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The story is very simple: the 18th Congress of the Communist Party of China was just about to open, and one of the editors of the China Daily sent me an email from Beijing, to Nairobi, asking me to study the Chinese Constitution and to shoot a commentary on the upcoming reforms and changes, particularly on the “Scientific Outlook on Development”.
The correspondence took place just as I was departing Nairobi for Southeast Asia, via Cairo. The few hours I had in Egypt were packed with the meetings, as well as some last minute filming. And after more than 15 years I was encountering my dear friend Tsutomu Ishiai again, now the head of the African and Middle Eastern division of Asahi Shimbun, a man with whom I once spent several insane months in South America, covering the MRTA takeover of the Japanese Ambassador’s residence in Lima, Peru.
But how could I say ‘no’ to my Chinese Comrades? I was told that my commentary was very important, and that it would appear at the top of the list of all the commentaries (sort of ‘supreme commentary’). Being a disciplined Internationalist, I went into immediate and direct intellectual combat with the Western propaganda machinery.
I worked on-board a super-shabby Airbus-320 belonging to Egypt Air, all the way from Nairobi to Cairo. I worked in filthy hotel (defined as 5 star by the staff) that the airline booked me into. And I worked in a taxi, choking on the poisonous fumes of one of the worst traffic jams I have ever experienced in my life, between Heliopolis and Cairo.
I wrote, arguing against a report published earlier by Reuters:
… On this point, China should not try to ‘appease’ the West; there is no consensus possible, simply because for long eras it was the West itself that was dividing China, trying to keep it helpless, weak and under its boot. Only a naïve person would expect that a former and potential colonizer; that an imperialist would show some warmth, heartfelt respect and admiration for the liberation struggle against himself, and celebrate success of his former subjects.
But what about what was mentioned further in the report: the ‘harmony and capitalism’?
Revolution and Communism, harmony and capitalism: there is really no contradiction. Revolution and Communism won independence and gave China the foundations on which it now proudly stands. Then, harmony is the natural aim of each and every decent society. And capitalism? China had to adopt some of its elements; otherwise it and its people would have become isolated and poor.
There is an old Russian saying: “If you have to live with wolves, you have to learn how to howl like them!”
I read; I studied the Chinese Constitution amongst the chaos of Cairo airport, and then on board the Boeing 777 bound for KL via Bangkok. I liked it; it was a good Constitution, and it was really ‘red’, full of spice, and it put me in a good mood, even as the Egypt Air crew kept shouting at each other, determinedly avoiding any remote duty of serving the passengers.
I wrote as I was asked; I told them – my Chinese readers – about the main differences of life in the so-called East European Block countries, and in China. I told them that they now had well-developed light industries in China, they had consumer goods (plenty of them), and a variety of food products. Chinese citizens were able to freely apply for passports and travel wherever they wanted to, as long as they managed to secure visas. They had condoms, high-heeled shoes, plenty of booze and brand name watches. They had books by Bill Gates and Soros, much more of that stuff than the West had on Chinese or Soviet Communism. All for a fee, most for a ‘market price’, but they had it. Fine. Good for them. Let’s move on…
I did what I have been doing for years: I analyzed Western mainstream propaganda and the way it uses toxic and standardized clichés in their commentaries on China. I wrote
(correctly and accurately), about what the observations from London and New York would be like, once the Party Congress was over.
I landed in Kuala Lumpur and filed the story, mindful of the deadline. I had hardly slept for two nights.
And I wrote a note: “Just one request: please ask the editors not to tamper too much with the structure. This is a carefully, philosophically crafted piece, and the argument could collapse if they begin cutting or adding at will”.
* * *
The whole piece was returned one day later, butchered. No substance was left, just the grey of the official pen and several disconnected barks.
“Hope you can adjust your article and shift your legacy to the ‘Scientific Outlook on Development’, which is the biggest legacy of Hu’s leadership” wrote an editor.
I was pissed off at the China Daily staff for wasting my time (I was really looking forward to those classic Arabic movies on-board), and for butchering my analyses. But for once I was determined to ‘behave myself’ and to show some discipline. And there was nothing wrong with the Scientific Outlook on Development. I read the official definition of it; and it actually appeared to be quite fine:
To put people first, we should take people’s interests as the starting point and foothold of all of our works, make continuous efforts to meet various needs of the people and promote an overall development of the people. To enact comprehensive development, we should quicken the pace of building socialist political and spiritual civilizations while we constantly improve the socialist market economy and maintain coordinated, healthy economic development, thus constructing a structure that features mutual improvement and common development of material, political and spiritual civilizations…
Not bad, right? In Kuala Lumpur I had a few drinks savoring it! Then I quoted it in my new version.
* * *
Then the horror struck!
Now let me demonstrate what I wrote in the original text for China Daily, in the article that was immediately turned on its head, but with my signature still at the top!
First of all, since this was supposed to be my commentary; my own commentary (!), I was going to mention the Internationalism, which lately, I felt was disappearing from the Chinese official vocabulary:
“The Soviet Union was rhetorically similar [to China], but practically its economy was full of loose ends and errors. However, to give the Soviets its dues, it is essential to point out that China is presently concentrating on its own development, while countries like the USSR and Cuba sacrificed much of their own wellbeing for internationalist ideals: The collapse of colonialism in Africa, Asia and the Middle East would be unthinkable without their direct and indirect involvement.”
This part disappeared. Instead, the Comrades wrote this:
“The Soviet Union made the strategic mistake of competing with the United States for hegemony by sacrificing its people’s livelihood, which led to a distorted economic structure and ultimately its collapse. The CPC learnt a lesson from the Soviet Union’s mistake.”
Eastern Europe was fighting against fascism and colonialism, at the same time as China, in its darker historical period in the 60’s and 70’s, was siding with the West!
I never could have, in my wildest dreams, written rubbish like that. And it is an absolute slander what the China Daily put into my mouth – words that still evoke a tremendous urge to vomit, when I read them!
To my request for an immediate withdrawal of the article, I received a Kafkaesque email from an editor:
“… Since you are a veteran journalist, you must be fully aware of the media process and know the difficulties. We appreciate your understanding.”
For years and decades I was sending to hell all types of mass media outlets, even those that were ready to pay US$1, even US$2 per word. I simply couldn’t care less how ‘their media process functions’, if their demanded lies in return.
Now I was horrified to see how some journalists of the ‘new China’ are combining Western slang and jargon with their personal ambitions.
China Daily, which wants to promote China and its culture abroad, recently rejected one of the best stories I encountered during this year – a story about one of the best Chinese pianists who selflessly traveled and performed brilliant classical concert (of Western, Chinese and Cuban music) for the most deprived children in Nairobi slums. And he did it, refusing all payments, simply because he is one great artist and real humanist. And he is my friend, and this is my China, Comrades, but obviously not yours, anymore!
Maybe if he would charge million dollars, you would print the story.
* * *
To put things in perspective, I have to say that my experience with the Chinese media in general has been excellent. My bilingual and quite philosophical series on the world – from Latin America, Eastern Europe and Asia Pacific – for the People’s Daily, had been wonderfully edited and received; the editors were gentle, hard working and highly professional people. There was absolutely no censorship and no cutting! And that’s the biggest newspaper in China, often defined as ‘official one’.
Andre Vltchek in front of the Communist Dragons in the Beijing Art District.
All the Chinese media outlets that interviewed me, from Xinhua to National Television in Beijing (CCTV) and China Radio International, were much less dogmatic and ideologically rigid than their counterparts in the West, running all that I said without any hint of censorship (Noam Chomsky, during our two-day debate at MIT in Boston, confirmed that he has been having the same experience).
But China Daily is known for re-writing people’s pieces, in fact for ‘using’ its writers. And what is disturbing, it likes to think about itself as ‘China’s window to the world’.
After my outrage, after writing that now I will be horrified to read the letters from my readers, an editor phlegmatically replied: “As to the readers’ letters, everyday our newspaper and our other contributors receive both praise and criticism. We welcome different voices. At least it means our stories are read and shared.”
“Bordel!” I screamed. Yes, sure, I am ready to face any letters and criticism, and even to burn in cooking oil for what I write, but not for what you people put together, under my battered signature!
I got more:
“… Your piece is the most viewed op-ed piece on our website and some readers sing highly of your article. You won much praise among our readers and even gained a high reputation in Chinese media. That’s why last year so many Chinese journalists interviewed you and now you are really a well-known scholar in China.
“But this is not my piece!” I howled at the screen. “I don’t want anybody to read it!” I wanted to say the opposite about Russia and Cuba, about how great Internationalism is!
* * *
I don’t like to describe myself as a journalist… well, an investigative journalist, maybe. But you know Comrades, how can you identify a great journo, that dying species? It is a person who is able to see and describe his or her own reality: not going by that ‘objective’ crap cliché, not licking the corporate logo of the publication, but by writing what he or she sees and feels, smells and believes in. And you know what a great newspaper or magazine is: the one that can intuitively identify such a person, and respect him or her, and embrace them. Not many of those left of course, but some (like this one – CounterPunch), are still around.
I have to confess that I have never aimed at being an intellectual whore. Many things I have been, I admit, and not all of them could be described in flattering words, but a whore; a scribble-whore – no; not that! And I am not intending to change. I cannot change. Writing is my life; the stories are my life. I live them, I write them, I breathe them, I often come close to dying in order to uncover them; and then I carry them in my heart and with my bruised hands to the readers.
I don’t compromise. I say what I want to say. If it’s rubbish, it is my own rubbish, nobody else’s.
So this is my ultimatum to China Daily: No matter how big you are and no matter how small I am, you will publish my stories as they are, or I am not sleeping with you, anymore! You can correct my grammar, that’s fine. I am not a native speaker, so I will let you do that, but nothing more than that. You can either want to read what I write, from A to Z, or just write it yourself! So spoke the well-known scholar in China!
And please remember one more thing, Comrades: you may have lifted hundreds of millions of your people out of poverty… Yes you did. And it is great; it is much more than what countries like India or Indonesia or even the United States did during those long wasted decades… But there is a wide world outside your boundaries, and much of that world is still suffering. It is natural to help your own family, your clan. Every human, every animal attempts to do it. But the sign of true greatness is to help those total strangers who are in pain and agony, those who are totally unrelated to you. Internationalism is the most glorious; it is the ultimate expression of humanism. That is why Cuba is a thousand times bigger than its real size!
This is my own, personal message to your 18th Congress of the Communist Party of China: I am with you, but only as long as you want to help the world out of slavery, from Western imperialism, from misery. You already do your share, I know it; and that is why I wrote so much for you; virtually for free, to show you how bad things are but also how breathtaking is the world that has recently, once again, opened in front and all around you.
But please do more! And don’t you try to shut others and me up, when we tell you that we don’t care too much about the performance of your consumer industry or stock exchange. Don’t try to shut your friends up when they are telling you about Latin America and its great revolutions of today, or about the great sacrifice of the Russian people. You are big, but you may still need us one day. We love you, of course, but no love can be unconditional.
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific – Oceania – is published by Lulu . His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear” (Pluto). After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website.