By Christina Larson
"There is a saying that Chinese people are afraid of officials, and officials are afraid of foreign reporters," my friend Yang, a wily reporter for one of Beijing's city newspapers, told me as we were driving to dinner one evening. That was last spring, well before the government's recent efforts to intimidate foreign reporters attempting to cover calls for a "jasmine revolution," but it has been true a long time. "You have the power in China," he said, teasing me.
But a moment later, after we'd passed a forlorn-looking couple waiting for a taxi in the rain, he had a question of his own: "So, the foreign reporters in Beijing are the successful ones? I thought maybe they had all lost their jobs in Washington, and so had to come to China."
He had managed to simultaneously channel two oxymoronic views of the foreign press corps in China -- that we are both feared, and looked down upon. Yet at that moment, Yang, who works for a state-run paper, dearly envied us.
While a great deal of attention has lately been paid to restrictions on foreign press in China, a more interesting long-term question is how the role of Chinese journalists has lately evolved. Contrary to common stereotypes, the reporters themselves, as distinct from the system in which they find themselves, are hardly unblinking toadies. Yang, easily one of the most astute people I know, exemplifies what it means to daily walk the tightrope act of being an inquisitive mind inside a closed system.
Soon we stopped at a little Sichuan-style restaurant, poorly lit and with Celine Dion music piped in through sputtering loudspeakers. I asked Yang, who is in his early 30s and at about six feet tall towers over most colleagues, why he had wanted to become a journalist.
"It was always my dream," he said matter-of-factly, as if the question hardly deserved asking. Why wouldn't his motivation be the same as mine, an American journalist? "I wanted to learn many curiosities and to travel the world."
In the past, the government fully subsidized all newspapers in China, from trade papers like Farmers Daily and Tourism Daily, to mainstream local and national newspapers, to English-language title (like James Fallows's own favorite newspaper, China Daily). Propaganda in the purest sense, the newspapers were free to entirely ignore their readers' preferences or opinions, printing only directives from central authorities.
Then, about 10 years ago, in the midst of large-scale restructuring of many state-owned industries in China, Beijing took steps to partially wean papers from the government teat. (A few new publications with private backing cropped up about this time, including the feisty news magazine Caijing.) With less funding, some papers shrunk, but others opted -- for financial reasons -- to pay closer attention to what their readers wanted, hoping to sell more paid subscriptions and boost advertising.
Taking a more commercial approach in China has generally meant one of two things: more photos of semi-nude girls and sensationalized gossipy stories, or more insightful reporting and meaningful content. At his paper, Yang was an advocate for the latter.
Compared to, say, a decade ago, he's seen some promising signs of an evolution. (Keep in mind the relative baseline is China of the past, not America, past or present.) Take coverage of the devastating May 2008 earthquake in China's western Sichuan province, which the current tragedy in Japan brings to mind.
At first, Yang told me, the government had issued notice to all newspapers not to send reporters to the quake site; this was similar to the policy after the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, when domestic reporting on the quake's aftermath was all but nonexistent. Yet in 2008, "in mass, we went anyway." Many newspapers used the fact of Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to the region as an excuse to send staffers, claiming that they were covering him, not directly the quake's impact. "Once all those reporters were there, what could the government do? So that time, they let us be."
Yang was among those who rushed to the quake site. On the morning of May 12, he and his wife had just been married in a simple civil ceremony in Beijing (the lavish banquet was planned for later). That afternoon, he got an anxious call from his editor. Soon, he was on an early evening flight bound for Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. (That kind of drop-everything missionary zeal might sound familiar to ambitious reporters of any national stripe.)
Over the next two weeks, Yang visited hospitals, makeshift shelters, and abandoned buildings. While he remained unscathed, some of his colleagues, traveling in areas where aftershocks sent boulders cascading down hillsides, returned home with neck braces and bandaged limbs.
Initially, the government told papers not to publish reports about poorly enforced construction standards -- the result of local corruption -- that had left school buildings especially vulnerable, resulting in the avoidable deaths of schoolchildren trapped beneath rubble. But the information spread anyway, at first through web sites. Once some facts came out, the government allowed a few reports to be published. But when citizen-led campaigns to seek redress began to gather steam, the censors clamped down again, on both the news coverage and the activists themselves.
Meanwhile, a colleague of Yang's had discovered that the central government had delayed in accepting aid from the Japanese government because of concerns that foreign aid workers would pass by secret weapons facilities hidden in the hills of Sichuan. Writing about that, which falls squarely in the forbidden category of "state secrets," was obviously off-limits.
When he returned home two weeks later, Yang told his wife he had been able to report more than he had expected, but much less than he would have liked. It was, to him, a sort of partial progress. He later had nightmares about collapsing schools.
"I think sometimes I want to change nationality to be a better journalist," he told me that evening in Beijing over ma po tofu.
His appraisal of his career so far as a journalist in China -- brimming at once with earnestness and cynicism (a contradiction not uncommon, somehow, in many fields in China) -- has stayed with me. Over cheap bijou, he shared his exploits covering illegal border crossings in Burma and sneaking into North Korea (he had posed as a tourist, and brought his wife along for cover).
Alas, the resourcefulness and capacity for personal heroism among some, not all, Chinese reporters too rarely shows through in the final published product. The censor's red pen is hardly the only obstacle. Equally powerful is the appointment system for top personnel. The government designates the editor-in-chief of every newspaper -- sometimes it's someone with no interest in the position per se, simply a bureaucrat on his way from being vice-mayor of one city to another. Among other things, this means there's little hope for young stars to rise and envision themselves as leaders. Eventually, the best and brightest, the would-be reformers, drop away.
In recent months, Yang's aspirations have shifted. Having butted up against the low pay and fact that he'll never advance to the top based on the caliber of his work, he is looking for another career.
"The track has ended," he told me. "There is nowhere forward to go." His eyes, as ever, looked big and round, but now somehow dimmer
I suspect Yang's dilemma -- and his career trajectory of hope and disillusionment -- could be a metaphor in the future not only for the contradictions of journalism in China, but more generally for the challenge of keeping talent on track in creative fields.
Over the next decade, China's government is endeavoring, simultaneously, to transition its economy by fostering a more innovative and entrepreneurial society (per the recently adopted 12th Five Year Plan) and to clamp down starkly on information freedom and the Internet. So, how do you hold onto people paid to come up with new ideas -- scientists, writers, academics, entrepreneurs -- when they bump up against the limits of what's permissible to say?
(Meanwhile, as for Yang, one alternate career plan is to make money on real-estate speculation. For now, gaming the system is far more profitable than reforming it.)
Christina Larson is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine and a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation.