China’s intellectual gap with America

This has nothing to do with who is smarter but rather who is more willing to learn about the other.

Great little piece in Caixin called The Closing of Chinese Minds.

What makes it even more interesting is that Caixin is a mainland China news organization.

The publication has a history of being a thorn in the side of China’s political and business leadership. Besides the stories it publishes, Caixin puts online reporters’ notes and all the documents used to back up the story. And with more Chinese turning to the Internet to get news, Caixin fills an important gap in information.

Caixin editor Hu Shuli

The editor in chief of Caixin Hu Shu Li told an audience at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’s Club this past summer that independent and ethical journalism is vital.

“What the public demand and deserve is the right to know,” she told the FCC audience. “More than ever the public needs the media to present the hard facts with all the complexities and nuances.”

FYI: Caixin recently published a story with back-up documents that showed high-speed rail designer  Zhang Shuguang owns a US$800,000 (7.12 million RMB) home near Los Angeles on a monthly salary of 2,200 RMB.

But, let’s get back to that intellectual gap.

Just before Christmas, Caixin published the The Closing of Chinese Minds column.

Journalists Nailene Chou Wiest noted how China has pulled back from trying to understand more about how American society and politics work.

“…the more the Chinese think they know about America, the greater their incapacity to change their prejudices. Conspiracy theories, such as the notion the CIA maintains an office in every CNN bureau, abound.”

Nailene Chou Wiest

She starts her story with how “in 1979 a group of Chinese editors was about to visit the United States. Asked what they would like to see, one solemnly replied: ‘We want to know how the party secretary of New York controls The New York Times.'”

To correct the situation exemplified by the editors in 1979, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences inaugurated the Institute of American Studies in 1981. China was eager to learn from the U.S. American foundations reciprocated by providing generous funding and resources. By the mid-1990s, however, the interest narrowed to Sino-American diplomatic relations.

I saw this lack of understanding first hand in 1992 when the US Information Agency library in Shanghai provided live satellite feeds of the U.S. presidential election returns. Chinese journalists on hand could not understand how ABC could have different numbers for the presidential vote than CBS or NBC. Adding to their confusion was the fact that none of the numbers were being cleared by an agency in Washington.

The misunderstandings continue.

Wiest:

In my field, many journalists and journalism professors have been invited to visit the U.S. They have enhanced American scholars’ understanding of the changing Chinese media landscape, but their own comprehension of the American media remains at the textbook level. While the legend of Walter Cronkite as the iconic TV anchor lives on, few have heard of Bill O’Reilly or have an inkling that the conservative made a highly successful industry out of talk radio and the Fox News Channel. Still bashing corporate greed for killing the American news media, they seem oblivious to the assault on media profits by technological changes that have made some quality media outfits more like millstones around the necks of their owners than cash cows. Relying on a few translated volumes of media studies, or, worse, polemics in the Chinese press, they are out of touch with the American reality.

She points out that the Chinese sent to the United States under the institute’s aegis now go so that Americans can learn about China, not so the Chinese can better understand the United States.

It is ironic. After all, to hear many of the political voices in the United States today the issue is similar. These xenophobic Americans care little about learning about other societies or cultures. Too many average Americans agree.

Personal note: I still recall with horror how in the summer of 2000 (or so) when we told a shop owner in Michigan that we lived in Hong Kong, he paused and then asked, “That’s in Ohio, right?”

In a democracy, the people set the tone for what the government does. An uninformed or ill-informed public can lead to disastrous results. Maybe not a full-scale ware but economic and social upheaval are possible. (And it doesn’t help when political leaders think foreign policy can be handled with an electrified fence and over-sized military.)

News organizations can help. And — here comes that old argument again — it can be done without having to go overseas.

The immigrant communities in the United States can provide valuable insights other cultures.

Investments in the United States by companies from other countries tell tales of linkages and connections that can be seen on a local level. (Think of all the Ohioans who have a job because Honda — of Japan — opened factories in that state.)

All it takes is a little imagination by editors and reporters to see the global-local link.

Or, we could just go down the road of China (modern and historic) and not think there is anything worth learning from outsiders.

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Filed under Connections, Freedom of Information, International News Coverage, Story Ideas

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