Ever since China normalized relations with the United States in the late 1970s, the West has viewed the Middle Kingdom in a very different light. Its new foreign policy, coupled with major economic reforms, has vastly improved China's image abroad. Observers embrace reports of the "new" open and capitalistic China. But the recent detention and expulsion of John F. Burns, The New York Times' bureau chief in Beijing, demonstrated that the eastern nation is not nearly as "westernized" as people like to believe.
There was great reason for optimism when China opened its doors to the West. The policy change was a dramatic reversal of China's former dealings with the outside world, which reached their their nadir two decades ago during the Cultural Revolution. Sinophiles, and there are many, would now have the chance to tour China, and the Chinese appeared to want visitors.
During the late 1970s the progressive leadership of Deng Xiaoping gave his nation's stagnating economy a much needed boost. Even foreign companies were being encouraged to invest in China, and the thought of a potential one billion customers was extremely alluring to outside ventures.
Now more than seven years later, China's doors have not only stayed open, but appear to have widened. Tourism to China has increased annually by the thousands. Foreign tourists making a return visit to the PRC are amazed at how much easier it is now to move about the country than just five years ago.
At the request of Chinese officials, numerous western-based companies have started up operations inside China's several special economic zones, including huge factories for cabbagepatch doll clothing. In addition, cultural and educational Sino-U.S. exchanges are increasing. Approximately 15,000 Chinese students now attend universities in America. And the number of American students and teachers going to China has risen significantly in the last three years.
Western diplomats report a visible easing of restrictions on Chinese movements on the mainland. Religious activity is much more open and accepted. Scholars speak their mind on issues as sensitive as Beijing's policy towards Taiwan. And students, mostly in the larger cities, are permitted to demonstrate, although not really on domestic issues.
The arrest and detention of The New York Times reporter for nearly six days illustrates the paradox of China's open-door policy. As a veteran Beijing-based correspondent, Burns knew the consequences of being caught in the restricted area in central China. Although many can soundly argue that the government's extreme response, expulsion, was done to make an example of him, a beware to future trespassers, it must not be overlooked that Burns broke the law.
But it is more than unlikely he was on a spying mission. He is as much a spy, said A. M. Rosenthal, executive editor of the New York Times, as Rosenthal's grandmother, who, he adds, was not a spy. The manner in which the Chinese handled the Burns affair belies the nation's paranoia, also shown by the fact that so many parts of China are restricted.
China's relationship with foreign journalists is far from based on mutual trust. United States press organizations operating in Beijing are confined to office space within a few selected foreign residence compounds. Bureaus are provided with a Mandarin translator, who many correspondents believe is more spy than aid.
One western journalist says he believes his translator attends party meetings every Saturday to report what the bureau did during the week. And foreign journalists say they often go outside to talk about sensitive matters to avoid translators and office bugs.
Despite the existing problems, foreign journalists receive better treatment and more freedoms now than five years ago. But it's important to note that the treatment is considered favorable mostly when compared to the absolute absence of freedom which was so recently the case. A decade ago, the U.S. news agencies had no bureaus in Beijing, and had to cover China from the nearby British territory, Hong Kong.
American businesses a decade ago did not operate in China. Now scores do. But reports that the Chinese are embracing capitalism is erroneous. Problems stem not only from the seemingly insurmountable obstacles caused by the infrastructure in China, but also from constant rule changes, controls and contract breaking.
And despite relative relaxing of restrictions, the Chinese are not free to move about as they please. The job assignment program is still intact, much to the chagrin of many, including the students. The Chinese are still sent to the countryside to work, where the average salary is about $400. And prisoners are paraded around stadiums before their executions.
No question, the 1980s have seen great change in the People's Republic of China, regarding social and economic progress. But the Burns affair is a reminder that China's progress should continue to be evaluated in terms of the status quo in China eight years ago. And not in Western terms, as is often mistakenly done.
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