Andrea Yu: flack, hack, discuss

16 Nov

andrea yu hodgkinsonI was at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club’s 30 anniversary on Ice House Street last week. Now I do like to complain about the patchy Wi-Fi, the braying, ruddy-faced “it’s all gone downhill since ‘97” members and the lack of pork scratchings at the bar, but it’s actually pretty bloody good. Not only can you get sozzled for around a tenner – no easy feat in Hong Kong – but to be surrounded by faded images and clippings from some of the defining moments of the 20th century is pretty awe-inspiring for a hack. From the savage conflicts in Vietnam and Korean, to Nixon toasting Zhou Enlai and Mao and Chiang Kai-Shek celebrating after the Japanese surrender, the reportage scattered all over the walls of this venerable old building tell of brave journalistic deeds.

This long pre-amble is to put into context the rather depressing PR efforts of the Communist Party and the plight of one particular ‘journalist’ at the centre of the only interesting thing to happen during the Party Congress this week – Andrea ‘Yu’.

Now, Yu sprung to fame by virtue of being one of the few foreign journalists during the endless Congress press conferences to be picked by officials to ask questions. In uber-paranoid China, only hacks from the state-run press are usually called upon, because the Party would rather not open the floor to those who might asking challenging questions. However, it turns out Yu, much to the chagrin of other laowai journos at the event, was picked on four separate occasions to ask questions. Hmmm.

In her defence she told WSJ that she was chosen so frequently by virtue of sitting in the same spot at every press conference and by making direct eye contact with the moderator. Really? It’s that simple? Oh, no, there’s one other, minor reason why she kept on getting picked: her employer, Australia-based Global CAMG Media International, is actually majority owned by Chinese state-owned media, and her Chinese colleagues wrote all her questions down for her.

Thus, we were treated to gloriously incisive questions such as: “Please tell us what plans and policies the Chinese government will be implementing in co-operation with Australia.” Or how about the challenging: “After the 18th Party Congress, what policies and measures will there be to support overseas Chinese media to publicise and promote Chinese culture, to propel Australian-Chinese cultural exchanges to the next level?” Brilliant. Worthy of Paxman, that one.

If you want to hear the hapless Yu explain herself, prepare to cringe at the following interview with a real Ozzie hack.

I was undecided whether Yu was simply a naïve young hack who did her best – in fluent Mandarin and English, no less – at an intimidating event and with employers who expected a certain line of enquiry from her. And then I found out from Beijing Cream that her real name is actually Andrea Hodgkinson. How do we know? Because she is referred to thus on the cover of a Chinese magazine where she appears in a rather lovely dress. CAMG apparently tweeted a picture of that magazine cover, and then hastily deleted said tweet. Something to hide guys?

You may ask, with the entire weight of its state media to ask soft questions, why did the Party effectively get a foreigner on board to do exactly the same? Well, it’s all about cache, and seeing a white-face-round-eye serving up the kind of embarrassingly banal questions that make Charlotte Church look like David Dimbleby was all part of China’s ongoing attempts to legitimise its one party system and soften its image in the eyes of international onlookers. In its insulated, culturally homogenous cocoon the Party obviously believed it could get away with it – that no-one would notice or mind that it had hired an attractive young bilingual laowai to basically do its own PR.

At the FCC event last Friday, chief secretary of the Hong Kong government, Carrie Lam, spoke eloquently and passionately about the Club, about Hong Kong and about the importance the new administration attaches to press freedom. Seeing what happened across the border this week makes those words even more telling. If ‘Yu-gate’ was to be the first salvo in the new Party leadership’s soft power media efforts, then let’s hope this initiative at least has been well and truly raped in a ditch.

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