Assignment: China — The Week that Changed the World
Mike Chinoy and Steve Orlins
Thursday, March 8, 2012 at 6pm
NYIT Auditorium on Broadway, 1871 Broadway
event site 

(L-R) Steve Orlins and Mike Chinoy. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

Mike Chinoy is a senior fellow at the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California, accomplished journalist, professor, author and now documentarian. Guests at the NYIT Auditorium on Broadway convene for a hosted evening with Mr. Chinoy and his new documentary on the journalists who covered President Richard Nixon’s historic February 1972 trip to China, and to hear his reflections on the adventure. After the show, Chinoy and Steve Orlins of the National Comittee on United States-China Relations analyze the issues and themes of the work.

It is a splendid only-in-New-York event. I attend as a member of New York City’s Harvardwood chapter, a group of Harvard alumni and associated folk who are interested in art and culture. Chinese-U.S. diplomacy in general is not my area of interest, other than as a world citizen with an interdisciplinary education. And yet — ties to personal history, to Harvard, and to theatre in general and on the world stage soon give me plenty to ponder in this work. On the personal side, I lived through the events of February 1972. Well, sure, I was thirteen and with just rudimentary understanding of local and regional and national and world politics. Yet I did indeed experience the journalism captured in this documentary first hand, as an audience member, at the other end of a television screen (all the events scripted and scheduled for the U.S. television viewer), in suburban western Michigan. Some years later, I met Harvard classmate Peter Sellars and subsequently watched his opera development and directing career, especially the opera he created with John Adams and Alice Goodman based on this very diplomatic trip. The scale of the themes, and scale of the personalities, the scale of the world issues at stake are all contained in Nixon in China, first staged in the 1980s and reaching the Metropolitan Opera in 2011, where I catch up with it. And as the journalist filmmaker and almost every journalist interviewee within the new documentary notes — the entire diplomatic adventure, soup to nuts, in those early days of television broadcast journalism, is theatre on the world stage. Costuming, set decorations, scripted interactions, and behind the scenes battles. I prepare to consider the film as art, the politics as theatre, and the audience as any other in an auditorium.

Mr. Orlins reminds us as introduction that the 40th anniversary of the Shanghai Communiqué, the diplomatic outcome of the 8-day 1972 diplomatic journey to China, occurred less than two weeks before this evening. History surrounds us everywhere and theatre meets us at every turn. In his short introductory remarks about his years spent in China as a journalist and his observations while there, Mr. Chinoy indicates the cast of characters he attempts to capture in this film  — the first of eight envisioned to capture the sweep of U.S-Chinese journlistic relationships over the past 70 years or so.  During the 1972 trip there were, Mr. Chinoy tells us, “three alien civilizations” — the White House contingent (diplomats, elected officials, attendants), the Chinese Communist party members (officials and citizens), and the Washington press corps. The documentary primarily presents the experience of the final set of characters, from their lens on the movements of history.

While watching the documentary I analyze the theatrical dimensions of the journey traveled by the journalists seen on archival footage and interviewed today about their experience 40 years ago. The dramatis personae are assembled according to rules and sometimes in spite of attempts to black ball some members of the press, and there are only three women among the 100 or so print and broadcast journalists on the journey.There are clearly state rules that the journalist chafe under (having handlers, being carefully watched). The Chinese attempt to stage manage the reality the journalists observe — offering events on a “menu” of options on a daily basis for journalists to observe that have been assembled, scripted, and carefully screened by the Chinese officials. The Americans also pay attention to costuming from time to time: Pat Nixon’s red cloth coat was carefully selected for the arrival in China, as advance research indicated that other than an expected red carpet and Chinese red flags, most attendees and the diplomatic corps would be dressed in blacks and greys. As the days of the visit dragged on and the print journalists put out thousands of words per day (one estimates that he generated three stories a day for eight days and a total of over 35,000 words), the journalists expressed their concerns that they were all part of an elaborate campaign effort for Nixon, whose campaign for re-election later that year was not far from anyone’s mind. The print and broadcast journalists had different experiences of frustration with the trip and the impact of their journalist product.  While all felt the same restrictions on access, the images alone were incredibly powerful and valuable to the broadcast journalists (and they knew it at the time) while the print journalists wanted to dig under the scripted stories.  A distant time, and still rife with drama.

During a post-screening question and answer period among Orlins, Chinoy, and several members of the audience, we learn a few addition things about the filmmaker and his reflections on the era he has captured from the journalist’s perspective.  He was most surprised through the research and these interviews about just how risky this journey was — diplomatically (the outcome was not preordained) and journalistically (the power of television, and the impact of the range of coverage could only be estimated).  The events that were staged and timed for U.S. viewers a 12-hour time difference away were broadcast live for them, while any Chinese viewers saw only small portions in silent filmed clips. Chinoy notes that in a recent trip to China during which he held many screenings he was thanked by his audiences who were seeing part of their own history for the first time.  He reiterates the alien-ness of Chinese society to Americans and the rest of the world in 1972 — there had been no news coverage for several decades at this point.  At the time, he noted, there were “more images of going to the moon than images of China” for the average American.

Drama and history, all of a piece, in a Manhattan screening room.

© Martha Wade Steketee (March 9, 2012)

The USC U.S.-China Institute has placed the The Week that Changed the World on-line with plans for additional content and additional chapters to be filmed of the history of U.S.-China journalistic relations between the 1940s and the present day.  Enjoy!

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