Media Moves

Business journalists struggling with China coverage

September 1, 2012

Posted by Esther Lee

In 1993, Joyce Barnathan visited Shanghai as the Asia regional editor for BusinessWeek. In the Pudong region by the Hongpu River she was amazed by what she saw — acres and acres of raised farmland and little else. In the midst of the undeveloped land, she spotted a small white building filled with maps, blue prints and smoke.

“These guys were sitting there, in the middle of nowhere, planning, ‘This is where the stock exchange is going to be, this is where we’ll build our five star hotels, and we’ll put the big financial district here.’ And I thought to myself, ‘What are these guys smoking?’” said Barnathan. “But 20 years later, it’s all there! And more, much more. I recently went to a Grand Hyatt hotel near that area, and I had to read instructions on how to turn the water on because it was so high-tech.”

During the past few decades, many changes have come about in China as the nation has raced to develop its cities, infrastructure and technology. And from the early rumblings of China’s rise to global superpower status, Western journalists have vied to claim a piece of the story.

From the 1970s where Western reporters were rarely allowed into the nation to present-day where Western coverage intermingles with the voices of China’s “netizens,” it is clear that the news information dynamic is changing in China. Chinese officials have also become more receptive to the Western news media — as long as the coverage reflects positively upon the nation and government. What has not changed is the government’s determined effort to block all negative press, creating a precipitous tension between a censoring government and a burgeoning online community.

In July, for example, China blocked Bloomberg News’ website in the country after it reported on the assets of the government’s vice president and likely next president.

Today, most of the major Western news media companies have bureaus in China, although many of them are based in Hong Kong. Western journalists seem to encounter a range of attitudes and responses from their Chinese publics, depending on the nature of their story.

“Does anybody (Chinese officials) trust journalists?” said Barnathan.“They are more cautious in China than in other places, but they still give access. Good journalists gain trust, write good stories and build good sources. It has become an easier place to become a journalist, though there are still opaque places.”

Keith Bradsher, the Hong Kong bureau chief for The New York Times, adds another perspective. “Chinese businesses tend to be more wary of the media than Western companies. They are less concerned with their image in the West and so are less likely to respond to questions. Chinese companies that have shares listed on Western stock exchanges tend to be the exception.”

RECEPTIVE TO POSITIVE COVERAGE 

Unsurprisingly, as long as the coverage is positive, Chinese officials and businessmen seem receptive to the Western news media.

Christopher Shay, the managing editor at World Policy Journal, spent three years reporting in China; one year for Time magazine and two years as a freelancer for The Wall Street Journal.

He said, “In general, most companies are excited to speak with Western media to get broader coverage. For instance, in mainland China there is an athletic company called Li Ning Company Ltd., founded by the former Chinese Olympic gymnast Li Ning. They were excited I was covering the company and they laid out the red carpet. They were as accommodating as possible because they wanted to increase international awareness about their company…However, it’s good to note that they are not a state-run corporation—they are trying to do something different from many of the other Chinese companies.”

David Andelman, who was based in Bangkok as the Southeast Asia bureau chief for The New York Times, visited China for the first time in late 2011.

Concerning his visit, he said, “Just from my observations, it seems that most Chinese businesses — especially private or semi-state owned — are quite happy to talk with the Western media. They are happy to give their perspectives across the money markets and international publications.”

Negative coverage by the Western news media is a different story. When Western journalists seek to report on Tibet, Foxconn or any issue that reflects negatively on China and its government, they encounter a gamut of opposition.

A senior editorial manager at one of the top international news organizations (who requested anonymity) has encountered the hostility of the Chinese government on several occasions. “The Chinese government is extremely bureaucratic and they often block our access; they are very opposed to our news organization,” he said. “They especially go after our ethnic-Chinese (Han) employees. They used to just follow us around and then we would ‘give them the slip’ (slip away), but they have become more aggressive.”

He said the Chinese government routinely blacks out their signals when they are transmitting negative stories about the manufacturing of iPads at Foxconn or political uprisings in Tibet. He and his team had a particularly horrific experience during a trip to China to cover the Tibetan protests. He said:

We were going to Tibet to cover the Tibetan protests that were taking place and the government actually met us at the airport to arrest us. Our team was detained for seven hours. They separated us into two groups, English-speaking and Chinese-speaking. The English-speaking security official who interrogated our reporters was more easy-going. After the interview he seemed sympathetic to their cause and the coverage of what was happening in Tibet and before they left, he actually slipped most of the SD cards back into their possession.

But the Chinese-speaking officer was much worse. She interrogated the Chinese-speaking (Han) members of our team and treated them aggressively, as if they were betraying their own people. One of our staffers, a young woman who was two years out of college, was particularly singled out and she received a full-body cavity search — which is not unlike getting raped. They thought maybe she had hidden an SD card in her vagina.

Shay also encountered opposition against some of his stories. One time, he was unable to complete a story about the burgeoning wine industry in Xinjiang (an autonomous region in China) because of the local authorities.

“Most wine from China is terrible, but some types are drinkable, showing that they understand the basic concepts and there is potential for the future,” Shay said. “Anyway, I set up an interview with one of the wine makers, a Frenchman from Bordeaux. But at the last second, a mysterious person from higher up came and shut it down — even though it was just a lifestyle piece and not hard-hitting…It was probably the regional authorities, as Xinjiang is a sensitive place because of its Muslim minority. It was also a sensitive time — right before the Beijing Olympics in June 2008.”

Shay also experienced how evasive Chinese companies could be when they wanted to avoid the media.

“I was covering some issues in Cambodia and it came out that a lake was flooding this large community, forcing thousands of people to be evicted,” he said. “The main company responsible was a Chinese land development company that was very secretive; they wouldn’t talk to anyone. In that Chinese company’s local province, there were public reports of what good things the company was doing, but it was very opaque about who was running the company or who was even putting out those news releases.”

RECENTLY OPEN 

In the 1970s, China was not a nation open to Western reporters. “It was impossible for journalists to visit China at all,” said David Andelman, who worked in Bangkok as The New York Times bureau chief for Southeast Asia during the 1970s. Western news media were not allowed in China until the late 1970s when China allowed The New York Times and The Washington Post to open their first bureaus in 1977, Andelman said.

Barnathan impressively managed to get into China as a student in 1976, a time when the United States did not yet have diplomatic relations with China. Reflecting on her experience as a student, Barnathan said, “China in 1976 was the same as North Korea today—no kidding. I’m not exaggerating; it was a totally amazing experience.”

Throughout the 1980s, news reporting in China became more open for Western journalists, peaking in 1987 and 1988 with an explosion of politically-charged stories critical of the government. Western journalists became more bold in their coverage and approach until 1989 when the Chinese government crushed the movement at Tiananmen Square. This resulted in a widespread “down mood” for the journalists.

Fortunately for Barnathan, she missed the Tiananmen Square debacle and arrived bright-eyed and full of excitement in 1992. “When I arrived to Hong Kong in ’92, what was amazing, despite the political crackdown, was the economic story — it was on fire! Those were the early days of a big economic powerhouse on the rise. And some journalists weren’t seeing this big story because they were sidelined by the political issues,” she said.

“As a journalist, you had more access to officials if you wanted business stories, rather than if you wanted to talk about Taiwan or Tibet,” she said. “I felt that the Chinese were very open—well, more open—to talk about the economy. They felt they had lots of accomplishments and lots they wanted to talk about. BusinessWeek was on top of the rise of China and defining what it would mean for the world. Now, people know about China, but back then, nobody knew what was going on over there.”

But as Barnathan interviewed more Chinese officials, she was flabbergasted by their lack of understanding of how to communicate with a reporter. It was clear that the majority of them had never met with Western correspondents before as they “didn’t have clue” about how to respond to her questions.

For instance, shortly after arriving in China, Barnathan got to interview an official from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs about a current issue. But instead of answering her questions, he sat her down at a table and started lecturing her on Chinese history, recounting the Opium Wars of the 1850s and the disgrace they brought upon the nation.

As she sat listening to the official Barnathan thought to herself, “Oh my gosh, we are talking about 1852. How am I going to get a quote that justifies me coming out here to report this story?”

Barnathan also had to work hard to build and maintain trust with her Chinese sources.She once went to Shanghai to cover an important story without realizing that her editors had already published provocative material written by a stringer under her name. Upon reading the story, her sources became upset and withheld her traveling visas for an extended period of time. Their trust had been broken, even though Barnathan explained that the material had been written by another reporter.

NEVER AN EASY PLACE

Overall, Barnathan’s experience reporting in China throughout the 1990s was “hysterical,” she said. “At other times it was challenging. As China became more developed, there were more sophisticated people to talk to. But still, it has never been an easy place.”

Today, the rise of social media is changing the news information dynamic in China for both Western and Chinese newsgatherers and consumers. Through services like Renren Network (China’s version of Facebook) and Sina Weibo (China’s Twitter), social media is opening up the newsgathering and sharing process, providing journalists and the Chinese public (netizens) with greater freedom and ability to share updates and voice their opinions.

Because of the myriad of social media platforms, accounts and forums, it is difficult for Chinese authorities to censor all the online content generated by its netizens. China currently has 485 million Internet users and 300 million microbloggers and it has “become a Sisyphean task to monitor the Internet,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, founding director of an Internet and media research firm based in Beijing. It is difficult for “censors and software to keep up with evasive tactics, such as the regular use of puns, homonyms, and homographs,” said Goldkorn.

For example, to get around Web censorship for the Bo Xilai scandal, Chinese bloggers use the characters for bu hou which means “not thick” because the character for Bo can also mean “thin” using a different pronunciation.

Furthermore, the prominent coverage of the Bo Xilai scandal in Chinese news media marks the beginning of a new era. “Today, there is a lot more coming out,” said Barnathan. “It’s difficult, but a lot more is coming out…There are all these stories on Bo Xilai, a powerful political leader who was running a lot of different things, and the stories that are coming out now are all about wealth and corruption. Who knows where this is going to end? I’m intrigued this is all coming out.”

The rise of social media in China, along with the government’s inability to censor every post, is also forcing a greater degree of accountability upon Chinese officials.

“When the (Tangshan) earthquake happened in 1976, it was massive and took down an entire city,” Barnathan said. “But we didn’t see anything—not a single story in the news. Everybody knew something of magnitude had happened but nothing was published. Compare that to the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan where everybody was on their mobile phone posting pictures. The leadership had to publicly show up and give the people support. It forced the leaders to be more responsive with greater accountability.”

The 2011 hacking of Google also illuminates the evolving roles and complexity of Western news media and Chinese relations. After the hacking occurred, Western journalists tried to contact officials at the Chinese universities, but they refused to comment. Meanwhile, China’s netizens were speculating through forums and micro-blogs about who was responsible for the hackings and how the situation would resolve.

The Chinese government did attempt to censor online content by shutting down some of the more “sensitive” accounts. Another instance that showed the tension between the Chinese government, news gatherers and the netizens of China was the bullet train crash in July 2011. When the government tried to cover up the incident by burying the wreckage, it was met with anger and scrutiny from the Chinese public.

Feisty Chinese reporters used the opportunity to scrutinize the government prioritizing technological advancement over public safety, and the Internet was abuzz with mobile updates, photos and opinions from the public.

IN CONCLUSION

It is clear that the Western news media’s role in China has and will continue to evolve, especially with the rise of social media. Today, newsworthy coverage of current issues in China are marked by a clashing of the government’s traditional approach of censoring negative press and the Chinese public’s newfound freedom of information online.

For news reporters and the Chinese public, freedom is in the air. Additionally, there are more partnerships today between the Western news media and Chinese news organizations, with many Western journalists coming to China to train students in journalism and investigative reporting.

“I feel this is a fruitful area because the Chinese want world-class business journalists. They want to be able to tell their story and understand how they are benchmarked against the world,” said Barnathan. During the past few years, CNN has repeatedly sent reporters to train members of China Central Television (CCTV), China’s state-run media organization.

Barnathan has also been running a journalism program in Beijing for the past five years to train Chinese students in reporting. “These Chinese students are amazing,” she said. “They are the best and the brightest in China…and they are learning our practices. It’s exciting for me to see.”

So what is the future of news media in China and how will the Western and Chinese counterparts fit? And how will the Chinese government reconcile its affinity for censorship with the unruly presence of Renren and Weibo?

Nobody knows. James Fallow, an analyst for National Public Radio and a correspondent for The Atlantic, acknowledged China’s economic boom and its unpredictable future at a lecture at UNC-Chapel Hill. He said, “If anyone knows what’s going to happen, you should stop listening to them.”

Esther Lee is a student at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication

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