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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