What faces China’s future journalists?

During the first session of our “Reporting China” class, part of our journalism master’s program curriculum at the University of Hong Kong, the classroom was full of expectant faces. We had students from all sorts of backgrounds — some only recent college graduates, others experienced journalists returning for further studies. To start off the class, veteran journalist and CMP director Qian Gang asked for a show of hands: how many students planned to make journalism a career? Hands sprung up across the classroom like bright spring shoots.

In the discussion that followed, however, the misgivings of these students became clear as well. “Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of journalism in China?” one student asked. Another student, from mainland China, asked: “Should we remain in Hong Kong to work as journalists, or should we return to the mainland?”

These were really two separate but related questions. The first was about the broader environment and outlook for journalism in mainland China. The second was about their own professional choices and planning for the future.

A short time back, the International Press Institute solicited articles for a special volume on the future of journalism to mark the organization’s 60th anniversary. I interviewed a lot of young Chinese journalists to prepare for my own section dealing with China. When I asked for their views on the future of journalism in the country, these journalists were clearly conflicted. On the one hand, there was no denying that media development in China had in some respects been strong in China in recent years. On the other hand, a whole range of pressures on media, both old and new, cast a long shadow over the future of journalism. Journalists faced the usual pressures from state media controls, and they had to grapple at the same time with new and growing pressures from commercial forces. The upshot was that, despite limited gains of sorts, these journalists felt that freedom of speech was being sidelined.

Noting the many changes in the press environment in recent years, one young journalist remarked how it was now possible, for example, for media to criticize the government with some degree of freedom so long as criticism focused on government below a certain administrative level. And now, they said, Chinese media tended to crowd around major news stories as they broke, affording some strength in numbers. In the past, more outspoken newspapers like Southern Weekend might have acted on their own and taken on greater risk.

One of the most notable changes in recent years has been that disaster reporting is no longer a forbidden zone in China. Natural disasters, such as major floods, are no longer sensitive terrain.

One of the biggest stories in China this year, a string of suicides by workers at the contract manufacturer Foxconn, might have been handled in a sensational manner only a few years ago, the deeper implications glossed over. This year, though, the net impact of the Foxconn suicides was substantial. Mainstream media and the Internet drew widespread attention to underlying issues such as labor conditions, worker’s welfare and mental health. As a result, the government and Foxconn were forced to deal with the issue head on. On the heels of the Foxconn affair, there was a string of strike actions in China as workers demanded wage increases and better conditions. For media and society, these all marked significant progress.

After a toxic spill at a facility in Fujian operated by Zijin Mining Group, Hu Shuli’s New Century magazine and Guangzhou’s The Time Weekly reported aggressively on the incident, exposing close collusion between the mining company and the local government, which had many officials under direct employ by the company. In a follow-up report, China Youth Daily revealed that Zijin Mining Group had tried to pay off news reporters to cover up the toxic spill.

On the flip side of these advances, however, we see the erosion of progress in other areas. For example, we have seen blanket reporting of all sorts of news stories in China in recent years, but seldom do we find in-depth reporting into the causes of these news incidents,such as corruption or lack of institutional readiness. Disaster reports tend to linger on surface details, the deeper causes still a matter of sensitivity.

Journalists say they also have to contend much more with commercial pressures on news reporting. In the midst of fierce competition in the financial media segment, several leading financial publications have expanded their investigative coverage of Chinese listed companies. These companies have fought back with their own pressure campaigns, employing public relations companies (many of which can lobby their connections to suppress coverage), local government patronage, and pressure from the state media control apparatus to pay off and intimidate journalists and media.

The large number of cases this year of reporters being sought for arrest or attacked after writing critical reports on listed companies are good examples of this trend. In two recent cases, Fang Xuanchang (方玄昌), science editor at Caijing magazine, was attacked by hired thugs, and Qiu Ziming (仇子明) of the Economic Observer was sought with an arrest warrant.

The blocking of reports by the National Business Daily on the Bawang affair and media reporting of the Shengyuan milk powder case indicate just how closely economic and political power are working together to suppress news coverage. Media generally lack the strength to contend with pressure from the government and business oligarchy. And rent-seeking behavior by media themselves is also a major problem.

Recent visits by Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao to Shenzhen have ignited discussion of political reform, and the political reform issue is absolutely critical to the future of journalism in China. If there is no meaningful change in the political sphere, if administrative power is not effectively reformed, and if the independence of the police, the judiciary and prosecutors cannot be credibly ensured, further breakthroughs for Chinese media will be difficult and the situation for Chinese journalists will not improve substantially.

In his opening lecture to students, Qian Gang played a recording of veteran journalist Liu Binyan (刘宾雁) made late in his life when he was seriously ill and in exile in the United States. “I, a man from China who must come finally to rest here, said what I must say and did what I must do,” said Liu Binyan. “My only wish is that our nation will cherish the brightest and best of her new generation, allowing them to say what they must say and do what they must do on the soil of their mother country.”

The extent to which China’s newest generation of journalists will be able to say what they must depends both on progress in the larger political environment of media in China and the continued efforts of journalists themselves. We will have to keep our eyes on both.

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