Selling Human Rights to China

When I received the fax from Beijing, I was sure there must have been a mistake. Why was a television station in the People's Republic of China inviting the producer of the world's only human rights television series to speak at an official media conference? Was this just one more "contradiction" for a country which coined that phrase and today seems to exemplify it? I was sure that their state-run TV system was not interested in acquiring Globalvision's human rights series Rights & Wrongs that has aired damning criticisms of China's abuses of its dissidents. Yet, here was a chance to go to China, see for myself, and find out how people there felt about human rights. And to raise the issue if no one else did. How explicit could I be? How provocative should I be? At the offices of Human Rights Watch in New York, I received conflicting advice as staffers there snickered at the very thought of my being invited. "Go for it," was one sentiment. But a Chinese activist of the Tiananmen Square era was more wary. Be cautious, he counseled. Otherwise the people who invited you, probably without knowing much about your work, will get into trouble. You are a guest, after all. When I arrived in the Chinese capitol, I felt what he meant. My hosts were in their twenties, producers at Beijing TV, anxious to learn more about the outside world and very undoctrinaire in their views. They were sweet, accommodating and told me how much they were looking forward to hearing me speak about my company, my new book, The More You Watch, The Less You Know, and the role of independent producers in the United States. Yet, how could I allow myself to be silenced, or kowtow to a regime that has proven how ruthless it is? My inner anguish on these questions was hardly helped after meeting a Chinese woman, who spent years in America, there representing an American film and TV company at a program market, which along with the forum that invited me and an equipment fair, constituted "International TV Week." When I asked her if she thought there was much of a market in China for my human rights shows, she laughed as if I was out of my mind. I smiled and told her that I was used to rejection. TV stations, East and West, communist and capitalist, seem united in their antagonism to human rights TV. An American journalist in China told me that he has encountered more hostility from the American business community in Beijing for his human rights reporting than from the Chinese government. I told her what PBS said some years ago about human rights as "an insufficient organizing principle for a TV series," a sentiment I suggested which might be shared by China's politburo. "Yes, here they would agree," she replied with an amused look. She explained I was up against what she called "The three Nos." No #1 is programming about Tibet. A regional TV station had recently aired a program on the Yangtze River that included a shot of the Dalai Lama. When the programmer that ran it was called on the carpet, his defense was that he didn't know what the Dalai Lama looked like because his image was forbidden in China, much the way that Mandela's likeness had been banned in apartheid South Africa. Apparently, that was not a good enough excuse. He was fired. No #2 is all programming about the uprising at Tiananmen Square or the brave political prisoners, workers, intellectuals and students who have been jailed since. This is a topic my colleagues there preferred not to discuss. No # 3 is "The "Big No" -- all programming about human rights itself. That's because the Chinese government sees the issue as a politically motivated club -- an attempt by the United States to impose its philosophy, encouraging agitation that could destabilize the country and undermine the rule of the Communist party. "Human rights diplomacy of the United States is bound to fail," contends the official English language China Daily in a story on why the policy is "doomed," appearing on my third day in Beijing. First, it argues, "the U.S. backs rights not accepted by the entire international community, 'purely the rights of the West,'" i.e.; political rights, not economic, social and cultural rights. Second, they say that U.S. policy ignores the differences in economic development and cultural traditions between different countries, insisting that rights recognized in one country need not automatically prevail in another. And finally, they complain that Washington overlooks human rights violations in its own territories -- a point I can certainly agree with, although China wants to deny the existence of the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, now almost fifty years old. If I still had any doubts about where China stands, the point was driven home to me explicitly by the conference director who assembled all the guest speakers and told us point blank to keep our presentations academic, not political. And to avoid human rights. The "NOs" just kept coming. That night, on TV, I saw a Chinese TV news report on premier Li Peng's visit to Nigeria where he thanked that country's military dictator, Sani Abacha, for backing China on a UN human rights vote in Geneva. Chinese TV is controlled and censored. I was told that the prime time newscast on the national network CCTV is taped at five p.m., approved by a member of the politburo and then aired at seven. Ordinary news that breaks between five and seven is not covered and neither are events that happen after the party official goes home. At the same time, western news magazines are on sale, while other TV channels are seen in the country, but only by visitors and officials. Time Warner is helping to build a cable system in Beijing that will no doubt bring more channels and choices, although I am not sure how many new voices. The programming in my hotel room in China was more diverse than in my living room in New York. There was a French channel, Euro news, Russian news, Murdoch's Prime Star Network, Spain's main channel, Japanese TV, HBO Asia, and several Chinese channels. On one day, I woke up with Disney cartoons in Chinese and went to sleep after a late night showing of the "East is Red," the classic cultural revolution era Marxist-Leninist-Mao Tse Tung commissioned folk opera, which ends with the audience singing the Internationale, a communist anthem you don't hear much in China or anywhere these days, except perhaps in Herb Gardner's recent film, "I'm Not Rappaport." Oh, and of course, like in most quality hotels around the world, there was CNN on around the clock featuring special programs about business in Asia. And, when I was there, a half hour "conversation" (as opposed to an interview) with Chinese president Jiang Zemin by CNN bureau chief, Andrea Koppel, daughter of Ted. She tried hard to rattle him softly but he was unrattleable, smoothly delivering responses almost as if he was reading from a TelePrompter. I was told by a well known American correspondent in China that Chinese officials always ask for questions in a advance, and that CNN had given them the general areas, but not the specific questions. They then threw in a few undisclosed queries. CNN also sent a high level delegation to China, including its own president Tom Johnson, to supervise the exclusive, considered a "big get" in TV terms. The rights of people in Hong Kong came up in the show -- Hong Kong's 'return' to the mainland is the big obsession in China these days -- but specific instances of human rights abuses were avoided. Koppel tried to bring out the 'human side' of the Chinese President by asking him what music he liked. Having studied in an American missionary school, Jiamg is reportedly able to recite the Gettysburg Address in English and likes to sing American show tunes. But he did not burst into song, or play the piano, which he also does well, but rather referred in passing to his love of Mozart and Schubert."With some solid PR counseling, he could become a big hit in America," my correspondent friend opined. Perhaps to balance its soft-edged interview,* CNN aired a strong report a week later about a ceremony honoring the publication of a book by Chinese prisoner of conscience and long time democracy campaigner Wei Jingsheng. That event took place in New York. I am not sure it would even have been news had big name writers and celebrities like musician Peter Gabriel not shown up to read from his work. In China, no one I met knew much about Wei's plight. When it was time for my performance, I sought to learn from the Chinese who are masters of using metaphors and verbal sleights of hand to make their points. For example, the government says it is "building socialism in the special characteristics of China." I could never get two people to agree on what that slogan means. Throughout the conference, producers spoke almost exclusively in terms of serving the market, not the public. Business thinking is pervasive and when challenged, almost every Chinese person I spoke assured me that China must become stronger economically before it can introduce more political reforms. They point to the chaos in Russia as an example of what can happen when reforms are introduced too rapidly. They also note that 200 million Chinese remain illiterate. So, with a wink and a nod, "building socialism" for all extents and purposes means building capitalism. This is not new. Commercials have been airing in China for the last seventeen years. The conference was about entering the 21st century. Drawing on my own experiences in American television, I expressed the hope that we can reinvent TV and not duplicate a system that seems to be intent on dumbing down societies. I urged the Chinese not to emulate western commercial models. Then, I took on the issue of political prisoners and democratic reforms by changing its frame and location. I showed a clip from my film "Countdown to Freedom," an inside story of prisioner turned president Nelson Mandela's l994 election. I explained it was appropriate because China has supported South Africa's liberation struggle, and timely because one of China's top leaders was then touring Africa. The audience was transfixed, staring at the thousands cheering Mandela's inauguration as he was greeted by many heads of state including Cuba's Fidel Castro. Mandela is now even more well liked in Beijing because he recently broke his country's lucrative trade ties with Taiwan, cemented in the days of apartheid, to recognize the People's Republic. Afterwards, many of the producers told me they understood what I was really saying and appreciated it very much. I was relieved, feeling I hadn't sold out the cause of human righhts. I was impressed with many of my colleagues, and their determination to push the envelope. Some had produced dramas on the level of Hollywood features. Others were doing documentaries and newsmagazine stories with lots of enthusiasm, creativity and craft. One energetic film I saw chronicling recent village elections showed people rejecting the Party's choice of candidates, and openly articulating grievances with the kind of gusto you find every day in New York. Another chronicled the troubles of a rural school teacher. Its broadcast had been delayed when editors worried that it wasn't positive enough, but it did air along with reports on the work of a police unit combatting pervasive official corruption. I am going to try to get my Mandela films on the air in China but I am not holding my breath. Right now, the Chinese, like their counterparts in many countries, seem to be gravitating to subjects closer to home, many with familiar formulas and formats. Listen to some of the shows described in the Beijing TV catalogue: "Don't Say Good-bye," a twenty part series: "Young and pretty head nurse Yu Ming is gentle and kind-hearted. She and her boyfriend Zhong Chengzhi sustain losses in business. To pay his debts, he has to throw himself into the arms of the rich lady Lu Sisi....." There were several police dramas like "City Patrol Cop", which includes chases of 'taxi criminals,' and "Anti Narcotics in the Capitol" ("includes footage of smashing up of drug users dens, burning drugs and bringing drug criminals to trial"). And then there is their own risque version of "Cagney and Lacey:" "Woman Armed Police and Their Male Team Leader." They are referred to as China's "No.1 overlord flowers, a unit run by a well known male team leader....Many stories take place between the male leader and the special armed policewoman." This is all part of building socialism as the economy booms and human rights stays a no-no in the People's Republic, circa l997. *It was a one-sided week for interviews. China's President made himself available to the U.S. media but former U.S. President George Bush who visited China when I was there did not. And neither would the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chief of Staffs, General John Shalikashvili, or an even more powerful American, Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman. All were in Beijing. All were mum. Their deals and their "Nos" did not make news. What did make a media splash was the bomb a man used to commit suicide in a downtown park.

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