit to China in 1982. But a foreigner in China who speaks unaccented Chinese is still a rarity. After all, the country was largely closed to the outside world from 1950 to 1979.

Even after nearly four decades of opening to the outside world, there are many remote regions in China where the appearance of a Westerner is still enough of an oddity to cause rubbernecking delays.

Chinese are often so curious about foreigners who speak their native tongue that they sometimes appear to pay more attention to the language than the content of their speech. For once in my life, this seemed not to be the case, at least not entirely, and I felt rather relieved and gratified.

Many other commenters observed that my question seemed to show concern for ordinary Chinese — and was perhaps more pointed and critical than what domestic reporters generally ask Chinese officials.

All Chinese media are nominally state-owned, and the government has increasingly leaned on journalists to "correctly guide public opinion" to the conclusions that the government prefers.

China's leaders acknowledge that the press has a watchdog role, which they call "supervision by public opinion." But since the heyday of investigative Chinese journalism, much of it done by metropolitan tabloids in the 1990s and early 2000s, the government has muzzled many of the country's more independent media outlets and forced many journalists either to censor themselves or quit the business.

There are also a few critical comments of the video on Weibo. Some felt I was nitpicking, and that no government policy is perfect. They questioned why an American should bother to come all the way to China to harp on its problems, when the U.S. has so many of its own.

Some Chinese people and government propaganda often liken their country to a home. They divide media into "friendly" and "unfriendly" camps. The implication is that guests and friends must behave with decorum and not embarrass their hosts.

While comments like these are in the minority, I spend a considerable amount of time and effort trying to disabuse people of such notions in order to interview them.

I tell them that it is normal for people to learn about and discuss things that happen in countries other than their own, and that China, its government coffers full of cash, has lately been sending plenty of state media correspondents abroad itself.

I tell them that as long as I respect privacy and professional ethics, there is no question that I cannot or should not ask.

That I am a guest here is not in dispute. But home and country are not the same, and the metaphor tends to confuse the public and private spheres. I'm here to do a job, which is at root a public service. And I think an increasing number of Chinese media consumers understand this.

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