Before she started graduate school in journalism at Nanjing University in the fall of 2008, Xu Xu was a government official in Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province. Xining, 27 hours west of Nanjing by train and close to the Tibetan border, has a large Tibetan population and has been the site of protests over China’s occupation of Tibet. As part of her job, Xu Xu helped organize lectures and community activities to promote nationalism and patriotism.
During orientation as a Fulbright lecturer, as I prepared to teach two graduate journalism classes, I’d been warned to avoid the “Three T’s”—Tibet, Tiananmen and Taiwan. But during the first week of class, after a student wrote a profile of Xu Xu and her work in Xining, I couldn’t resist asking her a question.
“Did you find that any of the people there had any negative feelings toward you and other Han Chinese?” I said, referring to the Han who comprise more than 90 percent of China’s population.
“No,” Xu Xu said firmly. “They all want to be like us.”
On the surface it seemed not much had changed since I’d taught journalism in China two decades earlier. The government requires journalists to have licenses, and the state owns news media companies. Journalism education at most universities, including Nanjing, focuses on communication theory, though a few universities emphasize the practice of journalism. And students rarely question their government, at least in the presence of foreigners.
Like nearly everything that has to do with China, however, the reality is more difficult to discern. While economic reforms provide some newspapers with more independence, the Internet, reaching an estimated 300 million Chinese, has released a flow of information that exposes corruption, criticizes government officials, reports on protests and arrests, and chronicles health and safety issues. Changes such as these have pushed even Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, to report in 2008 that nearly all of the nation’s 3,220 billionaires are children of senior officials. Journalists are still subject to censorship and prosecution, but the information genie is out of the bottle.
My journalism students were bright and worked hard, as did those I taught in Shanghai in the summers of 1985 and 1986. Back then students had access only to official sources of information. Now they read online The New York Times, CNN.com, investigative stories from Southern Weekend in Guangzhou, and blogs, many of which are based on solid news reporting. They join Web portals and chat groups to share gossip and comment on rumors. Although the government occasionally blocks some Web sites—the Times’ site was blocked at times—many Chinese use proxy servers to get access to blocked sites. (The recent government attempt, subsequently dropped, to require monitoring software on all new computers sold in China indicated that censorship has had limited success.)
For nearly all of my students, who came from provinces throughout China, I was their first foreign teacher. They spoke and understood English well and wrote assignments in English. But most of them, like the students I taught in the 1980s, were reluctant to speak in class. I encouraged them to break down stereotypes and deal with broad themes. In return, their reporting provided remarkable insights about a rapidly changing society as they wrote about new life trajectories for ordinary Chinese people. One student profiled a migrant construction worker and ended the story with this scene:
It was time for lunch and I invited Yang to join me, but he refused. “My clothes are so dirty. If we have lunch together, you will be laughed at by others,” Yang said shyly. “There is no choice as a worker.”
“Never mind,” I said, “Nobody will do so.”
He still disagreed. When I proposed that I go buy fast food so we can have lunch on the construction site together, he refused my offer.
“Whether your family is rich or not, your money comes from your parents as a student,” he said. “I have earned money by myself on earth, so I should pay for the lunch.” He spoke to me like a parent, although he is three years younger than I. Finally, I had to give up my plan for us to have lunch together.
When we left the construction site and walked through the campus, it was very crowded, as usual. Yang looked uncomfortable, and walked carefully so that he wouldn’t knock into the students. “Walking on campus, I feel particularly self-conscious,” he said. He seemed embarrassed.
“It does not matter,” I said. “You will open your own company, won’t you? At that time, college students may be working for you.” I smiled. Yang scratched his head, and laughed. The smile spread on his face, bright and warm.
My students also investigated China’s milk powder scandal that dominated the news that fall when thousands of babies became ill, and at least six died from milk powder tainted with melamine. They interviewed families with sick children who were overwhelmed with medical bills and a doctor at Gulou Hospital in Nanjing who was among the first to discover why so many children were getting sick. The students also wrote travel stories about picking tea leaves in Xishuangbanna, trekking in Tibet, visiting the springs in Jinan, and feature stories about a successful training center for autistic children in Sichuan Province and “rehabilitation” colonies in Guangdong where recovered lepers are isolated.
I edited their stories, correcting English usage and suggesting ways to dig deeper into the story. As I e-mailed the first set of stories back, I was apprehensive about their response. I’d put red lines through much of what they’d written with “awkward” and “vague” next to nearly every paragraph. I’d been baffled by words like “intelligential,” which emerged from computer translators some students used. Yet the students welcomed my editing, and I was touched by their sincerity. “Professor Ross,” one student wrote. “I’ve rewrited my travel story according to your postil. My poor English must have cost you a lot of energy to read and amend it. So sorry for it. However, I was shocked and moved by your dense amendments on my story. Thank you so much! Always best wishes!”
In my journalism ethics class, I lectured about freedom of speech in the United States, the failure of the mainstream American news media to question the march to war in Iraq, and the obsession with gossip and celebrity. In our final class, we discussed the ethics of blogging. We discussed ways to tell if blogs are accurate and reliable. Does the blogger cites sources, dates, names? Do other blogs or sources support the information? Has this blogger been reliable in the past? Are the writer’s biases and reporting methods transparent?
Then I projected some blogs from China translated by and published on Global Voices Online. One dealt with corruption in Nanjing’s housing administration. (The director was later dismissed.) Another told the story of a peasant from Shandong selected to represent his fellow villagers who had lost their homes due to the sinking of a local mine and had been denied compensation from the local government. His son was beaten, he was jailed twice (once for more than a year), and finally held in a mental institution and injected with drugs for more than three months.
I expected at least some of my students would be shocked or surprised by what we were learning from these blogs, but most were familiar with such stories from their reading of other blogs and participation in chat groups.
Only a handful of my students plan to become journalists. Most hope to find a stable job in government so they can help support their families. In China, the social status and pay for journalists is relatively low and there are few jobs. Yet, as protests erupt (as they did in July in a Muslim region of China), government corruption continues, unemployment rises, and public health and safety controls deteriorate, it will be vital for China to have journalists who are capable of moving past stereotypic coverage and sorting truth from rumor so that the public can rely on their reporting. It might take decades before what we’d recognize as a free press exists in China. But the Chinese people’s well-being depends on them having a freer flow of accurate information as they confront the challenges of the tumultuous times in which they live.
James Ross is an associate professor of journalism and director of the Jewish Studies Program at Northeastern University. He is the author of three nonfiction books and coeditor of “From the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to Holocaust Denial Trials: Challenging the Media, the Law and the Academy,” published by Vallentine Mitchell.