< Journalism With Chinese Characteristics


Friday, June 20, 2008

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week we're in China, taking stock of its effort to rebrand itself as a modern player on the world stage.
Mostly we're considering how the Chinese media are serving both that effort and a nation caught up in the chaos of transformation.
Next stop, Shenzhen. Urbanizing the rural poor is a high priority in China, hundreds of millions of them in the next 15 years. Many of them will be women who take factory work in one of China's boomtowns, the boomingest of which is Shenzhen.
Once a fishing village across the border from Hong Kong. Now it's one of the fastest growing cities in the world. That furious growth dates from the time in 1979 when it was designated a special economic zone, a Petri dish for experiments in capitalism.
The human reactants are immigrants, like Hu Xiao Mei, who fled the coalmining town of her youth in 1992 with the equivalent of 64 bucks in her pocket.
At that time, there were many TV dramas about young people who enter Shenzhen, changing jobs, looking for jobs. It was from those dramas that I first heard about Shenzhen.
Even now, there are countless young people coming to Shenzhen Railway Station. They are young and have nothing, so they have nothing to lose.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What happens to them? Where do many of these people wind up?
That depends on the kind of work they do. As far as I know, in some foreign-founded factories in Shenzhen they have thousands of workers. They live in dorms, eight to ten to a room. They shuttle from dorm to factory and factory to dorm. The daily life is boring.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hu Xiao Mei worked at a mineral water factory until she called in to a radio program and spoke about her own dreams of hosting a show. The passion of the factory girl with the smoky voice eventually won her that chance.
At Night You're Not Lonely is the top rated radio show in a city of some 12 million people. Why? Well, some say that the women here outnumber the men seven to one. Nothing they learned back on the farm prepares them for the cold calculus of life in Shenzhen.
From 1993 right up 'til 2007, women who were ruled by curfews and stacked like cordwood in company dorms found some clarity in matters of sex and money, loneliness and exploitation in the clear eyed counsel of the petite, prematurely wise Hu Xiao Mei, the factory girl's tough minded guru.
Actually, every city in China has an evening talk show. But, as far as I know, the style of those hosts, their response to the callers is relatively gentle and comforting. My program is tougher. I want to tell them the truth. I want to point out the problems they don't want to confront.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You tell them when they are the cause of their own problems.
I tell the women in my audience to respect themselves, think independently and take control of their lives.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It strikes me that given the changing nature of economic life in China and the changing role of women within that life, that taking control of one's own life may be the hardest advice to follow.
Yes, because the world we face and the fast changing environment are beyond anyone's imagination. Everyone needs time to grow up. All people, me included, have to gradually grow up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What we've heard is that traditional Chinese media can't keep up with the interests, needs and requirements of the new generation. Are there any media around, any sitcoms or series that reflect their own lives back at them, that they can recognize?
On my show, I would tell listeners my personal experience. Many of them have heard the tape of me when I was a listener calling in, so they saw I was just an ordinary woman, and they would think, if you can do it, why can't I?
You know, the demographics were different when I was hosting the show. There was no so called "elite audience" back then. People were pretty much the same. Then, people rode bicycles and took buses back and forth to work.
Now more and more of them own private cars.
So they make programs for the elite because that's who the advertisers want, and they ignore the rest of the audience.


But the Communist Party wants the Chinese media to appeal to the whole audience. How else to battle the enticements of the foreign press?

So, in 2002, Propaganda Chief Li Changchun announced a new approach to media control, called the Three Closenesses, namely, closeness to reality, closeness to the masses and closeness to real life.

Maybe that's why Yang Jinlin's Hong Kong based TV news show is allowed to air in the Mainland.

He's a chubby man in a Tang Dynasty jacket with a regional accent and a jackhammer delivery. He races through a wide range of stories in front of a screen projecting headlines from The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. He's nothing like the drab anchors intoning official news on the state owned CCTV.

He has nailed the Three Closenesses. And the people love him, love him especially because of his occasional winks and nods. He'll run up to a touchy subject and then stop and say, I'm not going to say anything about that. You can fill in the blank.

Remember that metaphor about doing journalism that you heard earlier, the one about the monkey dancer in the Peking Opera who gracefully contorts himself under an eight legged table? Yang Jinlin is like a monkey dancer.

There's a saying in Mainland China that the politicians run the press. Of course, I am not a politician. I am an artist. An artist can control the rhythm but he must also uphold the basic principle that the people have a right to know. I send that message out in the TV show, but I don't want to be a martyr because if we martyr ourselves then our platform will disappear.

The platform? Well, that's like the table under which the monkey dances. Those eight legs he has to dance around, those are the forbidden topics, not open to discussion, at least not by journalists.

People talk about three T's and an F.

Jeremy Goldkorn is the founder of the indispensable Chinese media blog Danwai.org, based on Beijing. The three T's he cites are Tibet, Taiwan and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The F is the religious practice Falun Gong.

If I were to write extensively a pro Tibet independence point of view or pro Taiwan independence or a lot about Falun Gong or about the events in 1989 here, it's likely that I would be blocked or shut down.

There's also a lot of sensitivity about the Cultural Revolution. A lot of ordinary people did bad things in the Cultural Revolution. Some of those ordinary people are in powerful positions in the government and in business today.

Finally, the government is quite clearly threatened by any organization which seeks to question its legitimacy. So the dissidents who get locked up are generally locked up because they are explicitly deemed by the government a threat to state security or subversive elements.

But, you know, to talk about someone who took a risk and went over the line, it's a friend of mine who — I don't want to talk about his details on the record — but he had a blog in which he was writing about a film he was making about underground churches.

And he met with various people that are deemed in China "sensitive people," in other words, people the government are looking at with displeasure. And he was detained, without explanation, by security police for three months. And

Three months?

Yeah. And his family couldn't communicate with him. There was no charge. And it was a very strange time here for me and several other people who write about — blogs or are in the Chinese blog scene, because there were two different points of view about how to deal with this.

My point of view was that everybody should keep quiet and not make him into some kind of martyr or some kind of hero for a dissident cause, because that would make it much more difficult for him to get out, whereas there were some other bloggers, including friends of mine, who had completely the opposite point of view and were basically starting this campaign to get the guy free, you know, with little buttons on blogs and websites, saying, "Free Mr. X" and this kind of thing.

And it was a time for me of great sort of moral questioning, because every night I'd go to sleep and think, you know, this guy's been detained, and have I been co opted? Am I part of the conspiracy of silence that I'm not willing to talk about this? Or am I being smart and they're being naive?

Eventually, his friend was released and left the country. But who's to say which approach got him sprung? Maybe neither.

The Chinese authorities loosen and tighten their hold on the media in response to the diplomatic climate and the political wind. And every once in a while, the ground shifts right under them and they lose their grip entirely. That's what happened last month.

The earthquake redefined how the government worked, it redefined the relationship between the media and the government and the society, which is the fundamental compact that allows journalists to function and operate, to begin with.

The Kissinger Institute's Joshua Ramo.

And it was an earthquake not only in the physical sense of what happened in Sichuan but in the sense that it took everything up in Beijing and, like in any earthquake, it shook it.

Well, yes and no. It shook it for a little while. At first, some government officials tried to keep a lid on reporting, but it blew off immediately. And then they tried to suppress the coverage of shoddy school construction, but that's also getting out.

In Beijing, we crashed an editorial meeting where a lot of that coverage is being generated, one of the boldest, smartest, monkey dancing news outlets in China, the business magazine Caijing. Senior writer and law editor Duan Hongquing says the Sichuan earthquake did not cause a media earthquake.

There are several reasons why the earthquake reporting is so good. In 2003, closing down the media during the SARS epidemic had serious consequences. Then, there was the ice storm incident earlier this year. Their response was too slow. The openness and the quick response to the earthquake is based on the lessons of the past.

Anyway, an earthquake is a natural disaster. It's not anyone's fault. That's why they can be so open.

Caijing has undoubtedly infuriated the authorities with its aggressive coverage of the unsound schools, just as it did with its coverage of river pollution and its investigation of a crooked Shanghai mayor. Last year, one of its covers was pulled because of a story, but Caijing has never been shut down.

Why? Partly because the reporting is solid and no one can pick it apart, partly because it has an international reputation and the government doesn't want to look bad, and partly — well, here's where the monkey dancing comes in.

It's pretty simple. Never take a stand against everybody's interest. Here in China, the people who run things have competing interests. Everyone knows that you can't say you want to overthrow the government, but if [you] exploit the differences within the government, pitting one person against another, then you can be relatively safe.

Also, don't write clearly. A lot of people say that the writing of Caijing is too boring. It's not that we don't know how to write a sexy piece. We do it on purpose. For instance, in the pollution case we used a lot of scientific terminology, and in the case of the Shanghai mayor we used a lot of legal jargon. So when officials look into it, they simply suspect something's fishy but they can't tell what.

The other part, of course, is simpler still. Courage.

We all know that there's a law in China and it's electrified. If you touch it, you're dead. All the media know this, so they draw their own line. They create a safety zone of, say, 50 meters, and they don't get closer than that.

But Caijing is different. It gets closer. Has Caijing already reached the line and survived? We're not sure where the line is, so I can't say. [LAUGHS]

The provisional newspaper Southern Weekend also is famous for its swashbuckling exposes but, like all newspapers, it must submit to rules imposed by the local authorities where it is based. If it violates them, it can be shut down. So Southern Weekend does its tough reporting in other provisions, where it's not subject to local regulation, because it's not based there. Get it?

Another thing about Southern Weekend, it's always losing its editors, usually after a series of probing investigative pieces. Qian Gang is one such editor. Now he directs the Chinese Media Project at the University of Hong Kong. He says that the staggeringly long list of ex Southern Weekend editors is partly the result of internal decisions taken reluctantly to ensure the paper's survival.

Another thing we have to understand about a lot of these removals of editors is that they are actually undertaken by the Southern Daily group itself as a political sort of protective measure. It's not necessarily the Central Propaganda Department that is taking the action, or national level leaders, although that has happened, too.

So then at Southern Weekend, losing your editor after a politically sticky story is an occupational hazard. Even more than that, it's simply the cost of doing business.

But, of course, there's a limit to how much of this occupational hazard we can take. If all of my reporters [LAUGHS] and all of my editors are forced to leave, then I can't continue my professional journalistic work.

As for Gang himself, he was canned after a series of investigative reports, by order of higher authorities. But, he says, there's plenty more monkeys where he came from, all primed to work in a world he sums up with three C's: control, change and chaos.

When we talk about this chaos we're talking about describing what is now an extremely complex media climate, you could say, in China today. We have internationalization, you know, that's gone along with commercial or economic reforms. We have the growth of new media and the Internet, in which we can also see these forces again of control and change both.

And we have commercialization of the traditional media where they're increasingly listening to audiences, as well as the political establishment.

There is a saying in China, "When you're angry, write poetry." [LAUGHS] This really does speak to the feelings, I think, of many Chinese journalists. Of course, they're working in an extremely difficult situation, but there's a feeling that they, if they persist, you know, they can do good work.

Because sometimes the government can't stop it and sometimes it finds it useful. The authorities may welcome the chance to remove a local pol because Southern Weekend caught him with his hand in the cookie jar.

The people who most closely watch Chinese media and work in it say that self censorship does most of the Party's work for it and a discrete call from a ministry does the rest.

The threat of prison looms, but it's rarely applied, even when it comes to jailed cyber dissidents. China may lead the world with several dozen of them. But with upwards of 50 million bloggers, few of them fear that midnight knock on the door.

Why? Because the controls that are in place are much more subtle. People's blog hosting companies, blog hosting services are just deleting their posts, but nobody's calling them up and questioning them.

Rebecca MacKinnon teaches at the Journalism and Media Studies Center at the University of Hong Kong.

You have a situation where people just are not able to access a certain range of information.

You just can't load a particular site.

Yeah., yeah. Let's say in the United States there was a filtering system in place so that somebody surfing on the Internet would not just stumble across information about Abu Ghraib or information about Guantanamo or about secret surveillance programs by the Bush Administration.

Let's just say that all of our ISPs and blog hosting services in the United States were required to either block that stuff or take it down.

And let's say we just were not aware of this information. We might be going around thinking we were relatively free, but just kind of living within a certain tunnel.

And this is kind of what's happening in China. So when you talk to Chinese urban middle classes and you ask them - are you upset with your government, do you feel oppressed, are you ready to go and, you know, engage in an orange revolution or a — you know, take to the streets and bring down your government? They say, absolutely not, you Western interloper!


Coming up, subversion with a stuffed panda, and why is everyone hating On Confucius in Beijing? Also wolves. This is On the Media from NPR.