|China from the Inside: Essay|
By Jonathan Lewis
Writer, Narrator, Producer, Director
In the smoggy Beijing summer of 2002, a small, hopeful trio from the west was ushered into the august presence of Minister Zhao Qizheng at the State Council Information Office of the People's Republic of China. About six months before, Dennis Kostyk, a deal-making entrepreneur in the public television world, had come to me with the sharp idea of making a series about China 'from the inside'. He had good links to KQED in San Francisco, where Chief Content Officer John Boland -- now Chief Content Officer at PBS -- was looking westwards to China with curiosity and appetite. Dennis also had another great advantage. He had the all-important magic ingredient which the Chinese call guanxi -- the personal connection which makes things happen. He knew people who knew people in power in China. So now Dennis and DeAnne Hamilton from KQED and I had come to China to test out the idea for the series -- and Dennis's guanxi.
The room was full of note-takers, officials, tea-pourers and intermediaries. I remembered all those stories of British ambassadors turned grey and driven mad, kicking their heels for years in sweltering outlying provinces, waiting for a summons from the Emperor which never came. I was not alone, it turned out, in thinking of the past. Minister Zhao did not begin by asking if I was enjoying China, nor did he refer to the proposition which had brought us together. He launched instead into a pithy attack upon Great Britain for the misery and pain we had caused his country with the Opium Wars, a hundred and fifty years before. He accepted my apology with considerable twinkle, acknowledging thereby that I had absolutely no authority to give it. The note-takers, tea-pourers, intermediaries and my colleagues laughed in relief at the breaking of the ice, but I had just learned a sharp, positive lesson. The Minister of Information had neatly informed me that China was no longer anybody's punchbag. If he was going to allow me to make my documentary series, it would be on the basis that I was not going to stare down at China, judge her by Western standards and wag my finger. This suited me fine, because looking the Chinese squarely in the eye and listening to them was exactly what I wanted to do.
Film-making by outsiders in authoritarian or totalitarian regimes is buried in recognizable, distinct mass-graves. There's a sarcophagus full of travelogues, and another bursting at the seams with early 'co-productions', whose films have titles like 'A Day in the Life of a Ballet-Dancer' or 'Gyorgy the Schoolteacher'. There's an honourable but tiny grave for the work of intrepid, prescient and sometimes undercover lone rangers. And outside the graveyard, in unhallowed ground, there's an unmarked mound containing the myopic work of out and out fellow-travellers -- and of the hoodwinked. Staring at this landscape, I wondered where the fruits of my compromises would be buried.
The treatment I sent to Minister Zhao spoke of satisfying Western curiosity about a country whose global importance far outpaced the world's knowledge and understanding of her. It talked of the difficulty of running so vast, populous and diverse a country and of seeing how the Party and government were meeting the challenge. It wanted to know what was behind the dazzling economic success. It wanted to see the Chinese on their own terms. The series would look at solutions as well as problems. There would be four films: the first about the relationship between the people and the Party; the second would explore the lives of China's women; the third would focus on China's imperilled environment, while the last programme would ask how much freedom the Chinese have -- and how much they want to have.
But the treatment did not stop there. I had taken a decision to tell the Chinese the truth about the extent of what I wanted to cover. We would not go in pretending to be interested in ornithology, and hope we could sneak an interview with a dissident up a side street after we had yawned pointedly at dinner and told our minders we were having an early night. So the treatment explicitly mentioned human rights, Falun Gong, corruption, rural unrest, political reform, pollution, press freedom and repression. It was a gamble. The simplest course of action for the Chinese was to say no, and the project would be dead. But if they agreed, then they would be conceding my right to ask difficult questions. To go to tough places. To be officially awkward.
I think they said yes for several reasons. Our intermediaries, who had introduced me to the Minister, are incredibly well-placed and trusted. Also, the Chinese knew that in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics there would be considerable pressure from Western media to tackle these topics. Better, perhaps, to have it done in the open, rather than secretly. Perhaps they gambled that the advantages of being seen to relax their guard would outweigh any adverse publicity. I am sure, too, they reckoned that I could be managed sufficiently by them to limit any damage. One of our minders told one of my team early on: "we have the choice of helping Jonathan make a series which will win every award going -- or we can keep our jobs. We choose to keep our jobs." So having said yes, the Chinese started to wonder how far it would be safe to let me go, and I prepared myself for a strange kind of supermarket sweep, in which I would try and fill my trolley with as much revealing material about contemporary China as I could.
I had minders with me at all times. I had a regular one from Beijing, and then we picked up one or two from the provincial capital, and perhaps a trio from a township. Sometimes we had a convoy of jet-black Buicks full of men and women from different departments. I would look round, and there might be seven or eight people watching us setting up our camera at the start of a day's filming. When I first saw this beady-eyed chorus, my heart sank. Then I started to realise that their relationship to the filming process was infinitely more complex than it seemed. For a start, there might be eight at the start, but filming is a slow and often dull process. Look round half an hour later and we might be alone. They didn't always understand the local dialect or language.
And some weren't at all interested in the filming process. They were there because they had been ordered to be, or because they wanted a day out, or because it might mean a free lunch. In short, they were more often like the PR people you have with you filming in institutions in the UK, than watchful secret policemen. Then again, some were incredibly helpful, and their presence reassured people into talking more freely than if we had pitched up by ourselves. Some very outspoken interviewees expressly insisted that we show them our official filming permission before agreeing to be filmed.
It also became clear the longer I was in China -- the more my 'eye' was in - that not all officials share the same agenda. Some of the most interesting material we filmed came to us courtesy of enlightened and progressive government and Party officials. "I shan't be with you tomorrow -- I have to see someone about something" one said to me. He knew where we were going. He knew what we'd see. He knew that if he came along, he might have to stop us. So he didn't come along.
And then there were the arguments. One of the fiercest centred on an issue Minister Zhao had settled at our first meeting, when he agreed we could stop and talk to anyone we wanted to on the street. But the minders in one city near the Three Gorges Dam decided that ordinary people could not be trusted. I wanted to hear about life after relocation from the area of rising water. The minders tried a range of intimidating tactics: weeding out all save the most enthusiastic; glowering at them throughout the interview and then walking into shot when the party line seemed in threat of being abandoned. Relations between us degenerated fast until I struck a deal. I would not accompany the film crew on the vox pops, if the minders did not. Since they thought I was somehow skewing the results, even though I speak no Chinese, they grudgingly accepted. The next three encounters produced positive affirmations that life was much better since being moved from the area of the dam -- proof that free speech does not necessarily mean anti-establishment speech. It was hard to persuade some minders that I had no agenda for what I expected the Chinese to say. My agenda was simply to let them talk freely. Minutes later, with the minders and me lurking uneasily at the top of the road, the crew filmed a group of people relocated to lovely flats in a new city, but without jobs or money. They talked openly and movingly about their plight. They were the epitome of what an environmental expert had described as 'beggars in mansions'. At last we were filming the real story of human displacement by the Three Gorges Dam, being told by the people on the receiving end themselves.
Gradually, over the fourteen months of filming across half the provinces of China, we realised we were getting some extraordinary footage. Our access, and a canny and dogged production team, was opening the doors of law courts, prisons, orphanages, a labour camp, a village election, Party meetings, people's homes. We filmed in Tibet, in Muslim Xinjiang, along the Kazakhstan border, in the Gobi Desert, on the Yangtse River. We filmed in mosques, churches, temples. We filmed a country wedding, and porpoises more endangered than pandas. We followed a migrant worker and her husband home at Chinese Spring Festival to see their two children for the first time in a year. The attempts to control us, both the clumsy and the sophisticated ones, were increasingly no match for the overwhelming tide of powerful, heart-felt, revelatory material. People were letting us in because they wanted us to see and hear and learn. They wanted us to know what they think. How they live. What they want to happen in their lives.
So far from calling the shots, I often had no idea just how outspoken people were being in verité sequences until the camera had cut and my interpreter told me the gist of what had been said. For example, I filmed a group of young women workers who perform in a song and dance stage show at weekends to entertain their fellow factory workers in Guangdong Province. My question to them, standing on the empty stage still in their costumes, was banally simple: "Can you tell us about your work and life, whether you miss home and other things?" In the unstoppable flood of answers which follows, three of the six broke down in tears. What emerges is a poignant picture of relentless factory life -- the human cost of making the world's sneakers and flat screen tvs.
"I've been here 2 years and wanted to go home the whole time. I'm really homesick. My mum rings me up a lot, asking me to come home, but I can't... [crying]..."
"I work on the assembly line…I'm sorry...[crying] It's tough. Very tough. Where I work, we're not allowed to talk between 6:08 in the morning and 6:08 in the evening. We can't talk. That's why I can…barely string a sentence together."
And then another girl tenderly takes her hand and explains to us:
"I had never touched her hands. But then I did once when we were rehearsing a dance. They're very rough compared with ours, as she has to grip a cutting knife. The back of the blade rubs the palms of her hands all the time. That's why her hands are so rough."
The openness is not confined to rural people who may be less sophisticated in shaping their answers for the camera. Driving the ideas in the film is a core of interviews with people who think hard and care deeply about their country: academics, officials, activists, government ministers, journalists, doctors. Wu Qing is a Beijing People's Congress deputy, who takes her duties very seriously. Most unusually she holds a weekly surgery for her constituents, she was among the first deputies ever to vote 'no' in a People's Congress, and she believes that the people must monitor the Party:
"Some people are really good. Some really bad. In the Chinese Communist Party are some of the best and some of the worst. That's because it's where the power is located and fought over. Many are very good. There are also some very bad people. So I think we People's Representatives and the ordinary folk should supervise the Party continuously. We need to encourage them and let them know the people are watching them."
Here is woman's newspaper editor Xie Lihua in the second program talking about the fate of young wives in China:
"If a woman goes to live with her husband's family and they treat her well or if she's found someone who loves and respects her, she'll be all right. If not, things will be very difficult for her. This is because there's a saying among men: 'marrying a woman is like buying a horse: I can ride you and beat you whenever I like'. Men feel that 'I've spent money on bringing you into my family, so I have the right to order you around'. And a man will beat a woman if she has a mind of her own."
The third film, Shifting Nature, explores the battle for China's environment. Wu Dengming is an activist in the booming industrial city of Chongqing. When he began campaigning, he received death threats. Now he works with local industry and government to reduce the pall of pollution that hangs over the city:
"People welcomed the factories, because we could earn some money and prosper. But then people realised: our water's been polluted - we can't drink it. Our soil's been polluted and grain production has fallen. Our fruit trees have died of pollution. Our pigs have died, our sheep have died, and our people have died too - of cancer. Then they thought: we don't want development like this, factories like these. At first we wanted money, but now we want quality of life."
In the final film, Freedom and Justice, China's great Aids activist, Dr Gao Yaojie lays into her country for the evil which has covered up the scale of the Aids problem from blood-selling, thereby causing thousands of avoidable deaths:
"The main thing is to speak the truth. Why should a nation be drowned in lies? Look, in the days of the emperor, whoever lied to him would be killed for disrespect. But now the liars get promoted as officials -- get rich. Now rich people's dogs live better than the peasants."
It isn't just China's progressives and activists who spoke out to us. Officials seized the opportunity to express their own concerns about where China is going. Pan Yue is the Deputy Minister at the State Environment Administration:
"Economic growth alone cannot solve our increasingly serious social problems. Cannot stop the polarisation of society, or narrow the rich-poor divide. Pure economic growth cannot solve our problems of political reform. If our political reform can't keep up, then the faster the economy develops, the more political problems there are likely to be."
It is now over four years since Dennis, DeAnne and I nervously trouped into that long, ornate audience room in the State Council Information Office, to hear Minister Zhao reprimand me about the Opium Wars. And it is just seven weeks before the series airs on PBS. What sealed the deal to make the series was the idea that we would see China through the eyes of her people. We all know that film-makers often say things to get access, particularly to authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, and then do the precise opposite. Yet this 'unique selling point' was arguably the most worrying pitch we could have made, and Minister Zhao's agreement was the toughest option for him, not the easiest. Now when I see the series passing through its final technical stages, it is clear that seeing that seeing China 'from the inside' is indeed what drives the films. It isn't the notions of a Princeton pundit, or an émigré who hasn't set foot in the country for decades. What you see and hear are not disillusioned critics from afar, but Chinese citizens who feel passionately about their country and want it -- and their lives -- to get better. The people who campaign about China's environment breathe its air and drink its water every day. The people we see arguing and fighting for social justice and political reform put themselves on the line precisely because they are so committed to China. And they are not alone. In fourteen months of filming the minders sometimes took copious notes in interviews -- but never halted a single one. They did, it is true, confiscate two tapes. But they never asked me if we had made a copy of them.