China upgrades its journalists but not its control of journalism (Update)

Earlier this month Charles Zhang, the CEO of China’s #2 Internet portal said the China will either have to change its censorship policies or not be taken seriously on the world stage.

“Chinese newspapers and television stations completely lack meaningful competition, and have no independent personality … so they have no authority or respect,” Zhang said, according to a transcript of the speech posted on the company’s website.

“If the Wall Street Journal or New York Times report something, the whole world pays attention, and believes it,” he added. “China’s right to speak in the world is totally lacking because it has no media organizations which can win respect.”

The Chinese government has been working on that “respect” thing.

Beijing trains elite journalists to boost media clout

Raymond Li

Feb 09, 2010, SCMP

In a bid to raise China’s voice on the world stage and compete with Western media, Beijing is planning to assign an elite team of 100 specially trained journalists to the staff of leading state-run media outlets.

Under a programme that began last year, Beijing Foreign Studies University, the capital’s Tsinghua University, Communication University of China and Renmin University, and Shanghai’s Fudan University have each enrolled about 20 hand-picked postgraduate students in two-year master of journalism courses that will provide talent for the likes of Xinhua news agency, China Central Television and China Daily.

A recruiter at Beijing Foreign Studies University’s department of international journalism and communications said the students were the first batch to receive multidisciplinary training specifically aimed at extending the international reach of state-run news outlets.

“The Communist Party’s Central Committee has required agencies in charge of international communications to work more closely with the designated schools and, in return, the universities will get extra funding,” he said.

Fudan University’s journalism school is believed to have persuaded some postgraduate students to alter their fields of study to meet the quota.

As part of a tailor-made curriculum, the university has invited editors from the English-language Shanghai Daily and municipal propaganda officials in charge of international communications to give lectures to the students. The training programme comes on top of a plan to spend between 35 billion yuan (HK$39.8 billion) and 45 billion yuan to expand state-run news outlets.

Xinhua, which is directly controlled by the party’s Publicity Department and is expected to receive a major share of the windfall, launched a TV network last month, taking it a step closer to its ambition of becoming a global media empire to rival the likes of CNN and BBC.

The 24-hour satellite news network, China Xinhua News Network, is running a world news service in Chinese and will introduce an English-language service in July.

French, Russian and Spanish channels are also planned, meaning it will have to recruit a significant number of multi-talented journalists.

China Daily, the only national English-language newspaper on the mainland, is planning to launch a US edition, although a staff member said no time frame had been set. It sent its first correspondents to New York and Washington last year.

The paper launched a Hong Kong edition in October 1997, which now has around 30 staff in the city.

In November, Li Changchun, the party chief in charge of ideological affairs, urged state-run media outlets to strive to strengthen their international influence and give China a voice on the world stage.

“To cultivate favourable international media coverage is an urgent and important task for internationally oriented news outlets to help the country’s rapid social and economic development, further opening up and raising the country’s status,” Li said.

Dr Zhang Zhian, of Fudan University’s journalism school, said the March 14 riots in Tibet were a major trigger behind the central government’s push to expand state-run media organisations – including the journalist training programme – because the authorities were disturbed by what they perceived as biased coverage in Western media.

“The unfriendly coverage in foreign media led [authorities] to discover that China is still insignificant in terms of a voice internationally,” Zhang said. “To better tell the world about China, the country needs to train plenty of journalists specialising in international communication.”

Hong Kong Baptist University professor Huang Yu said state-run media outlets could make breakthroughs in their international coverage of China’s cultural and social transformation. “But fundamentally they can do little to change [their roles as propaganda institutions] because they have to serve the national interest,” he said.

Huang said China Daily’s planned US edition was a positive move, albeit a mainly political one. Circulation of the Hong Kong edition was still small, with big institutions the main subscribers, and it was likely to be the same in the United States, he said.

Where to start?

It seems once again Beijing would rather offer a heavy-handed state-control answer than deal with issues raised by bad governance or bad policy. (Turning a blind eye to official corruption at high levels, detaining journalists and bloggers, censoring the Internet and sending trojan software viruses to Western news organizations’ computer systems are just a few of the many.)

Dr Zhang’s comments that “The unfriendly coverage in foreign media led [authorities] to discover that China is still insignificant in terms of a voice internationally,” misses the point.

The riots in Tibet, the harassment of Western journalists following the Sichuan earthquake (while less than in the past) combined with the unapologetic way China tries to intimidate its own people is what give the country and government “unfriendly coverage.”

Zhang’s description of “journalists specialising in international communication” describes just hiring more public relation flacks.

The SCMP article rightfully notes that no one in Hong Kong takes the China Daily seriously. It is read by China watchers and business men to get a sense of what the government is thinking. It is not read for news or informed analysis.

I recall when we were in Shanghai 15 years ago. At that time there were only two Western news organizations in Shanghai. The government allocated journalism visas based on country. (For example, the USA had to wait it “turn” to get a second American media rep in the city.) This showed to me that the Chinese government then — and still today — continue to equate “national news organization” with “state-run news organization.”

Looking at the comments today, it is clear that the Chinese government continues to think that the only reason it gets bad press is because government leaders in Washington, London or Paris orders CNN (or the Times or Post or CBS etc), the BBC and AFP to undermine the Chinese government.

It is too bad Prof. Zhang at Fudan does not learn from CEO Zhang.

Credibility in the global media comes not from training people how to say nice things about your home country but in having an ethical and independent media.

____________________________________________________

UPDATE:

While looking for something else this morning I came across an article written for a ChinaTibetNews (an official Chinese government site) with the interesting hede: Diplomat urges western media to abide by journalism ethics in reporting China. (April 9, 2009)

The opening graf, I think, best explains the Chinese government’s mentality when it comes to journalism:

The western media should abide by the basic journalism principles in reporting China and play a positive role in promoting China-Europe relations, Chinese Ambassador Song Zhe to the European Union said here on Wednesday.

Adhering to “basic journalism principles” in China means playing “a positive role.” So the role of a journalist is not to tell the news as it happens and let the chips fall where they may but to manipulate the events to conform to an agreed-to narrative.

And let’s look further at what this story said:

Among the 6 million people who were visiting China each year, many stayed in Beijing, Shanghai or other big cities and some of them would go sightseeing along the tourist routes. But few would go into the hinterland or the countryside, to explore the complexity and diversity of China and the challenges it is facing, according to the diplomat.

“The insufficient exposure leads to incomplete knowledge and fragmented impressions, so most Europeans just don’t know China well. Nor do most editors working at the media headquarters,” Song added.

This is true.

People do not often travel into the country side. For the journalists, however, it is not because they don’t want to go. It is because they are often banned from going. Even after some of the travel restrictions were lifted, those who do did venture out were harassed and detained by local officials.

Again, the difference between what the Chinese government thinks is good journalism and what the democracies think is the difference between journalists taking only what the government allows and journalists looking for the real story. And the real story is often something the government does not want publicized. (Just ask the US president or British prime minister.)

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One response to “China upgrades its journalists but not its control of journalism (Update)

  1. Pingback: Journalism and the World » Blog Archive » China offers new training for journalists but not new policies

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