In the summer of 1936 the American journalist Edgar Snow sat down with Mao Zedong in the dusty surroundings of Yan’an in northern Shaanxi province. Snow was the first Western journalist to interview Mao and over the course of four months he talked to almost all of the senior figures in the Communist Party and Red Army, as well as a number of the rank and file.
After Snow left he turned the interviews into Red Star Over China, an unprecedented insight into the Chinese revolutionaries.
Today, as Beijing bristles at much of the reporting on China by international journalists, his work is being invoked as a model for how they should behave.
“China hopes that more foreign journalists become the Snows of a new era,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged earlier this year, also commending Snow for having “no ideological bias” and “admirable professional ethics”.
Clearly that was a dig at some of the current international media coverage of China, which Beijing believes to be underpinned by a desire to contain or disparage the country and its achievements.
That perception has come to a head over the twin issues of Xinjiang and the origins of Covid-19 – two topics surrounded in secrecy in China that foreign journalists have repeatedly tried to investigate.
Reporting on the role of education centres in Xinjiang is an example: the Chinese government claims that these centres are providing Muslim Uighurs with new skills so they can find better jobs and improve their lives. But foreign media has reported that participation is non-voluntary and that the people taken to the centres undergo political education designed to foster support for the Communist Party.
The government’s response to any cases of reporting with which it disagrees has been to expel foreign journalists or threaten them with legal action. Covid regulations have also provided an opportunity to prevent accredited agencies from bringing in new staff when existing permits expire.
Meanwhile Beijing is working on a plan to respond to President Xi Jinping’s urging that China’s story is “told well” internationally by drafting in social media influencers from other countries and by giving more prominence in the domestic media to pro-China voices from overseas.
As part of that plan the China Daily announced plans to launch an Edgar Snow Newsroom this month. “The newsroom aims to present a true, multi-dimensional and panoramic view of China by better telling the story of the country and the Communist Party of China to the world,” the editor-in-chief announced last weekend.
Whether this push to venerate Snow will have much sway outside China is open to question. As historians have pointed out, Snow allowed much of the material in his book to be guided by the people he interviewed. His conversations with Mao were translated back into Chinese for Mao to revise before they went back into English in the final version. That’s something that probably appeals to China’s media regulators. But it’s not a model to which many foreign journalists in China are likely to aspire to.
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