Seeing Ourselves in Others8 min read

Tabitha Speelman reviews Zhou Yijun’s Out of the Middle East


What lead to the nationwide bursts of street protests in Iran in the last week of 2017? “Eggs (a bad economy) and headscarves (a lack of freedom),” writes Chinese foreign affairs columnist Zhou Yijun. The former Middle East correspondent’s popular post on Tencent-sponsored platform Dajia goes on to discuss the possible involvement of “hostile foreign forces” (unlikely) and concludes with the need for Iran’s authorities to allow political reform.

Zhou’s article was part of enthusiastic online discussion in Chinese about the protests on either side of China’s Great Firewall. Although a censorship directive to “no longer hype” the protests came out after a couple of days – perhaps prompted by the amount of online commentators rooting for the protesters – earlier articles were not deleted. This space for coverage of political events outside China, where domestic censorship is growing ever stricter, is also what enabled Zhou’s recent book on political reform across the Middle East, including Iran, to get past the censors and into bookstores.

In Out of the Middle East: Witnessing and Reflecting on a Global Tide of Democracy (走出中东:全球民主浪潮的见证与省思), Zhou pursues the growing political demands of the middle class, and the limits to their fulfillment, across no less than sixteen countries. She wrote the book, which came out in mainland China last summer, over the course of three years, after quitting her job as a correspondent for Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV. Out of the Middle East was released in July, along with an updated version of her second book, The Gate to Life and Death: Travels in Palestine and Israel (中东死生门:巴以行走观察) based on her time in Gaza. Her book has a  threefold focus: the stories of people in these many countries, the governance systems under which they live and the lives of Chinese people she meets along the way. The latter’s responses to the political upheaval in front of their eyes, Zhou writes, outline an “increasingly clear Chinese worldview.”

She returns to Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2014, where she had covered the 2011 revolution and witnessed “radiating” crowds demanding political reform. She meets again with people she had interviewed three years earlier. There is the human rights lawyer, now routinely followed by four plainclothes cops. The former hotel guard who retired early when the tourism industry collapsed following the protests. And the activist newswire editor who has fared surprisingly well after General Sisi became president.

The lives of these Egyptian citizens changed dramatically following the uprising, part of the region-wide wave of protests known as the Arab Spring. Zhou, who speaks Arabic and first lived in Egypt as an exchange student in the early 2000s, listens to their stories and asks them about their hopes: how did the revolution affect their ideals? What is next for Egypt’s middle-class? And for the expanding global middle class – loosely defined throughout the book as those who can afford to want more out of life?

Although similar in strategy, Out of the Middle East differs from the translations you find in more liberal bookstores in mainland China, where prominently displayed titles on political reform in other parts of the world offer veiled commentary on domestic issues. Original accounts of foreign affairs by Chinese authors are much rarer, especially when based on extensive first-hand reporting like Zhou’s.  

Zhou Yijun in Tripoli, May 2011. (used with permission of Zhou Yijun)

While her comments on China mostly skirt politics, Zhou does want to speak to the Chinese experience. China’s development has a similar “undertone” to that of the Middle East, she writes. Not only is the country on its way to hosting the world’s largest middle class, both places also share the challenges of balancing long traditions with modernity, all while facing a dominant West. Chinese readers can learn from the middle class in these countries, says Zhou, especially if they are willing to go beyond the “success/failure” dichotomy in which Chinese public debate often gets stuck.

The stories hold their ground without reference to China as well. Bold and funny, Zhou truly connects to the people she meets. She switches between substantial historical background and her experiences as an empathetic outsider, trying to ask the right questions while keeping her headscarf from sliding off (an impatient male interviewee in Iran tells her to just leave it).

A poster of George Clooney competing in size with one of Ayatollah Khomeini in an Iranian mall. Green hair under a black veil. A particularly uncooperative media official. Zhou’s surprises and frustrations can feel familiar to foreign observers of China. Ready to be wrong, she does not refrain from big statements. Occasionally this puts her at risk of pigeonholing events and people to fit her narrative of a world swept up in messy democratic reform. (This, too, feels familiar.)

Out of the Middle East is a classic foreign correspondent’s book then – a good one – written by one of a growing number of Chinese media professionals abroad. Zhou writes that her travels make her more aware of the “umbilical cord” connecting her to her home country. It’s a perspective that shines through in the points she seems most passionate about – “societal change is hard-won,” she writes. China also serves as her frame of reference for life in the Middle East and beyond. Bonn’s broad avenues are like Beijing’s. Think of the Korean War to get a sense of how it felt to go through the Iran-Iraq War. A Maoist spokesperson in Nepal might be compared to a Chinese SAPPRFT official.

Some of the strongest parts of the book are about the Chinese she meets during her travels. In Iraq, she follows workers at a state-owned construction company, who end up being repatriated from their walled-off base after ISIS forces enter the area. They discuss the paradox many Chinese migrants face: sacrificing years away from home to build a better future for their families. She also meets Xiao Zhang, who married an Iraqi woman, has grown a big beard and says he prefers his new home to China “except for the bombings.”

To these compatriots she poses the same questions that she asks of locals, even if she sometimes has to “get up the courage” to do so: “What do you think about democracy?” “Is it working here?” Often, their answers surprise her.

The narrative loses some focus in the second half of the book, where Zhou explores political reform outside the Middle East in places ranging from Venezuela to Liechtenstein. A chapter on Berlin’s celebration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall is interesting for its historical angle on political change (Zhou seems to want to showcase a possible outcome) but feels different from the stories she heard and lived as a correspondent.  

Sometimes, though, the historical and the personal collide. She recalls visiting Berlin as a young woman, where she reads about collective toilet visits at a kindergarten in the former German Democratic Republic. “To this day, even though I cognitively and experientially resist any kind of collective activity,” she writes, “my body sometimes can’t help but follow.” She returns to Berlin five years later, when the German capital is suddenly filled with affluent Chinese tourists who strike Zhou as a marker of how China’s relation to the world has changed.

In those five years, Zhou muses, Chinese demand for international news has grown enormously, seeming to come before “we had the time to look at ourselves.” She points to the 2011 Libyan civil war as the start of a new phase in Chinese war reporting, and to the London Olympics, where the Chinese team was second in size only to host Britain.

Anthropologist Pal Nyiri also notes this trend in his recent book on Chinese foreign correspondents, Reporting for China: How Chinese Correspondents Work with the World. Based on dozens of interviews with reporters for state and commercial Chinese media (the vast majority of Chinese foreign correspondents work for  state-sponsored outlets – Zhou herself started her media career working for Xinhua), Nyiri portrays the group as professional and diverse.

Overall, however, Chinese correspondents also tend to be “pretty accommodating” of the state vision driving the internationalization, Nyiri concludes. Despite the increased number of foreign correspondents and the above-average appetite Chinese people have for foreign news, this notion of spreading Chinese voices as an alternative to Western news means that most foreign coverage fails to “transcend national interests.”

Zhou seems to fall squarely among the minority of well-traveled, cosmopolitan reporters Nyiri finds most interesting. Zhou, too, “domesticates” foreign news, making her reporting accessible for Chinese readers. But she does not do so to amplify some official voice. Rather, she translates years of experience for a readership that is increasingly integrated with all regions of the world. She provides them with a original account of Middle Eastern societies grounded in a Chinese reporter’s perspective – especially significant considering that, until recently, most news and books on the Middle East available in Chinese (and vice versa) came via translation from the West.

A cynical take on this book, coming out in the Xi Jinping era, might point to the very mixed fate of events like the Arab Spring. Chinese middle class: beware. But that would fall into the “success/failure” paradigm Zhou so rightly wants to get away from. Out of the Middle East points instead to the universality of wanting a better life and the variety of ways in which individuals strive for it. That story is China’s story today, in ways that will be obvious to all readers. Perhaps less obvious are the cross-regional similarities Zhou points out, and the ways in which Chinese citizens are already part of these other countries’ stories. ∎

Zhou Yijun, 走出中东:全球民主浪潮的见证与省思 (CITIC Publishing Group, 2017). Featured image provided by Zhou Yijun and used with her permission.