Telling China's true story

Updated: 2012-06-15 08:40

By Robert Lawrence Kuhn (China Daily)

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Telling China's true story

For almost 25 years I've been going to China and working to facilitate communication between China and the world. With my long-time business partner, Adam Zhu, I began to tell China's story as a matter of frustration, when, during the mid-1990s as the country was changing, most Westerners still imagined China as the commune-like monolith of the 1950s and 1960s. Telling the true story of China has always been important. Today it is essential.

It was the financial crisis of 2008-2009 that catalyzed enhanced realization by China's leaders that in order to protect the country, they had to augment engagement with the world. China's integration into the global economy meant that the country could no longer retreat behind its borders. Fundamentals had shifted. China's image affects the sales of its products and the support of its policies (for example, outbound M&A).

The first principle of effective communication is that your audience must be listening. You may have relevant, informative, even compelling, material, but if the other side is not paying attention, you will make no impact.

When is the world listening to China? I've participated in two types of situations when China has the world's ear. The first are positive occasions, when a major event involving China commands world attention. The best recent example was Vice-President Xi Jinping's visit to the US in February 2012, which garnered some of the best-ever coverage of China in the ever-skeptical American media. Another will be the 18th CPC National Congress in the fall.

However, the way of the world is such that positive occasions are rare, and they cannot be easily manufactured, so that the second and more frequent type of situation occurs when there is trouble. When China reduced its 2012 growth-rate target to 7.5 percent, less than the 8 percent target of prior years, world stock markets collapsed. I was a contrarian, explaining that markets should have risen because lower growth meant that China was serious about redressing economic and social imbalances and effecting industrial transformation, as well as controlling inflation and recognizing economic turbulence, thus stabilizing future growth.

Two explosive cases were the scandal involving Politburo member Bo Xilai and the saga of blind activist Chen Guangcheng. The world was riveted. In the former, I explained how China's senior leadership really works, distinguishing the system from the dictatorial stereotype of foreign assumption. In the latter, I described the increasing sophistication of Chinese diplomacy. In both, as rumors swirled, I tried to discern fact and provide insight.

A current project is a documentary series on China's domestic issues that I am writing and hosting. Produced by Shanghai Media Group (ICS) and to be broadcast on PBS stations in the US and other foreign networks as well as on SMG/ICS and CCTV (internationally), the series will air just prior to the coming Party congress.

Called China's Challenges, the series shows the historic transformation in economic development, and the Chinese people's under-appreciated leap in personal and social freedoms; but it emphasizes, as its title suggests, matters of serious internal concern. The series subtitle is What China's New Leaders Face, and the subtext is that China recognizes its problems and is unafraid to expose them to the world. This may sound paradoxical, but because almost every literate person on earth knows (and even exaggerates) China's success in developing its industry and infrastructure, China's image is burnished by showing its people and their difficulties.

China's Challenges has five episodes: economy (Where is China's Economy Going?); social issues (healthcare, housing, education, retirement - Are the Chinese People Happy?); innovation and science (China Can Produce. Can China Create?); political reform (Are the Chinese People "Real" Citizens?); and values (What do the Chinese People Believe In?).

The stories depict China's achievements, but not in an aloof, sanitized, self-satisfied way. Rather, our young SMG/ICS directors seek out meaningful, edgy stories that spotlight real-life worries and thus personify China's responsibility to improve the quality of life of its citizens.

I ask almost every person I interview - migrant workers, teachers, students, scientists, scholars, businesspeople, entrepreneurs, doctors, patients, renters, netizens, clergy/monks, children, senior-citizens, officials, ministers - one blunt question. "If China's new leaders would ask you what policies you recommend, what specifically would you tell them?"

Almost everyone has an answer and they do not hesitate to speak out boldly. It is blazingly clear that the Chinese people no longer fear to advise their leaders and to do so publicly. This alone may fracture stereotypes. Furthermore, while China's Challenges does not address the "China threat" theory, the very fact that China is so fixated on its domestic affairs evinces that China has neither the desire nor the resources to "dominate the world".

When I debate critics who bash China for all its problems, my natural instinct is to balance their imbalanced criticism by praising China for all its accomplishments. But that, I remind myself, would be a mistake. My task is to tell the whole story, problems and accomplishments. Moreover, "balance" is not my goal. I seek truth, as best I discern it. If I were telling China's true story during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) I would not have been "balanced" - the decade was horrific as ideological madness ruined the country.

On occasion, I am attacked for presenting a too-rosy image of China. It is a charge I reject. Regarding my biography of former president Jiang Zemin, I challenge my critics to name a problem that I do not discuss. They cannot. I always deal with China's problems - economic fragility, social conflicts, political struggles, human rights, corruption - some of which are resistant to solution - but I do so constructively in the context and sweep of current realities, the multi-faceted flow of events and the multi-layered conduct of leadership. Thus China's problems occupy a lower percentage of my content than that of my more caustic colleagues. To those who stress only China's problems, it might seem that I downplay them. I do not. China's endemic and intractable problems fill my narratives, but they do not consume them. The problems that China's critics expose are indeed real (largely), but China is more complex than they are willing to allow, so that the simplistic pictures they draw are often distortions.

Finally, telling China's true story to the world is not unidirectional. Information flows in both directions. By understanding what it takes for the world to appreciate China is to make China more sensitive to the views of the world - a process that will enable China's leaders to adjust their policies for the well-being of the Chinese people and for the betterment of all people.

International communication is vital as the largest population on earth continues the greatest transformation in history.

About the author:

Telling China's true story

Dr. Robert Lawrence Kuhn, chairman of The Kuhn Foundation, is an international corporate strategist and investment banker. He is the author of The Man Who Changed China: The Life and Legacy of Jiang Zemin and How China's Leaders Think (China's new leaders). Dr. Kuhn is a regular commentator on China (BBC, Bloomberg, CCTV, CNBC, Euronews). The views expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.