INTERVIEW/ Hu Shuli: China still has not compiled a common dream

April 18, 2013

By KEIKO YOSHIOKA/ Senior Staff Writer

Chinese leader Xi Jinping takes over a country that set a lofty goal of doubling gross domestic product by 2020 from 2010 and has angered a number of neighbors over its territorial claims.

For decades, Hu Shuli, the Editor-in-Chief of Caixin Media, has kept a close eye on developments in China and its rise to become the world's second-largest economy.

Hu has been described as the most dangerous woman in China because of her investigative reporting that exposed corruption among high-ranking officials, her criticism of the government, and the spread of information through new technology used by media outlets she has helped to create.

In an interview with The Asahi Shimbun, she was asked about the difficult challenges facing China under Xi.

Excerpts of the interview follow:

Question: After becoming president, Xi Jinping has on several occasions emphasized the importance of achieving "China's dream." He used that term nine times in a speech to close the National People's Congress in March. What is that dream?

Hu: Ever since the Opium War (1840-42) fought with Britain, the Chinese people have come to think of their nation as being large, but also poor, weak and behind in development.

However, after the global financial crisis triggered by the collapse of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers, China overtook Japan to become the world's second-largest economy. Since then, the world has become much more conscious about China’s rapid rise.

China itself has become more confident, and the Chinese people have begun to feel that their nation has become powerful.

Whenever Chinese leaders talk about dreams, I get the feeling it is being used in the sense that we now are qualified to have dreams, unlike the past.

Q: Is that an attempt to present an alternative to the "American dream?"

A: There is no such thing as a "Japanese dream" or a "French dream." The American dream was the only one found in the world. Under that dream, everyone in that nation was equal and could obtain the good life if they only worked hard. It was not something that was first mentioned by a leader, like in China. It is a common recognition that emerged naturally, so it can be considered the value system held by the American people.

China's dream is still not clear. We are now at a time when many people believe that China is no longer the poor nation it was a century ago.

However, because society has changed greatly, a common value system about where we want to go that can be shared by all 1.3 billion Chinese has not yet been established.

Q: A research institute directly under the Chinese government has drawn up a scenario in which China overtakes the United States in terms of GDP around 2020. Isn't the government trying to make economic growth the key force in pushing forward the Chinese dream?

A: That scenario would require further reform as a major precondition.

China will not have stable growth unless it overcomes the various contradictions that have accumulated over the years. Those include the increasing disputes between residents and local governments, pollution and economic disparity.

The suffering of the people and instability in society will not be resolved only by increasing GDP and people's incomes.

Economic reform is the flip side of political reform through which a sense of fairness via the rule of law is achieved.

China has reached a stage where it will not be able to move forward if it ignores one of those two aspects.

In terms of the economy, government intervention is still too large.

Local government attempts to increase GDP end up providing land and money cheaply for the construction of plants without thinking about market trends. Because fees for water and electricity are kept low, no efforts are made for energy conservation.

It is a distorted structure in which price signals do not function properly in relation to how companies act.

On the other hand, state-run companies monopolize such major industrial sectors as finance, natural resources and railways.

Because the central government is a shareholder in state-run banks, it can decide who becomes the bank president. It can also increase lending to stimulate the economy without thinking about the effects on bank management. Although the ratio of bad debt is not high right now, it could become a problem if the economic growth rate decreases.

There is no end to corruption because the government is engaged in such a wide range of economic activities. Some of those who have become wealthy through the introduction of a market economy have become almost like an interest group that interferes with reform.

Q: How do you view the recent announcements of government reform, including the breakup of the Railways Ministry?

A: One test for whether reform is genuine is if people will emerge screaming about the pain they feel as a result. If no one feels any pain, that is not reform.

Q: According to one current view, now that more Chinese consider their nation as powerful, Deng Xiaoping’s basic policy for diplomacy and national security of "taoguang yanghui" (hide our capabilities and lie low) only applies when China is dealing with the United States. What are your thoughts?

A: As the Chinese economy increases its global presence, it is only natural that some adjustments are made in diplomacy. At the same time, China has never submitted to another nation nor has it called for hegemony. Even if that point is emphasized, not many people will believe us.

The confrontation between China and its neighbors stand out.

Many Chinese do not actually understand how they are being viewed by other nations. There is the language barrier, but misunderstandings also arise because it is not common to think from the standpoint of the other party.

Due to World War II, Japan left behind a major psychological scar among the Chinese people. And because territorial issues tend to become emotional in any nation, the confrontation between China and Japan may continue for a fairly long time without resolution.

However, if the government and private sector make the proper effort, it will be possible to lower the ratio in the bilateral relationship taken up by the territorial confrontation.

Q: How specifically could that be done?

A: I believe cultural exchanges will be very important in creating the foundation for cooperation.

The Japanese language uses kanji characters (originally from China) and Chinese tradition lives on in Japanese culture.

However, there are differences in environment and scale between a continental nation and an island nation. There are major areas of difference, including history.

If more people engage in exchanges, they will come to understand those differences. If the differences can be understood, the expectations held mutually of the other side will also become lower, possibly leading to a decrease in friction.

Many Chinese who learn English interact with Americans after understanding the differences between China and the United States. Even if one does not hold the feeling that the G-2 of China and the United States should control the world, efforts are being made to control the confrontation between the two nations in order to maximize the benefits to either side.

The fact that negotiations have begun for a free trade agreement between China, Japan and South Korea is an indication that China also has expectations for improving the relationship.

Q: But isn't that move also intended to counter the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade arrangement being led by the United States?

A: While there are many people who like to talk in that context, I believe cooperative relationships in the economic sphere should be diverse. China should also think about joining the TPP. It will probably not be easy to participate right away when we think about not only tariff standards, but also state-run companies, government procurement and labor and environmental issues.

Still, the opening up of markets, which the TPP seeks as an objective, also matches the direction in which China has to reform its economy.

Q: Chinese authorities continue to apply pressure on media activities. A recent example concerned the New Year's issue of the Southern Weekly newspaper in which the phrase of "the dream of constitutional government" was rewritten to "We are closer to our dream than at any other time." How do you view the situation?

A: Chinese reporters will likely complain to you that circumstances are worsening by interpretation. However, when I view the matter in the long term, I feel that we are moving forward even though there have been disappointments.

The role that we journalists have to play is very large because China does not have elections and there are so many restrictions.

Regarding corruption and pollution, there is constant oversight through Weibo, the Chinese microblogging service, and we have also transmitted reports.

Competition also exists among bureaucrats, so they are aware of criticism over the Internet that could affect their evaluation.

Q: Don't you feel limits to what can be done?

A: Those outside of China only emphasize the difficulties. China will not be able to obtain the same freedom of the press as in the West overnight. I believe that is obvious.

Those of us in China are always looking for the opportunity even amid state management, control and pressure. If we are unable to report something at the very end, even after covering an issue, we look for the next opportunity to do so. We would not be able to do anything if we decided not to do any work until perfect conditions were in place.

The reporters at the Southern Weekly and those in the economic reform camp hold the same feeling. There are people in China who are engaged in various activities while holding such hopes.

The biggest hurdle is likely self-censorship in which reporters control themselves depending on the environment they are in.

Q: When you were the editor of Caijing (a business magazine), the publication released a number of scoops about how Beijing municipal authorities were covering up information regarding the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic. Those reports had a global effect. What was behind those efforts?

A: We found information about SARS in China on the English website of the World Health Organization. We had not come across such information in any domestic newspaper.

Many people were worried that if we ran a report that was not first run by the (state-run) Xinhua News Agency, we would face tremendous pressure. So I called a friend at Xinhua and asked, "Who made that decision?" There was no response.

I decided to run the stories because they concerned life-and-death matters. There was no pressure that everyone was so worried about. As a result of questioning several hospitals by our reporting team, we learned that the authorities had told the hospitals to keep the matter a secret.

We will continue with our investigation until someone tells us to stop.

Q: The Caixin Century Weekly magazine has continued its investigative reporting into rice tainted with cadmium and problems associated with state-run companies. Can you explain your efforts to spread the information through transmissions using computers, mobile phones and TV?

A: When I left Caijing, a total of 140 reporters also moved with me. Among those were about a dozen reporters in their late 30s who were with me from the very beginning of Caijing and experienced the ups and downs. They have formed a core reporting team. They have studied abroad, including in U.S. universities, and they also own shares in the company so they can feel that they are involved in a medium they are creating.

There is a need to have creative ability in journalism as well. When new technology emerges, we use it to transmit our news contents.

We are seeking a new form for media in which the traditional press widens its influence through the use of modern tools.

By KEIKO YOSHIOKA/ Senior Staff Writer
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Hu Shuli, the Editor-in-Chief of the Caixin Media, in Beijing (Provided by Tamako Sado)

Hu Shuli, the Editor-in-Chief of the Caixin Media, in Beijing (Provided by Tamako Sado)

  • Hu Shuli, the Editor-in-Chief of the Caixin Media, in Beijing (Provided by Tamako Sado)
  • Hu Shuli (Provided by Tamako Sado)
  • Hu Shuli (Provided by Tamako Sado)

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