Isaac Stone Fish Talks Reporting in China at Paulson Institute

The Paulson Institute welcomed Asia journalist Isaac Stone Fish for a talk on the challenges of reporting in China as part of the Institute’s Contemporary China Speaker Series at the University of Chicago. A senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations in New York City, Stone Fish previously served as Foreign Policy Magazine’s Asia Editor, covering the politics, economics, and international affairs of China, Japan, and North Korea.

Stone Fish began his talk by framing the difficulties foreign journalists face with reporting on China with two acronyms: GOOP and DOC. GOOP (Generalization, Oversimplification, Opacity, and Prediction) refers to the challenges foreign journalists face as they attempt to report on issues in China. With a massive population and a vast multiplicity of views on certain issues, China is a topic of reporting that grants little concession to a foreign audience that demands “a general understanding of what’s going on in a very important, very complicated place.” Thus, the unavoidable challenge of generalization forces Stone Fish to ask how he can “present a story that is compelling and informative to Americans without leaving so much out” as to be inaccurate or misleading. Another aspect of covering China that journalists must be mindful of is oversimplification. He gave the example of writing a story on how Xi Jinping makes decisions, noting that a model of “political stability” provides an oversimplified, yet generally suitable explanation for a very complex system of governance.

On the challenge of opacity, Stone Fish noted that journalists in China “are really not playing with a full deck.” For example, on the topic of Chinese elite politics, the Central Military Commission (CMC)—which oversees the PLA—is headed by its chairman Xi Jinping and two vice-chairmen. The relationship between these three men is arguably “one of the most important relationships anywhere in the world,” and a critical determination of the Communist Party’s control over China, its military, and its global presence; yet faced with the opacity of China’s central governance and limited access to information, “We really have no idea how [they] get along.” This challenge of opacity is largely related to the quality and availability of journalists’ sources in China, Stone Fish said, noting that “a junior People’s Daily reporter in Washington D.C. can have better sources in the U.S. government within two weeks than a veteran U.S. reporter in Beijing will ever have within the CCP.” This opacity in China’s elite politics makes prediction, an increasingly important component of analytical journalism, especially difficult. Referencing the inaccuracy of the majority of predictions that preceded the 2016 U.S. presidential election for comparison, he noted the vastly amplified difficulty of predicting high-level politics in China, a society without free flow of information and close ties between the government and press.

Stone Fish’s second acronym, DOC (Dishonesty or Distrust, Objectivity, and Control), refers to the issues the Communist Party faces in dealing with foreign journalism. On one hand, with regard to dishonesty and distrust, Chinese sources’ distrust of foreign journalists is not a particularly rare occurrence. On the other hand, the Communist Party doesn’t share the same commitment to truth as other foreign governments; as Stone Fish noted, “The Party doesn’t feel like it needs to explain itself, because we are not its constituents. Party officials have very little to gain by going on the record and explaining their policies.”

With regard to objectivity, occurrences do not qualify as ‘news’ to most audiences; this is why “people pay more attention to storms and wars than to reconstruction.” In China, however, where much of the state-controlled media is dependent on a stable narrative, there exists a resentful sentiment towards foreign journalism as intent on providing a counter-narrative to the Party line. Stone Fish concluded his talk by addressing the Party’s careful control of its message, noting that “the Communist Party wants people to think that it is China; [it] wants to combine the two in the minds of people in America and people in China so that there’s an inevitability of Party control.” With regard to journalism, this challenge of Party control manifests in the forms of both exclusive rules towards press coverage and censorship of information. This top-down control of information in China bleeds into issues of objectivity and distrust, as Stone Fish noted, and makes creating a comprehensive picture about the state of affairs especially challenging for journalists in China.