Posts Tagged ‘China’

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.”

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?’”

The long-running debate as to whether China will dethrone the U.S. as the world’s top superpower or buckle like Japan or the Soviet Union is heating up again. Slowing growth and a slew of ominous data has people talking about just how serious this crunch will turn out. You can check out two great discussions about this at ChinaFile and New York Times (or to simplify, just read the opposing viewpoints of Michael Pettis and Justin Lin).

Whether there will be a crash and what that says about China’s economic model is certainly very significant, but I think when looking at the big picture of China’s future, it’s hardly THE most significant issue. I don’t fear a Chinese hard landing nearly as much as I fear the hard long slog unfolding much more quietly.

Right now China is barrelling down the economic rapids trying to avoid crashing, but there’s already a hole in the bottom of the raft. Even if it avoids a crash, there are much worse things in store. And China doesn’t have just one big hole in its raft, it has (at least) four.

1.  The Aging Population
In 2010, about 13 percent of China’s population was over 60-years-old. Or in other words, there were five working age people for every retiree, and even that’s already causing problems. With China’s enormous “floating population” of migrant workers, about half of all elderly live by themselves or with just an elderly spouse. This leaves many migrants the choice of essentially straddling their hometown and work-destination in order to care for ailing parents, or paying to put them up in the city. Both options can cause huge financial strains, which is made worse by the fact that the one-child policy has left plenty of couples to solely support four parents. But as tough as it is now, we ain’t seen nothing yet:

population aging chart

That 5-to-1 ratio of workers-to-retirees will fall to 3-to-1 just by 2020 and continue to get worse from there until the over 60 crowd goes above and beyond a third of China’s population. Some may point out that this is very similar to what Japan and several other countries are going through, but there’s one very important thing to keep in mind:

 japan china gdp2

Thanks to the one child policy wreaking havoc on demographics, China is facing a first world problem while it still only has third world resources to cope with it. Japan may be able to afford it, but in all likelihood, China won’t. The facilities and the trained personnel to care for these elderly just aren’t there, and putting them there will be incredibly difficult with the meager means China has at its disposal. It will put unmanageable strains on families, pensions and China’s healthcare system…not to mention the economic dividends China’s large population of workers have been supplying over the past two decades.

2.  The Pollution
I don’t even know where to begin on China’s pollution problems. For starters, an estimated 750,000 Chinese die prematurely each year from air pollution-related respiratory diseases. Hundreds of “cancer villages” dot the countryside. And the country’s carbon emissions, which are already the highest in the world, aren’t expected to peak for at least another two decades.

But the most frightening implication of China’s pollution is what it’s doing to the food and water supply. Wall Street Journal reported last week that “anywhere between 8% and 20% of China’s arable land, some 25 to 60 million acres, may now be contaminated with heavy metals. A loss of even 5% could be disastrous, taking China below the ‘red line’ of 296 million acres of arable land that are currently needed, according to the government, to feed the country’s 1.35 billion people.”

Many farmers that used to produce healthy food are now growing food they know can’t be sold just so they can qualify for compensation from the government or polluting factories. Or worse, they’re growing food they know isn’t safe to sell, but they’re sellling it anyways. On top of this, desertification resulting from global warming and deforestation is claiming arable land the size of Rhode Island every year.

After decades of growth policies that used the “grow GDP first and clean up later” principle, China is realizing that it all may be too expensive to clean up. A researcher from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has estimated that if you factor in environmental costs, China’s real annual GDP growth would be nearly halved. However, no matter how much money is thrown at the problem, there are some resources that may never be recovered…which leads to the next big problem.

3.  The Water Shortage
Demand for water in China is skyrocketing, while at the same time supply is dwindling and being contaminated.  The Tibetan glaciers, which supply the water for all three of China’s major rivers – The Yangtze, Mekong and Yellow – are disappearing by as much as 7% per year. About half of the rivers that existed in China in 1990 have already dried up, and of those rivers and lakes that remain, about 75% are severely polluted. 28% are so polluted that their water can’t even be used for agriculture.

The water shortage will also have severe effects on industry. As much as 17 percent of China’s water is now used by the coal industry and other power stations. And as you can see, China’s coal use has been shooting upward for the past decade with no promise of slowing any time soon.

 coal chart
Chart via U.S. Energy Information Administration

Over the next two decades, this water crisis is poised to come to a head with demand far outstripping supply by nearly 200 billion cubic meters. What this will mean for China’s economy and the everyday lives of its citizens is scary to think about, to put it mildly.

 waterrisk
Chart via Business Insider and China Water Risk

4. The Gender Imbalance
The one-child policy, a patriarchal culture and sex selective abortions and have come together in what will eventually create a population of surplus men that rivals the overall populations of many large countries. According to a Chinese population researcher from Xi’an Jiaotong University, the number of these “bare branches” aged 20 to 49 in China will reach 20 million by 2015 and continue to grow to around 44 million by 2040. At current birthrates, eventually one in five Chinese men will be hopelessly single. These numbers are unprecedented in human history, and experts are expecting very little good to come from it.

Times and places in history with large male surpluses – from the American Wild West to mid-19th century Northern China – have been marked by lawlessness and exploitation of women. Rises in violent crime rates have been attributed to the imbalance that already exists in contemporary China. And since those left without wives tend to be the very poorest men – who are increasingly finding themselves clustered in “bachelor villages” – other grievances could easily consolidate them into a violent force. This is exactly what scholars Valerie Hudson and Andrea Den Boer have argued preceded historical Chinese conflicts like the Nien Rebellion, the Black Flag Army, the Boxers and the Eight Trigrams Rebellion.

Furthermore, if the Chinese government gets worried about the social upheaval bare branches could cause, they may try to channel that angst into the Chinese army. In that case, it could result in ultra-nationalism and a foreign policy that’s “swaggering, belligerent, provocative,” as Hudson and Den Boer put it.

        *                                               *                                            *

I try to be an optimist. I have confidence that new technologies and targeted policies can mitigate some of these problems before they become catastrophic. But the fact that these four things are happening in concert is downright terrifying and presents the probable scenario that they’ll exacerbate one-another. The worsening health effects from pollution could make it more expensive to care for the elderly. The water shortage and soil degradation could cause food and utility prices to rise, making it harder to eke out a living and keep the bare branches content. You get the idea.

So by all means keep an eye on the present economic hurdle. It will certainly have enormous implications on the quality of life in China and the extent to which the country is able to address other issues. But don’t forget that even if China gets over this hurdle, there are much bigger ones on the road ahead. Keep a very close eye on these hurdles, because they won’t become apparent in any abrupt crash. But they have the potential to be much more crippling to the country’s sustained growth.

This week China’s chief media regulator issued a statement  outlining new regulations for media organizations. They basically boil down to the following:

  • News organizations may not cite foreign media without permission.
  • News organizations must file with authorities when setting up an official Weibo account and assign a person to insure that only kosher topics gets tweeted.
  • Journalists should offer proper guidance of public opinion under the principle of focusing on positive propaganda.
  • People without journalist permits are barred from interviewing or reporting under the name of a news organization.
  • Online news sites should not publish any reports from a news source, freelance writer or NGO before the facts are verified.

Nothing too earth-shaking here, and these directives are hardly enforceable. However, they do present a clear message: The Party’s grip on the media will not be loosening one bit. If anything, it will tighten.

For years now there’s been speculation over whether Xi Jinping (and the rest of the new government) will maintain the status quo, be reformist or even head in the opposite direction and roll back reforms. This is an oversimplified debate. These things will happen and are already happening.

These new media directives are one of many recent examples of an overriding principle that’s hardly changed since 1979: Nearly everything is eligible for reform and a Communist Party retreat, except for the “Three Ps” – Propaganda, Personnel and the People’s Liberation Army.

Over the past few months I’ve spoken with a number of experts in fields ranging from gay rights to the environment who are very excited about the new leadership, and with good cause. Everywhere you look in China there seems to be the beginnings of actual reforms, or at least hints that the rigid status quo is going to change for the better.

Measures have been put in place to make leaders less pompous and overindulgent. After 24 years, public discussion has been re-opened on Hu Yaobang. Behemoth state monopolies are being put in check. Homosexuality is moving away from being officially taboo. It appears the model of “GDP growth ahead of all else” is being dismantled. China is improving its environmental transparency. A raft of long-overdue economic reforms are kicking off. The list goes on and on.

It’s still too early to say for sure, but this could very well be a new spring for civil society and long stigmatized groups.

But before we break out the champagne, let’s consider a few other recent signals from our bold new reformers. Last year Xi Jinping ordered more “thought control” in universities. Several times over the past year, Xi has commanded the PLA to remain “absolutely loyal” to the Communist Party above all else. There was the infamous Southern Weekly Incident illustrating an increasingly overbearing propaganda department. In the past year, two foreign correspondents have faced de facto expulsions for the first time since 1998, while new foreign journalists are waiting over a year to get their visas in some cases. And last, but certainly not least, China’s internet censorship apparatus is becoming ever-more sophisticated at weeding out “harmful” content.

So what’s the deal? Are these new leaders reformers or not? Obviously, it’s complicated, but you can make a pretty good prediction on the likelihood of a given reform just by establishing whether it threatens the Party’s absolute control over who educates the public, who holds any kind of political power, and which way the guns would face in the event of an uprising (AKA – Propaganda, Personnel, People’s Liberation Army).

Since the 1990s, China’s communist mandarins have religiously studied the downfall of the Soviet Union. The conclusions they’ve reached are that democratizing, opening the press and losing control over the military opened floodgates that resulted in the regime’s collapse. Xi Jinping gave a private speech to this effect to Party leaders in Guangdong last December on what was supposed to be his nod to Deng Xiaoping’s “Southern Tour.”

Some have contrasted Xi’s private instructions to remember the Soviet Union with his efforts to align himself with Deng Xiaoping’s reformist legacy, but the two are hardly contradictory. Although he was unquestionably a real reformer that forever changed China for the better, Deng was also a firm believer in upholding absolute Party control over the Three Ps.

Xi, like Deng, recognizes that the Three Ps are non-negotiable in order to keep continued Party rule, and by extension (in their minds), a stable environment for other reforms to happen.

In some ways it may seem like the new government is more amenable to opening up the press. Xi has vowed to go after both “the tigers and the flies” (top leaders and low officials who are corrupt) and hinted that this involves more freedom for the press and the online public. But there will always be a cage over the press. If that cage gets bigger (and there’s been no meaningful indication that it actually will), it will be carefully designed to let reporters roam only in areas that serve the Party’s self-preserving interests. These new directives suggest that that the vetting process for those even allowed to roam in that cage is getting stricter.

So this is what we’ll need to get used to. Virtually everything outside the Three Ps is eligible for reform, and that’s good news. There’s still a lot of room for making China a better place within those confines. But the Three Ps will absolutely remain under complete Party control, barring some massive national movement that presents a crisis even greater than Tiananmen.

So far it seems that opening up and reforming in the allowable areas means locking down the three non-negotiables even more tightly so as to ensure the approved reforms don’t bring any unpredictability. So feel free to get your hopes up in many arenas. Just also recognize what’s not likely to ever happen.

Today around noon I saw Twitter light up over a report that CCTV would live broadcast the execution of a Burmese drug smuggler and three members of his gang convicted of killing 13 Chinese on the Mekong River.

At first glance I assumed the uproar was because CCTV would devote so much attention to the execution of foreign criminals; attention like Timothy McVeigh and Ted Bundy received when crowds gathered outside their prisons and cameras were rolling to capture the signal that they were dead.

That angle made sense. China devoted no such attention to the executions of its own serial killers like Yang Xinhai and Zhang Yongmin. It seemed to be yet another Opium War allusion to give the impression: “Vigilant CCP shows no mercy to foreign aggressors who attack China’s sovereignty and humiliate its people (especially through the drug trade).”

I soon realized though that that wasn’t what the uproar was about. People thought that “live broadcasting the execution” meant CCTV would literally bring cameras into the chamber and air the lethal injections.

For those familiar with the version of China gossiped about by grannies in Florida getting their hair done, that might seem conceivable. But for those familiar with the actual China, that proposition should sound completely absurd.

Contrary to popular belief, The People’s Republic of China has rarely put their executions out on display (vigilante Cultural Revolution killings aside). Sure, it frequently paraded condemned criminals around town and had execution rallies in stadiums right up through the 1990s. There was even a TV show until last year that interviewed death row inmates, sometimes just minutes before execution. But when it’s time to do the deed itself, criminals have almost always been taken to a secluded location away from public eyes.

In 2004, Boxun did a report on the death penalty in China featuring interviews with law enforcement who’d been involved with executions (Boxun is by no means reliable, but in this case there were very gruesome photos that seem to back up the interviews).

One man who’d been involved in “half a dozen” executions up until 1995 using the traditional bullet to the head method said, “There are no spectators at the scene of the execution.  We maintain three rings of security.  Outsiders are kept far away, such that they cannot even hear the gunshot sounds.  On our way back, nobody says anything because we are overwhelmed by the feeling that life can be so cheap.”

As satisfying as it may be for some to see a foreign aggressor get what’s coming to him, why would authorities regress below something considered too socially risky even by 1995 standards? Chinese censors routinely cut fictional violence from movies and TV – even to the point of disallowing the use of a knife to threaten someone – lest any fragile minds be influenced and disrupt social harmony. So why on Earth would the most viewed channel on the most viewed medium in China show a real person being killed live for millions of children to see?

It wouldn’t. Period.

All this uproar began with a piece in South China Morning Post titled “CCTV ‘to broadcast live execution of Mekong River massacre drug smugglers.’” John Kennedy, who wrote the piece, later said on Twitter: “CCTV said, unambiguously and in plain Chinese, it’s going to live broadcast the execution. I’m not going to put words in its mouth. If it turns out CCTV is deliberately misleading the public to boost viewership (and in a way or two I hope it is), that’s a story in itself.”

Indeed.

In the end, just about everything leading up to the executions was shown – from prepping the prisoners to transporting them – but cameras stopped short of entering the chamber. Doing so would have been socially risky, and therefore impossible; not to mention gratuitously vile on a level that even the Ministry of Public Security wouldn’t stoop to.

Were the bits that were shown morbid, exploitative and inhumane? Sure. Was it all shamelessly done as a political statement with unsettling xenophobic undertones? Absolutely. Was it warranted in order to deter such brutal criminal acts in the future? I’m sure a lot of people will make that argument. And I’m sure you’ll be reading elsewhere about all these things in the coming days, but all I can say is nobody took the enormous leap of showing the execution – something a lot of people who should have known better seemed to think was a real possibility.

[Correction: This previously referred to the Boxun report as being from 1994. It was actually from 2004.]

The Gaokao Highway to Hell

Posted: February 3, 2013 in Education
Tags: ,

China’s Gaokao college entrance exam, which heavily tests rote memorization and decides the fate of China’s youth, is objectively awful. Students know this, teachers know this, the government knows this, my aunt Agatha knows this. Recently though I’ve gained a new appreciation for just how horrific it is.

For the past week I’ve been in my girlfriend’s Shandong hometown staying with her aunt, uncle and 17-year-old cousin Emily.

Emily is a puny 90 pounds with the horrible eyesight common among Chinese youth.  If given the chance, she’ll talk to you for hours about soap operas and schoolyard gossip.

Two-and-a-half years ago she and her family came to visit us in Nanjing. It was a kind of celebration for passing the end of middle school test and getting into the town’s best high school. Since that trip, Emily’s life has been hell.

This summer she’ll take the Gaokao. So each day she goes to school from 7:30 AM to 10:00 PM with a two hour lunch. She gets Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings off…usually.

Every night at 10:15, her mom waits anxiously at the front door. When Emily arrives on her electric bike, she leans on the horn in annoyance. Her mom bolts out the door to open the courtyard gate. No matter how fast she makes it out, Emily is irritated. She’s running on fumes already and vents at the routine setback of having to wait ten seconds to get in the house.

When she gets in the front door, her mom hustles her over to a warm footbath she’s prepared. Any precious second that’s wasted is a second Emily will lose from study or sleep. But once she sits down to her footbath, she has a few minutes to unwind. It’s the one window where I can talk to her. The topic, of course, is how miserable her day was.

After we chat for about five minutes, her mom hands her a textbook and I take my cue to head off to bed. This is just the beginning of Emily’s night.

The time that she goes to bed varies. On a rare good night, it’ll be a little after midnight. I once woke up to use the bathroom at 2:30 and found her passed out on a book. “I’m just taking a little rest,” she looked up and uttered pathetically, as if she needed to justify the catnap to me.

If she managed to get all her homework done, her mom will rouse her at 6:30 AM – at which point they’ll bargain over whether Emily can have a few more minutes of sleep. Emily never wins this negotiation. Once she’s up, she’ll do a little morning studying, make quick work of her breakfast and be out the door (This is what I’m told anyways. I’ve never actually been awake to see it myself).

Normally, the entire family treats me like a prince. They’ll bend over backwards to make sure I don’t lift a finger while I’m there. Meals are placed before me and trips are made across town to get any little thing they think I might want, no matter how strongly I object (I like to think this is just because I’m a guest, but realistically, I know my foreignness plays a role). All this princely treatment ends abruptly though when it conflicts with the schedule of the Queen.

After subtracting the commute, Emily has an hour-and-a-half at home for lunch. I’ve been told ever so politely (but in no uncertain terms) that I’m to be out of the house during this period. Emily doesn’t have time to be distracted by me. She’ll scarf down lunch in a matter of minutes and then go straight to bed for some precious afternoon Zs…unless of course she still has unfinished homework.

After several more hours of drilling and practice tests, she’ll come home and repeat. As I head to bed I tell her, “Don’t work too hard.” I’m the only one doling out such advice.

My girlfriend has persuaded Emily’s parents that the brain needs time to relax, and now they’re relatively easy on her. During her free Saturday afternoon, she’s allowed to watch soap operas and talk with me for a little while before being directed back to her study desk. Many of her classmates though have their faces stuffed in their books at every waking moment or have an outside tutor arranged during this time.

Teachers and parents are perfectly aware of how much stress this puts on the kids. They try to occasionally organize activities to relieve the pressure and allow some semblance of socializing. But these occasions are too little and too contrived. Recently they had a class dinner to celebrate the New Year, but it was more like being let out of the dungeon to have a nice dinner with the other captives. Yes, the students were happy to have it, but there wasn’t exactly a festive atmosphere. Everyone spent the evening complaining to one another.

Two years ago during the Spring Festival, after Emily’s first semester of high school, she was already feeling the heat. One night while everyone else was visiting a neighbor, she broke down and started sobbing on my shoulder. “There’s so much pressure,” she said. “Everyone wants so much from me. I don’t know if I can pass. If I don’t they’ll be so disappointed in me.”

Considering how high the suicide rate is for Emily’s demographic, I was glad to be the foreigner disconnected from her world that allowed her to uncork what she’d been bottling up.

When I think back to my high school life – the parties, proms, sports, pointless time-killing shenanigans – it kills me that Emily won’t have any of it. She’ll just have memories of soul-crushing routine.

But the lost memories, the stress, the bodily harm – it might be worth it if there were something worthwhile at the end of the tunnel; something truly enriching that sprouted from all that time and sacrifice.

Yesterday, while studying, Emily asked me when you should say “It’s my pleasure” and when you should simply say “My pleasure” in English conversation. It seemed like a pretty pointless question. There may be a very subtle situational difference, depending on who you ask, but in what scenario could that very narrow distinction possibly matter? Sure enough though, there was a “correct” answer to the multiple choice question.

I flipped through the textbook and found pages full of similar hair-splitting drivel that would in no way actually improve someone’s ability to communicate in English. I asked Emily what exactly they teach her in school all day. “We write many passages,” she said. “And then they tell us how we should write it better [for the essay portion of the Gaokao].”

“You know, it’s not like Mo Yan,” she continued. “He tells very interesting stories, but we can’t write anything like that. If I write what I want, I’ll fail.”

If you’re a reader of this blog, hopefully you already have an eye on the still unfolding events surrounding Southern Weekend. As I write this, the paper’s staff is reportedly still in negotiations with propaganda officials over what will happen next. Meanwhile, droves of students, celebrities and other media outlets have expressed their support for the paper online while a demonstration involving hundreds has taken hold outside its Guangzhou offices.

Zhongnanhai blog has done a good post saying that China watchers and correspondents have a tendency to over-interpret events like this. The author predicts it will be “a great story for a while until it fizzles out and becomes nothing more than an infrequently-viewed Wikipedia page.”

For the most part, I agree. But there are some aspects I think are pretty significant in the long term. So let’s iron out what this incident is and what it’s not.

What It’s Not
1) A bold stand by Southern Weekend against government censorship
The heart of this issue is that Guangdong’s propaganda head Tuo Zhen allegedly doctored Southern Weekend’s New Year’s editorial and sent it to press without the paper’s editors being informed. This is a highly irregular slap in the face to the paper. It’s one thing to tell editors they can’t print something. It’s very different though to put (highly embarrassing and inaccurate) words in their mouths that they only learn about when they pick up the paper. Southern Weekend is standing up against this disrespect and circumvention of the status quo. It’s not rejecting the idea of government censorship.

2) The first domino toward a mass free speech movement or a Tiananmen-like showdown.
The Telegraph ran a piece saying this “is arguably the most open and widespread display of dissent since the Tiananmen Square protests almost a quarter of a century ago.”

Maybe that’s technically true, but it oversells the significance of where we’re at now. When Wukan residents expelled their local government in late 2011, it was considered a huge deal and people (including myself) were wondering if it was a preview of things to come – either of further uprisings or a model for peaceful government accommodation.

It was neither.

There’s about a 90% chance the Southern Weekend standoff will fizzle out one way or another with a mild one-off solution. Protestors have been tacitly allowed to demonstrate so far, suggesting the government still isn’t entirely sure what to do. Guangdong’s new party secretary Hu Chunhua, as of now, is the favorite to replace Xi Jinping as China’s president in 2022. If he gets blood on his hands or gives an obvious victory to free speech agitators, his hopes could get dashed pretty quickly. It’s very unlikely there will be a violent crackdown or an agreement to ease media controls, but more likely some minor private concession (or effective threat) to the paper that only applies to present circumstances.

Simply firing Tuo Zhen would placate Southern Weekend and end the situation, but the government’s propaganda directives have suggested this isn’t going to happen. It would set an undesirable precedent (though not a disastrous one– as some have suggested. I think it still remains a last resort if the paper refuses to back down or protests strengthen). If and when this event fizzles out with some kind of uninspiring resolution, everyone will go home unsatisfied – but not furious. Then we’ll move on to other issues.

However, that doesn’t mean there won’t be significant takeaways.

What It Is
1) A surprising signal that many of China’s youth are primed to push for change
A few months ago when I was at the massive anti-Japan protests, I looked around and wondered if I’d ever see the day when Chinese would make similar emotional cries in public for something not on the government’s agenda. Seeing how firmly that angst was focused on Japan, I thought it would be at least several years. If you’d told me on that day that within four months, a sizeable crowd would gather to call for press freedom in China, I’d have said no way.

Southern Weekend staff may not be pushing for an outright end to censorship, but their supporters certainly seem to be. You can bet

Via Tea Leaf Nation: "One woman looked fear in the eye, and said, 'cheese'"

Via Tea Leaf Nation: “One woman looked fear in the eye, and said, ‘cheese’”

that more than a few parents across the country have been warning their kids to stay the hell away from any hint of subversive activity. Getting involved with something deemed “anti-government” can blot a permanent record and ruin career prospects. Yet, students across the country are voicing support to Southern Weekend online WITH THEIR FACES SHOWN. And even more unbelievably, hundreds showed up to protest IN PERSON against media censorship – one of the most unshakeable government priorities.

This is much different than your routine “mass incidents” over things like land grabs and pollution. These people in Guangzhou have no immediate stake in protesting censorship. They have very little to gain personally and a lot to lose. That indeed takes cojones that have rarely been seen since 1989. These protestors may be a very small, unrepresentative sample of China’s youth, but it’s a sample I didn’t realize existed yet.

But perhaps I should have realized it. When I got to China five years ago and spoke with young educated people about media censorship, some would say they opposed it, but more would voice support. They’d say things like “If the truth were revealed, China would collapse” or “Poor people must support the leaders if we’re to keep developing. They wouldn’t if the media could criticize the leaders.”

These days I hear fewer and fewer people say things like that. Thanks to Weibo, people are realizing that much of the things swept up in the censorship system aren’t just abstract embarrassments. They’re concrete things like poisonous food, pollution, land grabs, railway accidents and flood deaths – things that have a real impact on public safety and well-being; things that could be avoided if publicized.

2) Another sign of “de-facto democratization”
Weibo also probably means a more democratic resolution to the standoff then there would have been a few years ago. In 2003, Southern Metropolis Daily (also from the Southern Media Group), embarrassed Guangdong officials with reports on detention camps and SARS. This ended in a clampdown that saw two editors slapped with lengthy prison sentences on trumped up charges.

This is the traditional way of dealing with such brazen newspapers. But this has become prohibitively risky (perhaps for the first time with the unfolding events). It’s not impossible that a Southern Weekend reporter will end up in jail, but with as many sympathetic eyes as there are on the story, it’s not a realistic possibility. And the fact that the propaganda department is deigning to negotiate with the paper is a sign that it no longer feels able to just unilaterally bring down the hammer.

If the hammer does come down eventually and the paper is shut down or editors are fired, then the government will find itself at an all time credibility low and will meet strong public backlash. I don’t at all rule out this possibility. As stupid and self-defeating as that would be, the government has time and again stubbornly clung to repressive tactics that are 20 years out of date. Doing so here wouldn’t bring the masses to the streets, but it would bring them one step closer to ultimately dropping faith in the system entirely.

So no, this event in all likelihood won’t be a watershed for those hoping to see quick political reform. But it does represent a shift, however slight it may be, in the public’s consciousness and what it’s willing to tolerate. Even if the government is unwilling to engage in meaningful political reform, it’s already being pushed on an irreversible course of de-facto reform.