What does they mean by “There’s no news in China”?
Although I grew up in Beijing and moved to Los Angeles when I was 16, I finally realized that I did not know much about the society I came from. Through interning as a reporter, I had the chance to explore a seemingly censored world.
During the past two months, I worked at Beijing Today- an English newspaper serving the expat community in Beijing. It was founded by the Beijing City Municipal News Office and later operated under Beijing Youth Daily.
The first day I walked into the Editor-in-Chief Wang’s office, he asked me what I would write and I said I could run around the city and do news reporting. “There is no news in China, you should know that,” he said as he shook his head, as if I was too young to understand.
Every Friday, Wang would host a meeting in the office and read us the “Notification” of the week- statements from the municipal government that restricted topics we could report on. If we did not follow the rules, Wang would get in trouble. However, I would still see articles on these topics from major Chinese newspapers.
“There’s a way to do it. As long as you get the news out before the notifications are distributed or you write it tactfully, then you’ll be fine,” explained Wang.
Due to the short time frame of gathering information, he gave me a lecture on using well-known “news” as lead to draw out the issue in the society as well as choosing soft words to demonstrate strong points. I thought it was pointless at first, perhaps as many Western journalists had the same impression. But later on, I started to comprehend their way of journalism.
“Many Western journalists came to China thinking that they only needed to report on what they saw, but we think otherwise,” Wang told me. “You can’t be objective about an event or issue if you don’t know enough about the culture and the current situation here, or worse, you write with prejudice while you’re undergoing culture-shock. You haven’t lived here for quite a few years, so I want you to talk to people and do a lot of research, then perhaps you will produce something unique to share with your readers.”
After several drafts to achieve his standards, Wang gave me a column that published twice a week. Through writing, I learned the complicacy of many social issues in China such as study abroad returners’ re-settlement, private hospital scandals, internet celebrity economy, loopholes in minor protection law, etc.
I remembered when I interviewed a police officer on how they handle parents who hit their children, how even though he accepted the interview, he refused to tell me his name and department because he would get punished if his supervisors found out.
Many reporters used alias or anonymous source as reference to their interviewees in order to avoid trouble. However, when I expressed the high level of censorship to our Director of Content Derrick, an American expat, he said, “Well, every country has censorship, some are just more discreet than others.”
When the South China Sea conflict took the front page of many newspapers, I compared articles from the Chinese media and the American media. On such a complicated international issue, major publications naturally sided with their own country, including “experienced war journalists reporting from front line.” After all, no matter how objective and insightful you claim to be as a journalist, everyone bows before patriotism regardless of the truth.
The censorship in China was obvious, with clear guidelines and notifications. Reporters would know exactly what not to say and how they could go around it. Perhaps under more discreet pressure, reporters would only know trouble when they stepped in it.
“If you want to be a good journalist, you have to train yourself to be very sharp, practice your logic, you need to be able to see the truth under the fluff,” Editor-in-Chief Wang advised me before I left. It was truly an internship that I would be eternally grateful for.
Courage and strong will are a must for journalists. It is not that glorious, divine, or fancy of a job as many daydreamed. You might not change the world, you might not be rich and famous, but as long as you believe in the stories that you tell, they will always mean something to somebody in the world.
If you are interested in the articles refered above, you could read on https://beijingtoday.com.cn/author/marrian-zhou/