Category Archives: journalism

“China to NY Times: Plagiarise this!”

FT has a piece on the continuing fallout from NYT’s expose on Wen Jiabao’s family wealth:

The People’s Daily made a crude attempt at a hatchet job on the New York Times in a lengthy opinion piece on its website on Monday. The immediate prompt was clearly the New York Times account published last Friday of how Premier Wen Jiabao’s family has accumulated “hidden riches” of about $2.7bn, though the People’s Daily refrained from mentioning that specific article.

Instead, it chose to rehash the New York Times’ two biggest reporting debacles of the past decade and various laments about how it has lost its way under the headline, “New York Times: Scandals multiply and reputation deteriorates”.

Apart from the obvious irony in the fact that the People’s Daily is trying to pass judgment about reporting standards, there is another, even more basic problem with its criticism of the Times: its words appear to have been almost entirely plagiarised.

What the People’s Daily failed to mention was that virtually every last sentence in its opinion piece had previously been published. A quick search revealed the following:

1. The opening criticism of the Times’ fallen standards and the description of the Kouwe case? From a 2010 report by China News Agency.

2. The description of the Blair case? Lifted straight from two People’s Daily articles in 2003 (at least it is copying itself).

3. The account of “Journalistic Fraud”, the book? From a 2003 article by China News Agency.

4. And that final quote from the once-loyal reader? A translation by Dongxi (a now-defunct translation website) of a 2011 article that appeared on Splicetoday.com.

Even by the standards of plagiarism-prone Chinese media, it takes a certain brazenness to perpetrate such an extensive copy-and-paste job when preaching about journalistic integrity.

Par for the course, perhaps, but still pretty embarrassing.

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Wen Jiabao: As Corrupt As His Peers

NYT writer David Barboza tipped off a firestorm this week when he published a piece detailing the enormous sums the Wen family has accumulated recently:

The mother of China’s prime minister was a schoolteacher in northern China. His father was ordered to tend pigs in one of Mao’s political campaigns. And during childhood, “my family was extremely poor,” the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, said in a speech last year.

But now 90, the prime minister’s mother, Yang Zhiyun, not only left poverty behind — she became outright rich, at least on paper, according to corporate and regulatory records. Just one investment in her name, in a large Chinese financial services company, had a value of $120 million five years ago, the records show.

The details of how Ms. Yang, a widow, accumulated such wealth are not known, or even if she was aware of the holdings in her name. But it happened after her son was elevated to China’s ruling elite, first in 1998 as vice prime minister and then five years later as prime minister.

Many relatives of Wen Jiabao, including his son, daughter, younger brother and brother-in-law, have become extraordinarily wealthy during his leadership, an investigation by The New York Times shows. A review of corporate and regulatory records indicates that the prime minister’s relatives, some of whom have a knack for aggressive deal-making, including his wife, have controlled assets worth at least $2.7 billion.

The article is long but worth a read, as Barboza details how a Chinese politician known for his down-to-earth touch has become the center of a massive corruption vortex. None of this is surprising, as such, but the details have never been laid out so clearly and investigated so thoroughly before.

The blowback has been impressive, as the Times’ Chinese-language site was blocked in China within hours:

The episode is an extreme example of an enduring newspaper-world fact: journalism and business interests don’t always go hand in hand.

The Times did exactly what one would hope and expect: It published a great story without undue regard for the short-term business consequences.

Mr. Sulzberger said the publication of the article was preceded by “conversations with the Chinese government to discuss it.”

“They wanted to air their concerns – which I listened to, as I should,” Mr. Sulzberger said. “And eventually, we made a decision to publish.”

Joseph Kahn, the foreign editor, told me that he knew when the reporting on this story began – about a year ago – that it would be a “threshold issue” for the Chinese government.

“I expected it to test the limits of what they would tolerate from the foreign media,” he said. (In speaking with me, he emphasized that Mr. Barboza’s direct editor on the story was Dean Murphy, a deputy business editor.)

Mr. Kahn said that as recently as Wednesday, Mr. Sulzberger and the executive editor, Jill Abramson, met with Chinese government representatives at The Times. But the focus of that conversation was not about the journalism – it was about political and cultural differences.

In short, Chinese officials were making the case that The Times not publish the article.

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“Me and My Censor”

Eveline Chao, one of my favorite Twitterers, has a great piece in FP about the realities of censorship in China. You should really read the whole thing.

My first day of work in Beijing, my boss asked if I knew the “Three Ts.”

I did not. It was February 2007, and I was a wide-eyed 26 year-old fresh off the plane from New York, struggling to absorb the deluge of strange information that had hit me since arriving.

The Three Ts, he informed me, were the three most taboo topics to avoid in Chinese media — Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen. My boss was Taiwanese himself, and delivered this information with a wry tone of bemusement. He had been doing business here for nearly 30 years, he had said, since China first began opening its economy to the outside world, and had witnessed a lot.

“You’ll hear more about it from our censor,” he said, and then, having inserted that tantalizing fragment into my head, sent me off to begin my new job.

Like any editor in the United States, I tweaked articles, butted heads with the sales department, and tried to extract interesting quotes out of boring people. Unlike my American counterparts, however, I was offered red envelopes stuffed with cash at press junkets, sometimes discovered footprints on the toilet seats at work, and had to explain to the Chinese assistants more than once that they could not turn in articles copied word for word from existing pieces they found online. I also liaised with our government censor.

Our censor, an employee of MOFCOMM, was a nervous, flighty woman in her forties with long, frizzy hair and a high, childlike voice, whose name was Snow. (Snow requested I only use her English name for this article.) In late September of this year, I learned that Snow left the magazine, enabling me to finally write this story without fear that it would affect her job.

Snow’s name made for much late-night comedy in my office, along the lines of: “God, that article totally got snowplowed,” or “Uh-oh, I predict heavy snowfall for this one.” I met Snow for the first time during our inaugural editorial meeting at the office: the top two floors of a six-story, spottily heated building with a pool hall in the basement and what appeared to be fourteen-year-old security guards at the door, in central Beijing. Here, just as my boss had promised, Snow elaborated on the Three Ts, relaying an anecdote about a journalist friend of hers. A photo enthusiast, he once ran a picture he’d taken in Taiwan alongside an article, but had failed to notice a small Taiwanese flag in the background. As a result, the entire staff of his newspaper had been immediately fired and the office shut down.

In the beginning, most of Snow’s edits were minor enough that we didn’t feel compromised. We couldn’t say that a businessperson came back to China from the United States after “Tiananmen,” but we could say “June 1989,” knowing that our readers knew the significance of the month. We couldn’t say “the Cultural Revolution” but could write “the late 1960s and early 1970s,” to allude to then Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong launching his disastrous campaign that sent millions of intellectuals to the countryside. Writing that a company planned to expand into “foreign markets like Taiwan and Korea” was forbidden because it suggested that Taiwan was a separate country from China, but we could say “overseas markets,” since, according to Snow, Taiwan literally is over a body of water from the mainland.

Go read it!

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“China: witnessing the birth of a superpower”

Jonathan Watts on his decade in China, as he departs for a new reporting assignment elsewhere:

It required an adjustment of preconceptions. Like many newcomers, I delighted at discoveries of Chinese literature and Daoist philosophy, Beijing parks, the edgy eccentricity of Dashanzi and the glorious mix of classicism and obscenity in the Chinese language, though I never managed to master it. The mix of communist politics and capitalist economics appeared to have created a system designed to exploit people and the environment like never before. It was so unequal that Japan appeared far more socialist by comparison. And it was changing fast. As swaths of the capital were being demolished and rebuilt for the Olympics, there was an exhilarating (and sometimes disorientating) sense of mutability. Everything seemed possible.

Looking back over the stories that followed, it is hard to believe so much could be compressed into such a short span of time – the outbreaks of Sars and bird flu, the attempted assassination of the president of Taiwan, deadly unrest in Tibet, the devastating earthquake in Sichuan, murderous ethnic violence in Xinjiang, Tibetan self-immolations, as well as the huge regional stories: two tsunamis – in 2004 in the Indian Ocean and last year in the Pacific, a multiple nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, and the protracted rattling of nuclear sabres on the Korean peninsula.

Run-ins with the police, local authorities or thugs are depressingly common. I have been detained five times, turned back six times at roadblocks (including during several efforts to visit Tibetan areas) and physically manhandled on a couple of occasions. Members of state security have sometimes followed interviewees and invited my assistants “out for tea”, to question them on who I was meeting and where I planned to visit. Censors have shut down a partner website that translated Guardian articles into Mandarin. Police have twice seized my journalist credentials, most recently on this year’s World Press Freedom Day after I tried to interview the blind human-rights activist Chen Guangcheng in hospital. When that happened, I debated with another British newspaper reporter who was in the same position about whether to report on the confiscation. He argued that it was against his principles for journalists to become part of the story. I used to believe the same, but after nine years in China, I have seen how coverage is influenced by a lack of access, intimidation of sources and official harassment. I now believe reporters are doing a disservice to their readers if they fail to reveal these limitations on their ability to gather information.

Treated like a spy, I have sometimes had to behave like one. At various times, I’ve concealed myself under blankets in a car, hidden in a toilet, waited until dark in a safe house and met sources in the middle of the night to avoid detection.

At other times, it is Chinese journalists and officials who pull the screen of secrecy aside. Take the foot-and-mouth outbreak on the outskirts of Beijing in 2005. I was first alerted to this by a Chinese reporter, who was frustrated that the propaganda department had ordered the domestic media not to run the story.

In the four years since, China has become a more modern and connected nation, but – despite the official hubris – it also seems more anxious that the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa may spread. The government now spends more on internal security than defence of its borders – a sign that it is more frightened of its own people than any external threat.

Little wonder. This has been an era of protest in China. The government stopped releasing figures a few years ago, but academics with access to internal documents say there are tens of thousands of demonstrations each year. The reasons are manifold – land grabs, ethnic unrest, factory layoffs, corruption cases and territorial disputes. But I have come to believe the fundamental cause is ecological stress: foul air, filthy water, growing pressure on the soil and an ever more desperate quest for resources that is pushing development into remote mountains, deserts and forests that were a last hold-out for bio and ethnic diversity.

So why am I leaving? Well, over the years, I have come to feel increasing respect, sympathy and affection for China, but also more pessimism. Journalists here are worn down like brake pads on a speeding juggernaut. Such cynicism is not healthy. I hope a change of scene will allow me to see China – and the world – afresh. Regardless of Beijing’s choking smog, traffic and politics, it will be hard to match living and working in China.

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More Melissa Chan Fallout

Two more reactions to her expulsion from China, first from Rectified.Name:

Some might see it as a badge of honor to be the first foreign journalist in 15 years to be kicked out of China – and I suppose on some level, like Dan Schorr being included on Nixon’s Enemies List – it is. But for those journalists who remain, and the world at large who depend upon them to make sense of the rapid changes in China today, the decision is a chilling reminder that the government knows its attempts at managing China’s international image are flailing badly. Since 2008, when new regulations were announced – if not always followed – allowing greater freedom for international organizations to report from China, the government and its representatives have been barely tolerant of coverage they deemed damaging to their own national self-interest and self-image. In several cases, especially those involving the thugocracy which passes for ‘local administration’ in many areas of China today, that tolerance has crumbled into threats and acts of violence and intimidation against foreign journalists and their employees.

One question nobody seems able to answer though is: Why Melissa?

Certainly the timing wasn’t great. The government has had to deal with a number of embarrassing incidents in the past few weeks. Never a good time to apply for a visa. Melissa was also one of the most active correspondents in the foreign press corps. Never content to report “Dateline: Jianguomen,” she spent a large amount of her time in the field, often tweeting about another narrow escape from the forces of Public Insecurity or of being rousted from hotels in the middle of nowhere as she bravely covered stories few others would. It is also one thing to cover a story with a notebook and pen, quite another to do so with cameras, lights, and sound equipment. Officials hate reporters with notebooks, but the sight of a camera in the hands of a professional journalist will generally cause even the sternest cadre into a sudden involuntary fecal event.

I remember an anecdote Melissa once told a group of my students. She said that when she first arrived, the Ministry folks were all smiles, figuring that any network which plays Osama bin Laden’s mix tapes must be alright. Six months later the same ministry folks complained to her that she was just as bad as CNN and the BBC. She replied, “Thank you?”

And from Chovanec:

Melissa is a friend of mine, who has interviewed me for several of her reports, most notably her pathbreaking report on the “ghost city” of Ordos, and her follow-up two years later. Although I know she’s disappointed to leave, I told her that being expelled was sort of like China’s version of the Pulitzer Prize — tangible recognition that the work she was doing was important and powerful enough to strike a very high-level nerve.

If you only have time to watch one video, check out Melissa’s recent report (in March 2012) on China’s secret “black jails.” It will give you an idea of the kind of courageous reporting she has been doing, and I suspect it was one of the things that got her kicked out of the country. I also suspect that her story, in January, interviewing farmers who knew Xi Jinping as a sent-down youth during the Cultural Revolution, was one more thing that helped wear out her welcome. While there was nothing really negative about it — in fact, it was quite complimentary — it trespassed over strict (and rather paranoid) rules barring anyone from discussing any aspect of the biography or personality of China’s next leader.

Just a guess, but somehow I’m pretty sure that kicking Chan out won’t help the tone of China coverage. Hopefully we’ll see a few other journalists going for China Pulitzers of their own in the days and years to come.

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Melissa Chan Expelled From China

If you read this blog regularly you should recognize Melissa Chan, whose piece on the difficulty of reporting in China last year was one of the first things I posted here. The news that China has refused to renew her visa and effectively blocked her from returning to China almost feels personally insulting- she has consistently been one of the very best foreign reporters in China, and her pieces have been strong efforts to give voices to the voiceless. Plenty of reactions out there today, first from Custer at ChinaGeeks:

Al-Jazeera’s crimes include airing a documentary that China didn’t like — not one that was factually incorrect, mind you, just one they didn’t like — and violating unspecified rules and regulations. Neither of these are good reasons to expel anyone from any country, but the latter is particularly concerning because it seems to be an increasingly common tactic used by the Chinese government to attempt to bully foreign reporters and keep them from covering certain stories. In 2011, for example, some reporters who covered the “Jasmine Revolution” protests were told that they had broken the law by failing to obtain prior permission to report there. Journalists outside Chaoyang Hospital reporting on the Chen Guangcheng case were recently told the same thing.

In fact, China’s regulations on foreign reporters contain no such requirement as far as I can see (original Chinese version). To conduct an interview or reporting, foreign reporters must have the prior consent of anyone they’re interviewing — which is common sense — but there is no requirement that they must apply to anyone else for permission to cover anything.

Of course, the fact that Chinese authorities are apparently operating outside the framework of their own laws will not be news to anyone, least of all anyone who followed Chan’s excellent coverage of China during her five years here.

From Mark MacKinnon:

Melissa Chan, a courageous correspondent for al-Jazeera English who on Tuesday flew out of China after having her press credentials revoked, tested that assumption as much as – or more – than any of the foreign press corps in Beijing. By reporting on such sensitive topics as China’s secret “black jails,” and drawing such ire from the security services that she was today forced to leave, Melissa showed the world that China’s new openness is not real. The extra space reporters have been given since 2008 – and there is some – was always a gift from the Communist Party and its enforcers. A gift that could be taken away at any minute if you went beyond the invisible and shifting boundaries.

This false freedom given to reporters working in China is much more important than Melissa’s case or the careers of any of the foreign correspondents based in China. What’s at stake is not only the outside world’s (already poor) understanding of this rising but paranoid superpower, but also the future of journalism inside China. Chinese journalists have told me that they watch the foreign correspondents with envy, wishing they could report about their own country as freely as we do. Our fight to do our job is intertwined with their fight to do theirs.

Since Melissa is an American citizen, I hope to see her government put aside its enmity towards al-Jazeera and issue a strong statement regarding her expulsion.

MacKinnon hopes to see the US government have a serious go at China in defense of an al-Jazeera journalist in this day and age? Don’t hold your breath, pal. From Evan Osnos at The New Yorker:

China is moving backwards. In fifteen years of studying and writing about this place, I’ve rarely had reason to reach that conclusion without one qualifier or another dangling off the end of the sentence—qualifiers that leave room, for instance, for “halting progress” or “mixed signals.”

But this week the evidence is unambiguous: for the first time in thirteen years, China has kicked out a foreign correspondent. In doing so, it revives a Soviet-era strategy that will undermine its own efforts to project soft power and shows a spirit of self-delusion that does not bode well for China’s ability to address the problems that imperil its future.

What’s more, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club says that Chan’s case is part of a trend in which twenty-seven foreign reporters have been made to wait for more than four months for visa approvals in the past two years. In six cases, the club said, foreign reporters were told that their applications had been rejected or delayed “due to the content of the bureaux” or the applicant’s previous coverage of Chinese affairs.

Over that same two-year period, China’s Xinhua news agency has opened a state-of-the-art newsroom at the top of a skyscraper in Times Square, for CNC World, the agency’s twenty-four-hour news channel, which seeks to “present an international vision with a Chinese perspective.” That vision just got a lot harder to sell.

Apparently the foreign ministry briefing today turned into a bit of a circus, with Chan being the subject of the majority of questions. Hopefully other foreign journalists will take this as a call to be a bit more like Chan, and not to back down.

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“Imprisoned Journalists”

Autonomous Region has an update about a new list of imprisoned journalists in China, focusing on the Uyghur journalists:

179 journalists are jailed worldwide, of them 27 are in China, which ranks number 3 as the world’s worst jailer, after only Iran (42) and Eritrea (28). More than half (17) of the jailed journalists in China are either Tibetans or Uyghur. This, however, may be an underestimate. As the report notes, “[o]thers may languish in China’s prison without coming to the notice of news organizations or advocacy groups. ‘We know so few of the names of people who have been detained or imprisoned for political crimes,’ said John Kamm, chairman of the Dui Hua Foundation, a group that advocates for Chinese political prisoners.”

They go on to detail the Uyghur inmates.

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“Chinese journalists must be ‘mouthpieces’ of the state”

The new head of CCTV just gave the game away, as Malcolm Moore from The Telegraph reports. Looks to me like Beijing is thinking about tightening the reins even more, if that’s even possible:

Hu Zhanfan, who took the reins at CCTV in November, said that journalists who kidded themselves that they were independent professionals, rather than “propaganda workers”, were making a “fundamental mistake about identity”.

In an event hosted by the China National Media Association, Mr Hu told his colleagues that “the first social responsibility and professional ethic of media staff should be understanding their role clearly as a good mouthpiece”.

He added that those who forgot this lesson “would never go far”.

Since the Communist party took power, it has held to a Marxist-Leninist view of journalism as a tool of propaganda, even as it seeks to commercialise the sector and expand into markets overseas, including the UK.

However, hearing the party line so bluntly voiced by the new head of CCTV was enough to depress many journalists, and prospective journalists, about the prospects of China opening up its tight control of the sector.

Mr Hu’s comments, posted on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, caused a flurry of 10,000 responses, most of which were quickly erased by the censors. “As a media student, I feel very depressed,” said a web user called Bao Xiaomo. “People who are obviously doing advertising claim that they are doing news.”

Jiao Guobiao, a former professor of media and journalism at Peking university who fell from grace after challenging the central Propaganda department, said Mr Hu had merely spoken his mind in a relaxed meeting of his peers.

“Whether you study journalism or work as a journalist, you are told this mantra over and over again, that you work for the Party and are its mouthpiece. The problem is that only the Party gets a mouthpiece, the public does not get a mouthpiece,” he said.

Referring to the outrage on the internet, Mr Jiao said: “Kids born in the 1980s and 1990s obviously are not aware of how the system works, so they get angry and indignant. The paradox is that the media has borrowed the Western concepts of objectivity and neutrality, but put them in the service of propaganda. Hopefully things will change in five to ten years time.”

Meanwhile, Fu Guoyong, a veteran journalist and commentator, gave his view of the Chinese media on Weibo: “There is no relatively independent media at present. Even if there are quite a few organisations orientated to the market, behind them stands the party media and we are all controlled by the party’s propaganda organs.”

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“China’s Reporters are Dancing in Shackles”

Leave it to the Epoch Times to slam Chinese media in just the right way. Following ‘Journalist Day,’ they’ve collected quite a bit from Chinese journalists on their reaction to the celebrations, and a list of recently attacked journalists:

Among numerous official celebrations and propaganda pieces that filled Chinese media on Chinese Journalist Day, the most noteworthy one was a directive by the heads of propaganda departments of local communist Party offices, which reiterated the importance of journalists “firmly grasping the correct direction of public opinion.”

Another example of a Journalist Day message was being spread from the regime controlled Tibet Radio: “We must thoroughly expose and criticize the reactionary nature of the Dalai [Lama] group, seize the Internet to combat the high ground of public opinion on Tibet, [and] control the outreach media initiatives.”

And what were Chinese journalists saying on that day?

“Another Journalist Day, and media technology has been continuously advancing, but there are not many journalists with moral values left,” a reporter from China’s Yahoo News center said on Weibo.com, China’s largest microblogging site.

Cao Lin, editor of China Youth Daily, said: “On previous Journalist Days, we used to ask for press freedom and protection from violence against reporters. This year, we will strive for the right to reject fake news. In order to not publish fake news, the first thing is to reject news templates approved by authorities, which are used to manipulate public opinion and silence different voices. They are the start of fake news reports.”

“The job of the press and electronic media [in China] is to promote the government, not to report the truth,” Chinese author Murong Xuecun said in a recent speech at the Oslo House of Literature, reprinted by the Sydney Morning Herald on Nov. 25.

Reporting the truth that makes the regime look bad comes with a high price in China. Journalists face being fired or being physically attacked in the streets.

Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) 2010 world press index placed China 8th from the last of 178 countries and regions surveyed. In Nov. 2010, 31 journalists and 75 netizens were detained in China, which is on the RSF list of “Enemies of the Internet” and is ranked 171st out of 178 countries in its latest world press index, RSF said on its website.

In September, Southern Metropolis reporter Ji Xuguang, who broke the sex slave scandal in Luoyang City, was harassed and threatened by local officials. Ji was accused of disclosing “state secrets.” He asked for help via Weibo and escaped Luoyang City with his wife and his brother. Ji is said to have scars all over his body from violence he encountered during the ten years of his career as a reporter.

In July the investigative news department of China Economics Times, where celebrated Chinese journalist Wang Keqin worked, was closed down.

On May 12, the third anniversary of the Sichuan Earthquake, Southern Metropolis published an article criticizing shoddy construction of buildings–referred to as “tofu-dregs projects” in China–while supporting artist Ai Weiwei. The author, Song Zhibiao, was forced to resign.

Deng Cunyao, a reporter for Fujian Province Longyan City Television, was attacked on his way to work in October 2010. Deng suffered a broken leg and was left disabled. The reason for the attack was that Deng accused the director of Longmen Clinic of embezzlement of compensation money meant for village doctors.

In August 2010, the Guangdong Provincial Propaganda Department banned renowned commentator and reporter Chang Ping from publishing on the Southern Metropolis. Chang’s reports are mostly breaking news commentaries and criticism aimed at the regime. Chang was previously silenced after the publication of his March 14, 2010 report on the Tibetan protests.

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“Journalist Murdered While Covering Illegal Cooking Oil Scandal”

Gutter oil claims another victim. Reporters Without Borders has the details:

Reporters Without Borders is appalled to learn that Li Xiang, a journalist with Luoyang Television in Luoyang (in the eastern province of Henan) who had been following an illegal cooking oil scandal and had written about it in his blog, was stabbed to death yesterday.

“We hope the authorities will carry out a thorough investigation and will seriously consider the possibility that Li was killed in connection with his work as a journalist,” Reporters Without Borders said, offering its condolences to Li’s family and colleagues.

Aged 30, Li was stabbed more than 10 times as he was returning to his home in Luoyang at dawn. He covered social issues and had been following a police investigation into the sale of cooking oil made from residues taken from gutters. His assailants took his laptop and the police are reportedly working on the assumption that the motive for the stabbing was robbery.

The last entry in his blog was about the cooking oil scandal. No Luoyang Television journalist has commented on his murder but bloggers have said they think it is clearly linked to his coverage of the scandal.

Although there have been several cases of physical attacks this year, murders of journalists are very rare in China.

Sun Hongjie (孙虹杰), a reporter for the daily Beijing Chengbao (北疆晨报), died as a result of the head injuries he received in an attack in December 2010. Both the circumstances of the attack and the haste with which the authorities concluded that it was not linked to his work were suspicious. He had been working on sensitive stories including the demolition of housing to make way for new homes for officials.

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“Reporting from the Far West”

Melissa Chan has more about the difficulties of reporting in China, this time from Xinjiang. As always, the government does its best to silence minority voices:

Viewers may notice an insufficient representation of Uighur voices in our stories.

On the one hand, there are about an equal number of Han Chinese now living in Xinjiang as Uighurs, and their voices should be included.

On the other hand, we were followed by plainclothes officers for the entire duration of our trip as we hopped from Urumqi, to Kashgar, to Hotan.

As many as seven or eight men in two vehicles would follow the team from a distance of 300 metres behind.

At almost no point were we ever prevented from carrying out our work, but it did not seem wise to approach Uighurs and ask them questions, either.

In one instance, we were approached by a curious local. A Uighur blacksmith peddling knives wrought with intricate designs came up to speak to us.

After about a one-minute conversation, I excused myself. Some 30 seconds later, he was pulled aside by plainclothes police officers and questioned about the contents of our conversation.

We were not entirely unwelcome. The foreign affairs offices in both Urumqi and Kashgar assisted us as much as they could and said we were welcome to report freely in Xinjiang as far as they were concerned.

The openness of certain departments within the government against the restrictiveness of others should be instructional for Chinese officials if they care about how international media organisations cover the country.

Our access to the dairy farm was informative, and I was able to report the encouraging fact that the majority of workers there were ethnic Uighurs: proof that at least in some instances, the investments the country has made in Xinjiang have directly benefited the ethnic minority.

For the rest of our trip, we were disadvantaged by the fact that we had no Uighur-language translator.

One had been hired, only to be dragged to the police station the night before our team’s arrival. Interrogated and threatened, he opted out of working for us.

Therefore we could not ask any questions examining the migration issue, the possible sense of identity lost on the part of Uighurs, the feelings locals may have about their loss of their homogeneity in the region, or perhaps their ambivalence about the money pouring into the area.

We could not report by asking questions, so we reported as best we could by observation.

In our stories, you will see old alleyways compared to new, gleaming structures. You will see paved highways where there were once dirt roads. Yet, you will also see an entire population of people, voiceless in our pieces.

It’s always funny to contrast this with the statements made by the foreign ministry. “No, Xinjiang and Tibet are open, anyone can come and see for themselves how happy the people are in these regions!” Then they get to work denying visa requests and intimidating potential interviewees. Foreign politicians are occasionally given junkets in Lhasa, but one overarching theme you hear from every person to have gone on such a trip is that they were carefully sequestered away from any Tibetans who hadn’t been hand-picked by the government. Open, indeed.

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“What’s really behind the dispute between CCTV and Baidu?”

China Realpolitik does a very good job of explaining the fight between CCTV and Baidu, the most popular Chinese search engine, here. I think his analysis sounds spot-on:

Baidu used to be the government’s favourite, as they always censored controversial material without complaint. On the surface, it seems strange that the government would target them. Actually, the truth is far more complex.

Some commentators have pointed out that the People’s Daily (a patriotic State run newspaper) recently launched its own search engine. This isn’t actually a new development really, Xinhua did the same at the start of the year.

I would think the fact that CCTV has their own search engine would be far more relevant. The key difference between Baidu and these other search engines, is that Baidu is in essence, a foreign company. Although it was founded by Chinese nationals and widely viewed as a Chinese success story, it’s important to note that it was US venture capital funds which backed it. Funnily enough, in the early days, even Google had a share.

They would also need to consider this: Baidu occupies a powerful position by dint of their popularity with the public – at present, they control 63% of the market. By contrast, the market share occupied by the CCTV, Xinhua and People’s Daily search engines barely registers. In recent times, the public has been wary of government owned media – the outburst of public anger after the Wenzhou train crash combined with growing frustration over the government’s inability to resolve food safety problems clearly demonstrates that the public aren’t swallowing everything the government wants to feed them.

If they push Baidu, Baidu may be capable of pushing back.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to know who is behind CCTV’s attack on Baidu, but it’s looking more and more certain that a concerted smear campaign is taking place. It could just as easily however, be high-ranking executives at CCTV who are keen to carve themselves a larger slice of the search engine market, while the government is perfectly happy to let them do that.

It would be a strange sight, for Baidu to push back against an arm of the government. These attacks are just reckless enough, though, to possibly inspire that. We’ll see.

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“China’s Political Prisoners: True Confessions?”

Jonathan Mirsky writes about “confessions” in the New York Review of Books blog. You hear a lot about them- such and such has confessed, or is being urged to confess, or would be forgiven if a confession could simply be offered. His first-hand experience:

Foreign journalists are occasionally compelled to make such confessions, although they are in far less danger than Chinese dissidents. At worst, they can be expelled from China. In Lhasa, in 1984, during one of my six visits there reporting for The Observer, the police detained me because I was in Tibet without permission. They interrogated me in an office of the foreign ministry used for dealing with reporters. The whole session lasted ten minutes and was not frightening. Confess, I was told. Tell me what to say and I will sign it, I replied. They repeated that I was in Tibet without permission. I wrote that down, added that it had been dictated to me, and signed. That was enough, and I was free to stay in the Autonomous Region.

In Beijing a year or two later, I was detained in the street, forced into a car, and taken to a police station. There, surrounded by half a dozen policemen and foreign ministry officials, I was told that what I had written in The Observer over many years “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” and that I should apologize. When I asked what was so offensive they shouted at me that I should think it over, that I knew anyway, and that until I admitted the truth they could keep me there. The officers were vibrating with rage and one of them was an inch from my face. If I had been Chinese he would have punched me. Tell me what to write, I said again. They said it, I wrote it down, added that what I wrote had been dictated to me, and signed. The foreign office minder offered me some tea, and I left to continue my reporting.

In early September 1991, just after the John Major visit, I was told by one of the same foreign office officials who had detained me years earlier, “You are no longer welcome in our country.” When I asked why, I was once again told, “You know why.” I was not forced to write a confession. The next day, I left China for the last time. My attempts to get another visa have failed.

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“China: Truth, Rumors, and a Basket of Fruit”

Another great post from Evan Osnos at The New Yorker, who writes about yet another major ‘mass incident’ that took place over the last few days. Honestly, I’ve lost count of how many we’ve had since this month started.

When local authorities fanned out this week into villages and factory towns around Guangzhou, they were not hunting criminals or political agitators. They were racing to deliver their vision of the truth—to “clarify the rumor about a clash between security personnel and a pregnant street vendor,” as the state press put it.

The town of Zengcheng had erupted in protests, with hundreds of migrant workers tipping over police cars, smashing windows, and torching government buildings. Police responded with tear gas and armored vehicles. It began on Friday evening, when Wang Lianmei, a twenty-year-old pregnant street vendor, and her husband, Tang Xuecai, had a run-in with security personnel who suspected that the couple had “illegally occupied the village’s road to sell goods,” according to the China Daily, a state-run newspaper. Word spread that police had injured the expectant mother and killed her husband, and by the middle of the night a crowd was pelting police with stones and bricks. By Saturday morning, the Party chief Xu Zhibiao had visited Wang at the hospital, and “brought a basket of fruit,” the state media pointed out. “Wang and her fetus remained intact,” the mayor declared.

It’s barely the middle of June, and this is shaping up to be an especially long, hot summer in China. There was rioting in another Chinese city last week, unrest in Inner Mongolia, and—rare for China—bomb attacks in two other cities. While it’s worth pointing out, as Jeremy Page does in the Wall Street Journal, that these show no sign of coordination, it’s also worth asking: How did China come to find itself trying to outrun rumors with baskets of fruit?

His conclusion:

How did Sina, the Web site that hosts the discussions, deal with the rumors? By barring users who circulated them and blocking searches on terms such as “Zengcheng,” the site of the street-vendor flap. Those measures, it’s safe to say, are band-aids on a tumor. But recognizing the true source of the illness—the consistent, deliberate misuse of truth for political purposes—is out of the question, for the moment. So authorities will continue racing around in an attempt to shore up the existing system, in which “lies will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie.” And if that doesn’t work, there is always another fruit basket.

Some people seem to think that the Chinese public accepts the lies which are constantly thrown at them- but I think it’s important to note that although the truth may be out of reach for many people here, they aren’t really buying what the government is selling. Beijing seems to consider this an acceptable outcome: it’s better to have people confused about what happened, rather than angry. But there’s a price to be paid for this strategy, as well, and the cost increases every day.

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Filed under China, journalism, migrant workers, protest

“Inside Chongqing’s red TV revolution”

Something weird is happening in Chongqing.  Bo Xilai, a man likely to become immensely powerful next year during the leadership transition, has made his trademark issue a revival of Maoism.  Chongqing is an enormous city and an economic powerhouse, and his campaign has gotten a lot of attention.  The most talked about might be the push to promote ‘red songs,’ highly patriotic Mao-era songs that long ago fell out of favor everywhere else here.

The Chinese Media Project has a translation of a report from Southern People Weekly,  which goes into the details of the campaign.  Bandurski also uses the article to make a point about the general state of journalism in China:

Earlier this week, Guangdong’s Southern People Weekly ran a report taking an inside look at how Chongqing Satellite TV has made a shift toward the “red” under top leader Bo Xilai’s (薄熙来) broad revival of classic Chinese Communist Party culture, with all of its political undertones.

The report is interesting for a number reasons. First of all, of course, it offers — or purports to offer — an inside perspective on changes in Chongqing, which have either joyed or disgusted Chinese in recent months, depending on who you’re listening to. It provides a picture of news journalists struggling with dwindling budgets as advertising revenues become a thing of the past (dropped by the station itself), and forced to work closely with Party and government authorities on all stories they take on.

Secondly, I think this story, which is from one of China’s most respected professional magazines, should turn attention to basic issues of professionalism. We often provide examples at this site of the courage and professionalism shown by Chinese journalists in a very difficult press climate. But it’s important to remember how far Chinese media still have to go in building up their own professional cultures, which does not necessarily have to be dictated by the political climate.

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“What’s up with the People’s Daily?”

David Bandurski at the China Media Project has a piece up today wondering about the strange goings-on at People’s Daily.  As an official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, PD usually broadcasts the same nonsense you’d expect.  Lately, the paper has developed a strange case of multiply personality disorder, with editorials urging freedom of expression one day and bemoaning all this free expression the next.

An insider at the People’s Daily has emphasized, against suggestions that this series was somehow a cynical propaganda ploy, that these editorials were an “independent” action on the part of the editorial department at the newspaper — meaning that editors at the paper planned and executed the series, but of course had backing from unspecified senior leaders. That doesn’t, of course, mean real and true “independence,” but suggests that these editors (and those supporting them politically) are actively taking advantage of gaps within the Party and the paper.

We’ll see what comes of it.

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“Reporting in China”

From the reliably excellent Melissa Chan at Al Jazeera, a piece on the difficulty of being a journalist in China:

“Intimidating sources and not reporters has become a more common practice by the Chinese government to block information. Often we speak to incredibly vulnerable people at the lowest socio-economic rung. It is easy to bully them into submission. But even then, it is remarkable that in my years of reporting in China, many people remain willing to speak to journalists despite the danger of retaliation. They perceive that a great injustice has been done to them and feel the need to articulate that. Many also feel they have nothing to lose. In the case of Mr. Yang, I do believe he must’ve felt he had nothing to lose. He’d lost his child. His house was a wood and brick shack, his floor of dirt, and his farming tools not much changed, it appeared, from the ones farmers used in the 19th century.

In the afternoon our team decided to drive around and film the town and surrounding countryside. It would be included in our piece to show viewers how remote this place was. At some point, our hired driver noticed a van had been tracking us for some time. My first inclination was to ignore the van — they can be quite harmless, and the men from earlier in the day had chosen to check us out, then leave us alone. Sometimes these plainclothes officers or thugs would follow us around, taking digital pictures of us as we worked in order to have a record. As long as you’re not self-conscious about it, it is fine.

The van drove past us, looking to leave. But, on a narrow street, it slowed… slowed… then stopped in front of us, blocking our way. We sat there a moment, and then the van doors opened and a number of men jumped out, looking ugly. We locked our doors.”

As she says in the beginning, we all understand that being a journalist in China isn’t easy. Learning exactly how difficult it really is makes you thankful that anyone manages to report anything here.

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