Robert Lawrence Kuhn: I'm trying to tell real stories of China

China Plus Published: 2019-01-02 10:16:49
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A leading U.S. expert on China has been awarded the China Reform Friendship Medal for his dedication to telling Chinese stories to the world.

For the past three decades, Robert Lawrence Kuhn has devoted himself to introducing a comprehensive and realistic China to the world, and the country's reform and opening-up is one of the areas Kuhn has focused on.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn, chairman of The Kuhn Foundation and recipient of the China Reform Friendship Medal, takes an interview with CRI overseas correspondent Qian Shanming in New York on Dec. 30, 2018. [Photo: China Plus]

Robert Lawrence Kuhn, chairman of The Kuhn Foundation and recipient of the China Reform Friendship Medal, takes an interview with CRI overseas correspondent Qian Shanming in New York on Dec. 30, 2018. [Photo: China Plus]

He says he sees the China Reform Friendship Medal not so much as a personal accolade but more as a sign of China's enhanced appreciation for international communications.

For more, CRI's US correspondent Qian Shanming spoke with the expert himself in New York.

Q: First would you like to share with us some thoughts on receiving this medal? When the China reform friendship medals are awarded to ten foreigners at this stage of the country's development, does it carry any special significance from your perspective?

A: It's a great honor, a great surprise; I very much appreciate it. The 40th anniversary of reform and opening up was a historic moment and it was a privilege to participate.

I see my being awarded the medal as not so much a personal tribute but more as a recognition by China that international communications at this stage of China's development has been elevated to the highest level of national importance.

With my long-term partner, Adam Zhu, I've been working on international communications about China for thirty years. But in recent years, in the last few years in particular, as China has grown into the world's second largest economy, as China is engaged with virtually every country on earth (and in a large majority of those countries China is the largest trading partner), as China is engaged more proactively with the world, and as there are increasing US-China tensions — which, as we've seen in the last year, go well beyond trade war — all of these things together mean that, for China to engage in international communications, to participate in the global market place of ideas, to share the Chinese way of thinking, to learn from the world as well, to communicate in both directions, is now deemed to be of the highest level of national importance.

That's why I look upon my receiving the China Reform Friendship Medal as exemplifying China's recognition that international communications are a priority. And so, while I appreciate it, I'm humbled by it, I feel, now, a kind of responsibility. When I started out, I was simply learning and having fun, but my China work has taken on a more serious tone. I appreciate the trust and confidence of President Xi Jinping and the Chinese leaders, and I shall continue to do the very best I can to tell the story of China and of China's engagement with the world.

So as China looks to the future, its commitment to international communications is very strong, and I am pleased to play my small part in it.

Q: So you're just back from the grand commemoration in Beijing to celebrate China's 40th anniversary of reform and opening up; Chinese President Xi Jinping made important remarks on China's past and future paths through reform and opening up? What would be your assessment on President Xi's remarks at the grand celebration?

A: When President Xi gave his address at the celebration of the 40th anniversary of reform and opening, I had the privilege of sitting on stage in the Great Hall of the People. It was a critical speech, and as I listened to it, I heard two themes — milestone and benchmark. Here's what I mean. As a "milestone," the speech was a time to reflect on all that China has accomplished in the past 40 years, and as a "benchmark," the speech was a time to address all that China still needs to accomplish in the new era.

As China looks to the future, what challenges does China face? What deeper reforms are needed? Why do reforms have to be "comprehensive," and in what areas must there be real change?

A benchmark is future-oriented; it says, "OK, where are we today? What do we want to achieve? And how do we compare what we want to achieve in the future with where we are today? A benchmark is how we judge future activities.

So Xi's speech was very much the big picture, the grand vision: Xi presented the celebration event as a milestone of the past and a benchmark for the future.

Sitting in the Great Hall of the People listening to Xi's speech, I was struck by the consistency of Xi's thought. When he said in the speech that "chanting slogans" was not sufficient, that hard work must be done and reform needs to be furthered, I smiled to myself, because in 2006, more than 12 years prior, then Zhejiang Party Secretary Xi Jinping told me, in a private, personal meeting, precisely the same thing.

Q: We know that you've been dedicated to telling Chinese stories, or communicating what you've learned about China to the world, over the past three decades, can you share with us some of your experiences in telling Chinese stories as a commentator, writer, producer of China-related shows and documentaries?

A: When people in China say I tell Chinese stories, I stress there are two distinct meanings. In English, when one says, "telling Chinese stories", that means telling about how things happen in China. And I do some of that. We have a documentary series called "China's Challenges" which Adam Zhu and I co-produce, Peter Getzels directs, and I write and host, in partnership with Shanghai Media Group and their talented teams. China's Challenges won a TV Emmy (Los Angeles), Telly Awards in the U.S. and three China News Awards — and that's for telling Chinese stories.

The other part of what I do is to tell the story of China, which differs from telling Chinese stories — they sound similar, but they are very different. Telling the story of China is a tough-minded, analysis-driven approach to current affairs, so that if issues or problems arise, like the trade war, US geopolitical tensions, and the like, I explain how China's leaders are thinking about these issues or problems, perhaps give some contrary views that are in China, perhaps have television debates with people who take negative approaches to China. Often times, it is not so much that China critics are necessarily wrong when they present China's problems but that they do not tell the whole story, which is far larger and richer. For example, I am focusing on President Xi's "targeted poverty alleviation" campaign, which he calls his most important priority. So, China's true story is complex.This is exemplified by my weekly TV program on Chinese politics, governance, society, foreign affairs, defense, science, etc. — ”Closer To China with R.L.Kuhn” on CGTN.

I try to give an accurate portrayal of China, especially when the world is listening, which, unfortunately, is usually at times of crisis or disputes or sudden problems. I try to tell what's really happening through stories of all different sectors or society from Chinese leaders and officials to scientists and scholars to migrant workers, peasants and farmers. It's both telling Chinese stories and telling the story of China.

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