Mark Zuckerberg meets Lu Wei with a copy of Xi Jinping’s book on his desk. (Photo: China Network)

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently had a jovial meeting with China’s Internet Czar Lu Wei, where Zuckerberg claimed he bought Xi Jinping’s biography for colleagues so they could “understand Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.”

The meeting, which many have deemed “kowtowing,” appeared to be another signal that Facebook is making a play toward China after being blocked in the country since 2009. This comes on the heels of Zuckerberg’s China visit in October and the company setting up a Beijing sales office in May. Chinese state media has even started taking a Facebook entry seriously, suggesting that if it wants to come in, it will probably have to find a domestic partner.

Under Xi Jinping, there’s been an intense crackdown on pretty much every sector of society—media, education, NGOs, etc.—with the Internet being foremost among them. So if China is seriously considering letting Facebook enter, why now?

One important thing to understand is that sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been blocked not only to censor their political content, but also as a means of boosting local Chinese counterparts. This has clearly worked, allowing social media industry jobs to remain in China while making sure that the most popular networks are the ones most easily controlled by Communist Party authorities.

In the past half-decade since the big foreign sites were blocked there’s been a golden age in Chinese Internet development. Weibo and WeChat, China’s two largest social networks, have seen their user bases grow from nothing to hundreds of millions, making them the clear social media winners. So if an outside contender is allowed to enter now, few, if any, Chinese users would adopt it as their social network of choice. It would simply be something to use on the side if they want to connect with people internationally. Thus, there’s little commercial threat in letting an outside player like Facebook re-enter at this stage.

On the contrary, there are some compelling reasons for the Chinese government to allow Facebook in. One is financial. If, as state media is starting to suggest, entry would require partnership with a local counterpart, it could be a shot in the arm for a struggling domestic network like Renren. Since Facebook no longer has any hope at achieving Internet supremacy in China, its entry represents little more than creating jobs that otherwise wouldn’t exist. It could also be an opportunity for a local Chinese company to collect foreign technology and techniques.

But perhaps an even more compelling reason is image. If Facebook entered China, it would be a PR coup for the CCP. Chinese leaders and media could point to the unblocking both domestically and internationally as proof that its internet is opening. Of course, it would be nonsense. If Facebook were to enter, it would have to be on Beijing’s terms, which would entail the same rigorous self-censorship and oversight by authorities that domestic Chinese sites are subject to. It could even require turning over user information. But Zuckerberg’s “kowtowing” to the very man in charge of this apparatus suggests this is something Facebook is entertaining. The question is: is it worth it?

From a moral perspective, it would immediately open Facebook to condemnation around the world for compromising on freedom of expression. The company could take the optimistic stance that Google once did, saying that being in China under restrictions would still have a more positive impact than not being there at all. But this wouldn’t likely appease human rights activists. The company could even get dragged before congress in the U.S. to answer for its moral compromise, much like Yahoo was in 2007.

From a financial perspective, it’s a bit murkier. If Facebook thinks it’s going to join the ranks of Weibo and WeChat as a major social media player in China, it’s in for some severe disappointment. But in a country with an internet population of 650 million and rapidly growing, even carving out a small niche could make the decision to enter viable. But again, the question for the man already worth $30 billion, is it worth it?

Most of us China watchers have done it at some point. We see a bellicose, inflammatory or otherwise head-scratchingly strange editorial in the nationalistic Global Times newspaper, and we re-tweet it out of mockery or disbelief. Today we all had a good laugh when GT declared that the Scotland independence referendum is “a tremor shaking the whole Western system” and shows that “the tide of secessionism is rising in the West.” Sometimes we go even further than just sharing these stories. When GT called the U.S. a “mincing rascal” for its computer hacking claims against China, it was a gift for the many media outlets that were able to draw up entire articles about it. But we really need to stop, and here’s why:

Global Times gives incentives to troll
A few weeks ago on Twitter, a Global Times employee revealed that the company gives traffic-based bonuses and also “bonuses for mentions in foreign media, good or bad, and for comment volume, positive or negative.” This was later confirmed to me by other GT employees (Global Times itself responded to my email for comment, but never replied after I asked about its incentive schemes). By a long shot, the articles in Global Times that get re-shared and covered most frequently by foreign media are the ones that say the most absurd things.

It would appear this is something the paper has taken note of, as we seem to be seeing these editorials becoming crazier and more frequent. So in effect, whenever we share or write an article about one of these pieces, we’re playing right into Global Times’  hands. We’re encouraging trolls and taking opinions at face value that likely have financial incentives driving them.

Another thing people usually fail to account for is that the English editorials go through foreign editors. So when you see highly quotable and alliterative terms like “rampant rascality” or “prancing provocateurs” used, they may have come from a mischievous foreign editor rather than a Chinese ideologue. As a separate GT employee said, articles drawn up to flag these crazy statements are “essentially click bait feeding off click bait.”

The only way to kill a troll is to ignore it
These editorials routinely defame dissidents, report outright false information and rile up nationalism and racism. In most situations, it’s just not worth putting a megaphone in front of these messages.

Sometimes it’s inescapable, like when these editorials have real world effects. One particularly vitriolic editorial against Japan in September 2012 may have helped incite actual violence. In cases like that, media can’t help but quote GT.

However, most of these editorials are quoted or re-shared simply for their insanity.

I no longer bother flagging conspiracy mongering drivel from partisan talking heads in the US, even if only to debunk or mock them. I’ve come to realize that they only feed off that type of attention and make money from it. So I don’t know why I should treat pundits in China who do the same any differently. As media watcher Song Zhibiao put it, “The reason that the Global Times is difficult to defeat is not that it is truthful, but rather that it shows such contempt for the truth. The Global Times is hard to insult because it knows no shame. By tearing down the standards of what is right, it sets itself ‘free.’”

He added, “If we cannot stop it, we must then quarantine it. If we cannot quarantine the crowd, we can at least quarantine ourselves. That way, we will not become its carriers and unintended promulgators.”

Global Times does NOT represent the official Communist Party line.
Whenever the Communist Party is mum on an issue and journalists are scrambling to interpret Chinese leaders’ views on it, you’ll inevitably see “the state-owned newspaper Global Times” quoted…often from the English edition (which is pretty different from the Chinese). The implication is that it’s some sort of proxy for the official party line. But this isn’t really the case.

In some situations it is. When Global Times ran an editorial in January 2013 condemning the Southern Weekend stand and defending the government’s media censorship, newspapers across the country were ordered by propaganda authorities to reprint it. But this was a very rare event.

A Chinese media outlet being state-owned doesn’t mean every word it prints represents the party line. Global Times is owned by the Communist Party flagship People’s Daily, but that doesn’t mean they share the same editorial principles. One Tsinghua media professor I spoke with likened People’s Daily to a highly disciplined, but poor father and Global Times to his belligerent wealthy son. GT’s populist nationalism makes it one of the better selling newspapers in China, and thus, makes People’s Daily money.

I would liken GT more to what Glenn Beck is to the Republican Party, or what Michael Moore is to Democrats: It makes A LOT of money for itself, it’s mostly in agreement with the party platform and it’s fairly useful for the party among certain demographics, but it’s sensational, extreme, misleading and polarizing to the point that the party will usually keep it at arm’s length. From time to time, GT’s approach to the news is useful from the government standpoint, but for the most part, the bellicose editorials seem to be tolerated by the government rather than assigned by it. For instance, when Ai Weiwei was arrested in 2011, the official line was silence, and later that the arrest was simply for tax reasons. But GT basically acknowledged, and defended, that it was his politics that landed him in hot water. As one Global Times editor put it “Best to think of GT editorials as one end (usually) of the small range of permitted public opinions on a topic.”

I believe Global Times English does some good reporting in other sections (again, GT English is largely separate from GT Chinese). I have no qualms about linking to those stories (here, here, here, here, here, here and here for instance). But the editorials have rarely contributed any meaningful information or well-reasoned standpoints. On the contrary, they’ve routinely proven false and insidious. Unless these editorials have some influence on actual events, I see no reason to continue gifting them any extra attention.

China’s Troubled Media

Posted: August 11, 2014 in media
Tags: , ,

Over the past few months, those who thought the state of Chinese journalism couldn’t possibly get any worse have sadly been proven wrong. A few weeks ago China’s chief censorship agency told Chinese reporters that they can’t pass information on to their foreign counterparts, nor can they independently publicize stories they find through their work. This is on top of newly required courses in Marxist journalism (AKA journalism that props up the Party). While it’s unlikely these regulations can or will be universally enforced, the intended message to journalists is clear: fall in line and keep your heads down.

This all fits with Xi Jinping’s overall approach since assuming power of squashing every hint of potential challenge. In the Telegraph, a well-known journalism professor recently estimated that “the number of journalists responsible for ‘independent, public-interest, negative or sensitive’ reports has fallen by 66 percent in the last three years.” This fits exactly with what I’ve seen. Among all the Chinese reporters I knew who were doing real investigative journalism two years ago, all but a few have shifted to more vanilla beats or left the field altogether.

Once upon a time, it was good to be an investigative journalist in China. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, we saw arguably the best officially sanctioned media atmosphere in PRC history. Muckraking private outlets like Caijing and Economic Observer sprouted up. Investigative journalist Wang Keqin came to prominence with stories on AIDS villages and securities fraud. And the Southern Media Group did a series of hard-hitting reports that actually prompted changes to long-standing government policies.

However, when Hu Jintao came to power in 2002, a gradual regression began to take shape. New rules against cross-provincial reporting emerged that culled watchdog media; a few editors in the Southern Media Group were slapped with lengthy prison sentences on trumped up charges; Caijing was put under pressure, prompting its star editor-in-chief Hu Shuli to jump ship; and Wang Keqin was unceremoniously pushed out of two separate newspapers.

Xi Jinping’s new government now appears to be accelerating this trend. But politics is only half of the story in the regression of Chinese journalism.

The internet has had the same disruptive effect on traditional media in China that it has in much of the rest of the world. Weibo, WeChat and a host of other social media sites, blogs and pseudo media have sprung up, grabbing market share from the traditional press. This is coupled with independent watchdog papers being watered down. The same provocative stories officials don’t want printed are usually the same ones that make people buy the papers. When repressive politics meet disruptive technology, it means tight budgets for independent papers that don’t get government subsidies. This trickles down to journalists who see their income squeezed and jobs cut.

One implication of this is journalists from respected independent media getting funneled out and ending up at state media (where they can have more money and better resources, but more ideological oversight and censorship). I’ve known of a few journalists that couldn’t bring themselves to leave journalism – either out of passion or because they lacked the skillset to go into another industry – so they reluctantly took jobs at state media after work at independent outlets dried up.

But what looks to be an even more acute implication of the current media atmosphere is good reporters getting pushed out of the industry completely. One of my former Economic Observer bosses, who’s been reporting for the past two decades, recently reflected on trends of the past few years saying that we’re seeing perhaps the biggest media brain drain ever. “People with dignity and passion get driven out of the newspaper business,” he told me.

In 2012, Jian Guanzhou, the reporter who’d broken the Sanlu milk powder scandal four years earlier, drove this point home when he finally decided to call it quits. “I have been at the Oriental Morning Post for 10 years, during which I have poured the most precious years of my youth, my sorrow, my dreams and feelings into the purest of ideals,” he wrote on Weibo. “Now my ideal is dead, so I’ll get going. Take care, brothers!”

Working within China’s tightening media system entails an endless stream of moral dilemmas. If a story could be killed for political reasons, for instance, it might make a reporter think twice about pursuing it in the first place. In most cases, they get paid based on how much they publish. If the story isn’t published, they don’t get paid for it. Even if they’re willing to risk their necks to investigate and print these sensitive stories, the scope of allowable topics is shrinking, leading to moral and financial frustration. Many just can’t do it anymore and quit journalism to go into something more stable or morally straightforward. On the grand scale, as this happens and honest reporters with a moral compass get sifted out, corrupt and sycophantic peers take over.

There are no meaningful statistics, but in talking to several Chinese journalist friends over the past few months, there seems to be a feeling that the entire industry is getting dirtier. Making money through good honest reporting is a lot harder than it once was, meaning the allure of taking bribes and colluding with (or extorting) special interests becomes greater. So there may be some semblance of legitimacy to the government’s ostensible drive to “clean up” the media.

A sullying of the industry may be the downside, but this atmosphere is certainly conducive to keeping the CCP unchallenged. The days when the Party had to seriously worry about shutting down watchdog newspapers and clipping the wings of renegade reporters might be drawing to a close. Instead, it can just watch the papers struggle to stay afloat and the journalists sort themselves into less threatening positions…or out of the industry completely.

There are of course plenty of fantastic Chinese reporters still out there pushing what they can for the pittance they get in return. One friend reporting in the Southern Media Group recently told me that the tightening atmosphere makes him regret not pushing harder in earlier years when things were more open. But this is the new reality, which only looks to hold more heartbreak ahead. “For us reporters, new changes must happen,” he told me. “I just don’t know how they’ll go.”

In psychology, there’s something known as an “availability cascade” where something complex and not easily explainable is elucidated in a very simple and insightful way; never mind that it’s wrong. But because of the explanation’s simplicity and plausibility, everyone including political leaders and journalists latch on, creating a self-reinforcing cycle of false credibility. Few issues are as susceptible to availability cascades as “suicide spates.”

In China, we first saw this with the Taiwanese factory Foxconn in 2010, when 14 workers committed suicide allegedly due to “harsh working conditions” (the story was dusted off again last year). That year media started ticking off suicides and hundreds of reports questioned whether people could in good conscience buy Apple products. Never mind that, given the factory’s 1 million-plus employees in Mainland China, you were 16 times more likely to kill yourself if you were a typical American living in Montana that year.

Then a few weeks ago some journalists noted that four Chinese media executives had killed themselves over the previous few months. This prompted “speculation that these tragic incidents may be linked to Beijing’s ongoing anti-graft campaign,” according to one outlet. Never mind that there are more than 300,000 Chinese journalists in state-media agencies alone (not including the hundreds of private outlets), and China’s annual suicide rate is 22 9.8 per 100,000 people (compared to 12 in the United States).

Now it appears there’s another availability cascade brewing; this one suggesting that Chinese officials might be committing suicide en masse because of pressure from Xi Jinping’s corruption crackdown. There’s not an agreed upon number of suicides in this demographic. Wall Street Journal said it was 23 last year. Then this week New York Times said it was “at least 15” over the past 18 months. Either way, these are pretty paltry numbers when you consider that China has over 7 million civil servants.

Caixin actually appeared to draw the most compelling evidence that something was amiss when it said that official suicides more than doubled from 21 in 2012 to 48 in 2013. But then you notice a big flaw in the reasoning. Those numbers are based on media reports of suicides, not any actual empirical data. The article said, “An increasing number of officials are committing suicide, if media reports on the topic are any indication.” They are not.

This is the great flaw in all these supposed “suicide spates,” because it’s really only once a spate narrative has been established that people start paying attention, counting suicides and reporting them. We know for instance that there were at least 14 suicides at Foxconn in 2010 because people perked up and plugged each new death into the established storyline. But we have no idea how many there were in 2008 because this narrative didn’t yet exist to prompt reporting. This is the case with officials now. We don’t really know how many cadre suicides there were five years ago, but if anyone kills themselves now, you better believe they’re about to become a narrative-reinforcing statistic. It’s very easy to find “suicide spates” almost anywhere when you’re looking for them.

The ironic thing is that all this coverage of suicides might play a greater role in causing them than whatever supposed causal factor is being explored. It’s been well-documented that wide publicity of suicides encourages copy-cats (known as the “Werther Effect”). David Phillips, one of the most prominent sociologists to study this trend, told New York Times in 1987 that “Hearing about a suicide seems to make those who are vulnerable feel they have permission to do it.” One famous illustration was when Marilyn Monroe’s 1962 death was followed by a 12 percent nationwide spike in suicides.

This effect has been documented in China too. After the 2010 Foxconn suicides, researchers from Hong Kong and Australia found that there was actually a brief period with a slightly abnormal rapid-fire succession of suicides. This wasn’t because of harsh working conditions, but because coverage by Beijing-based media and rapid news dissemination within Foxconn influenced copycats.

Still, whether it’s factory workers, journalists or cadres, we’ll have to see dozens, if not hundreds more suicides in these groups before we can entertain the notion that something is seriously abnormal. When we’re able to pluck out several suicides with a common denominator, it’s tempting to assume a trend, grasp for convenient answers and then blow it all out of proportion. Perhaps work stress is a factor in some factory worker suicides, or anti-graft campaign pressure with some officials and journalists. But to suggest that suicides in these groups have skyrocketed in a short period due to a single factor is patently silly. Last year I spoke with Michael Phillips, a Canadian psychologist and executive director of the World Health Organization’s Suicide Prevention Center in Beijing. “[There’s an] idea that there are unique stressors that cause suicide,” he told me. “But suicide is always the result of a variety of factors – social, genetic and psychological. The press loves simple answers for complicated problems.”

[Correction: A more recent University of Hong Kong study found that China’s current suicide rate is 9.8 per 100,000 people, rather than the older 22/100,000 figure]

In the lead up to the Tiananmen crackdown’s anniversary, there have been a lot of articles looking back on the event – some with new interesting angles, some just dusting off stories from five years ago. But in reading this stuff, I’ve noticed that some things tend to get overlooked or remembered in a skewed way.

I think oversimplified media coverage of the protests at the beginning plays a major role. Images of Tank Man and Democracy banners in the heart of Red China offered a narrative too appealing to complicate with the finer details. This list (which is admittedly also pretty simplified) is a reminder of some of those details that we tend to neglect about Tiananmen and its legacy.

1. The whole event was much messier than it looks in hindsight
In popular memory, the Tiananmen movement was a brave stand by Democracy-hungry youth against the tyrannical Communist Party; but the reality was a bit more complex. Since the late-70s, the Party had been touting Reform and Opening up, so as the 80s progressed, political discourse became more open and “safe.” But the “reform” being touted was vague. It was akin to an American politician running on a platform of “change.” “Yeah, great,” most people thought. Just about everyone can agree to that. But once you start dissecting exactly what “change” or “reform” means and how far it should go, opinions start to diverge pretty radically.

By the time 1989 rolled around, just about every social group in China wanted some sort of “change.” Some thought the reforms had gone too fast, others not fast enough. There was a widespread feeling that, in one way or another, many government leaders had dropped the ball and were corrupt to the point that they were holding China back. But there was really no coherent set of demands among protestors about how to address this; in fact many of their demands were contradictory.

Names now synonymous with the movement like Chai Ling and Wu’er Kaixi probably didn’t mean much to the average protestor. In a sea of people, their influence stretched about as far as the sounds from their bullhorns could reach. These “student leaders” went through their own power struggles and quickly factionalized. Whatever control they had over the movement was confined to very small pockets. There were too many divergent demands for anyone to exert any meaningful leadership.

As the Beijing spring went on, the Tiananmen protests became a major social event that was seen by the public as a patriotic continuation of the May 4th Movement. People from every point on the social ladder and political spectrum – most of whom weren’t otherwise politically active – joined in with the herd. Even uber-nationalist and Confucius Peace Prize founder Kong Qingdong jumped in on the festivities, if that tells you anything. People tend to think the movement was for “Democracy,” but that’s a gross oversimplification. There wasn’t even a clear definition of what “Democracy” meant. Is it direct national elections, or is it just greater transparency within the CCP?

Few actually wanted to overthrow the CCP and replace it completely. After all, the protests started with an outpouring of support for a fallen Communist leader, and many of the protestors were Communist Party members themselves. But ultimately, there wasn’t really any agreed upon message or motive for the movement – just that it was patriotic.

2. The movement was a blessing for the CCP
With everything the Communist Party does to erase Tiananmen from history, it seems odd to think that it was actually the movement’s greatest beneficiary. The divergent demands emerging in the late 80s left the Party increasingly challenged by the public with shrinking room to operate. When hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets for seven weeks without any coherent set of demands, it was the perfect excuse to clamp down and re-assert absolute control. It was especially convenient for the hardliner faction of the CCP and the likes of Li Peng. They were able to pin blame for the “chaos” on liberal opponents who’d taken a soft-line on student demonstrations. Extreme measures – like purging the very highest ranked Party official, Zhao Ziyang – can only be taken in extreme circumstances. Tiananmen provided exactly this. The Politburo was cleared of those pushing for aggressive political reform, and agitators among the public were silenced. The now conservative-controlled CCP enjoyed two decades of the greatest prosperity it had ever experienced.

3. Tiananmen had some very nationalistic roots
It’s become popular to compare young Chinese of today unfavorably to the Tiananmen youth. The latter erected the Goddess of Democracy to stare down Mao, while the former throws eggs at the Japanese Embassy. But blind xenophobia/nationalism and fierce criticism of the government aren’t at all mutually exclusive, and in fact, can be directly related. This has been the case in political uprisings from the Boxer Rebellion to the May 4th movement. In fact, xenophobic protests were one of the undercurrents that led straight to Tiananmen Square.

In December of 1988, two African students at Nanjing’s Hehai University wanted to bring Chinese girls into a school dance, but were rebuked by campus security. The exact facts are disputed, but some sort of large brawl between groups of Africans and Chinese broke out. False rumors spread that Chinese women had been raped or kidnapped and a Chinese man killed. In response, hundreds gathered outside the foreign student dorm clamoring for blood, but they were dispersed by police.

This was just the latest in a series of race-fueled conflicts at universities over the preceding decade, and it incensed Chinese students. They were kept under strict control, while foreign classmates had all sorts of special privileges. Now, these Africans were apparently getting away with murder and being protected by traitorous officials. It was an infuriating highlight of China’s weakness.

The story wasn’t true, but the issues it represented struck a nerve for the students who felt corruption and disrespect all around them. They wanted to stand up and defend their country’s dignity, but once again they were thwarted by bought-off officials and an unjust legal system. It was just as their ancestors had felt before May 4th, 1919.

Thousands hit the streets with chants like “Down with the black devils.” But slogans like “protect human rights” and calls for political and legal reform soon slipped in. News spread to Beijing and Shanghai, where local students piled on the “anti-African protests.” Then with the death of Hu Yaobang four months later, the volume of these calls was cranked up at Tiananmen Square. (link)

So when you see Chinese youth of today written off politically because of their “nationalist” tendencies, it’s worth asking how much nationalism really hedges against challenges to the CCP.

4. There are side-effects from the state-induced Tiananmen “amnesia”
The Tiananmen Square Massacre raises very unwelcome questions about the Communist Party’s legitimacy, so it’s no surprise that it’s tried (pretty successfully) to airbrush it from public memory. We now frequently see reports highlighting the ignorance or ambivalence of young Chinese toward the events, and it gives a pretty sad commentary on how the rebellious idealism of youth has ebbed. But that’s an old story. What’s becoming an increasingly interesting story is the other implication of that “amnesia.”

When the CCP decided to put down the protests, it could have done so with riot gear or rubber bullets. It instead opted for machine guns with live ammunition. The bloodbath that ensued was a message that this sort of dissent wouldn’t be tolerated again. For the following two decades, that message was received loud and clear. But what happens when the next generation is shielded from it?

It’s an exaggeration to say that young people today don’t know anything about 1989, but most are indeed pretty sketchy on the details. I’ve even talked to a few students who didn’t know why it happened, but assumed the protestors must have had it coming if the government saw fit to kill them. They don’t fully grasp how the CCP was willing to send in soldiers to indiscriminately massacre hundreds, perhaps thousands, when it felt its legitimacy was threatened. And most of those protestors didn’t even oppose the CCP; they simply challenged it to reform.

These days, it’s becoming apparent that the next generation of youth isn’t as scared of speaking out (so long as they avoid directly attacking the CCP’s legitimacy). We’ve seen a steady stream of environmental street protests, a large demonstration against censorship, and recently, a dozen college students uploaded pictures of themselves supporting jailed civil rights attorney Pu Zhiqiang. In all these cases, teenagers and 20-somethings have been front and center.

This is still a relatively small segment of Chinese youth, but it’s one that’s obviously growing. None of these things were happening a decade ago. There are of course more social factors in play here than 6/4 amnesia, but as the memory of Tiananmen drifts further away, so does the instinctive fear it was meant to instill.

Meeting the Press

Posted: March 15, 2014 in media
Tags: ,

This week Chinese Premier Li Keqiang gave his annual “press conference” to cap off the National People’s Congress.

Photo: Xinhua

Photo: Xinhua

I put “press conference” in quotations because it’s hardly anything of the sort. Journalists must submit questions for Li well in advance and then negotiate with press handlers on the precise wording of how the question will be delivered. This year there were reportedly a few topics like Zhou Yongkang and the Kunming knife attack that were totally out of bounds and would result in a “blacklisting” if mentioned.

This has been going on for a long time and last year several reporters started getting fed up with it. At the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of China annual meeting last year, no topic was debated more vocally than how to respond to this issue. So I was hoping we’d see few, if any, foreign (and ideally, Chinese) reporters show up to the charade this year. But if they had to attend (after all, bombshells have been dropped there before), I hoped at the very least no foreign reporters would legitimize the farce by reciting pre-approved softballs for Li to bunt. Unfortunately, my naïve hopes went unfulfilled and an unprecedented nine foreign/non-mainland reporters were called on.

In 2012, Australian “reporter” Andrea Yu was called on repeatedly to lob disappointing softballs at officials, and it was later discovered she was being fed her questions by the Beijing-controlled media outlet she worked for (and it seems the same organization is still sending similar shills this year). After that episode, real foreign journalists were understandably miffed. But when you think about it, what she did isn’t much worse than being complicit in the way Li Keqiang’s press conference works.

Li gets to leaf through hundreds of questions and pick exactly what he wants to answer, has compliant foreigners recite their lines, and then scores big points with viewers for being bold enough to face presumably more critical reporters. This is a major point of pride for CCP leaders (former President Jiang Zemin once boasted to Hong Kong reporters about how he’d taken on Mike Wallace and Barbara Walters).

The questions that are chosen are either completely benign or just barely edgy enough to seem “sensitive” (ie – relating to corruption, pollution or hacking). At best, Chinese viewers understand what’s going on and it makes the international press corps look like hapless wusses anxious to devour any meatless bone the Chinese leadership deigns to toss them. Famous Hong Kong reporter Luqiu Luwei wrote an op-ed in Financial Times saying that “the Best Actor Award” this year must go to the foreign media.

But at worst, Chinese viewers don’t understand what’s going on and think it’s a legitimate press conference. In that case, the compliant journalists are actively helping Chinese leaders gloss over actual tough issues that viewers should be aware of.

Casual Chinese observers who catch the CCTV press conference might not ever bother scaling the Great Firewall to see what’s really going on, but they expect foreign reporters to ask tough questions. They’ve had it hammered into their heads that foreign journalists are out to smear China’s leaders and cause the country’s collapse. But when the toughest question they see is some abstract mention of debt risks, they might mistakenly get the impression that these are China’s most pressing issues. But in fact, there was no mention of Tibetan immolations, the foreign journalists who’ve been expelled, the tightening grip on domestic media, Document 9, the extra-judicial imprisonment of people like Liu Xia (Liu Xiaobo’s wife) who haven’t even been found guilty of any crime, the enormous wealth of NPC members and potential conflicts of interest, the stalling of official assets declaration (and prosecution of those who’ve loudly called for it), dissatisfaction with the political situation in Hong Kong, prostitution crackdowns that leave already vulnerable young women with even greater exposure to exploitation and violence, or the offshore holdings by the families of powerful leaders. I could go on… That none of these things were mentioned raised some serious eyebrows from foreign and domestic observers alike.

Several of the foreign reporters who were called on to ask questions are among the best in Beijing, and I have the utmost respect for them…but I think they made a bad call here. I understand that this practice also happens in many Western countries, but that doesn’t make it right there either.

I wouldn’t expect anyone to go back on their word and ask an unapproved question, but it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to refuse participation in the performance…or just skip the presser altogether, as many reporters opted to do.

As Luqiu Luwei put it: “The good thing is that foreign media finally experienced the Chinese media’s situation. Under the same pressure they had the same choice. From an ethical perspective, the choice they made deprived them of any right to be proud. Only media that didn’t attend the press conference can still talk about sticking to journalistic ideals.”

China Hang-up Relaunch

Posted: January 9, 2014 in Uncategorized
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For those of you who didn’t know I co-host a podcast, hey there, I co-host a podcast. It’s called China Hang-up and it focuses on a lot of the same Chinese sociopolitical and economic themes I cover on this blog. Just wanted to announce that we’ve moved to a new home at Project Pengyou.

Since I first announced the podcast here in 2012, it’s morphed into more of a round-table discussion on issues of interest to young China watchers. Our inaugural episode with Project Pengyou looks at one of my favorite topics: the political mindset of Chinese youth today. I’ve said before that it would be a fool’s errand to try and gauge something like this among such a large diverse population, so naturally we’ve stepped up to take on that errand. Helping us do so is someone far less foolish than ourselves: Beijing-based post-80s journalist Helen Gao. We look at how the political education system has changed since Tiananmen and whether an apparent uptick in youth-led demonstrations in recent years indicates the stirrings of a political re-awakening.

For anyone in Beijing, we’re having a re-launch party to celebrate the new partnership this coming Sunday evening at 4corners. We’re hoping it’ll be a good chance for China hands – young and old – from around the city to rub elbows over drinks. Hope to see some of you there.

China Hangup Party Flyer Link (if the picture doesn’t show up)

On separate note, I’m knee-deep in the later stages of a project I’ve been working on for the past year-and-a-half, which is why updates here have been (and will likely continue to be) sparse. But we still plan to put out a podcast every two weeks, so I hope you’ll check that out instead.