'China In the Red'
With Sue Williams
Friday, Feb. 14, 2003; 11 a.m. ET
For more than half a century, millions of Chinese workers labored in state-run factories that provided cradle-to-grave job security. But the economic reforms that have brought the worlds most populous nation economic prosperity and world-power status now threaten the livelihood of many Chinese workers. The Chinese Communist Party can no longer afford to subsidize the factories, and millions of workers are being laid off, with no social safety net to catch them.
FRONTLINE's "China in the Red," airing on Thursday, Feb. 13, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), follows 10 Chinese citizens caught up in the social and economic transformation, and through their stories reveals a nation in flux and a people struggling to survive in a world they never dreamed would exist.
Producer Sue Williams was online on Friday, Feb. 14. The transcript follows.
Williams is a writer, producer and director who co-founded Ambrica Productions, a film company that develops and produces documentaries of international scope and interest. Her recent films include the "China Trilogy," three two-hour films for PBS that explored the turbulent social and political history of 20th-century China, and "Eleanor Roosevelt," a two-hour documentary special aired as part of the PBS "American Experience" series in January 2000.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Warren, N.J.: What factors led you to choose the 10 people in your film, and how did you get to find them? Do you have any plan to follow this up in, say, five years?
Sue Williams: When I went to China in the spring of 1998, the government was announcing these incredible reforms in the state sector -- that they had to become profitable companies or close. It was clear that millions of people were going to be laid off. But you have to remember that these people had lived their whole lives thinking they had job security and pensions and health care. So in 1998, when this announcement was made, it was a time of great tension. And I wanted to make a film which showed Americans how ordinary Chinese really live. And also at the same time to explore how they were living this very tumultuous transition from Communism to a market economy. Clearly there were going to be huge changes in the state sector, and I decided to look there for our characters. The government gave me the timeline -- from 1998 to 2001, to follow them through this stage of the reforms. So we called everybody we knew, we met a lot of people, we spent time with a lot of people, some of whom we chose not to follow. Some of them were people who were friends of friends. When we went to the countryside, one of the people who was working with me had relatives there, so that was easier. In Chestnut Flower Village, the really poor village in Shaanxi -- I picked that because wanted to go to a very poor remote village in Western China. The local authorities tried to present us with the people who were doing the best in the village, and we decided they weren't representative, so we wandered around and found some people -- we found the very poor woman Hong Huan-Zhen, and Tian Xiao-Wei, the woman who's doing well.
Somewhere, USA: Did you ever feel intimidated by the village officials when your questions were provoking?
Sue Williams: No, never. I never felt intimidated. There were times we got into big arguments with people. I didn't ask questions that I knew were going to get people into trouble. Sometimes people were more candid than I thought they might be, and sometimes I was encouraged to ask tougher questions than I might have. They sort of expected tough questions, I think, and they were prepared how to answer them. The officials were usually not with us during the interviews -- we usually persuaded them to go outside the room.
Grand Rapids, Mich.: First of all, I would like to applaud all the hard work put in by those involved in this documentary. It is by far one of the best documentary I've seen.
Question: How long did it take to produce this documentary and also if you can describe how challenging it was in producing the documentary, in terms of how you managed to interview those people and get them to speak their minds without being afraid? Do you find the Chinese society more open or is there still that fear?
Thanks, and once again, great job!
Sue Williams: It took four years to shoot and almost a year to edit, and we were raising money that whole time. It was a big long project.
It's very difficult to work in China. I think we spent 60-70 percent of our time with officials, just trying to deal with problems, get access to the places we needed to get to. It's very exhausting.
I think China is far far more open than it was even 15 years ago. Most people know they can do pretty much whatever they want with their lives as long as they don't openly challenge the government. The young people in the film or that you can talk to in china had very little to do with the government and they're not at all political. They're like young people here in that they're more into their schooling or their sports or their boyfriend or girlfriend or whatever. Older people pay more attention to politics because they've been through so much more. Your survival in some of the political movements depended on your assessment of the situation.
It's almost like Tiananmen beat the politics out of people. After all of the chaos, people just want peace and stability -- they just want to be able to get on quietly with their lives. And they really don't want social unrest. In fact, many people claim that China's too chaotic. I had an extraordinary conversation on the train, where we met two young men and a young woman, and we got to chatting. They came from the south and were on their way to Beijing, looking for "opportunities." One of the young men complained that China was too chaotic. He said look at all the people stealing things these days, and we don't do anything about it. I said don't they go to jail? We always hear about the tough prison system. And he said yeah, they go to jail for five or 10 years, but what is that? And I said what should the punishment be? And he said they should be executed. Not for stealing a bicycle, but my motorcycle is worth about $5,000 -- yeah, they should be put to death. I was dumbfounded.
Chicago, Ill.: I am a Chinese man who lives in here for eight years. I feel so bad after I watched the show, my question is where I get the background music for the show? Is there a Web site I can go to or something else?
Thanks, I appreciate you spend time read my question.
washingtonpost.com: The Frontline Web site includes information on the program and the music in it.
Sue Williams: In my interview on the Frontline Web site, I talk a little bit about how we chose the music -- there's a big section on it.
Arlington, Va.: Thank you for your program. I felt the pain of the poor Chinese people and felt so sorry for the people who cared not for their own lives but for the lives of their children. Their love for their children brought tears to my eyes. I also felt their pain.
Anyone who spoke against the government, however is at great risk. How did you [try to] protect the people you spoke with?
Without economic "reform" the government still could not have provided "cradle to the grave" support. Have reform movements been used as a scapegoat?
What about the human rights violations in China? What can America do to help?
Sue Williams: Many people have asked us why we chose the title "China in the Red," because so much of what we hear today is how prosperous China is -- everyone's buying cars, stocks, etc. But the title came out of conversations that we had with Chinese intellectuals who talked with us about how China is in debt, or in the red, because of its past policies of the command economy of the 1960s and '70s. That China is in debt, not just economically, but in social areas, environmental areas, education, health care, because of these earlier policies. So by the late '90s, China was facing really really monumental problems in the state sector. The banking system had been giving all these loans to these factories and they weren't being repaid. The government had no choice but to act. They tried for several years before 1998 to reform the state sectors, but it was a scary process for them, because they believed that if they laid people off, it would lead to social instability. So by the late '90s, they had no choice but to take this dramatic course of action.
Hazleton, Pa.: With all of China's current internal problems weighing heavily upon its future well-being, is its world power status perceived as growing better or worse?
Sue Williams: Yes, you're right. The Chinese government is very preoccupied with its own internal problems. And given the challenges it's facing, I often wonder why everyone sees China as such a potential international threat. I don't see it as a country with expansionist designs around the world. But I do see it as a nation that's come of age on the world stage, and is interested in living up to that status, so it is fully involved in the debates that are currently preoccupying us all. And I think it's thinking very carefully and cautiously, both about North Korea and Iraq, etc., etc., etc.
Atlanta, Ga.: I think the documentary would have been more compelling if it included citizens from Senzen and the Chinese eastern seaboard. The rapid industrialization that's taking place in this region will have a very large and dramatic impact on jobs in this country. I.S. consumer buys. Why was there no mention of this region?
Thanks for an excellent documentary. It revealed another face of life in China that surprised me. All I have been reading on China in the past focused on the Chinese economic miracle and fast development.
Sue Williams: We made a conscious decision with this film not to try to tell the entire story of China today. If you were Chinese and going to do an American story, you would not do a status report on every aspect of American society and economics -- you would pick a story. The story that we chose to tell was one that has been far less reported on outside of China. As you say, you've only really been hearing about China's economic success, which is one reality in China. But there is this other reality in China, of those who are not doing so well. We do refer several times to China's booming economy, to the booming export market, because that is a reality in China, but not one we were choosing to explore.
Springfield, Va.: What a wonderful production. You are to be commended for your effort and anyone who does not value the importance of public television should watch this program. To watch evolving capitalism unfolding in China is something to behold. At the same time it is pretty scary. What is your sense of how committed the current regime to see this transformation through or is it just a master plan to return to the days of communism after the masses rise up? Also did you ever find out the condition of the woman who had the thyroid problem? As I sat there last night watching this woman and her family suffer for lack of funds that most of us spend for dinning out in a month it was so sad. Thank you for your work.
Sue Williams: I think that the regime is completely committed to this transformation. And I don't think many urban people want to return to the days of China as it was under Mao. Things have changed so much in China -- the leaders are now well educated, sophisticated international players. They know they can't go back. And they don't want to -- they see a market economy adapted to Chinese specifics as the only way forward.
About the woman with the thyroid condition -- we've been trying to contact her for several months, without any luck. But so many people have been moved by her plight and have offered to send money, that we're trying to figure out a mechanism to send money to her without creating problems for her and doesn't disappear along the way. We're also trying to figure out a way to send money to the woman who's cleaning toilets in Shenyang.
Manhattan, Kan.: I was particularly touched by the family in Chestnut Flower Village with the sick mother. Do you still not know her condition or if her daughter was able to return to school?
Sue Williams: No, her daughter has not been able to return to school.
Hartford, Conn.: Judging from historic perspective, given the resilience of Chinese people, which you show in the film, what is your bet on the chance that China will be a prosperous and strong nation?
Sue Williams: I think that's the goal of all Chinese. And I'm always very cautious about predicting the future in China. I think most people who spend a lot of time studying China or spending time there are all cautious. You can argue that everything is going well in China, and that it's well on its way to becoming a prosperous, strong civil society. At the same time, you can argue with equal validity that China is headed for serious problems, even disaster. the truth is probably somewhere in between. But like you, I'm always amazed at the resilience of the Chinese people -- after all they've been through, all they've survived, how they keep a sense of hope about the future. I think they've got some really good people in the government now. Wu Jing-Lian, a government adviser, is so smart and he gives you hope for the future.
Dalian, China: Hey Sue, what's your next project? Is there anyway I can get more information about new movies from your company? Is there anyway I can get involved?
Sue Williams: I'm so delighted someone from Dalian is in this discussion! Welcome! How fantastic.
Our next project is going to be a biography of Mary Pickford, the world's first international superstar. And we are developing a couple of other projects in China, but it's a little too early to say if they're going to get off the ground.
If you want to get in touch, why don't you send me a note through Frontline.
(Editor's note: You can send e-mail to Frontline on the Web site.)
Chicago, Ill.: A Great program!
I left China 17 years ago and have made frequent trips to China in recent years. I feel strongly that China for ordinary Americans is still far away, in the sense that the mainstream media and some books on China in the West often present a picture of China that is half true or oversimplified or biased. Your approach, to tell the ordinary people's stories, is wonderful and touching. I think that the program has caught something typical of the time: a mixture of hope and despair, but all the time changing rapidly and dynamically.
I could not agree with you more on your feeling about China's reality and future and your thoughts on the prospects of Western-style democracy in China, which I suspect have contributed a great deal to the program's success: Being compassionate, well balanced, and informative. After watching it, I feel that the nation is at a formidable yet magnificent period of history, and that it will make it simply because of the existence of those ordinary people, the people who have toiled, endured, triumphed, and will continue to do so.
My question for you: Why are you interested in the subject on China in the first place? Have you published books or articles on China? How much does a production like this cost? How long does it take to finish? Where can I find "China Trilogy"? Is it available from the video rental store?
Sue Williams: Thank you for your nice comments. I became interested in China for a number of reasons. My mother was born and brought up there, and my grandparents lived there for many years. I grew up hearing tales of China before 1949. And in the mid-'80s I found a cache of old film footage from the turn of the century in China. At that time I didn't know anything about China at all, but I realized this was an extraordinary collection. And that formed the genesis of the first film we did on China, called "China in Revolution." After "China in Revolution," we did "The Mao Years" and "Born Under the Red Flag," and those films became the "China Trilogy." You can rent it at video stores that have documentaries, or you can purchase it from Amazon.com, where it's called "China: A Century of Revolution."
These films are expensive to make, about $1 million each. Generally, from fundraising to completion takes a long time -- about four years.
Washington, D.C.: Obviously there are many stories to be told in China, but how do you as a journalist avoid demonizing and stereotyping a country that's essentially a third world country going through rapid development? The negative things that happen in China happen all over the world and continue to happen, especially in the U.S.
Sue Williams: Of course the negative things that happen in China happen all over the world. And as we were tracking corruption in China, all the stories about Enron and corporate malfeasance were breaking here in America. But I wasn't interested in doing a comparison. I was interested in bringing to Americans lives and situations that they didn't know about. And we have so much in common with China in the problems that we have is that that's how you keep from demonizing or stereotyping -- we have so many similar problems ourselves.
I do think, though, that I have a compassion for how ordinary people have to live their government's policies. And in China that's very real. When the premier says state companies have to become profitable, the effect is very immediate on people's lives.
Birmingham, Ala.: In the course of your work, did you find the people you encountered were curious about America? Also, did many of them speak English?
Sue Williams: Of course people were curious about America. Although they would always tell me how little they know about America. They really want to know more. And of course, through films and television programs and music, and especially the NBA, they're becoming more familiar with certain parts of our culture. I think the Chinese are pretty well informed. Over the course of those four years, there were some pretty tense times -- we bombed their embassy in Belgrade, and we had the spy plane furor, and then you really feel how patriotic the Chinese are, and how, from their perspective, America looks arrogant and as though it doesn't really care about other nations' opinions or feelings. Their feeling, for example, with the spy plane was, if a Chinese spy plane was flying low over Florida, what would the American government do?
But most people feel generally positive toward America. But they don't like it when their national pride seems to be hurt in any way.
Princeton, N.J.: Did you have to get approval from the Chinese authorities each time before you interviewed those 10 people? And how much resistance did you meet from the government for this kind of interview? Did you have some material that you were done but not allowed to air by the Chinese government?
Sue Williams: Yes we did have to get approval from the Chinese authorities for each trip that we made. And as I've said earlier, it's always a challenge trying to film in China. But they never looked at the material that we filmed. They never asked to see what we'd filmed, and once we filmed it they had absolutely no control over the content. We could air anything that we wanted to.
Georgia: Did you have personal feelings on those people when you did the documentary? And how did you keep your personal opinion from the objective of the film?
Sue Williams: Clearly, I became very fond of the people we followed over all these years. They were really generous in sharing their time and their thoughts and feelings with us. And as their lives had their ups and downs, we shared their pain and their joy when things went well. I was very shocked when Mayor Mu was arrested, and very troubled when he was sentenced to death. I knew he had cancer at the time. Just as a human being, it was very distressing. No matter what he'd done, it was very distressing. It was such a fall from power and grace. Clearly the families who were not doing well in Shenyang and Chestnut Flower Village, and Xia-Li in Beijing -- their situations really upset me. And one wonderful thing about the broadcast is all the wonderful offers of help that have been coming in for them. So maybe we can really do something to help them now.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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