By Rowan Callick / The Australian
APPARENTLY I have told millions of readers in China that the people of Tibet are living “a wonderful life”, as in the title of Frank Capra’s sunniest film.
My glowing words, replicated on several official websites in China, starting with that of the China Daily, came as a surprise to me. For I didn’t utter them.
But since their publication, I have received messages from various parts of the world, expressing interest that I am so upbeat about life in one of China’s poorest regions – and one that has over the past 50 years seen constant conflict with the Beijing authorities.
I had accepted an invitation from the State Council Information Office – the media arm of China’s cabinet – to visit Tibet, since there is no other way in which journalists can enter without subterfuge that “autonomous region”, the heartland of an extraordinarily ancient, powerful and intriguing culture. Such invitations are rare. How or why they are made remains a matter of mystery.
There were two others from Australia on this visit – Michelle Yishu Chen, who grew up in China’s Anhui province, now working for SBS radio; and Wolfgang Mueller, originally a journalist but now running his own firm, the Australia Advantage Media Company, whose core business is producing ads and other commercial material for TV.
After a couple of days in Tibet, we interviewed – in the traditional Chinese format, with an array of government officials lined up opposite us, and their boss at the end – Jiang Jie, the vice-chairman of the Tibetan regional central committee of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. We were told that local journalists would then like to interview us about Tibet.
I am not especially interested in reading what visitors to Australia think of the place after a few hours, and could not see why our views on the especially complex and challenging world of Tibet might be viewed any differently. Unless, of course, those views fitted perfectly the favoured narrative of the central government. I stepped back some distance, and said nothing, as Michelle spoke to a TV journalist, and Wolfgang to a reporter from China Daily.
As we left the room, I asked the China Daily journalist in passing, how long he’d worked there, and what stories he focused on – volunteering no views or information. As soon as I returned to Beijing at the end of a very full week, I received an email asking whether I had really said the remarkable things quoted in my name on Chinese official websites – including China Central TV.
That’s when, after leaping into a search engine, I discovered the following:
“Rowan Callick from The Australian told a journalist from China Daily, ‘I only visited a small part of Tibet, but I am sure what Tibet has achieved so far is really amazing. For example, its development in electricity power, transportation, tourism, etc.
“‘When in rural Nyingchi of southern Tibet, I was quite taken aback to see what a wonderful life the locals are living. Their houses are really beautiful,’ he added.
It’s especially discomforting to be misquoted when you’re a journalist. You have an idea of just how many places in the editorial process things can go awry.
One hesitates to sheet home blame anywhere, and especially to claim conspiracy. There may have been a simple misidentification of who the reporter was speaking to, for instance.
But one criterion in such cases is to ask who benefits. In this case, the views quoted as mine were pitch-perfect from Beijing’s perspective.
When I spoke by phone, after my return to Melbourne, to the foreign minister of the Tibetan government in exile, in north India, she had copies of “my” quotes on the desk in front of her.
In contrast, I can recall a couple of the times I have covered the opening of the annual session of the National People’s Congress in Beijing when I have been approached by Chinese TV interviewers.
What did I think of the colourful scene, they asked excitedly each time, as delegates from China’s 55 “ethnic minorities” walked past in traditional dress, while the dominant Han Chinese wore business suits and dresses.
Each time, I answered: “It’s as if you were keeping these people in a zoo. Why don’t you wear ancient garb as well, or else expect everyone to come in regular business-wear?” Strangely, my remarks never made it to air.