Just about the first thing my graduate students did when they arrived in Hong Kong was to create a Facebook account. They had come from mainland China so what might seem like an ordinary act of modern living laid bare the disparities in the “one country, two systems” arrangement between these two parts of China. This newfound freedom to use Facebook also underscored the absence of free speech they experience back home which limits their ability to surf the Internet. YouTube and Twitter are blocked from use, along with Facebook and passage to Web sites with information deemed critical of Chinese policy.

For the students I taught last fall in the international journalism program at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU), the prospect of returning to a pre-Facebook era, as one young woman from China’s north told me, would be “like being a human, then going back to being a primate.”

If democracy is in China’s future, then a driving force will surely be younger Chinese who have tasted such freedoms. Indeed, early on in my journalism classes I sensed that by cajoling my 22- to 26-year-old students toward what Western journalists naturally do—challenge authority, probe deeply to find out why a situation is the way it is, and enable readers to make better-informed decisions—I was in my own modest way training China’s future democrats.

Teaching in Hong Kong

When the offer came my way to teach journalism in Hong Kong, I could not refuse it. After working as a reporter, I’ve taught feature writing and international reporting during the past seven years at universities in New York City, then from my current perch in Central Europe, in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Word of this possibility reached me through a foreign-correspondence training program that I help lead every six months in Prague. During the past two Januaries, HKBU has sent a large student delegation to this program as part of department chairman Huang Yu’s grand vision of how to broaden his students’ horizons.

When Huang invited me for a semester, I seized the chance to learn about the world’s emerging superpower. The farthest east I’d been was Uzbekistan, but since most of my students came from the mainland it was also their first time in Hong Kong. Given its status as a “Special Administrative Region” through a pact signed when Britain returned territorial control to China in 1997, my students need visas too. So when we met we shared a status as visitors.

From the start of class, their attentiveness, enthusiasm and even their appreciation impressed me. One student upon learning that I’d only be at HKBU for one semester replied, “Then our time together is so precious.” While currying favor for a good grade may partly explain her sentiment, I detected genuine gratitude by many of my students who recognized the academic freedom that was theirs to enjoy. This included such things as reading a history book barred from mainland students. A Chinese colleague told me that the lecture he enjoys giving most is when he shares with students what has been hidden from them during their youth. On the other hand, one student described to me the Chairman Mao statue in her parents’ living room, then explained how unsettling it was to hear criticism of the Communist Party for the first time in her life.

We discussed the government-controlled journalism they had been taught to practice at their university in China. And we talked about the external pressures and the self-censorship they’d observed in newsrooms as interns or entry-level reporters, along with the red, cash-filled envelopes handed out to reporters at press conferences. We delved into a widespread perception they—and others in China—have that the Western media is uniquely, relentlessly critical of China.

I would find myself at times pondering their enthusiasm. In a nation with such a vast population—1.3 billion, with more than 170 cities of a million or more people—I tried to imagine what it must be like to distinguish oneself, especially in a profession like journalism. Because HKBU offers a one-year English-language program—at a cost of $10,000—if nothing else, then at least the refined linguistic skills offered could provide a boost in the marketplace.

Typically I’ve taught undergraduates, and in those classes only a minority were gung-ho about becoming journalists. Sometimes it was tough to keep them fully engaged in the curriculum, and I’d find that the hard work of doing so sometimes led to feelings of burnout. At HKBU, I was delighted when most of my 69 students, spread across four classes, seemed eager to practice what I was teaching them.

The course was built around three main street assignments:

  • Examining the contrast between how Hong Kong and the mainland viewed modern China’s 60th anniversary
  • Finding out how the tens of thousands of Filipina maids in Hong Kong responded to twin typhoons that slammed the Philippines
  • Exploring an ethnic, immigrant or refugee community in Hong Kong.

Since my job was to teach them international reporting—without the travel—with this last semester-long assignment I hoped to simulate the experience by having them submerge themselves in one of Hong Kong’s historic South Asian communities or find ways to tell the story of recent waves of Southeast Asian migrant workers.

As I read their work, I was touched by how the reporting affected some students. For example, one team’s project spotlighted the religious freedom that Nepalese Christians find in Hong Kong, comparing it to the repression they experienced in their predominantly Hindu homeland. “We hurry to school in a metro crowded with Chinese, we shop in streets full of Chinese, we read or watch news on Chinese media, so we just don’t see or care about the lives of those outside the mainstream,” Crystal, one student from this reporting team, told me. The 26-year-old from Shanghai put it this way: “It’s a really amazing feeling to push back the frontier of my comprehension of society.” Inspired, Crystal spent the mid-year break trekking around Nepal.

Now that our time together has ended, I have no way of knowing how many of my students will stay in journalism or how many might seek a more lucrative career path. I’m also not sure how many of them will return to the mainland. Some might remain in Hong Kong. As a student from Shenzhen, an industrial city just across the border, said: “Once I’ve discovered all the resources out there, I don’t want them taken away from me.”

For those who return, I wonder to what degree, if at all, they will try to apply the lessons I taught them. Which of them will find a job working for state-controlled media? At what point might they question how journalism is practiced there? Or will some of them attempt to practice journalism for independent publications or perhaps as bloggers?

One night, over a bubbling “hot pot” soup in a dai pai dong—a traditional Hong Kong open-air street restaurant—one student conceded that despite everything she’d learned here, she planned to return to her beloved coastal city and keep herself from being noticed. “If I were to blog about sensitive topics,” she said, “I could be put in jail. And I wouldn’t want to risk my life for that, or get my family into trouble.” Who could blame her?

Michael J. Jordan was a visiting scholar at Hong Kong
Baptist University during the fall 2009 semester, teaching in the international journalism program. A foreign correspondent based in Slovakia, he has written a series of articles for journalism students who want to break into foreign reporting. He blogs at jordanink.wordpress.com/.

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