How do you think the Australian media covers China?
To answer this question: I’d generally say it’s unfairly covered. There’s a great deal of uneducated bias in all Western media about China, but some publications are worse than others. It’s extremely easy to criticise the Chinese government but it’s usually without any perspective of Chinese culture. China is a collective culture, for thousands of years people have relied on their leadership to guide, instruct and even order them — psychologists understand that when a government imposes it’s will on individualistic people, they get strong pushback but when a government does this to people of a collective nature, the people respond to the leadership because it’s what they want from their government — this has been academically researched and is called the Power Distance Index (Geert Hofstede). What generally goes wrong is that a “Western” interpretation on how the government imposes itself is interpreted in an oriental situation. We get uninformed news reports that the CPC is overbearing and on the verge of collapse when the absolute opposite is true. Covid19 is the greatest example of that. In January and February last year the world was aghast as China locked down — it’s now totally open and handling minor outbreaks in a way that the people fully support but is still getting reported as “draconian or authoritarian”
You are one of the few public Australian diarists that still has access to China. How does that make you feel?
I’ll be honest, I’m rather surprised. Not that I’m one of the few still left in China but that on a global scale anyone would know who I am and consider me any kind of influencer. I don’t enjoy video editing so I don’t do much on YouTube and only have a few hundred followers, I enjoy writing so I post articles on Medium.com which again, has only a few hundred followers, that’s not a very big following. On Twitter however, it has grown, and the only reason is that I’m pretty active on there, I view it as my daily entertainment, I get involved in discussions and debates and post things which I think are either relevant to me, or give some contribution to what I’m thinking.
Less than two years ago, I had 2 followers and I’d say that at least 30% of my current followers are inside of China or part of the Chinese diaspora. According to my analytics, only 5.2% of my followers are in Australia, so I’m hardly worthy of any mention as being influential in Australia.
One other point worth mentioning here is that, even pre-Covid, a great many unqualified teachers left China. Business people have busy days, most of them are struggling with day-to-day activities and running businesses with all the attendant issues. Teachers have a lot of free time, despite what some tell you, an oral-English teacher in China rarely works more than 4 hours a day. Business English and University level might be different but most of the bloggers and vloggers writing or talking about China, are teachers.
I’m not sure of the numbers but I’d say that teachers outnumbered business people when I first came here, now the opposite is true. In 2016 a few changes to how the government managed us foreigners were implemented. One was a requirement to provide a “home police, criminal record check”, this eliminated a few from both the teacher and the business camps. The other was a notorised copy of certificates and qualifications. It was true at the time that many of the teachers here were frauds — Now, they’re almost all gone, although a few do persist in some rural and remote areas. Many of the “I lived in China and it’s a dystopian nightmare” vloggers were from one, or both of those groups, they either have criminal convictions or they weren’t qualified, now they sit in their houses or apartments in other countries, making videos about how bad China is because it’s a good source of income to replace that which they lost when China tightened up the regulations.
How do you reconcile some of the claims being made against China of human rights abuses for example, with your own experience? When you talk about issues such as Xinjiang, what is the response from viewers or readers?
Many people who comment negatively about me in media or just people on Twitter have this idea that I’m a starry-eyed tourist who glosses over the things that I see. I’m not!
I’ve seen the carnage a terrorist bomb can do; I have no support whatsoever for any terrorist anywhere — government sanctioned or otherwise. I served as a police officer in the UK for 10 years and worked in the security industry in Australia for 18 years. I’ve been involved in the design of Access control and CCTV for prisons and I’ve been inside several prisons in England and almost all of them in Australia. I know what prisons look like. I have Post graduate qualifications which include a study of psychology, although I’m not a psychologist, I think I can recognise when a region is oppressed. Xinjiang is not — Now, I’m not saying there aren’t people in prison, that would be stupid, I don’t even subscribe to the fact that there’s nothing going on in Xinjiang but I do subscribe to the view that a lot more investigation needs to be done before people can say there are human rights issues. There is high degree of security. But, as a former police officer I see it, accept it and, even though I don’t like it, I defer to it, not because there’s no choice but because I see a great need for it, having seen what bombs can do. The people of Xinjiang aren’t oppressed in their religion, there’s evidence everywhere, with over 20,000 mosques many of the Imams have been interviewed, many times by many people, nor is their language being eroded, there are signs and shops everywhere, menus have it and bookshops are full of books in both languages, nor is there any evidence their ethnicity or culture being suppressed, it’s everywhere you look in the region and more so outside of the cities in the rural areas. So, in oreder for me to believe there’s a genocide going on, I need some evidence that will contradict, not just my perceptions, but the information I’ve seen with my own eyes, to date, I haven’t seen that.
My view is that there isn’t enough proof, I didn’t go there as a tourist, I didn’t visit the tourist spots, get guided tours and leave on a plane. I cycled more than 3,000 kilometres inside the region in 2014 and another 1200km in 2019. I have seen no evidence whatsoever of oppression. We can talk all day about satellite images and building contracts citing high walls and razor wire fencing and my answer to that would be, if you don’t understand the culture and you don’t understand the need for high security, then you really need to take a look for yourself.
We know there has been outside interference, we know there was poverty and extremism and we know that many people were re-trained, re-educated or de-radicalised but we don’t know if there’s any genocide and my own experience is that I saw no evidence of it at all, if anything, I saw evidence of the opposite and all the people I spoke with confirmed this: they all felt safer now, than before.
Do I have sleepless night wondering if I’m wrong? Yes, I do, but I’m quite well trained, quite experienced and certainly well-travelled in the region. No one has ever asked to see my photos, no police or military officer ever told me I can’t go somewhere and no police or military officer ever asked me what I’ve seen or why I was there, in fact, they were very co-operative and helpful which is why I don’t see how there could be any Human Rights abuses. If I’ve been there and seen none — how come the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and Adrian Zenz, the writer of the initial claims, who haven’t been there, are widely believed and widely quoted despite having never set foot in the region?
As for: what is the response? I’ve been threatened, I can’t think why people would want to kill me, bomb me or tear out my eyes just because I believe something different to them, but that has happened in my Twitter and WeChat feeds. I guess for me though, the best response is that I’ve been followed by 24,000 people, most of whom seem to think I have a valid point or two and the experience to put it across in a way that a critical reader can establish is truthful or verifiable.
I’ve never lied in any of my tweets or my articles, everything I’ve said is backed up by my travel experience sometimes photos, sometimes videos, often from research. All I ask of people who want to do me harm because of my opinion is: what’s your experience that makes it so different to mine? Or, I often ask: when were you last in China/Xinjiang, and what did you see that was so different? Assuming they have a different experience and are willing to share it, we can discuss and debate, if they just want to call me a liar because of what they’ve read online or a YouTube video they saw, then we have nothing to discuss and I stay away from those kinds of people as much as possible.
How does Chinese state media value your perspective? Do you believe Chinese state media gives a fair and balanced account of what is happening in China?
I really don’t know how much Chinese state media values me. I’ve been on Chinese TV a few times, but some of those events were nothing to do with my travels in Xinjiang. My wife and I are actively involved in charity work, mostly for disabled people, we’ve been involved in poverty alleviation and some of the I do interviews relate to that — it’s hard to hate someone for working to help disabled people but we still get the hatred.
I think we need to put into perspective what Chinese media they are trying to do. If they present a Chinese expert to talk about an issue, the Western world simply ignores it because for years they’ve been saying Chinese State media can’t be trusted therefore this witness can’t be trusted. So, they look for alternatives, I suspect, but don’t know, they have people scouring social media. They find someone with some credibility, some background and some experience and ask them to comment on the issues of the day. This is how they found me, through Twitter
They’re usually very truthful but are they fair? The answer to that is probably no, they aren’t. They don’t like foreigners to criticise, so for example, I might say: “the security in Xinjiang is intense and intrusive”: which it is. Then I’d go on to say that the Uyghurs, as with all locals of any ethnicity, go through without any hassles, they swipe their card, present their face to the scanner (the reason beards are banned is due to early generations of facial recognition getting confused by it, and obviously that’s a good reason to ban female face coverings too) and are on their way in 10 seconds or less. We foreigners on the other hand take 20 minutes because our passports need to be manually verified and entered into a security tracing system. They’re not very happy to print that we get inconvenienced but even more unhappy to print the part about it being intrusive. If I mention that whilst being processed one of the officers filled our water bottles and gave us a bowl of fruit they love it — that’s all true by the way, it’s happened several times, not just once.
I’ve been reading Chinese media every day for over 17 years and so far, I’ve never caught them in a lie, but they do often omit details. So, are they balanced? No, but are they truthful? Absolutely. I always challenge anyone who disagrees with me to point out where they’ve seen a lie and the answer is usually that I’m either blocked, ignored or insulted. There are one or two exceptions where the problem is of cultural misunderstanding, for example: This facility must be a prison because it’s got high walls, a police manned gatepost and hundreds of prison cells; can be very easily explained that it’s either a factory or a school, high walls are around every factory and every school, the police service in China has a pool of officers who are less well trained, less well equipped (seemingly less intelligent), who work as security officers and their services are sold to schools or factories. So, we see gatehouses which look like police stations and finally, all factories, all senior schools and many primary schools in China have dormitories; it’s part of the culture that most kids live in school most of the time. It’s very easy to mistake the dorms for prison cells and even more so if a satellite image shows a group people in uniform moving between the workplace and the canteen or the living accommodation — this is a school or factory not a prison. Yet someone recently won a Pulitzer for that embarrassing piece of journalism.
How did you end up in the position that you are in?
By accident. I retired from full time work a few years ago, I had worked for the British Council as an examiner and prior to that I was Training Manager at a British owned company. I did several years of High School and University teaching and was, for a few years, a “Teach English as a Foreign Language” (TEFL) trainer during the long Winter and Summer holidays in China, this meant I taught hundreds of foreigners how to teach English and saw them placed in schools all around China. As a result of this, I got to travel a lot and learnt a lot about the country. In 2015 I completed a Master Degree with a focus on Cross Cultural Change Management and needed to study Chinese behavioural psychology. I was writing a lot in those days and often posting on some now defunct blogsites. I was also travelling by bike and blogging about that on my WeChat (Chinese messaging media similar to WhatsApp) and partially on Facebook (done by a friend in Australia who followed my WeChat feed). When I became active on Twitter, I found myself being followed by some Western and some Chinese media personalities (including yourself Eryk) and I was often asked, then answered questions. I posted lots of my writing on Medium.com and was one day asked by a Chinese media outlet if I could edit one of my posts down to 900–1000 words and they would pay me 300 RMB to use it — that’s about $50AUD. I did it and heard nothing more for several months, then suddenly got a call asking for my bank details and about 270rmb was placed in the bank — they had deducted tax too!
Since then, I’ve either offered my writing to an outlet or been asked to write about a specific issue, generally not related to Xinjiang but to some other aspect of life in China, for example: I was recently asked to write an article about Su Bingtian, the Chinese sprinter who made the Olympic 100m final. I was asked to do this because we both live in the same city, Zhongshan, no other reason than that!
I’ve been asked many times to write about a topic but I’ve never been told what to write. I write what I feel like writing and generally, with the exception of a few very minor edits, what I wrote is what’s presented to the public. On a few occasions, my writing has been translated into Chinese and published online, when this happens, I get up to three million views and tens of thousands of comments.
Since starting to write in Chinese media, I’ve been published by several outlets, including the USA and Australia. The USA and Australian publications did not pay me, the Chinese payments range from about 300 RMB to 1100 RMB per article and payments usually take a minimum of 3 months to arrive. Overall, I guess I’ve earnt between 8,000 and 12,000 RMB in the last 2 years from this — that’s less than $2,400AUD.
I’ve also been cited in some academic publications and I’ve been interviewed by both News.com.au, who did a reasonable job of presenting my point of view even if they did paint me as some sort of bumbling idiot in the headline and I was once asked one question by another member of Murdoch’s press stable. But, when he found that I had not been taken out of context and was ok with a Global Times interview and subsequent article, he had no interest in printing anything related to the truth — he was looking for a story that wasn’t there!
That’s where we are to date