By Malcolm Clarke
A part from my personal experience in China about four decades ago, I would like to also share with readers my view on how to tell stories about China in a faithful and emotionally engaging way.
My First China Experience
I first came to China in 1981. That year, soon after I relocated from my native United Kingdom to New York City to take a new job with American Broadcasting Company (ABC), I was dispatched to China to conduct field research as director of a new feature documentary about the dramatic changes occurring in China over the past decades that had astonished and inspired producers at ABC.
China at the time was of course much different than today. Like many foreign guests on business trips in Beijing, I stayed at Beijing Hotel. Every early morning, I would wake up to the crisp chimes of bicycle bells through the windows from nearby Chang’an Avenue. Now it sounds like a scene from history, but back then I was amazed by tens of thousands of “Flying Pigeon” bicycles flooding Beijing streets, and so few cars.
Starting from the capital city, my China tour covered numerous places from farflung mountain villages in the southwestern province of Sichuan to regions along the Yangtze and Yellow rivers. Natural Chinese diligence, resilience and optimism deeply impressed me. Over nearly nine months of location-scouting for my documentary, I traveled to almost every corner of China and encountered people from all walks of life.
Besides government guesthouses and homes of farmers and peddlers, I also slept overnight on ships berthed at wharfs along the Yangtze River. I was deeply convinced that I could create an exciting film. Unfortunately, however, when I returned to Beijing, I was informed that ABC had canceled production of the documentary due to changes in the relationship between China and the United States.
Disappointment aside, I valued those nine months as an unforgettable chapter of my life. After drifting closer to the 5,000-year-old extraordinary civilization, I developed strong interest in the country and its people and promised myself I would return one day.
Over the subsequent 30-plus years, I traveled to 86 countries filming various projects until an opportunity to return to China finally emerged thanks to suggestion by Nobel Laureate Robert A. Mundell, also known as the “father of the Euro,” and former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, both firm friends of the Chinese people. After 40 years of development, China has undeniably grown into a global economic giant and grabbed worldwide attention.
Rise to Economic Glory
This time in Beijing, I soaked in the city’s vibrancy and passion all around. Beijing has become a world- class cosmopolitan city full of dynamic energy and opportunities. Obviously, dramatic changes occurred over the past decades, and the country quietly approached a renaissance almost before the West even noticed.
Chinese people’s growing confidence is evident in their lives. Modern buildings in varying styles have sprouted from previously narrow urban lanes and sparsely-populated rural areas, and automobiles zigzag through the streets as honking horns have replaced ringing bicycle bells. The traffic woes plaguing large Chinese cities like Beijing are considered a sign of China’s modernization.
Our film, Better Angels , looks towards the future of the relationship between China and the United States, two economic superpowers. Instead of inviting experts and politicians to share their views, we tried to shed light on China-U.S. relations from perspectives of ordinary citizens of the two countries. Though separated by the Pacific Ocean, Chinese and Americans are connected in many ways.
As for shooting of Better Angels, I must admit that we were completely ignorant at first and planned to finish shooting in 18 months. But when we began to research subjects, stories and shooting locations across the country, we realized that a year and a half was far from enough. Why? Because we had ignored the fact that the four decades of reform and opening-up had already fueled China’s evolution from a previous closed, isolated “central kingdom” into a real “global power.”
To tell stories about China’s renaissance in an objective, comprehensive way, we visited myriad places around the world— not just China and the United States, but countries in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.
During the shooting process, we started feeling that ordinary Chinese people know Americans better than vice versa. This should be attributed to America’s effective communication channels and export of pop culture, such as music, films, TV, news and literature, which gives global audiences insights into both advantages and shortcomings of the United States.
Notably, the information asymmetry between Chinese and Americans is likely to cause doubt and fear. People tend to fear what they don’t understand, which is human nature. But in the geopolitical realm, fear and distrust can lead to disastrous outcomes. Some Americans, as well as some Europeans, are afraid of China’s rise. A lack of or inadequate understanding of China steers them from a fair and rational evaluation of China’s development.
An ‘Understanding Deficit’
Consequently, I think an “understanding deficit” between China and the rest of the world has become a significant issue that needs attention. The world should understand that China’s rise does not necessarily indicate the decline of America or any other country.
Countries all make plentiful mistakes and encounter failures along their respective development paths, and China is no exception. However, we have to recognize the great achievements China has made over the past 40 years.
I witnessed numerous malnourished children and severely impoverished households during my first China trip in 1981. Today, the country’s population of 1.3 billion population is wellfed every day, which I think should be a point of pride for the Chinese people. Do other countries understand how dire the situation was such a short time ago? I doubt it.
China can do much more to help the United States and other countries stop worrying about China’s rise. China should take more proactive approaches to speak for itself. Its lengthy history and timeless culture as well as proud achievements in science, technology and art are valuable pieces of human achievement. If China fails to speak for itself, nobody will speak for it.
Three years ago, I interviewed a young American journalist who had just returned to New York from China. He was extremely frustrated, not because of his experience in China, but because of what had happened with his employers back home. The young man tried to faithfully report on China’s incredible achievements he had witnessed, but he was surprised to have his articles rejected by American media outlets even though he was willing to work for free. Eventually he realized that as a foreign correspondent stationed in China, the best way for him to achieve career success was to seek out negative news about China, whether stories about pollution, crime or corruption. These stories are highly soughtafter by American media and sell like hotcakes. Ultimately, he quit the job and returned to the United States.
The lesson to be learned is that China cannot simply rely on foreigners interested in China to tell its stories. It must take the initiative to strike a responsive chord in the West with emotionally engaging stories. China should embrace the bravery to show off to the world. When other countries realize that they share more similarities with China than differences, I think misunderstanding, doubt and fear about China will be replaced by respect and admiration for the country.