Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Jon Alpert, director of TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, relates his experiences working in the new China.
WIDE ANGLE: As a frequent visitor to China, you’ve seen firsthand how the country has changed. What changes have surprised you?
JON ALPERT: I first went to China in 1977. It was just as the Cultural Revolution was ending. There was no private business. Everybody was wearing Mao jackets and Mao hats. We stayed in a cinder block hotel. We rented an entire city bus for $10 to go sightseeing. The country seemed relieved and excited that the ordeal of the Cultural Revolution was ending and the days of rigid conformity were coming to a close.
Now the cities are as cosmopolitan as any cities in the West. People are sophisticated. They can even be non-conformist as long as they do not question the political leadership. The leaders are often selfish and corrupt, but if you say so in public — big trouble.
WIDE ANGLE: Your cameraman, Jiang Xueqin, was arrested while filming the labor protests in Daqing. Please tell us what happened and about your efforts to have him released.
JON ALPERT: In January, we were in Afghanistan. There were guns, bombs, warlords, anarchy all around us. We had to hire our own mini-army for protection. The bombs were still falling. But we felt safer in Kandahar than in Beijing. And it was a lot easier filming in war-torn Afghanistan than in China.
From the moment I arrived, I was tailed by the secret police. They tapped our phones. They visited people who we wanted to film and either tried to intimidate them or tried to get them to spy on us.
What were they trying to hide? Not nuclear secrets.
They were trying to hide the millions of unhappy workers who have lost their jobs when inefficient state owned companies were privatized.
Last year 20 million government workers lost their jobs. Many are left without out income or pensions, while the managers of the companies secretly enrich themselves.
In Daqing, laid-off oil workers have been protesting. No reporters have been able to get pictures of these demonstrations. They are arrested. Their tapes and film confiscated.
We sent a member of our team to Daqing. Within five minutes he was apprehended, beaten, and arrested. There were more secret police than demonstrators. He was held incommunicado for 48 hours and told that if he did not sign a confession that he was a spy and that I was the spy master, they would throw him in jail for 20 years. He signed and was deported.
Despite these troubles we made an interesting show about the haves and have-nots of the new Chinese economy.
But for freedom of the press — give me a nice clean war any day instead of the well-organized repression of China’s secret police.
WIDE ANGLE: What is the process of getting permission to film in China? Has the process loosened up since China entered the WTO?
JON ALPERT: It hasn’t loosened for me. Usually I go as a tourist. But this time, I tried to get a working visa. I had been invited to be the keynote speaker at the Beijing Television Festival. I tried to parlay that official invitation into a working visa. Evidently I’m on a PNG list and the visa application was rejected. The disappointed TV executives in China got the Ministry of Information to wire the visa office here in New York. After much grumbling they finally agreed to issue me a visa. I was finally given a visa to address the 3, 000 delegates at the Festival. But the only issued the visa 30 minutes before the last plane that could have gotten me to China on time for my speech, So I missed the festival. The visa office also stamped in my passport in large red letters “NOT ALLOWED TO DO ANY REPORTING.” So maybe when I was filming for this report it was a technical violation of this prohibition. But I figured if the Chinese raise a stink,I could put them in touch with the many critics here who say I’m not really a reporter — I think some of the people still inhabit offices at PBS– and these people would testify that what I do is not real journalism — and I’d be off the hook.
Actually when they arrested Jiang- it was quite intimidating. I was ordered to leave by the people at Wide Angle who are smarter than me and who had the overall responsibility for our safety. I appreciated their concern, and the considerable effort they mounted to try to attain Jiang’s freedom. But I couldn’t leave while he was still in jail.
After his release, I figured another way to try to get the videos of the protesting workers. I would have done it, but my Dad was home, on his deathbed. I didn’t mind facing arrest, but I did not want to be in jail when my father died. I came home and he died in my arms.
The Chinese authorities can not keep their finger in the dike forever. If it is not us, it will be some other more resourceful reporter who will capture the unhappiness and desperation of the people left behind as China builds its new economy.
WIDE ANGLE: China has more millionaires now than ever, but as you showed us in your film, there are many who are left behind. Do you think the gap between the rich and the poor in China will continue to grow? Or will the have-nots catch up?
JON ALPERT: The gap will grow. But as big a problem is the corruption. People can tolerate the outcome of a fair and square competition, even if they are impoverished by the outcome. But if the winners got their victory and spoils by cheating. self-dealing, and abuse of power, the seeds of anger will be sown and only an even more brutal repression will keep the have-nots in place.
WIDE ANGLE: In your film, you introduce the viewers to many different people from various backgrounds. What do you think these people have in common, if anything?
JON ALPERT: There is still hope in China. If you work hard, (really, really hard for some poor people)- most people think they have a chance to climb up a rung on the economic ladder. When upward movement stops- the trouble will begin.
The thing many people have in common is the worship of the dollar. Many other values and measurement of worth in society have been overwhelmed by the pursuit of money.
WIDE ANGLE: In the film you featured a real estate developer who started out as a factory worker as well as a successful businessman who is a son of a poor farmer. Are these rags to riches story typical in China?
JON ALPERT: These people are the exceptions. But the occurrence of this upward mobility, no matter how statistically rare, has given many people hope.