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Friday, December 4, 1998 Published at 17:53 GMT

Carrie Gracie answers your questions

ROBIN: Dan Xhang is on the line. Dan what's your question for Carrie?

Hello this is Dan. My question is what do you think is the most interesting thing in China?

The most interesting thing in China well that's a hard question to answer in just a couple of minutes but I'll give it a try. I think the thing for me is that – to see China which is obviously such a vast country with the world's biggest population, 4,000 year old history, on the whole throughout that time a very insular closed society. And this sudden opening up, over the past 20 years, and the turning of this country around to look out to the outside world and to say: "What can we learn from the outside world?" and then to try and adapt other cultures' experiences into their own economy, society, politics etcetera. And that produces extraordinary things when you meet people on a daily basis, their openness to new ideas is perhaps more, I'd say, now than you meet here in the UK or in Western culture.

Dan what do you think is the most interesting thing happening in China at the moment?

Well I think the most interesting thing in China is the change during the past 20 years, yea.

Much in the same way as Carrie was just describing. Ok let's move on to Matt Pierce who's calling from York here in Britain. Matt what's your question for Carrie?

Hi good afternoon Carrie. Although the recent elections in Hong Kong were not quite as democratic as some would have hoped for, do you ever envisage a time when the 'one country, two systems' approach becomes perhaps more unmanageable?

That's an interesting question. Obviously if anybody in Hong Kong was to push things very hard then it would be interesting to see what Beijing would do in response to that. I mean if you had, for example, another Tiananmen Square and there were huge protest demonstrations in Hong Kong and if Beijing was worrying about how it could keep control on the mainland then it might feel that the battle of having unrest going on in Hong Kong was too dangerous, too hard to handle and they would be sufficiently shaken to drop the 'one country, two systems' approach and to try and move into Hong Kong in a more heavy-handed fashion. I would say however, that they would, in their more reasoned mode, would try to avoid that if they possibly could. I can imagine certain scenarios in which the leadership in Beijing would feel sufficiently rattled by something in Hong Kong as to move in but I think they would try to avoid that on the whole.

Matt what's your feeling?

I just think that it's just going to become a very interesting, very open society eventually and thankfully in the next century. I'm going to spend a few days in Beijing in early August so I'm going to get a chance to savour what I can.

Sandy any e-mail questions?

Carrie you have a fan, I'm sure you have many, but Abiola Oni from Lagos Nigeria says that Carrie is for caring and Gracie is for graceful. Rather nice that isn't it.

It just sums me up!

Daniel Chan in Singapore was fascinated by your biography and wonders if being married to a Chinese helps you to view it with a more Chinese cultural perspective or if you, in fact, see China as an average Westerner?

I think definitely the former. I think it definitely helps. That's not to say, obviously, that people who aren't married to a Chinese can't have a perfectly good understanding of the society but I think the fact of being married to a Chinese person means that you have to view everything in a very long-term way. You have to get inside the head of the Chinese people who you meet everyday and I have a Chinese sister in law, Chinese brother in law, I have a Chinese niece and my husband's grandparents and so on. So I move in that society as much as I move in a Western society. And there is an extent to which traditionally foreign correspondents working in China have been held in these diplomatic ghettos. Their encounters with local Chinese have been controlled to a certain extent by the authorities in China and that has, obviously, made it very hard for them to see the world through Chinese eyes but the fact of obviously of having a Chinese family means I can overcome that to quite a large degree.

Carrie we've got a caller from Moscow. Alexander Amn is on the line. Alexander what's your question?

Hello. Good Afternoon. Well I would like to ask a question about North Korea because I've heard your special report on North Korea and you were speaking there with refugees from this country and they were telling there really horrible things about life in North Korea. And so I was also hearing today a United Nations food programme representative, in Pyong Yang, saying that the situation is alright, that the people are thoroughly supplied with enough food and children and pregnant women are alright. That people are eating some biscuits with grass, cakes with something else -

Alright Alexander I'm going to stop you because let's get the answer to your question. I mean, in general terms Carrie, what is the latest information that you have about the situation in North Korea?

I think my experience of actually hearing the stories of refugees who'd fled to China convinced me that the situation, at least in some places in North Korea, is worse than the aid agencies are able to witness themselves. And that it's hard to know exactly how many refugees are in China. It's hard to say exactly how accurate their accounts are or how their accounts picture the society as a whole because obviously they have been in conditions so extreme as to force them to flee to China. But certainly the stories are horrible and they're sufficiently numerous, in my view, and the evidence presented sufficiently convincing to lead me to think that really conditions in North Korea are very extreme for, certainly, some people.

Two e-mailers in India: Babu Nambia in Bombay and Anan Dwarswarmi from Bangalore want to know what you think about the Tibetans' demand for freedom?

It's a very difficult question. There are many people demanding freedom in China on various counts and obviously many, almost all of them, have difficulties. The Tibetans - it's hard to know when you go to Tibet, I've now been to Tibet only twice and that is because the access to Tibet, for Western correspondents, is very limited. And when I went – the first time I went not as a journalist, the second time I went as a journalist and I have to say that my movements were policed to such a degree that it was almost impossible for me to make an objective assessment of what was going on there or of what people felt there. But my impression certainly was that there are a large number of Tibetans in Tibet who feel, who do feel oppressed, who do feel that they are becoming increasingly outnumbered. My own assessment of the long-term prognosis for Tibet is, I have to say, not a very optimistic one. I think things will, most likely, go on in the same way and that there will be, partly through political controls and partly through the change of the economy, there will be a gradual erosion of traditional Tibetan values, religion etcetera. So I have to say I'm not very hopeful on this front.

We have another caller from China Carrie. Henry Xie calling from Chengdu. Henry what's your question?

I have read some reports about China especially the one about the crackdown on religious groups in China but I know that's not true. As far as I know there are some of the so-called religious groups are actually in accord with a belief which is similar to those of the Boxers one hundred years ago. Since Carrie has been in China for many years she knows very well that Chinese people are to a large extent superstitious so, I don't know, what does she think about it?

Let me just try and clarify your question Henry. Are you saying that you think that some of the reports about the treatment of religious people in China are wrong?

Yes. And another example is I have read some reports, Taiwanese reports, about what happened in Chengdu one month ago. That report said that there was a protest in Chengdu and some people got killed, but that report was actually ridiculous. So I want to ask Carrie how can she distinguish the real news from rumour? It's very difficult for a foreigner to get access in China, so how can she get this problem solved?

It is very hard, you're right Henry, and you just have to do your best, which involves, if at all possible going and witnessing whatever it is with your own eyes. Although, I have to say, that sometimes the Chinese government makes that very hard for us because we're not allowed freely to move around the country. If we want to leave Beijing to go and report on something in some other part of China we actually have to apply for government permission before we actually go and often that permission is not given. So in circumstances like that the only thing that we can do is make extensive enquiries on the phone by – from eye witnesses, from government officials, from police, from hospitals, whatever the nature of the story is, we make as many often as 30, 40, 50 phone calls to ascertain the truth or otherwise of reports.

I have to say that on the question you mentioned about religious freedoms for Christians, I would say not to answer that particular anecdote that you were describing but just to say generally that it is often the case that because China's so vast and because conditions vary so dramatically from place to place, what is true in one locality about the way that religion is being handled in one town or one city or one province, it is often completely untrue for another. So that it is very hard to get an objective assessment of what's happening in the country as a whole because conditions do vary very widely.

As a general point I'd also add that in terms of describing events in China and the fact, as you say, that a lot of the news stories that are written by Western correspondents end up being rather negative about human rights issues or political issues or religious issues. I would say that, from a Western standpoint, often you take an individual case and it looks negative, it looks like there is oppression going on, it looks like there are restrictions on individuals' freedom and often, indeed, there are. But also you have to always remember when dealing with China that you're talking about a society which has emerged, only 20 years ago, from the ideological frenzy and extreme oppression of the Cultural Revolution and it's a society which for 4,000 years has been extremely closed to the outside world and so movement in that society has to be allowed to take place and you can't judge and say, just because today there was this problem here or that problem there, to say that this blackens the reputation of China as a whole, this means that the Chinese authorities are completely opposed to change, opposed to progress. It doesn't mean that at all. You always have to put things in the context of this ongoing progress, the attempt to reform and move away from the restrictions and problems of the past. And so often I find myself, I'm sorry I'm rambling here, but I think, I guess at the end of the day the point I'm trying to make is often I find myself taking a particular example, a particular news story which is quite negative and then trying to tell that story but also to put it in the wider context of the changes that are happening across the society as a whole.

E-mailer S. Roy from Milford in the United States wants to know if you have ever felt uncomfortable in the job that you do?

On many occasions, yes. I mean, it is an uncomfortable job. You find yourself stuck often between the expectations of your audience, whether that's the case of your editors or the public that you're talking to in the outside world and the Chinese Government which is breathing down your neck in Beijing, well quite close to home because they can always haul you into the foreign ministry and tell you that they don't like what you've just said or what you've just filmed or they don't like the way that you've approached an issue. So often you're in an uncomfortable position between your – not exactly your masters but your audiences, a Chinese audience, an official audience on one hand and an editorial audience or a public audience on the other. Also, you know, things can be made practically extremely uncomfortable for you. I've been arrested on a number of occasions, I've spent nights in Chinese police cells, I've been interrogated at length and so indeed has my husband and so indeed have my friends just for the crime of being, well in my husband's case, married to me or going out with me at the time and in the case of my friends just purely by virtue of going out to dinner with me or meeting me.

Carrie let me ask you, I mean, on a personal level because as well as being a correspondent you're also a mother, you have a daughter, you are about to have a second child. As a mother in China how do you find living there on a day to day basis?

It's a different society from here certainly in terms of bringing up children. There are many things which I think are very enlightening and illuminating about the way that Chinese families bring up their children. And there are some things, also, that are frustrating. There's a more, I think partly because Chinese people have to grow up to live in a very overcrowded and under-resourced society, so there is more discipline, there's more discipline for children, and it has to start at an earlier age because people just do have to fit in to that extent more than they do here where there's obviously more space, more money, more resources. And so I sometimes feel that I'm being expected to bring up my daughter in a way that fits a Chinese society but doesn't necessarily fit a Western society and that gives me a problem of thinking, well actually which society do I want my children to fit into?

Sunny Vale, California is on the line – Marco Rubenstein's calling from there. Marco what's your question?

My question is what do you think the reaction of the Chinese government would be if Western leaders were to boycott China?

Well, of course they did slightly boycott for a while after the Tiananmen Square killings in 1989 to a certain extent and for some time. And the reaction of Chinese leaders was a very defensive and prickly one, to say that what they'd done was absolutely necessary and that they would do what was suitable for China and not bother listening to the complaints of the outside world. On the whole, I think, that the probably is the attitude of Chinese leaders. They don't really respond to that kind of outside attack, they prefer a policy of engagement and I think that that's a policy to which they respond better.

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