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Ben Chu Interview
By: PP Wong
"The Western press writes nonsense about a whole range of peoples and countries, and always has done."
Ben Chu is passionate about overturning the wrong stereotypes many westerners have of Chinese people. After working as the chief leader writer for The Independent (UK), Ben attained the prestigious role as Economics Editor. Ben shares with BW his personal journey as a writer, how to be a successful journalist and what it means to have freedom of speech.
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
Asterix the Legionary
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
Fly (as in, on the wall)
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
Guitar, mobile phone
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
Stubborn, sceptical, painstaking
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
A is for… appetite. Would you like a Banana milkshake? Banana fritter? Banana cake? Or just a plain banana?
In your new book Chinese Whispers, you overturn wrong stereotypes that people have of China. What inspired you to write it?
Reading a lot of the nonsense written about China and the Chinese people in the mainstream Western press made me want to write this book. There was so much fear-mongering, so much titillating foolishness, so much cynical and lazy stereotyping. It irked me and no one seemed to be putting the record straight, so I decided that I should do it. I felt that as someone who was of Chinese heritage living in the West I could add some value.
You are currently the Economics Editor for The Independent (UK) and have worked as a journalist for quite a while. Many stories printed in the Western press about China paint the country in a negative light. Why do you think this is?
The Western press writes nonsense about a whole range of peoples and countries, and always has done. It’s not China, although there’s less pushback when it comes to China. It’s a reflection, more than anything, of the laziness of editors and journalists who want something sensational or stereotyped to feed their readers. With China there’s a very long history in the West of presenting the country as an exotic ‘other’, somewhere mysterious and dangerous, the antithesis of Western values. When editors and journalists come up with a story angle on China they very often find some trope from this old tradition and give it a modern slant, e.g the Chinese are naturally hardworking, or the Chinese are inherently cruel, or they are going to take over the world etc.
I understand you have a Chinese father and an English mother. When growing up, did you have any difficulties balancing the two cultures? Do you see yourself as more British or more Chinese?
I grew up feeling thoroughly British. By that I mean British in the inclusive sense: a place that has successfully absorbed divergent cultural groups from around the world while maintaining an open and tolerant society. There were aspects of my upbringing that could be characterized as ‘Chinese’ – the food my father cooked, the Chinese school etc. But that never made me feel that I was somehow culturally different from my white or Asian school friends.
We were steeped in the same popular culture, the same political culture etc. It was, however, somewhat alienating growing up, mainly because of the way other people sometimes behaved towards me. Because of the way I look, I was frequently asked where I was “from” (and indeed still do). I found that frustrating at the time. Why did I have to explain my existence in a way that white contemporaries never did? But now it bothers me far less now. There’s nothing necessarily hostile in the question: “where are you from” or “what’s your background” – especially not in a diverse city like London. Most people are simply interested.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a journalist?
Think very hard before setting out on this path. The industry is in crisis thanks to the digital revolution. Revenues at the traditional news groups have collapsed as people read online rather than buying copies of newspapers. The number of jobs in the industry is contracting rapidly. Don’t imagine that journalism offers a stable or well-paid career. You really need to feel a vocation for it – you have to care deeply about the things you’re writing about. If you’re just interested in having an interesting and glamorous job then please think again. But if you do feel you do have that vocation I would recommend building up an expertise in a particular area – whether that’s a country, or an industry, etc. That will give you an edge over the multitude of generalists out there who want to get hired. Another tip: read newspapers and consume media all the time. Learn how a proper story reads and get a feel for what good journalism is. It’s surprising how few aspiring journalists are actually voracious consumers of the media.
In Chinese Whispers you strive to tell the truth about some of the inaccurate information people believe about China. Why is it so important to have an accurate picture of China?
China matters because it’s the world’s fastest growing large economy. It will have a growing influence on the lives of people all around the globe. Economically it matters, militarily it matters, environmentally it matters. China’s domestic politics matters. If people in the West receive a distorted image of China international relations will suffer. Stereotyping and myths are unhelpful and potentially dangerous.
What is the greatest challenge you have faced as a journalist?
The greatest challenge was probably being promoted to economics editor. I was a leader writer, composing the opinion pieces of the newspaper. I was quietly hard working, producing high quality work, and I imagined that this would stand me in good stead when I asked the senior editors to transfer me to a more senior position. But I was effectively ignored and my career stalled. That’s when I realized that assuming that your bosses will notice and reward quiet hard work was naive. In any business what senior people notice is self-promotion and pushiness. Competence is often ignored. So I started to get more pushy and was, in the end, rewarded.
Which do you find harder, being an author or being a journalist?
They both require good writing, the ability to get to the point, an ability to meet a deadline etc. But I’ve found that being an author requires a talent for descriptive writing, flowery prose. That didn’t come naturally at first but I think, or hope, I’m getting better at it now.
Do you see China overtaking the USA to become the world’s largest economy?
I hope it does. China has 1.35 billion people. America has 313 million. If the Chinese people had the same living standards as Americans you would expect the Chinese economy to be at least four times larger. I think the Chinese should aspire to such living standards. Whether they will get there is another matter. There are terrifying distortions in the Chinese economy: excessive investment, excessive debt, excessive corruption. The closed political system blocks necessary economic reforms. The government of Xi Jinping seems to understand what needs to change. But I’m doubtful over whether it has the capability to drive through the necessary changes and overcome the system’s vested interests.
The West has always prided itself on allowing “more” freedom of speech and “better” human rights than China. However, in Chinese Whispers you emphasise that despite the western notion of China having no political freedom, China’s internet is full of bloggers “exploding with anti-regime dissent.”
From my experience with chatting with journalists who work in big newspapers in New York and London, some have commented that there is no such thing as true freedom of speech. What for you, is true freedom of speech and do you think it really exists?
Yes there is self-censorship in some Western media outlets. Commercial and political considerations do impede journalism sometimes, perhaps even shutting important stories down. But does this mean there is no freedom of speech in the West? No. The important point is to consider the system, the media ecology, as a whole. If one organization ignores or rejects a story for these corrupt reasons, another will, generally, take it up if the story is strong enough. The grave danger to freedom of speech comes when no media organization will touch a story because it is too politically sensitive. This is what tends to happen in authoritarian regimes that control the press and broadcasters, such as China.
What has been the most surprising discovery you have made about China?
The immense ethnic and cultural diversity of the country has surprised me. Before I wrote this book I didn’t know that there are more Mongolians living in China than there are in Mongolia. I wasn’t aware that there was a mosque in Guangzhou from the seventh century AD. I didn’t know that Kublai Khan’s mother had been a Christian. I didn’t know about the sheer range of different dialects in the country. I suppose I had absorbed the popular Western misconception of China as an unchanging and homogeneous place, where everyone has always been culturally and ethnically “Chinese”.
What happens next for Ben Chu?
I will be promoting Chinese Whispers at a series of book festivals throughout 2014, speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival (9 August), the York Literature Festival (20 June), the Wells Festival of Literature (13 October). The paperback version of Chinese Whispers will be published in September. I will also continue to write about economics and finance for The Independent newspaper. BW
Readers can follow my journalism on Twitter:
Chinese Whispers is available for sale on Amazon and all good book stores.