Gary Rosen has been out in China, burning his boats, the ones that might ever take him back to China in the foreseeable future. Good for him. My thanks to the ever useful Arts & Letters Daily for the link.
I particularly liked the bit about how the Chinese regime censors the awkward stuff, and I offer no apology for quoting it at some length:
Someone asked (well, it was me again) how Mr. Liu could reconcile his presentation of China’s peace-loving ways with Beijing’s clear position that, if Taiwan were to declare independence, the mainland would invade – a threat made more credible by its arms build-up across the Taiwan Strait and its provocative military exercises in recent years. Mr. Liu did not like my use of the word “provocative.” In the first place, he said, “You should phrase your questions with more respect.” More to the point, he rejected the underlying premise: “China has a population of 1.3 billion people, including the 23 million people of Taiwan. It is not for them to decide their own status.”
Which is about as excellent an exposition of the imperfect correspondence between the ideals of democracy and of liberty as you could ever hope to encounter, don’t you think?
None of this was exactly surprising, since it adhered closely to long-standing Chinese policy. What was surprising, as we shook hands and prepared to leave, was Mr. Liu’s insistence that his remarks were entirely off the record. This was news to us. All of our sessions, unless restricted in some way beforehand, were explicitly on the record, and we had been busily taking notes, with our tape recorders in plain sight. Liu Jieyi, in all his worldliness, was perfectly aware of what we were doing. Out of pique at my impertinence or perhaps because he did not like having lost his cool, he wanted the interview to go away.
This task fell to Mr. Huang, who called us together in the lobby once we were back at the hotel. “I need you to tell me that you won’t report about this,” he said. “It is best to respect the host; that is the international practice.” Pressure had plainly been brought to bear on him, and several in the group, feeling that they had no particular use for Mr. Liu’s words (and not wishing to jeopardize our sponsors or future trips), said they were unlikely to write about the session. Others, myself included, were less accommodating. One member of the group explained that she would find it hard to continue with the tour if the rules were continually changed after interviews. “We are not Chinese journalists,” she told Mr. Huang, “and this smacks of censorship.”
Knowing that I considered the material from the session valuable and might well use it, Mr. Huang pulled me aside several more times the next day to ask again that I “respect the host,” adding that if I did, “I would get better interviews the next time.” The threat in this, as reporters who cover China informed me, was that my future access might be limited; denying visas is a favorite tactic for punishing Western journalists who upset the authorities. But as I said to Mr. Huang, I was unsure that I would ever again report from China, and I could not relent on a key journalistic principle. Moreover, I felt obliged to tell him, his effort to suppress the story had become the story.
You seldom read reportage like that from China, or from any other efficiently administered despotism with a definite future, do you? And the reportage itself explains why. The exception that explains the rule, you might say.