Democracy, but not yet

The combination of being a journalist and a foreigner still makes you an object of extreme suspicion

This will be my last Letter from China; after two years, I am returning to London. The stories I have covered - from news events like the earthquake and the Olympics to emblematic issues such as land disputes or the boom in classical music - have taught me a lot about the country, but my experience has made me question whether journalism is the best prism through which to view China.

Sometimes I wonder whether visiting business people, whose success depends on going with the grain rather than against it, get to understand China better. Or diplomats, whose success depends on forging relationships of trust, rather than trying to be arbiters of truth. Or maybe academics, who read the runes and have endless debates with Chinese counterparts.

Never have I been in a country where the very act of journalism is so out of kilter with the prevailing ideology. In China, journalists have little access to officials, who on the rare occasions that they give an interview only repeat well-worn policy lines. China's government sees journalists as purveyors of propaganda, so if we're not repeating theirs, we must be peddling someone else's. But it's not just that the government fears the western media is negative. Ordinary Chinese, who do not necessarily love the Communist Party, doubt the value of information, especially if the messenger is a foreigner.

Take the last story I reported, the scandal of some babies dying and tens of thousands falling ill after consuming infant formula milk which had been contaminated by an industrial chemical. The companies and local government where the milk factories were situated had attempted to cover it up. When we tried to interview anxious parents bringing babies for hospital checkups, the nurses told the parents they shouldn't talk to foreign journalists. Why? It was in the interest of the nurses that the information be disseminated, as they were trying to get as many as possible to bring their babies to hospital.

But the combination of being a journalist and a foreigner still makes you an object of extreme suspicion in China. People grumble about the government, especially local officials, but that doesn't mean they want foreigners to know about it. Call it patriotism, call it defensiveness, Chinese generally do not want their dirty linen washed in public. Many seem to think it's not those who cause a problem, but those who allow foreigners to see it, who bring disgrace on the country - hence the obstructive nurses.

The distinction between foreigners and Chinese is constantly emphasised. My Chinese language textbook was full of phrases along the lines of: "Chinese people do this, foreigners do that." The school curriculum ensures that children grow up with a profound sense of their racial and cultural identity, woven into a nationalistic version of history in which foreigners are blamed for pretty much everything bad that ever happened in China.

It came to a head after the Tibetan uprising in March, and the attacks on the Olympic torch relay, when a nationalist campaign found its expression in hatred of the western media for challenging the notion that Tibet has always been part of China. Even Chinese translators working with western journalists struggled to resist the prevailing feeling, and met to discuss whether their job made them traitors. A few months later, Olympic volunteers were given instructions which included the classic phrase: "Prevent bombs, prevent attacks, prevent journalists."

Instability is feared, above all else.

It's not surprising. After the civil war that brought the communists to power, the famine induced by Great Leap Forward and the insane, anarchic cruelty of the Cultural Revolution, China has now enjoyed 30 years of what they term "Reform and Opening Up". The cry, "We want democracy, but not yet", is not just made by party functionaries protecting their jobs, but by people who have lived through the turbulent recent past and see their children having a better life. True, it's the same old party cadres at the helm, but why rock the boat, when it's finally sailing through peaceful waters?

The Tiananmen generation ended up disillusioned and divided after their revolt was crushed. The government now touts the concept of the Bird's Nest generation, made up of happy teens and twentysomethings who shouted "Go China Go!" and waved flags at the Olympics.

I have met many Chinese who think differently. One of the joys of journalism everywhere is that it leads you to the dissidents and malcontents who change societies, often after much suffering and injustice. Across China, there are tens of thousands fighting for land rights and to preserve ancient buildings, campaigning against corrupt officials and developers.

I have always believed that the best path to understanding is to travel in a country, talking to "ordinary people", and that is what I've done.

Lindsey Hilsum was in China for Channel 4 News

Lindsey Hilsum is China Correspondent for Channel 4 News. She has previously reported extensively from Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and Latin America.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The crash of 2008