By NICHOLAS PEOPLES
Global Business Journalism reporter
What is China’s story and how do we tell it?
Over the past month, an ongoing spike of pneumonia-like cases with unusual symptoms in Beijing and Liaoning province prompted international concern and heightened surveillance for another potential “novel pathogen.” Whether the illness turn out to be a routine seasonal bug or something more exotic, the global reaction to this Chinese news story is undoubtedly influenced by the complexities and reputational damage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Is this a part of China’s story? And, if so, in what ways and to what extent?
A little earlier, Presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden made headlines with their highly anticipated November 2023 meeting in San Francisco, California. Their conversation, spanning topics such as the fentanyl crisis, artificial intelligence, climate change, was much more than simple bilateral cooperation. It offered symbolic importance, signaling increasing goodwill between the two rival nations amidst a relationship that has been unmistakably strained on the global stage in recent times. How do events such as this factor into China’s story?
The list could go on, but the point is this: talking about China is hard. Many have tried to do it, some have tried to do it well, and fewer yet have truly succeeded.
China Daily New Media is one of a select group of media outlets that can lay a serious claim to this enviable last category. Established in 2015, China Daily has rapidly grown to own and operate more than 70 social media accounts across Western (e.g., Facebook, Instagram) and Chinese (e.g., Weibo, Douyin, Wechat) platforms.
“In China, we seldom go to the traditional websites or newspaper for the news,” says Hu Yumeng, producer of the popular China Daily program Potside Chats. “We go to the apps.”
A key feature that separates China Daily from other outlets is that they have organized their programming under a tripartite strategy. The first arm of this strategy is “observing China.” Programs like Good Luck China, for instance, hosted by Greg Fountain, are intended to be light but informational, showing China through the travel and experiences of a young Brit.
"We film China through Greg’s eyes,” says Hu, a master's graduate of Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication who trained in the Global Business Journalism program. “However, we found that this observing is not enough to cover all the aspects of China’s story.”
In response, the second arm is called “explaining China.” For this content, China Daily invites scholars and foreigners who are long-term residents of China to explain how they perceive China’s policies and government. Decoding China is one program made specifically to this point, and others, such as 别叫我老外 (Don’t call me a foreigner) catalogue the experiences of people whose experience blur the line of foreigner and Chinese. These efforts deepen the conversation.
“But when foreigners tell their views on China,” Hu says, “it is unidirectional. We don’t have a dialogue between China and the West.”
Thus, the third and final arm is about exploring fundamental differences between China and the West. It is this area where Hu Yumeng’s seasoned touch, such as with Potside Chats, is able to shine.
“Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats were a series of radio broadcasts conducted by the US President from 1933 – 1944,” she says. “At China Daily, we replace the fire with pots because there is a Chinese philosophical metaphor: ‘running a country is like cooking a small dish.’ So, we have our chats casually around the table to make the whole conversation more approachable to audiences.”
Foreigners host certain China Daily programs and can choose topics based on their own experiences and interests.
“Sometimes they even give us Chinese people a very fresh idea on our own country," she said.
A notable byproduct of this cultural exchange is a board game, Bridging Borders and Beyond, a re-imagining of the classic American game Monopoly with China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Understanding China as a foreigner can often feel like trying to pour the ocean into a bucket. When asked how China Daily can strive for both breadth, depth, and accessibility with an international audience given the colossal size of the topic, Hu did not hesitate to answer. First, one must “do thorough and comprehensive reporting, avoiding superficial language.” For her, this means extensive pre-production research to understand the background of the topic and the invited guests, as well as asking as many questions as possible to any available source.
In addition, she strives for “vivid interpretation and deconstruction of serious topics.” Her team can accomplish this, she believes, by having Chinese and foreigners work collaboratively to facilitate an authentic understanding of Chinese phenomena, with a hardline stance against slogan-based propaganda.
In the end, though, Hu acknowledged that even the best media can only take one so far.
“You have to come to China and see China for yourself," she said. "You have to talk to Chinese people. Knowing on your own is the best way to learn about the country. And then, you can tell the story of China too.”