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Wall Street Journal columnist Andrew Browne on the challenges of writing about China

Andrew BrowneThe Wall Street Journal launched a column dedicated to China last week. Called China’s World, the column is penned by Andrew Browne

In this Q&A, Browne talks to Mumbrella Asia editor Robin Hicks about the challenges of writing about the most talked about country in Asia.

What in your view is the most interesting story now unfolding in China?

Internationally, it’s China rise. Before too long, China will be the world’s largest economy. There are many examples in history of rising powers going to war with the incumbent. Can China and the US avoid this fate?

Domestically, it’s the political story. The Communist Party is obsessed by its own survival – and for good reason. The elite have been sucking out what they can from the system. Popular support for economic reform in China is splintering in the face of corruption and extreme wealth disparities.  People are asking: “Is this what Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms were all about?” The question is whether Xi Jinping can hold it all together.

What’s the most challenging thing about covering China as a journalist?

Actually, it’s less challenging than it was, say, 20 years ago. We can travel around China freely (Tibet is a big exception), and talk to pretty much whoever we like.  The disappointment is how little access we get to top policy-makers. Zhongnanhai, the leadership compound where all the big decisions get made, is still a black box.

Reliable statistics are hard to come across in China. Which do you see as the best sources?

Your own eyes and ears. China is a continental-sized country. Nobody, not even the top leaders, have a firm grasp on what’s going on. Having said that, the statistics aren’t as bad as people think. The important thing is to get out of Beijing and Shanghai and see what’s really going on. A trip to the provinces is usually quite inspiring!

WSJ's Chinese edition

WSJ’s Chinese edition

At a conference in Australia recently, an adman based on Shanghai said that the Western media had the habit of portraying Chinese to be “Barbarians”, only publishing freakish stories about babies flushed down toilets, and so on. What’s your view on how the Western media portrays China?

The adman’s view, I’m afraid, is a caricature. Look at the Wall Street Journal. We employ more than 100 editorial staff in China. Every day we pump out dozens of stories in English and Chinese that cover everything from elite politics to the interbank bond market, and – yes – the odd freak story. We know that our Chinese website is the home-page for some of China’s top business and government officials. They, at least, appreciate our way of looking at China and the world.

A Chinese media agency boss recently said that a common mistake non-Chinese writers make when writing about China is to focus too heavily on the censorship angle, when in reality the internet is less censored than outsiders like to make out. What’s your view on the state of censorship in China right now?

Chinese people are masters of linguistic sorcery. Of course, they’ll find their way around online censorship. Still, the official impulse to censor is depressing. I was asked to speak at the media department of one of China’s top universities about the Wall Street Journal. At the lecture hall, I tried to call up our website: it was blocked. Is this the way Chinese students will compete in the world? It’s all about innovation and creativity now. Censorship holds China back.

What’s the most common mistakes Chinese media tends to make when writing about the West?

I think Chinese media coverage of the West is getting better. There are certainly more Chinese journalists in New York, London and Paris than ever before. Many of them are fine professionals.

Who is the most powerful writer in China right now, and is he or she a journalist or a blogger?

Bloggers, I think, are the voice of modern China. They have an instant audience of millions. But the blogosphere has been chilled recently. Everybody is talking about the case of Chinese-American online celebrity, Xue Manzi, who was detained in a prostitution bust. That may tell you something about who authorities reckon is powerful these days.

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