Documentary Explores Challenges of Reporting China's 'Contradictions'

"Assignment: China - Contradictions" (Mike Chinoy/USC U.S.-China Institute)

Reporting on contemporary China is often a struggle for the foreign correspondents stationed there, who must balance the everyday complexity of the country with coverage that's appealing to home audiences. A newly released installment of Assignment: China looks at how reporters based in the country from 2009 to 2012 handled the ever present "contradictions." 

"China is not a bang bang story," recounts CNBC reporter Eunice Yoon, formerly of CNN, in the video. "It’s not like a story in the Middle East where suddenly there’s all these amazing events happening in front of you."

"Contradictions" is one of several installments in the 12-part Assignment: China project that was released publicly this week. The series, reported by Mike Chinoy and the USC U.S.-China Institute, focuses on the work of foreign correspondents stationed in China, spanning from the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s to the present day. 

A common theme throughout "Contradictions" is the disparity between the metropolises of Beijing and Shanghai — where most foreign correspondents are based — and the rural half of China. Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz said that this is unfortunate because "the fate of China" largely lies in rural hands. "When your first experience in China is in rural China, you learn that a lot of issues that the Western media talks about — like democracy, censorship of the Internet — these are issues that most laobaixing (commoners), most normal Chinese, don’t care about that much," he said.

The documentary also looks at a high-profile case of getting it wrong. In 2012, the radio program This American Life ran an episode about Foxconn, a major supplier for Apple, in which theatrical performer Mike Daisey fabricated key details about his visit to a Foxconn factory — making it appear much bleaker than it actually was. After tracking down Daisey's Chinese translator and confirming his fabrications, Schmitz appeared on a follow up episode of This American Life, where Daisey confirmed he'd lied. However, after the episode aired, Schmitz was inudated with hundreds of emails, about a quarter of which criticized his own reporting. "They were written saying, 'this can’t be right,'" Schmitz recalled. "'The translator must have lied to you. She lives in this terrible communist country, they would have hurt her if she would have told the truth that Mike Daisey was telling.'"

Chinoy, narrating at the end of the episode, concludes: "It was a sobering example of how stereotypes of conditions in China had seeped into mainstream American consciousness, underscoring the challenges facing reporters trying to convey the many shades of a complex, rapidly changing society."

In the above video, see the full Assignment: China - Contradictions documentary. Below, see video of Mike Chinoy discussing his Assignment: China series and the pioneering days of foreign news coverage in China with Richard Bernstein, Bruce Dunning, and Orville Schell at Asia Society New York in 2011:

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.