China’s Troubled Media

Posted: August 11, 2014 in media
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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
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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.

Getting “Educated”

Posted: December 30, 2013 in Education
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I recently came across this documentary called “Education, Education” (released a year ago but new to me) exploring the hardship young Chinese are facing in leveraging their education for a decent job. It follows a college graduate struggling to find work, a poor rural girl deciding what she should do after failing the gaokao, and a recruiter touting a sham private college.

The film was advertised with the question, “Has higher education become a cause of poverty rather than a route out of it?” This, I think, is a depressingly relevant question to be asking in China today.

I’ve often said that what the country needs perhaps more than anything is education – the kind that opens minds and sparks a desperately needed innovative spirit. Unfortunately, what it more often provides is “education” – the kind that puts teachers at the front of classrooms but does little other than waste students’ time and embed them with a sense of entitlement.

The film’s depiction of the two students is compelling, but the sham agent is what really grabbed my attention. The man travelled from city-to-city giving talks to students who failed the gaokao, trying to convince them to attend the expensive “private college” he works for.

He gives inspiring speeches and rattles off quotes like “Learning is the noblest of all pursuits in life.” He’s actually preaching to the parents in the room, who’ve been taught their whole lives (and often seen firsthand) that a college degree can change a poor peasant’s fate.

Between speeches, the man explains to the filmmaker how he’s scamming them. He pulls up the PowerPoint presentation he uses to show pictures of the campus’s libraries, conference halls, labs and auditorium. “None of them exist,” he said. “Just images from the Internet. 90 percent of the tutors have no teaching qualifications or experience.”

He goes on to coldly describe how much the scam hurts its victims. “With the minimum monthly wage of 1,200 yuan and spending nothing, it would take five years for a student to pay back their debts. Look at me, I’m a qualified graphic designer but have to travel around selling a scam. What hope is there for the kids that I recruit?”

At first I couldn’t believe that he would admit these things on camera with his face shown, but it dawned on me that he was probably doing it out of guilt as a sort of atonement. “Nobody can do this for a long time, everyone wants to quit,” he said near the end of the film. “[The families] are so poor. Giving money to [our school]? What the hell? Where’s our conscience?”

Earlier this year I spoke to a group of young students from rural Henan who’d been lured into a nearly identical scam hundreds of miles from home. After they failed the gaokao, they were called by a recruiter to attend the inspirational pitch. They were incredibly poor, and thought some kind of education was the only way to change their family’s status. So they paid 10,000 yuan – nearly all the money their parents had saved – just for the first year at the “college.” They planned to borrow from other family and friends for the subsequent three years.

In villages like theirs, everyone knows one-another so few would dare try to swindle others. “People in the countryside are very honest,” one of the young men told me. “So we had no sense of law.”

The recruiter from the film acknowledged how he preyed on this naiveté. “The more simple they are, the more likely they are to be fooled by us,” he said. “The clever ones don’t fall for it so easily.”

Like the school from the film, the fake college that the Henan men attended eventually folded and the ringleader disappeared with all of their money. It stole a year of their lives and left them 10,000 yuan poorer with nothing to show for it but a keen sense of disillusionment. “The only thing I learned at that school was not to trust anybody,” one of them said. “I got hurt badly. My first contact with society was full of lies.”

It had happened three years prior to when I spoke to them, but they’d all been too ashamed to ever tell their parents.

Most stayed in the city, some toiling at low-end labor jobs as they kept studying for the gaokao hoping they’d eventually pass and skirt having to tell their families anything (one man had already failed three times).

Education scams like these have become ubiquitous in China. Earlier this year it was revealed that there were at least 70 of them operating just in Beijing. They prey on the sense that any “education” is better than nothing and can provide some social mobility. They prey on the desperation of those who can least afford it.

I had to wonder though, would the young men really have been any better off had they scored a few points higher on the gaokao and been admitted to a low-tier college? About one-fourth of those who graduate now are still jobless a year later.

A few months later I met a man who’d graduated from a second-tier provincial university with a degree in Chinese in 2009. He’d spent the following three years hopping across the country working in factories and grocery stores as he struggled to find white collar work. It wasn’t until after he cut his losses and paid 10,000 yuan for a four-month computer programming course that he found a decent-paying job in an office.

I suggested to one of the Henan men that perhaps he’d be better off cutting his losses and attending a shorter term technical school, since that’s where the most demand in China is. However, that just didn’t have the same appeal. “I thought about going to technical school when my college went bust,” he replied. “But my classmates criticized me. They said, ‘your parents saved for you to go to college. How could you use their money for technical school?’”

On Xia Yeliang…

Posted: November 26, 2013 in Uncategorized
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Note: This post is in regards to an article I published in The Atlantic on October 22 about dismissed Peking University Professor Xia Yeliang. After receiving excessive scorn, I wrote this post a few days later, but ultimately decided it was too long-winded and canned it after I was invited on Sinica to discuss the issue. However, even more than a month later, people continue to misrepresent what I actually wrote and said. Given the gravity of the case, I decided to go ahead and publish it (with a few tweaks). Apologies for the long-windedness…

One thing I’ve learned over the years I’ve been writing about China is that people love simple narratives. In fact, they often demand them. Things are black vs. white, good vs. evil or a brave freedom-fighting David taking on a wholly-despicable Goliath. So if you introduce a little gray, the white camp sees you as representing everything they hate about the black, and vice-versa.

Several years ago at the university I taught at in Nanjing, there was an English professor (a Chinese woman) who would constantly use her classes to aggressively proselytize Christianity to the point that she’d sometimes stand at the podium and tell students they were hell-bound if they didn’t embrace Jesus. Over the years, there were floods of student complaints about her. The school warned her repeatedly, whereupon she’d cool down for a bit, and then quickly return to her old habits. Eventually, she was fired.

But why? This teacher had some fans (many of whom were Christian themselves). There was another, better-connected teacher in the department who did more-or-less the same thing, but she kept her job; whereas the teacher who was fired wasn’t well-liked by her colleagues. And if she’d just as aggressively preached atheism in class, I find it highly unlikely she would have been dismissed in the end. So what did her in? Was it the student complaints, her Christian faith, national politics, office politics, or more likely, some combination of all these things?

I can’t say for sure, but I think it would be a gross over-simplification to yell “religious persecution!” and call it a day. However, that’s exactly what some people on campus did.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen a similar thing play out with the case of Xia Yeliang – the Peking University (PKU) economics professor and political dissident who was recently dismissed from his post.

Most people (myself included) initially assumed this was a clear case of political persecution. Given all the very real political persecution happening throughout this country, it wasn’t an unreasonable assumption. A few weeks before the dismissal, I had even asked the head of a Sino-foreign joint venture college in Shanghai how foreign schools could justify “making a deal with the devil” when there are cases like Xia’s.

But then a few days before Xia was officially terminated, I was chatting with a friend studying at PKU. When I mentioned Xia, she said, “Actually, a lot of students at the school are upset with the way the media’s been covering that story.” She said that he was exceptionally unpopular because of his terrible teaching.

Intrigued, I thought I’d follow up on the story and see if it led anywhere. I figured I’d find some fans and some critics, and then pit them against each other in an article. Unfortunately, that’s not what I found.

When I was seeking out students of Xia’s, there were a few types of people I wanted to avoid. Obviously, I didn’t want anyone arranged through Xia himself or PKU. I also didn’t want to cherry-pick commenters on Weibo who, for whatever reason, had self-selected themselves to speak out on the issue. I tend to avoid Weibo and online forums like the plague when reporting – too many people with disingenuous motives. For the same reason, I sure as hell wasn’t going to quote anything or anyone dredged up online where I couldn’t verify that the person was actually a PKU student who had taken Xia’s class. I also didn’t really want to spend time trying to find current students. Xia had known since the beginning of summer that his job was in danger and his dismissal vote was coming up. If it were me, I’d dramatically alter my teaching methods this semester.

I wanted to choose random people who hadn’t yet expressed an opinion and contact them out of the blue. So starting with some contacts I had from PKU (none of whom were employees, Communist Youth League members or anyone with a vested interest or political axe to grind) I started making some calls and sending out queries to try and track down Xia’s students. The secondhand sources I muddled through were relating similar accounts that Xia was widely disliked. Eventually, I landed on four students who had actually taken his classes across several years.

I contacted them out of the blue and separately from one another. Had they started listing the exact same bullet points and buzzwords, I would have been suspicious. However, that wasn’t the case. They all had their own complaints, but there were some consistent themes: that Xia was boastful, dogmatic and preachy in his political beliefs (which he argued incoherently), that he was awful at teaching the subject matter, and that he would spend huge tracts of class time on completely irrelevant topics.

As I was wrapping up the story, PKU came out with a statement (here’s a later English translation) which more-or-less seemed in line with what the students had already told me (in terms of the specific complaints; nobody’s quite sure what’s up with the procedures used to oust Xia).

Had I found a single student that said a positive (or even neutral) word, I would have quoted them in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, I didn’t find this, and I wasn’t about to “balance” out the students I’d methodically sought out in order to avoid bias by quoting an unverifiable and easily manipulated source found through far less methodical means.

I don’t doubt Xia has fans out there though. I can’t think of anyone in history who’s had a 100 percent disapproval rating. But since I didn’t find any of them, I decided I would still present the segment of the student population that felt their voices were being ignored (a segment that seemed pretty large) and then give plenty of room for Xia to respond (but it seems a lot of people missed the half of the article where I laid out Xia’s side of the story).

In the end, I was only able to convince one of the students to use her (English) name in the article. This is something I wrestled with. No journalist likes to use anonymous sources – especially in a situation where they’re criticizing someone else. But having interviewed scores of Chinese students before, I knew that – even on completely benign stories – insistence on anonymity isn’t unusual. Whereas in the West, people are instinctively excited by the prospect of seeing their name in the paper, in China it’s often the opposite – especially among educated people who are well-aware of the country they’re living in (Helen Gao recently did a great piece exploring this). I considered myself lucky that the students even proceeded to talk to me when I said I was a reporter.

This case was extremely politically charged, but the students were more worried about being indicted by the greater public outside of PKU, which was firmly in Xia’s favor. They worried about being labeled wumaodang “50-centers” or CCP-stooges (labels I’ve unsurprisingly been given several times since). So I weighed the gravity of the case, the students’ reasons for wanting anonymity, Xia’s stature as a public figure and the fact that numerous people independently told me similar things. After weighing these things, I decided the story was much better off being told than shelved.

Some have dismissed what I found, saying it was “just a handful of students” and can’t be representative. I agree that it’s not at all on par with a comprehensive scientific survey, but I don’t think it’s negligible either. When two people corroborate the same things, maybe it’s a coincidence; three, a big coincidence. But when you have four people contacted randomly and separately without forewarning corroborating the same things, then that’s enough to make me comfortable that they represent a fairly sizeable group.

This is not the type of article a journalist gets excited about publishing. David vs. Goliath stories are straight-forward and a slam dunk in terms of public reactions. When you report that David might be flawed, however, many people don’t take very kindly to it. I knew I’d get backlash, and that publishing this story would bring me nothing but headaches. But when you find a story like this, you do a great disservice by sitting on it. I knew it would be a lonely few days, but I was more than confident in my reporting. I expected that eventually others would come out and confirm the same things I did, which is indeed what ended up happening (and here and here).

Still, even weeks later, the backlash continues to trickle in – some fair, some absolutely absurd.

The most frequent criticism I’ve gotten goes along the lines of “How can you rule out politics with all the other political repression going on in the country and all the other terrible teachers who are never fired?!” As it turns out, I never did rule out politics. But again, people like latching on to black and white views.

The debate after my article was framed as “Xia Yeliang: bad teacher or victim of politics?” Of course, that’s a false contradiction. There are plenty of possible scenarios involving varying degrees of both of those things. There are indeed countless terrible teachers that are never fired in China, but there are also outspoken dissidents that aren’t fired. Nobody knows for sure why Xia was dismissed though except for his superiors. You can’t rule out politics as a factor or definitively say it was the only factor.

You also shouldn’t ignore aspects of this case just because they complicate the nice neat David vs. Goliath narrative. Academic freedom is an important cause– one that I’ve written on many times – but letting an incomplete narrative prevail doesn’t help that cause; quite the opposite in fact.

Another criticism that I’ve received goes along the lines of “Yes, students are saying these things, but this is China. They’re either brainwashed or being instructed on what to say.” Another variation of this criticism involves the fact that I used to write for Global Times (a newspaper I quit writing for in disgust over two years ago and have written critically of many times since).

According to a group of surprisingly influential professors in the U.S., this is all some conspiracy wherein students were instructed on what to say and, being the government stooge that I am, I gleefully went along with the ruse (never mind that the majority of what I’ve written in the past is critical of the Chinese government – in Global Times, this blog, several Western media outlets and the newspaper I worked at for 18 months that’s nearly been shut down by the government several times).

If it’s easier for you to believe in a massive conspiracy than it is to believe in the possibility that there are real complaints about Xia’s teaching, then fine. I learned long ago not to waste time trying to sway conspiracy theorists.

Were the students told what to say though? Given the way I contacted them (and the other reports that have come out since mine) that would have to involve the university sending out unique instructions to thousands of different students going back seven years – many of whom aren’t even at the school anymore – without the instructions being leaked. If you think that’s a possibility, I suggest you read what happened when this obscure Chinese high school tried that route.

Are the students just brainwashed nationalists taught to hate people like Xia? I suppose I can’t definitively rule that out except to say I bore this possibility in mind while interviewing, and the students I spoke to certainly came off as very open-minded and intelligent.

The students all told me they’re happy (or at least tolerant) to see liberal politics discussed in the classroom in general. Two of them said they were huge fans of He Weifang, a PKU law professor and signatory to Charter 08 who’s been aggressively critical of the government in the classroom.

I appreciate all the people who emailed to inform me that China is under a Communist dictatorship (who knew?), to tell me what Chinese universities are REALLY like, and to explain that I was duped into writing this piece. But to anyone who’s spent even a cursory amount of time in a Chinese university over the past few years, the idea that Chinese college students are all programmed conformist robots that would unanimously fall in line when pushed to do so should be patently absurd.

While plenty do ride the herd mentality, there are A LOT of independent individualists out there today that wouldn’t think twice about speaking out against injustice if they saw it. Again, see what happened at this much lesser school when administrators pushed students to fall in line. And let’s not forget about the college students across the country that uploaded pictures of themselves with their faces shown to support Southern Weekend in the name of free speech and democracy last January.

Also, if you’re going to believe the “brainwashed” angle, you have to believe that Valentina Luo, a former researcher for The Telegraph and AFP, is also brainwashed (or in on the massive conspiracy with me).

Some have said since Xia has been branded a political pariah, students who support him wouldn’t dare speak out now; so it’s useless to try and get balanced comment on his teaching from student interviews. This seems like a big cop out to me – one that conveniently allows people to dismiss information that challenges their views. Why not try to randomly contact multiple students out of the blue and see what they say? I know that in the internet era, which allows people to simply quote from Weibo and “report” in their pajamas, actually speaking to people has become a novel concept. But catching them off guard is the best way to get their true feelings. So if they really loved Xia, perhaps they’d say so. See if they’ll even say something supportive anonymously. Heck, even if they hang up the phone, that would tell you something.

Tracking these people down takes effort though – a lot more effort than it takes to track down Xia Yeliang. But if people wanted to challenge what I and other reporters have found, this seems like the best way to do so.

Still, the debate goes on…which it should. There are many unanswered questions. There are ideological politics, office politics, and at Chinese state-run institutions, often a very blurry line between the two. I don’t doubt for one second that there are political components to Xia’s story. As I addressed in my article, Xia sees some big irregularities in the university’s position and the dismissal procedures, which need to be clarified.

Skepticism is good. I absolutely welcome RATIONAL skepticism of my piece and my work in general. But in the absence of any concrete evidence, skepticism should be divvied out to all sides. People who are skeptical of my piece should ask themselves honestly if they applied that same skepticism to earlier reports that sourced nobody other than Xia himself.

People (especially those not actually in China) should also remember that even though the country has scarcely changed politically in the past few years, it’s changed by leaps and bounds socially.Things can get more complicated than we’re able to fully comprehend. This government does indeed give us plenty of clear cut black and white, good vs. evil stories. So it makes it all the easier to miss the complications when things aren’t so simple. The story I did is certainly a complication I would have missed had it not been for a random conversation I had with a PKU student.

That conversation allowed me to realize that my initial knee-jerk bias meant I wasn’t as critical of the prevailing narrative as I should have been. When a fair number of people who had firsthand experience with Xia challenged my assumptions, I REPORTED what they said (which is quite different than ENDORSING what they said). You can make your own judgments about why they said it or if it warrants a dismissal. I expected to get quite a bit of heat for this piece, but at the end of the day, self-respecting reporters can’t sit on stories just because they don’t like their implications. I believe I did this story fairly and as thoroughly as the circumstances allowed, so I stand by it without regrets.