PROFESSOR PÁL NYÍRI

THE WORLD SEEN FROM CHINA: HOW THE EMERGING CIRCUIT OF CHINESE FOREIGN CORRESPONDENTS SHAPES CHINA’S VIEW OF THE WORLD
MID-CAREER FELLOW: SEPTEMBER 2013 – AUGUST 2014
Pál Nyíri

Abstract

The proposed research is an ethnographic study of foreign correspondents who work for major Chinese media: the national television CCTV, the official English-language newspaper China Daily, and the highbrow weekly and online newsmagazine Caijing/Caixin. The study will focus on London and Johannesburg, where the main European and African offices, respectively, of the three companies are located.

Driven both by business interests and a government that sees global expansion of Chinese media as a policy goal, all three companies have recently set up bureaux in Europe and Africa, and are currently in the process of manning them. The study will follow the lives and reporting of selected correspondents for one year, ideally from the beginning of their assignment, and will document how and under what influence their views of Europe/Africa and the world change; how their reporting and personal blogs reflect that change; and how their readers respond.

The aim of the project is to contribute to an understanding of how China’s new mobile elites are changing dominant perceptions of the world in China’s public discourse. Studies of China’s emergence as a global investor have so far focused on the political and economic motives and impact of this process. Some studies of Confucius Institutes have emerged as an example of China’s “soft power,” but with very few exceptions these are focused on the political intentions they represent rather than on what actually happens in them. Such an approach focuses on proving or disproving China’s neocolonial intentions and overlooks the agency of the new elites (intellectual, managerial etc) who are involved in Chinese globalization. Yet China’s new urban middle classes are themselves keen to engage with the world in new ways. This study allows to interrogate potential cosmopolitanisms that emerge from the intersection of state policy, business interest, and individual aspirations.

The Research Idea

Discussion of the growing global presence of Chinese investment has so far focused on the political and economic impact of this process on the countries affected by it. In comparison, little attention has been paid to the mobile vanguards who are behind this process. These vanguards mediate Chinese globalisation – business practices, labour standards, expectations of modernity — but also shape changing views of the world in China.

Through an ethnographic study of foreign correspondents from China, I wish to interrogate whether this round of globalisation, undergirded by an economic-growth gospel and aspirations of international power, also helps produce and transmit cosmopolitan sensibilities.

For the first time, Chinese media are building a network of foreign correspondents. These reporters will have a major impact on shaping both Chinese views of the world and, if the government’s plans succeed, views of China in the world.

This research proposes to study how these foreign correspondents develop, change, and transmit ideas of the world to Chinese audiences in the course of their lives abroad. Specifically. I am interested in:

  • whether and how they mediate aspirations of development and order emanating from China;
  • what impulses shape their reporting for a narrower but influential range of media targeting China’s new middle class;
  • how government policy, media companies’ interests and personal convictions commingle or clash in the reporting.

The Focus

Most scholarship on China’s political and economic influence overseas dates back no more than five years, and while it has since expanded rapidly it has a number of limitations. First, some four-fifths of it focus on Africa, without attempting to draw parallels or contrasts with other low-income regions or, more importantly, with high-income countries.

Second, the discussion is dominated by the realist school of political science, which focuses on the motives and potential impact of “China’s presence” on global political and security trends. The second-largest body of academic literature comes from development studies, which are divided between those who accuse China of resource grabbing and disregard for labour rights and the environment, and those who point to the benefits of infrastructure construction and job creation. Both of these literatures tend to be ideologically inflected and largely treat “China” as a unitary actor working towards a shared goal and/or promoting a specific “model.” This approach overestimates the impact of Chinese investment on macropolitical systems and underestimates their effect on local life-worlds and aspirations. This shortcoming is gradually being addressed by a growing body of ethnographic research, again limited to Africa.

Third, what is under scrutiny is nearly always the (projected) impact of Chinese engagement on local attitudes to China rather than on Chinese perceptions of the world.

The two existing studies of Chinese media investments abroad (Gagliardone, Repnikova and Stremlau 2010; Farah and Mosher 2010), too, focus on political implications but do not provide either content analysis or ethnographic detail.

Background

The emergence of China as a global political and economic power is arguably the defining feature of globalization in the early 21st century. Particularly since 2008, the beginning of the current recession, Chinese investments in oil, gas, mining, hydropower and manufacturing overseas has rapidly expanded. Partly in response to the negative publicity of these projects that Chinese commentators largely ascribe to Western media bias, partly in line with a pursuit of “soft power,” and partly stemming from the commercial interests of Chinese media companies, the 2010s have seen an unprecedented overseas expansion of media corporations (as well as other inroads into cultural industries, such as the purchase of the second-largest U.S. cinema chain by a Chinese company). In 2012, the government issued a policy document entitled “Some opinions on accelerating the expansion of our country’s news media and publishing industry abroad,” which sets the goal of “creating a group of … internationally competitive … corporations for expansion abroad” and 100 thousand “internationalised news media and publishing personnel” by 2015, using “developing countries as a base.” In the same year, CCTV, Beijing Review, and China Daily have all set up bureaux in Africa, triggering a debate in Western and African media about the impact of Chinese media expansion in Africa. But as with other aspects of Chinese investments in Africa, this debate is conducted in abstract terms. Very little is known about the actual operations of these companies or how their staff work.

Theory & Evidence Base

The public debate about China’s overseas engagement often revolves around accusations of neocolonialism and their refutations. Although this debate is ahistorical and ideologically driven, parallels with colonialism bear reflection in a different sense. One of the patterns emerging from Chinese investment across the globe is the expectation of a strict labour discipline, which investors see as imperative for modernisation and critics as violations of labour rights. I have described elsewhere (Nyiri 2006) how Chinese investors often evince a sense of a “modernizing mission,” both in poor countries or in the West, where a discourse popular both in China and outside it (Ong 1999) casts them as picking up the baton of a modernization that has faltered, in part due to the excesses of the welfare state.

But as van der Veer (2002) shows, it was from the colonial enterprise, its “civilizing mission” notwithstanding, that the modern cosmopolitan sensibility arose in the West. Similarly, while the overseas expansion of Chinese enterprise is underwritten by a strong discourse of national strengthening and modernisation, as well as by crude profit-seeking, it also caters to different sensibilities of a new young urban Chinese middle class in search of individual fulfilment.

This study will bring scholarship on these sensibilities inside China (Fong 2004, Rofel 2007, Hoffman 2010) to bear on understanding the ways in which young overseas correspondents engage with the discourse of modernization and grapple with state/corporate requirements while following, and catering to, new tastes and intellectual curiosities.

Methodology

The research will begin with visits to the CCTV, China Daily, and Caixin bureaux in London and Johannesburg. Once relations of trust have been established (this will be helped by prior connections), the plan is to follow 5-6 correspondents on selected assignments, work and social engagements, and analyse the resulting ethnographic case studies together with the writings — both formal and informal — produced by the correspondents in the course of the year.

CCTV and China Daily are respectively audiovisual and traditional print media seen as mouthpieces of the central government. The former targets a national audience but has satellite programming in both Chinese, available in most Chinese-speaking households globally, and English, as well as emerging programming in regional languages such as Swahili. The latter has recently undergone an overhaul to enhance its credibility abroad, inviting foreign op-ed contributors and making its reporting more lively and critical. Senior management of both media is part of the Chinese Communist Party’s nomenklatura. Caixin/Caijing, sometimes called “the Chinese Economist” is semi-privately run, known for its often critical stance, and targets a highbrow readership, mostly online. The three media have different goals and political orientations, but all three are highly prestigious places to work that attract graduates of elite Chinese universities, many of whom are also prolific, and in some cases (like Caixin’s Zhang Hong) popular, bloggers.

In combining analysis of the texts and films produced by the reporters and readers’ reactions with ethnographies of their production, I follow Hannerz’ pioneering Foreign News (2004).

Output

The project should result in a monograph. As its subjects are professional writers I would like to explore various avenues of academic and non-academic dissemination, including workshops, blogs, and perhaps a collection of articles published in Chinese and English.

Relevance

China’s rise as a global power is seen as one of the central “real life problems” for the contemporary world order, but its understanding to date, both in and outside China, is heavily skewed towards abstract concepts of balance of power, security, and the threatened dominance of the free-market electoral democracy as a global model. Almost no attention is being paid to the ways agents involved in this “rise” may be impacting upon domestic understandings of China’s place in the world. This project seeks to correct this imbalance.

Methodologically, the project combines ethnographic approaches with media analysis to understand how influential public writing arises from a combination of dominant discourses, institutional pressures, and personal experiences. This seems like a straightforward enough idea, but it has rarely been applied, and to my knowledge not at all in contexts outside the West.