Building a Bridge to China

Beijing Review surprised me with another business trip recently. The magazine was sending a few writers and editors to Changsha, Hunan province, for the opening ceremony of the annual Hanyu Qiao (Chinese Bridge) competition. I was asked to go along to write an article for the magazine.

Hanyu Qiao is a competition for foreign students studying Chinese. Their level of competency in the language ranges from proficient to super proficient. The few students I interviewed — an American, South African and Russian — had firm grasps on the language.

For each round, the students sing songs, recite poems or perform comedy skits. It’s basically a Chinese variety show without Chinese stars, just foreigners who have managed to master the intricacies of Mandarin Chinese.

The competition is organized by Hanban, the cultural arm of the Chinese government. It also operates hundreds of Confucius Institutes, cultural centers where teachers teach selective history on the greatness of China and the Chinese people, around the world.

The opening event was impressive, with loud music and a vivid light display accompanying each musical number. The foreign students gave speeches and sang in Chinese, equally impressive in comparison to my inability to understand this language of tones and characters.

I eventually wrote an article about the competition. It wasn’t hardcore propaganda, but it was close.

One of the biggest things that bothered me was Hanban’s persistence in avoiding me. At the competition in Changsha, I was told that there were no Hanban representatives present. There weren’t even any event planners on site, or so I was told. After emailing a number of representatives in China, the United States, Canada and Great Britain, I received no responses. When someone did get back to me, the rep had copied and pasted material from the organization’s website. I was annoyed but not surprised.

This is fairly common in China. These government agencies and organizations don’t talk to the media, even state media like Beijing Review, because they know they don’t have to. Most quotes come from press releases. Sometimes there are simply no quotes in stories, just references to a website. Although I hold myself to a higher standard when writing, I had to settle for the PR BS provided info.

You can find the article on BEIJING REVIEW’s website.

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