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BRIDGING THE UNDERSTANDING GAP

FROM HONG KONG TO LOS ANGELES

TOM PLATE


Los Angeles --- This column may seem more personal than usual, but its topic young students today bears directly on the themes I usually write about, which can be bracketed as War and Peace, especially in the Asia Pacific.  In particular, the pair of events described focus on China and Taiwan a dangerous world trouble-spot.

Let start in Los Angeles with some students, and then end up in Hong Kong with a different student group.

A week or so ago, a crowd of UCLA undergraduates and others packed into a hall during a campus holiday to attend a morning symposium about Taiwan and China. Under ordinary circumstances, getting students out of bed to show up for anything before noon, even when it not a day off from classes, would be an achievement.

Admittedly, a tiny bit of under-the-table bribery might have added to their motivation. For starters, the event featured free breakfast food. For some genetic reason that I claim not to understand, students, no matter what their socioeconomic origins, are always hungry and will show up for almost anything if food is on the table.

Even so "and even if some students were also being rewarded with extra credit by their professor" the two-hour discussion clearly seemed to animate them. Beside the urgent subject matter (the tense David-and-Goliath, Taiwan-China relationship), another attraction was the credentials of the guest expert: former CNN China correspondent Mike Chinoy. Mike is about as good as TV foreign correspondents get.

His views and stories about Asia mesmerized the audience. Most UCLA students I know ?especially those not from mainland China, and especially those from Taiwan --- sympathize with the tiny island of 23 million people just 90 or so miles off China coast. Why can  they just get along?

But for all that sympathy, they are not geopolitically na
e. They recognize the reality of the numbers game:  If push comes to shove and the world had to choose, will it truly side against the 1.3 billion people on the mainland?

They listened raptly as Chinoy ?now on the staff of the influential Pacific Council on International Policy here in Los Angeles ?alternatively praised Taiwan for its achievements since the end of martial law in 1987, then criticized the current government for making a public fool of itself. The awards-winning television correspondent especially lambasted Taiwan leaders for their feral, crude and sometimes allegedly corrupt conduct. He worried that such obvious malpractice could wind up giving democracy a bad name and offer mainland Chinese cynics of democracy a reason to ask whether the democratic process, as practiced in Taiwan, is really what the mainland should want.

Hong Kong, also tiny, is now a formal part of China, of course, and students there are just as fascinated by Chinas rise as are Americas young scholars. About a week earlier, a session on American coverage of Asia  filled a room at the University of Hong Kong. Students of Professor Gene Mustain, a director of the universitys internationally prominent journalism and media program, were eager to learn all they could about how the U.S. media views China and Asia

At one point a guest speaker was asked how an American or Western correspondent or columnist could fairly report on China ?not to mention Taiwan -- without their reports reflecting cultural bias? The answer, of course, was that bias of some kind inevitably colors the reporting of events, whatever culture or country the correspondent hails from. But it also the case ?we sometimes forget ?that bias colors the way in which that reportage is viewed and processed by media consumers as well.

Accordingly, students were eager to know whether higher education for would-be journalists was really that important -- or was it just resume or C.V. fluff that dressed up the would-be journalists effort to get in the editors front door and land a job. At this point Professor Mustain, a well-regarded veteran U.S. careerist with journalistic posts in major U.S. cities, leapt into the discussion to emphasize that just because a reporter may be adept at covering City Hall doesn't make him an overnight Mike Chinoy capable of handling a dauntingly complex story like China.

Increasingly, veteran journalists as well as young journalism students, accept the great need for lifetime quality education ?not just at the undergraduate and graduate level but at the mid-career level and beyond.
The world today is pushed closer together by globalization, and history seems to be moving faster than ever. The stakes in getting major stories wrong seem more immediate; the moral job of informing the public seems more vital than ever.

The students I meet, on both sides of the Pacific pond, seem in general prepared to put in the very hard work and very long hours needed to begin to understand cultures and societies unlike their own. These kinds of students represent one class of contemporary earthlings that can be easily dismissed. I suppose the main reason for this personal column is that -- suddenly -- I am optimistic.

 

UCLA Prof. Tom Plate, a veteran U.S. journalist, is a member of the Pacific Council on International Relations and is founder of the UCLA Media Center. 2006, Tom Plate.

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

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