Longtime foreign correspondent Anthony Kuhn recently penned an illuminating article reflecting on his unexpected 15 minutes of fame during China’s biggest annual political showcase.
At a press conference earlier this month given by the National Development and Reform Commission on the sidelines of this year’s annual top legislative meetings in Beijing, Kuhn asked China’s top economic planners a specific policy question in fluent Mandarin, before taking back the mic to translate the question into English himself.
Little did Kuhn know that his esoteric question about what officials were doing to help those living in poverty on the outskirts of Beijing would make him famous on the Chinese internet. Less than a day after being posted on Weibo, the clip had 5 million views.
“Not bad for an admittedly wonky foreign correspondent, who couldn’t make his own reporting go viral even if he injected it with smallpox,” Kuhn writes.
Watch the clip below:
Reflecting on why the clip became so popular, Kuhn writes that one part of it has to do with how comparatively rare it is for Chinese people to see foreigners speaking their language fluently. Indeed, many of the top comments on Weibo praise Kuhn for his command of Mandarin.
But what Kuhn sees as more important are the numerous commenters who praised him for the content of the question itself. Applauding him for caring about impoverished Chinese citizens who have been left behind in China’s economic transformation, while wondering if their own domestic media could get away with asking top officials the same question.
Kuhn also notes how some netizens complained that he was unfairly picking on China for its problems, wondering why he didn’t instead ask tough questions to his own country’s government. Here’s Kuhn’s response to that tiresome line of logic:
Some Chinese people and government propaganda often liken their country to a home. They divide media into “friendly” and “unfriendly” camps. The implication is that guests and friends must behave with decorum and not embarrass their hosts.
While comments like these are in the minority, I spend a considerable amount of time and effort trying to disabuse people of such notions in order to interview them.
I tell them that it is normal for people to learn about and discuss things that happen in countries other than their own, and that China, its government coffers full of cash, has lately been sending plenty of state media correspondents abroad itself.
I tell them that as long as I respect privacy and professional ethics, there is no question that I cannot or should not ask.
That I am a guest here is not in dispute. But home and country are not the same, and the metaphor tends to confuse the public and private spheres. I’m here to do a job, which is at root a public service. And I think an increasing number of Chinese media consumers understand this.
We can’t wait to see what question Kuhn has in store for the next Two Sessions!
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