This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –
A woman destroys an ATM machine in a fit of rage. Another wins a hair-growing competition. A man, drunk, drowns in a manure pit. I know I am far from alone in finding the South China Morning Post’s Around the Nation page one of its most compelling sections. Countless conversations with editorial staff and SCMP loyalists assure me of this. Often, however, there is a tone of slight hesitation in their admissions – a wavering, I think, lest too pronounced an enthusiasm be taken to intimate a lack of seriousness about news.
Anyone familiar with this blog will acknowledge that if it does not always provide the final word in serious-minded comment, then it will at least include one or two from somewhere nearing that end of things. More generally, the SCMP is considered a serious organ – the sub-editors may quibble at the word, but its news and analysis tends more towards the intellectual than what used to be called “human interest”, even when it was about pets. With ATN, this order is subverted. Reader, a word here in its praise.
For those of you who don’t know what I’m referring to, buy the paper and you’ll see it: Around the Nation is a round-up of stories that have been making the headlines in sundry corners of the mainland. Some are routine – a new infrastructure project here, a government denial about something over there. Others are anecdotal but still marginally un-extraordinary: a man cracks a window during a quarrel on a bus with his girlfriend; a woman has to receive medical help after playing mahjong for three days solid. The most memorable can usually be filed under bizarre, gruesome, heartwarming, comical or downright appalling, although none of these categories is exclusive.
You would probably be right to identify this as tabloid journalism. A fine tradition, and one in which I’ve dabbled, and frequently defend, but make no mistake – it’s often voyeuristic, mawkish and vulgar. The snobs have a point. Doubtless, too, it serves as an instrument of distraction, particularly in a country such as China where “proper” journalism gets throttled. And this is all before one considers how things have evolved online, where it seems the only way for media organisations to thrive is to deploy armies of clickbait wallahs to churn out titillating content, and to hell with its veracity.
There is, I think, a case to be made that our appetite for the weird and wonderful, the salacious and the shocking, is such that a journalism that caters to it offers a valve – one that’s not inimical to but rather part of life in a civilised society. This applies, moreover, regardless of how far that society may or may not be shaped by the principles of Athenian democracy. In its way, though, ATN offers both less and more than this valve function.
For one, ATN is mediated, a digest from other sources, for English readers in Hong Kong and elsewhere. There’s therefore an element of revelling in the wacky things that seem to happen in the mainland, puzzlement at the jarring effects created by awkwardly-translated phrases or sketchily-explained cultural mores, uncertainty at the degree of comic intentions. (What are we to make, for example, of this detail, included in a story about a pig which surprised visitors to a Buddhist temple in Wenzhou province by prostrating itself as if in prayer? “Photos posted online amazed some internet users, while others claimed the animal was suffering from a vitamin E deficiency.”)
At the same time, details omitted leave us wanting to know more, or attempting to piece things together in our imaginations, as we skip from the fantastical to the mundane to the brutal, mind-mapping the country, wondering what’s fact, what’s hearsay and what’s been embellished by eager hacks. The stories about mahjong casualties and failed blackmail attempts on local officials have an ageless quality, like folktales. Earlier this year it seems there was a spate of burglars breaking into homes then falling asleep.
Meanwhile, the outbreaks of violence or cruelty, the crazy people doing crazy things, the health scares, the exam stress – all contribute to a sense of modern China, even if they don’t tell us what modern China is. In Henan, a grave-visiting business opens for people who don’t have time to visit their own deceased relatives. In Chongqing, a farmer sells his ox to go looking for his runaway son.
ATN may be tabloid journalism by numbers on the one hand; on the other it offers a dispassionate window on a diverse country enduring the pangs of development. All human life is there. Animal life too.