China’s Journalists: Breaking Free

It was at the end of my year teaching journalism as a Fulbright lecturer at Fudan University in Shanghai, and one of my best students was talking about his future. “I don’t want to go into journalism,” he said. “It’s too depressing. You can’t be a real journalist.”

I had been in China for almost a year teaching American-style reporting and writing techniques to a group of graduates and undergraduates but I had never really questioned: Why do smart, savvy Chinese students opt to go into journalism in a country that believes the role of the media is to promote the goals and actions of the Communist Party and the state?

The answer, this student‹and others I asked later‹said, was “to know what’s really going on.” In fact, reporters and editors in China do know what’s really happening. They’re the first to know about inner-party struggles, they hear about high-level corruption, and they know when the information being dispersed to the public is twisted or simply false. The trouble is that knowing these things and not being able to print the information is a horrible burden. It explains the large numbers of talented journalists who leave the profession to go into public relations or other communications-related work, the rampant cynicism among those Chinese journalists who stay on the job, and the prevalence of payoffs for stories.

But there is a happy side to this sorry situation. Despite almost half a century of absolute control over the media by propaganda authorities in Beijing, the media workers in China are still chomping at the bit for real journalism. The passion with which employees at the major state media organizations in Beijing threw themselves behind the students in Tiananmen Square in 1989 is evidence of this. I saw it too, not only in my students, who all loved working on stories that delved into controversial issues and that looked at things from different perspectives, but also later in Chinese journalists I met while working as a Hong Kong-based correspondent covering China.

Chinese journalism is a caged tiger waiting to be freed. In those rare moments when the gate opens a crack, it has shown its teeth, as for instance during a brief loosening in the early 1990s when one paper in Shanghai, Xinmin Wanbao (New People’s Evening News), broke stories about children of Communist bosses beating a bus driver to death and about a high-class brothel being run out of a karoake club owned by the Shanghai Public Security Bureau (China’s KGB).

Such assertiveness and daring frightens the anxious old men who run China, who are trying to figure out how to keep the economy perking along without losing their political control. I’m convinced that in the end the journalists will win.

It is amazing to me to see how‹despite all the censorship, bureaucratic control, and political pressure for almost three generations‹China’s journalists still know what their profession is really about and still crave to break loose from all the controls that prevent them from doing their jobs.

The irony is that as China’s media begins to break free, its practitioners will find themselves running up against myriad layers of a repressive apparatus unused to scrutiny. As the press begins to open up more, CPJ might find it has more cases in China, instead of fewer.

David Lindorff spent 1991-1992 as a Fulbright lecturer in China. Fluent in Chinese, he worked as a free-lance correspondent based in Hong Kong from 1992 to 1997.