Muckrackers & Party Hacks: Dancing with Chains

Tsinghua Univ.'s Grand Auditorium

“Chains” are, of course, the censors. I learned about this dance yesterday, at a “dialogue” panel at a prominent J-school with 3 visiting U.S. columnists, including delightful Eugene Robinson, Washington Post, he of booming baritone and Pulitzer prize. (Yesterday’s column: first impressions of Beijing…familiar brands, like Starbucks, in the posh district, and the observation that we’re so interdependent now, China-bashing campaign rhetoric is “unrealistic, dishonest or just dumb.”)

The dialogue was sponsored by Tsinghua University (sort of China’s Harvard–nextdoor was the building where Hu Jintao studied hydraulics). Its School of Journalism and Communications includes a Global Business Journalism program underwritten by Bloomberg, where my new friend Joseph Weber, BusinessWeek‘s former Chief of Correspondents, is teaching this fall. (Tonight I’m hosting a pizza party for Joe & my students, a sort of journalism salon/Q&A, with coconut drinks.)

We know SO LITTLE about China’s media. China has 67 sophisticated business publications, the dean said. China has established 800 j-schools in the past 15 years, and has in total 930 journalism schools or departments. Yet many of China’s elderly rely on handwriting on community blackboards, for the day’s most important news, said the dean. What is a Chinese journalist? “A mainstream journalists defines himself as a Party worker,” he said. “Culture,” media & entertainment, “is not an industry but a mission–a Party task force.”

Journalism school must instruct in “how the CCP built its governing logic” so reporters can watch, record, and help local & international readers understand: “If you don’t understand our ruling logic, how our leaders think, you can’t cover China.” J-schools ALSO offer courses in Western-style reporting–another tool, as China undergoes “experiemnts,” he said. “We want America’s philosophy and professionalism, exposure to different practices, to influence our students.”

The dean said he’s training the government’s spokesman, a good illustration of the Party-Jschool-media relationship. (Thanks to this training, the spokesman now tweets with China’s Twitter, Weibou.) “Journalists should care for the downtrodden, the working class, the regional poor,” he added, and said China had far more public-service writing, such as coverage of East Africa’s famine, than the U.S. media. (I’m not so sure about this claim, but it’s possible.) “You have press freedom, yet neglect this important phenomenon,” [famine], he said.

The American visitors (Des Moine Reigster, LA Times), while cordial, seemed nonplussed. They asked about access to information (question dodged), about censorship and self-censorship. Slightly awkward. Gifts were given, hands were shaken. Dialogue, maybe; mutual understanding, mmmmmm….

And yet. There are muckrakers here, whose work would make any reporter proud. Hong Kong University’s brilliant China Media Project (HK functions under different rules), which monitors the mainland press, in 2010 collected the best of this work–done by Party organs, mostly, in Investigative Journalism in China: Eight Cases in Chinese Watchdog Journalism. These official-Party-newspaper stories expose corruption (regional rather than central), legal fraud, commercial and manufacturing wrongdoing. AIDS, charities, disaster reporting, the taxi industry, even media corruption.

Kicker courtesy of a Tsinghua journalism professor at the dialogue: “We have an expression: ‘Dancing with a chain.’ You should dance. You need to dance. But, of course, we have chains.”

One comment on “Muckrackers & Party Hacks: Dancing with Chains

  1. sandra stingle says:

    This is so interesting. We were in China a few years ago and have been very interested in following you now to see what has changed, and what it is like to have a deeper experience. So interesting. Thanks! I got the link through Max and appreciate the connection.


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