Jeremy Goldkorn is a researcher, writer, speaker, and podcaster on Chinese politics, economics, and society. He moved to China in 1995 and stayed in the country for 20 years, during which time he covered developments there for a number of prominent media outlets and founded Danwei, a popular media tracking website that grew into a research firm and was later acquired by the Financial Times. Involved with the Australian Centre on China in the World since its inception in 2010, he has been part of the three-person editorial team, the other members being Geremie R. Barmé and Linda Jaivin, who have edited each of its China Story Yearbooks. Via email, he answered some questions about the recently published Yearbook 2014: Shared Destiny, as well as his own take on recent developments in China.
LIZ CARTER: You’ve been involved with China Story Yearbook since its first edition. Can you talk a little bit about how it got started, how you got involved, and what it brings to discussions of China in media and academia? What do you think people have to gain by looking at years in review, as opposed to just following the news on a regular basis?
JEREMY GOLDKORN: The China Story Yearbook is a project of the Centre on China in the World at Australian National University. Both the China Story project and the Centre were founded by the noted Sinologist Geremie Barmé.
The intention of the Yearbook is to provide a historical record of the events, intellectual discussions, politics, economics and everyday life of each year covered. Although most of the writers are scholars and academics, not all are, and the intention is to make the work accessible to anyone interested in China.
Looking at a year in review allows for a broader view of current events than following the daily torrent of news does and allows us to expand on themes that are important to understanding China but may not make it into a news story.
How do you see the overall climate of the Chinese internet (specifically social media)?
Although there are an extraordinary number of people on the Chinese Internet saying an extraordinary range of things about all kinds of subjects, the space for those who differ from the Party line of Xi Jinping’s propagandists seems to be getting smaller by the week.
Do you have any ideas about how this might change in the next year or two?
I don’t see any reason to believe that current trends will change. The recent “World Internet Conference” was merely the latest example of the government’s growing confidence in presenting censorship in a positive light: the Chinese internet is a great place to buy stuff or to be entertained, but there is no indication that the strict controls on it will be loosened.
Regarding the portion of the Yearbook you wrote about “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” do you think the crackdown on human rights activists and dissidents is the new normal? If so, how can media covering these issues adapt without sounding like they are beating a dead horse?
I believe this is the new normal. I think the only way to cover such issues to make sure that each case is handled as an individual case with an individual story rather than a mere statistic. But there is no way to avoid the fact that readers of news about China will get what one might call oppression fatigue.
What brought you back to the US? And what is it like watching China from here, as opposed to Beijing?
Not back: I am from South Africa. Arriving in the US for me is a little like going to China was: I have to adapt to a whole new culture, much of which I do not yet understand.
I am quite enjoying observing China from afar, but I do love going back. I was in Beijing in September for the first time since I left in February and I enjoyed it very much.
When compiling the 2014 Yearbook, what events or trends reviewed gave you the most cause for optimism, and which were the most distressing?
In the last half decade, the Chinese government has done a complete turnaround on environmental problems and now recognizes the threats of global warming, pollution, unsustainable agricultural practices and other dangers to the earth. That is a great cause for optimism.
On the other hand, the Party has over the last few years made clear that they explicitly reject individual rights such as freedom of expression as hostile foreign ideas: it’s hard to feel good about that.