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China through an Ethiopian’s eyes

Its sheer population size and a galloping economy are probably two things that readily come to mind when one comes across the word “China”. This visage belies a nation soldiering along for generations under a one-party rule. Inculcated from their young ages on the analects of Confucius, the Chinese are an inward-looking people who take great pride in their history and culture. However, in this digital age, China (with the sole exception of North Korea) appears to be the only country where the Internet as well as social media platforms is highly regulated by the state. The Reporter’s Meheret-Selassie Mokonnen got a taste of that when she, along with a group of international participants, recently took part in a three-week-long seminar on the media. In this week’s issue of the paper, she reflects on her experiences there and more.

Traditional Chinese music, played mainly using flutes and other traditional stringed instruments, introduced me to China as a teenager. I have a selection of the soothing and calming classical Chinese songs on different gadgets.

Some stringed Chinese traditional music instruments have actually their Ethiopian counterparts in the form of masinko and kirar. Actually, their centuries-old traditional music is one of the pervasive genera in the world.

As an arts and culture writer, I had to dig more about China’s history, culture and artistic pieces apart from the renowned music. In this regard, I can mention numerous facts that interconnected me to the country prior to my recent visit.

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I have always been fascinated by the architectural splendor of the Great Wall of China, built east to west across China to protect the empire from invasions. That is not all. “The Art of War,” by the general, military strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu, served me as a gateway to the country.

The Chinese New Year festival (spring festival), celebrated at the turn of the traditional luni-solar Chinese calendar, is one of the top cultural events I always wanted to visit. And I hope I will get to attend the spring festival accentuated by lion and dragon dances.

The Chinese way of life might not be that foreign for an Ethiopian since a glimpse can be caught through popular Chinese movies and a bunch of Chinese martial arts training centers at every corner of Addis. Moreover, a growing number of Chinese are living in Ethiopia, mainly engaged in the construction sector.

These days, it is becoming more common for Ethiopian businesspeople to visit China frequently, which is one of the reasons behind the increasing number of Mandarin tutors here. Chinese characters are one of the artistic forms of logographic writing and I got more interested in learning the language after interviewing Lina Getachew, an Ethiopian who published a Mandarin-Amharic guide.

As part of the mounting cultural exchange, Chinese cuisine is becoming more popular with the opening of Chinese restaurants in Addis. Many, myself included, enjoy sizzling chicken and noodles among other traditional Chinese food.

Having these prior exposures and with more expectations, I was delighted heading to China to attend “the 2017 Seminar for Omni-media Reporters of Developing Counties,” organized by the Research and Training Institute of State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television from June 21st to July 11th, 2017 in Beijing, China.

After a ten-hour flight, which I spent trying to match what I already knew about China with what I would actually be experiencing once I get there, I arrived at Beijing International Airport at night.

At the airport, I met delegates from Kenya, Nigeria, Malawi and Zimbabwe. They were among the 65 seminar participants drawn from 23 countries. We discussed about the use of new media in present-day Africa, since it was the very subject we flew all the way to Beijing for.

We evaluated the new media development in our respective countries. In this information age, a.k.a. the digital age, the media platform is evolving technology-wise as other aspects of our lives. Nonetheless, living in developing countries, none of us could dare say we have reached the same stage as the rest of the world.

But still we were comparing notes stating how our countries embraced new media vis-a-vis other African countries. Finally, we came to a common ground, realizing how the African media landscape is challenged due to lack of infrastructure, especially when it comes to electricity and Internet connection.

After exchanging money to Renminbi (RMB), we were taken to a nearby hotel – a Holyday Inn. As soon as we got to the hotel, our gadgets readily picked up the Wi-Fi network, but getting access to the sites we wanted to was impossible. That is when we all remembered that Google does not work in China.

What is more, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China. While in China, one can only access China-based sites such as Baidu, Alibaba, Weibo and WeChat.It feels as if one is cut off from the rest of the world, where one only hears about China, reads about China and talks about China.

We spent 21 days in Beijing and one of China’s provinces, Ningxia, learning about new media in China. We had journalist trainers working at Chinese broadcast and print media. They gave us short courses on how Chinese media made strides over the years. With a population of about 1.4 billion people, China is the most populous country in the world, and media there depend on digital platforms to spread information speedily.

Anyone who got a chance to witness how people in the country are glued to their smart phones would easily understand why the media needed to evolve. I have not seen anyone who was not staring at his/her phone in the subway, cafes or any corner of the city I have been to. It is nearly as if they were removed from their surroundings, engrossed in the digital world.

Before getting busy with the training, I had a chance to meet representatives from different countries, which gave me an insight into their perceptions about Ethiopia. Most of them were curious to know about the culture, language and politics. Many asked me about the Ethiopian calendar and alphabet, which are different from those of the rest of the world.

On a more personal level, few of the delegates were delighted to share their connection with the country. I met a Bahamian journalist whose father is living in Ethiopia, married to an Ethiopian. He recently visited Addis Ababa, and told me he felt like Ethiopia is his second home, and that was the reason his father moved to Ethiopia too.

A Filipino delegate told me his brother is teaching at Adama University and he had never met an Ethiopian before, but heard about the country from his brother.

In addition to representatives from Mauritius, Colombia, Lebanon, Ukraine, Panama, Guyana, Mongolia and other countries, I easily related to those from Jamaica. Most of them were aware of the historical ties between the two countries and we spoke about Ethiopia being a symbol for black peoples’ emancipation, Rastafarianism, repatriation and Emperor Haile Selassie I.

All in all, the delegates embraced each other and went on to inviting one another to visit their respective countries. Throughout the training, many shared snippets of their country’s culture, history and social mores.

Guan Juan, the deputy director of China Radio International (CRI), was one of our trainers who highlighted the transition from traditional to new media. She stated that to align with the growing number of Internet users, media has to transform to digitized ways. Nowadays, the audience has various choices, and will definitely subscribe to the easily accessible one.

For example, 93.5% of Chinese people get their news via mobile phones. Besides, the more the media is getting closer to the people, the more money they make. She advised: “Modernize and strengthen your media outlet; otherwise, you will witness the death of your media.”

Other journalists from different media outlets indicated the same thing. Two of our trainers -- Li Zhi Yong and Wang Ling -- elaborated the usage of new media in reporting news as fast as possible and as a means of creating a platform where the audience can easily express opinions. One of the focus of the training was the application of virtual reality, which we got to experience as part of our field trip.

Creating an illusion as if one is actually present at a certain place, virtual reality is the next big thing in video technology. The questions posed to us were, ‘Would new media supported with such technologies replace traditional media?’  Or, ‘Is there a way for the two to coexist?’ Though the answer can be debatable, many responded it is better to find a way to balance the two forms of media while gradually evolving to the new age.

During our field trip, we got to visit how the leading Chinese media outlets operate. China Global Television Network (CGTV), China Radio International (CRI), the People’s Daily newspaper and other media outlets are the most sophisticated institutions with digital control rooms that follow each and every one of their activities. They have a digital global map that controls their subscribers’ activities, more specifically, the programs most tune in to.

The most surprising thing for me was the digital archiving at the People’s Daily. Every newspaper they published since1948 is just one click away. One is only required to insert date, month and year of publication, and voila, the newspaper appears on the screen within seconds.

During our visits, most seminar participants wondered how come every media outlet in China is state-owned; and not having private media outlets would not stand in the way of freedom of speech? And does blocking global social media platforms not affect citizens? Our trainers and public relations of the medias we visited responded the Chinese media thoroughly covers relevant issues and the people are satisfied with the information provided by China-based social media platforms.

Comparing their digital platforms to the Ethiopian media context, it is clear it will take us years to reach where they are now. Although the interest is there, everything depends on the infrastructure provided. In the future, expansion of electricity and Internet connection might pave the way for media to evolve.

Certainly, at this stage it is difficult to compare China -- where there are smart communities, and where everything is digitized -- with Ethiopia. Then again it cannot be denied the starting up of online media and mainstream media joining the digital world shows a glimpse of hope for the country.

Though it is mesmerizing to see a digital trash can, a kitchen that is controlled by a remote control in the smart communities, there is some human element missing to it. Maybe this is a result of the closed culture of the country. Visiting historical sites such as the Great Wall of China, the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square was more rewarding.

Economy wise, the opposing sides of China present themselves as Ferraris and Lamborghinis zoom by in a country where around 70 million people live in poverty. The contrast is more visible outside of the capital city, Beijing.  China being one of the most visited countries might eventually help when it comes to the people opening up to the world.

Trying to match my expectations to the reality, I found the Chinese people to be cultured, who value their history, philosophy and religious practices. This can be witnessed by looking at how they approach their centuries-old temples. The gods and goddesses are depicted everywhere alongside other symbolic expressions, including dragons.

Most Chinese do not speak English, and they do not seem to be bothered by that. Even our training was conducted in Mandarin, and it had to be simultaneously translated into English. Seems like it is up to us outsiders to find a way to communicate with them. I was using Google translate to communicate since my Mandarin cannot go past hello and thank you.

The air in this industrialized country is highly polluted and, as a result, people walk around wearing masks. Beijing is warmer compared to Ningxia. Yet, the summer season contributes to the warmness, global warming takes the lion share. As a result, China is forging ahead with adopting the green economy, planning trees at every corner of the country.

Amazingly, everything in the world has a Chinese version in the land of Confucius - including most popular websites, drinks and accessories. They prefer to do everything on their own terms, and focus on Chinese-based matters. My reflection lies somewhere between two margins, i.e. focusing on their own selves might be the reason behind the fast growth of the economy and, on the other hand, it is actually creating a closed society.

Few hours before I returned home, I and ten other participants staged a drama entitled, “China Through Our Eyes,” which was aided by audio-visual materials. We dealt with issues such as China’s language barrier, tourism, business, international relations, the visual arts and cinema. Our group members, who are from different parts of the world, were united in speaking about China. It was our way of reflecting on our common experiences there, and expressing gratitude to our hosts.