On April 9th, the LA Times featured an article by Lily Kuo on the Beijing location of the US chain, Hooters, claiming that it offered "a snapshot of changing attitudes toward sex in China". The article, a concise example of much of what is wrong with journalism about China, is misleading touristic journalism that lags woefully behind the times and is hopelessly biased towards Beijing, Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta. The presence of Hooters is a product of the increasing prevalence of expatriates in Beijing and is largely unrelated to changing Chinese mores. The restaurant is located in foreigner ground zero, and even Ms. Kuo admits that the "clientele is largely clean-cut, corporate expatriate types". She goes on to mention the sign by the bathroom, "Caution. Blonds thinking." which simply shows that right down to the kitsch on the walls the restaurant is an import for the consumption of expatriates; China has a dearth of both blondes and stereotypes about their mental faculties. "Of course I know what hooters means" says a Chinese Hooter's Girl at the end of the article, but Kuo neglects to point out that the restaurant does not take risque risks with its Chinese name, which translates as "American Owl Restaurant."
This kind of distortion is often present in the foreign media about China. Facts are adjusted or ignored in order to tell a simple story that fits neatly with readers' pre-conceived notions and fears about China, preferably casting China as a threat or, contradictorily, predicting its imminent collapse. A good example is recent coverage on China's exchange rate which consistently insists that China's fixed-rate policy hurts American business while overlooking the way in which the policy substantially benefits American consumers with artificially cheap goods and the fact that emerging economies are the policy's primary victims. Another example comes from recent articles claiming that Chinese authorities banned Bob Dylan from performing in China. It turns out that this was almost entirely unsubstantiated, but it fit so well with stories like "Bjork's Tibet Outburst Provokes Censors" and "China bans Oasis" that no one bothered to actually ask Dylan's staff if the performance had indeed been banned.
According to Ms. Kuo, Hooters offers "a snapshot of changing attitudes toward sex in China". Even if this were true, it is pretty outdated for a snapshot. Hooters opened its first location in China in 2004, and its Beijing location opened in 2007 (not 2008 as the article asserts). But this, too, is typical of coverage in China. Academics are hardly known for their sense of immediacy. From conception to publication, academic articles often take years, but when it comes to China today's news is often last years' academic article. This blogger is no fan of the 24 hour news cycle, but coverage that lags years behind is problematic in such a rapidly developing country.
The Hooters' article is also a classic example of Friedmanesque touristic journalism--that is, drawing conclusions about a country based on what one observes on the streets of upscale neighborhoods in its most developed cities. Chinese mores may in fact be liberalizing, but drawing that conclusion simply from the presence of a single Hooters in Beijing is like looking across the street from Hooters to China's only Apple Store and assuming that Mac is becoming a major presence in China. In fact Mac's market share in China is "negligible", and a 2003 survey found only 14% of Chinese University students to be sexually active, compared to 77.6% in the US.
Much of the problem arises from the substantial difficulties that media faces in China. Most conspicuous and probably most damaging are the restrictions and harassment that the Chinese state levels at journalists. Recently, there have been numerous (though possibly exaggerated) reports of the e-mail accounts of foreign journalists being hacked. Additionally, Chinese is a difficult language to learn and many journalists work with translators (sometimes euphemistically referred to as assistants). Furthermore, mastery of standard Mandarin Chinese is by no means universal among Chinese and more than one layer of translation is sometimes needed to converse in one of China's hundreds of dialects or languages (think of this scene from the movie Hot Fuzz plus one extra layer of translation). The need for translation limits journalists' options and removes them from their subjects. Finally, China is both huge and changing so quickly that it is difficult for even the most intrepid reporter to keep current.
But these problems are not insurmountable. With some notable exceptions, foreign journalists in China tend to be relatively young and inexperienced reporters with a smattering of Chinese under their belt who will only stay in China for a few years. The situation could be greatly improved if China acquired a cadre of experienced Chinese-speaking correspondents willing to make China their long-term home. If Beijing is truly going to become a hub of power equal to Washington DC, then it needs an equal to the White House Press Corps.
Many of my criticisms could be leveled at journalism anywhere, but in China the problem is probably worse because Westerners tend to understand so little about China. As journalism continues to reinforce pre-conceived notions and fears about China, it becomes ever harder to publish thoughtful and innovative pieces and break the vicious cycle of oversimplified stereotyped ignorance. I do not raise the faults of the Hooters article in order to denigrate Ms. Kuo or the LA Times, but to appeal for a level of coverage that corresponds with China's increasing prominence.