A US journalist who dined with Mao is Beijing’s ideal for who should cover China

A Maoist model of journalism.
A Maoist model of journalism.
Image: Reuters/Jason Lee
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Last year was not a good one for foreign journalists in China, and this year does not look to be much better.

At least 18 foreign reporters were expelled from the country in the first half of 2020, according to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, with many others either denied visa renewals or forced to contend with the uncertainty of short-term visas. Two Australian journalists, Bill Birtles and Michael Smith, were forced to flee China last September amid a dramatic diplomatic standoff, while the BBC’s John Sudworth left the country for Taiwan last month out of fear for his safety. Even foreign journalists working for Chinese state media weren’t spared.

Beijing, by engineering this “great expulsion,” is sending a clear message: it will not tolerate the presence of foreign correspondents whom it deems to be spreading “rumors” and “lies and malicious smears” in a campaign against China. In February, China banned BBC news broadcasts, denouncing its reporting on human rights abuses in Xinjiang as “unfair, biased and irresponsible.” State media has also accused the BBC of “promoting violence” in its coverage of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests.

As part of this effort to tell journalists how to cover China, the Chinese government has consistently held up one individual as the ideal foreign reporter who told China’s story well: Edgar Snow.

Foreign correspondent, foreign  friend

Snow was an American journalist, best known for his 1937 book Red Star Over China that featured long private interviews with key leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, including Mao Zedong, and painted a glowing portrait of a Communist movement that sought to “awaken [China’s millions] to a belief in human rights…to fight for a life of justice, equality, freedom, and human dignity.” The book became a global bestseller at a time when the country was locked in an on-off civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists, and little was known about Mao or China.

In the decades since, the CCP has lionized Snow as one of its roster of “foreign friends:” foreigners with whom Beijing cultivated close relations because they played by the rules of the government, were relatively uncritical of or even admiring of the Party, and spread unwaveringly positive messages about China abroad. While state propaganda outlets like China Daily and Xinhua have long promoted Snow as a model, senior Chinese government officials appear to have increased the frequency and prominence with which they are namechecking Snow.

In January, the Chinese foreign ministry kicked off its first press conference of 2021 by praising Snow and two other 20th-century US journalists, Anna Louise Strong and Agnes Smedley, as “good and true friends” of China. The next month, the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi mentioned Snow in a prominent speech.

And just last month, Wang again sang the praises of Snow, commending him for “enhancing mutual understanding” between China and the US through reporting that “carried no ideological bias.” The implication is that any unfavorable reporting today is tainted by ideology, rather than holding up a mirror to a reality that Beijing would rather not confront. “China hopes to see and welcomes more Edgar Snows of this new era among foreign journalists,” Wang said.

Whether that’s realistic is another matter. Among scholars of China, Snow is today seen as a flawed figure: someone who did groundbreaking reporting on China, but at the expense of his independence as a journalist in return for access.

“[Snow] willingly submitted to have his book censored, edited, guided by the CCP,” said Anne-Marie Brady, a politics professor at the University of Canterbury  in New Zealand and author of Making the Foreign Serve China. “Is that the kind of journalism that the western media should aspire to? To have the draft guided and shaped by the CCP—that’s not really journalism as we know it.”

How Snow covered China

While Snow, a Chinese speaker, is credited as having contributed to the West’s understanding of China at a time when knowledge of the country was extremely limited, scholars who’ve examined both his accounts—and the Party’s accounts of its cultivation of him—say that cozy relations with the CCP apparatus compromised him in significant ways.

A native of Kansas City, Missouri, Snow began reporting as a freelancer in his early 20s, traveling first to Central America, then Hawaii, before he wound up in Shanghai in 1928, where he began to build up a reputation as a respected journalist. He later moved to Beijing, where he taught journalism at Yenching University. The connections Snow made through teaching and reporting—in particular with Song Qingling, the cosmopolitan and prestigious widow of a veteran revolutionary, with high-level Communist connections—came in handy when he expressed to Song his interest in visiting the Communists’ outpost in Yan’an.

Snow…had been carefully selected by the underground Communist Party as the perfect mouthpiece to take Mao’s story beyond the Communist base area and win it friends,” wrote the historian Julia Lovell in her book Maoism. His reporting trip would be no less choreographed: interviews with Mao were carefully controlled, with transcripts translated into Chinese for Mao to check and revise before it was translated back to English for Snow, according to Lovell, a professor of Chinese history at Birbeck, University of London.

Yet Snow also landed a spectacular scoop, producing groundbreaking work about a little-known nation, gaining access to key figures at a time when China was largely closed off to the world. He “introduced Mao as a personality on an international stage, creating a global image for Mao before he was even top of the tree in the CCP,” Lovell said in an interview.

It’s possible that Snow’s depiction of the Communists as agrarian reformers played a role in gaining them more time during China’s long civil war, in which they eventually defeated the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek. The US, for example, halted arms sales to the Nationalists after World War II in hopes of negotiating a joint government, but an agreement didn’t materialize. The Communists eventually took China’s helm in 1949, founding the People’s Republic of China.

“Edgar Snow contributed hugely to the success of the CCP gaining power in China” by presenting the Communist movement in a positive light, said Qian Suoqiao, chair of the Chinese studies program at Newcastle University and author of Chinese Culture: Its Humanity and Modernity.

Today, the closest echoes of Snow’s work come, unconsciously perhaps, from state-run media.

Recounting his six-month visit to China in 1960 in The Other Side of the River: Red China Today, Snow denies the existence of famine and starvation—though we now know that the Great Leap Forward industrial experiment of 1958 to 1962 killed tens of millions.“I diligently searched, without success, for starving people or beggars to photograph…I must assert that I saw no starving people in China, nothing that looked like old-time famine…that I do not believe there is famine in China at this writing,” Snow wrote.

That may sound similar to a television segment by China’s state broadcaster, CGTN, in response to lawmakers or officials in some countries, including the US, labeling Beijing’s actions against the Uyghurs a genocide. In the segment that aired earlier this month, the CGTN journalist Kate Kui reports from Xinjiang that she “left no stone unturned, but still couldn’t find any trace of genocide.”

“There’s definitely no genocide, so to speak. So Michelle, back to you,” Kui said, wrapping up her report and handing it back to the program anchor in the studio.

A form of nostalgia for the early days

Much as China claims it would like to have a 21st-century Snow figure to “tell the China story well,” particularly as Beijing faces international scrutiny over its human rights abuses in Xinjiang and its crackdown on Hong Kong, it’s hard to imagine such a figure arising today—or having the impact that Snow did. In part that’s because few journalists today would agree to have their work guided and censored by the CCP. Meanwhile, even as foreign journalists have been expelled from China, access to information about the country is far greater, partly due to the many Chinese-origin journalists and researchers who critique Beijing’s official narratives.

For its part, China increasingly relies on domestic and overseas state-run news channels to tell its story, and online patriots.

“I think [Snow] is just a trope, an archetype, a model that the CCP repeats. It reflects how clumsy and shrill and ineffective their external propaganda messaging is these days compared to the pre-Xi era,” said Brady. While the CCP seeks “another Snow to highlight Xi Jinping’s leadership,” she added, the party may have to tweak its strategy to focus on a wider pool of Beijing-friendly social media influencers.

Still, Beijing’s construction of an arguably unattainable archetype of the ideal foreign journalist is more than just a rhetorical exercise, and reflects a greater tendency since Xi took power “to invoke a kind of nostalgic memory of the CCP in the 1930s and 1940s,” said Lovell.  The state’s eagerness to promote Snow is also “expressive of an instrumental desire to shape foreign coverage of China,” she added. “That desire traces back to the 1930s, and remains a constant.”