Fokke Obbema, a Beijing-based correspondent for one of the main Dutch dailies, de Volkskrant, hopes his new book China and Europe: where two worlds meet will create greater understanding. But Obbema emphasises that he doesn’t want to make excuses for China.
by John-Boy Vossen
“I’m not trying to gloss over the country’s authoritarian political system or the human rights violations”, explains Obbema. “I want to show what China stands for and the country’s role. I want to present as realistic a picture of the country as possible by presenting the facts as objectively as possible.”
In his book, he examines China’s allegedly increasing influence in Europe. Journalists often warn about this “yellow peril”, he says, but the figures show a different picture. In 2011 and the first half of 2012, China invested four billion euros in Europe. That’s considerably less than US investments in Europe or amongst members of the European Union themselves.
Obbema also discusses censorship in China. “Various people I spoke to”, he explains, “told me that Chinese journalists and scientists enjoy greater freedom today, despite all the censorship. When I started looking in the Western media for articles about this, I discovered that little or nothing had been published on the subject.”
Fear of China
The author believes the reason for this contradiction lies in the fact that many newsrooms only want stories in which journalists emphasise this fear of China. “A good example was an article I wrote about Chinese buying wine estates in the Bordeaux region. British and American media reported that the region’s world famous wine production was going to fall into Chinese hands.”
“When I went there, I discovered that of the 11,000 wine estates, the Chinese had purchased only six relatively unknown ones. I quoted a grumbling farmer as well as two experts who were positive about the investment. The sub-editor chose the farmer’s quote as the headline because otherwise I had ‘no story’.”
According to Obbema, reporters believe they know what readers want and so they play up these feelings of fear. “China obviously provides sufficient cause for this. But I think the country’s image has become too distorted. China can be criticised on many different levels. But if we only focus on the negative aspects, then we are going too far.”
The author hopes his book will create awareness and reduce one-sided reporting. “I think that readers want balanced articles. Journalists need to understand that and think about how they can provide better reporting.”
Obbema believes it will take time for this awareness to take root: “I think newspapers are likely to continue playing up the feelings of fear, in part because of adverse social developments, such as the economic crisis. This increases fear among people, and the media are jumping on that bandwagon.”