James Chau on Trump, Brexit and the Media's Negligence
At the age of 38, James Chau has had the kind of career that journalists all over the world would envy. The London-born television broadcaster and presenter moved to Beijing more than a decade ago, after graduating from the University of Cambridge; he has gone on to interview everyone from Diane von Furstenberg and Annie Lennox to Aung San Suu Kyi and Robert Mugabe. His work has taken him around the world, as a journalist for China Central Television (CCTV), broadcasting to 85 million people, in his role as China’s National Goodwill Ambassador for UNAIDS, and more recently as WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Sustainable Development Goals and Health.
Yet while his life reporting and speaking around the world is, in some respects, a glamorous one, Chau is grappling with the same issues that worry so many of us today. At the One Young World summit in Ottawa, Canada, he spoke to Newsweek about the parallels between the popularity of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Britain’s vote to leave the EU—and what the media should be doing to hold the powerful to account. He also discussed his own experiences as a person of color growing up in Britain, as well as his struggle with depression. The interview below has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What are you here at One Young World to talk about?
I’m deeply, deeply worried about the chaotic world that we live in today. I’m concerned by what I see as the rise of personality politics, and I’m really disturbed by the silence that continues around some of the issues and some of the individuals that we should be expressing as well.
Do you think the media has to adapt to these circumstances in a different way?
I think the media needs to lead—and I think it’s been negligent in not being the watchdog that it is tasked and mandated to be. I think that when we see Trump traveling from state to state and city to city and you see newspaper outlets or digital or television still obsessed with the oddities of his personality, his hair, the size of his hands. Quite frankly, six or seven months ago, that may have been vaguely amusing. But now you’re normalizing it, now you’re legitimizing it and you’re providing that space to talk about him—but in parallel you’re narrowing the space to discussing the policies or lack of policy that he says that he stands for.
So I think that the media, as Obama has said himself, has been absolutely negligent. Not all media, but certain major media in not providing the right space for the right subjects.
What do you think the traditional idea—especially prevalent in American journalism—of balance and neutrality being part of the reporter’s job?
It’s just gone out of the window, with social media. And I think it needs to. You and I, we’re not reporters, we’re correspondents. If you’re a reporter and you’re just telling the facts and being impartial, then your story should come out exactly the same as the person writing next to you.
Being a correspondent, analyzing it and showing why it’s relevant to your reader or to your audience—that’s something completely different and social media now demands that. It demands us to inject our opinions. You can’t stand by and just report, you’re going to be an activist yourself. That’s what journalism is about; it’s about standing for the truth, it’s about seeking the truth and it’s about telling that truth as well. Holding people to account, to a certain standard which they may or may not be meeting. Isn’t that why we came in to do this in the first place?
Do you think the earlier model of journalism has allowed for false claims to go unchecked?
Unchecked, unquestioned. And when you do that, you say it’s OK. Partly, that’swhat we’re seeing with support for Trump. But I think it’s also a vote for change. Much as Obama was a vote for change against his predecessor. And I think the word change is very, very dangerous. Change is a very dangerous and misleading term to use if change isn’t accompanied by social transformation, a fight against social inequities.
I think that we’re now living in a generation where we think change is enough; in fact change can be more damaging. You want progress, you want transformation, you want something to so inextricably turn on its head that life is better for people at the end of it.
Do you think a similar thing that we see with Trump is what played into Brexit in the U.K. or do you think they’re different phenomena?
I think they’re framed slightly differently, but I think there are some universal values. Brexit reminds me very painfully of my time in high school in London and for seven years I remember being bullied almost every single day. Why I tie it so closely to Brexit is that I always remember people saying: Go back to where you came from . Go home . It was that attitude, that ignorance, that intentional causing of pain that I saw come through in that vote. It wasn’t just people who didn’t want to be held to account by some anonymous mandarins over in Brussels. Well, I mean that’s what happens over in Whitehall too, isn’t it?
I really saw it as a vote by at least a significant enough number of people that they just didn’t want people to join in, and to be part of a mainstream and to participate in the wider economy as well. It reminds me also a lot of the very painful history that this country carries, in the form of colonialism; how to this day it’s still celebrated, where I think it’s something that one needs to look back on with a lot of reflection and also with a lot of shame as well.
I come from a parentage which is hallmarked and pillared by colonialism: my father from Hong Kong; my mother born in Indonesia, so you saw the Dutch influence over there; a little bit of Malaysia, a bit of Singapore thrown in over there. So the way that we grew up, the parameters which we were raised within, were all determined and predetermined by what had happened before us, decades or even centuries before.
When I look at Brexit, when I look at colonialism, and when I remember what I experienced consistently over many, many numbers of years, I feel that pain all over again. It was extremely distressing. I remember crying a lot in the days after that as well. There are universal parallels between this and Trump. It is not only protectionism, but when you do that, you keep people out and you say to them: Stay out because you’re not welcome here. You’re not good enough to be here.
So Make America great again and Take back control come from a similar perspective, then?
That is what Britain itself coined. I mean, which other country in the world calls itself or self-anoints itself as ‘Great Britain’?
It’s interesting too because the reason Britain is multicultural is because of its colonial links. So saying let’s take it back seems to show a lack of recognition about where that fits in with British history.
And people saying: Why did your parents come here? Well, where else would they have gone. You taught them English in schools. You injected that history into that environment, into the minds of thousands; you made it aspirational. And you told them it was the best in the world.
And so that’s why they came over. That’s why people from India came over for jobs. And this was the very heart of what was then called an empire. That’s why they came here in the first place, not because necessarily they chose to, but because you predetermined that choice for them.
I’m extremely proud to be British. And I don’t think that it contradicts anything I’ve said before this. I think you can be proud to be British but you want a certain kind of Britain, a really beautiful one. And when things really work then and click over there, there is really no other country which is more compassionate and more beautiful than the one that I was born and grew up in. But that’s changing.
Are you optimistic about the future in Britain at all?
I don’t think there is a strategy post-Brexit. That’s a disturbing thing. But, at the time of speaking, we haven’t seen the very worst effects predicted to come about in the day or two after the referendum results were released. I think we’re now beginning to dull ourselves and fool ourselves into believing that the impact we were all pre-warned about will never actually happen. No, it’s going to be OK; it’s going to be fine to renegotiate the tariffs of of thousands of products. I don’t see how that’s even going to be possible.
I find that this is now a society more fractured than ever before: Conflicts within the same house; grandmothers and grandchildren not agreeing on the same point. And we’re not just dealing with the legal status of a country, we’re dealing with the emotional identity of individuals, families and communities within.
What about your experiences in terms of being a British citizen working abroad and in China? Have you felt like an outsider there?
I’m very proud to be whatever I am; and whatever different things I represent. The moment I speak, people know that I’m from Britain too and I’m a product of the education and the opportunities that came out of that. I think moving to China was difficult in the beginning because I really couldn’t speak. And when you can’t speak, you can’t communicate properly. But I don’t think you need to choose one or the other.
I think back to my father and I think about how long-sighted he was. He wanted us only to speak English at home, not because he was rejecting our cultures in any way, but because we’d made a conscious decision to move to a country to build our futures there, that he said that his own children will be dealing with a certain level of racial discrimination so the very least he can do is to make sure that they could speak English at least as well as an Englishman born in England. But my father said it wasn’t just about job opportunities. It wasn’t just about assimilation. He said quite simply: It was the ability to communicate, and he would have neglected his duty as a father if his children couldn’t make friends with the people they went to school with.
What do you think about diversity in the media, which tends to be very white?
You know when you do have people of color in the media, they tend to be women. So if you look at Asian, meaning people for example of a Chinese background, on American television, they’re almost always women. They’re very few emancipated examples of East Asian men on frontline roles and that’s not the same with men of South Asian background. I think that our community is a perfect example of how communities have reacted very differently in terms of carving out their identities in so-called foreign cultures.
In the U.K. you see that there are very few examples, or there were hardly any examples when I was growing up, of people of Chinese descent making their mark community-wise: people running for parliament, people in the House of Lords; people who were community leaders at any kind of level. There were very few. I think that was the great difficulty for me, in that I didn’t have role models who showed me that was possible.
At One Young World, you spoke about mental health. Do you think the things you’ve learnt from public health in general are applicable or are there specific challenges when it comes to mental health?
I’ve had my own long struggles with depression, so that comes from a personal position. I think the stigmatization is exactly the same as AIDS, as TB, even for some people living with cancer today. I think when you talk about AIDS, for instance, I think also about compassion, which means caring for the person next to you; defending and being loyal to their right to rights and not being scared of them. And I think with mental health, when we see people with an illness that doesn’t have a wound on your arm or in your organs to show for it, it can be very scary because you simply don’t know why you are as distressed as you are with nothing to show for to the outside world.
Do you think that stigmatization varies across cultures or countries that you’ve worked in?
People feel scared whenever they see someone sitting on the side of the street talking to themselves or they laugh at them or they snigger a little bit; not necessarily out of meanness or wickedness but discomfort and because they don’t know how to react, because it’s easier to just label that person as the crazy person without understanding that they’re coming from their own journey as well.
Outside the gates of where I work in Beijing, we always used to have people sitting outside in the street with their grievances. And they would write these grievances on the back of boxes or on the backs of cloth banners and they would sit there and they would plead for attention because this is their last hope. They’ve come from their villages, their towns, their small cities, all the way to the capital, Beijing and they’re looking for some response of any kind. And if they can’t get their response, they usually come last of all to the television station because they want to at least publicize their grievance.
What that always taught me early on is that you sitting down with them and listening to them may not change their reality but it changes their dignity because they feel respected, because they feel that someone listened to them. I think that’s the first important aspect. And while mental illness does need to be treated with medication, a lot of it can be treated just with a space for understanding, kindness and just letting someone talk and listening to them.