Journalism: Made in China


Editor Zhang Quan, who works for Yueqing Daily, based near Wenzhou, China, discusses China’s subtle moves towards a more democratic press policy. He preferred not to disclose a photo in order to protect his identity.

How would you summarize the state of the press in China?

Currently, in many countries in the world, including the United States, there is not much you have to do to become an accessible and legitimate news source. In China, however, news organizations must be government-approved. No single individual can begin a newspaper or news website. All the news sources in China are owned and managed by a state-approved organization — for instance, the newspaper I work for, the Yueqing Daily, is managed by the provincial government of Yueqing. The government uses the newspaper to say what they like.

Despite this, how has freedom of the press improved?

In a bygone era, we were forbidden to badmouth the government at all. We had to make sure to print only articles that shed a positive light on the government. In recent years, the government has allowed us a certain amount of wiggle room. For instance, local newspapers such as my own are allowed to report on corruption that happens outside of our government’s jurisdiction — in other words, we are allowed to report on things that do not reflect badly on our local government.

American reports of the Wenzhou crash tended to focus heavily on the lack of government oversight and media censorship. What do you think of focusing on this particular angle?

I think they are right to be suspicious. For example, although the U.S. may not have focused on this particular aspect, one particularly suspicious statistic is that of the death toll and the number injured. China reported 40 dead and 120 injured. But think about it, there are a lot more people who rode that rail. But unlike in the United States, we have no investigative journalists willing to further pursue this suspicion. Even now, we do not have a definite answer about how the accident occurred. We probably never will.

In an environment where the journalist has so little power, what exactly is a journalist’s responsibility?

I wouldn’t say that a journalist in China doesn’t have any power. We have what we like to call “high-risk topics” that cannot, under any circumstances, be discussed. For instance, these include topics such as federal government corruption and minority and ethnic issues within the Chinese population. As a general rule, anything that would cause instability and chaos to break out must be avoided. As journalists, we have to be careful how we discuss issues, but that does not mean that we have no power.

Our paper is not straight news — not many papers in China these days are. Now, three out of seven of our issues are “perspective” [opinion] issues, and one out of seven is investigative. Newspapers used to be all straight reporting, but in the age of web, we need more analysis. We’re taking advantage of the elasticity the government has allowed us in terms of voicing measured disagreement.

What kind of stories are covered under investigative reporting?

We cover things that are not quite sensitive enough and that can be analyzed — for instance, we are currently working on a story about a migrant worker’s issues in securing education for his child. We had a reporter follow the migrant worker around for three days while he visited different schools trying to register his child. We’re looking to illuminate and discuss the issues that the working class and especially migrant workers face in securing education.

Would you say an Arab Spring-style revolution is the way forward for China in order to achieve greater freedom, not only in the press, but in general?

Although China has many of the same issues as these countries, there is first the problem of scale. China is simply geographically enormous compared to Egypt and Tunisia. If a fourth of the world’s population started to revolt against their government, that would have an enormous effect on international stability. Each of Egypt’s problems are the size of a dinner plate, and China’s are the size of the dinner table. Their problems, while similar, are incomparable in scale. It’s very hard to convince a sizeable percentage of the population to join the revolt. These are facts that I think even the poorest and most oppressed in China are aware of: We cannot go the way of Egypt or Tunisia. I think that China’s ideal political situation is a small government with a lot of power for the people, like in the United States, and we are slowly working towards that. But at the moment, it simply isn’t possible.

Do you think that the government’s censorship of the internet in China and other news sources is a good or bad?

I think that the government understands that they cannot sustain this level of control forever. The issue right now is that the unregulated internet allows for too much freedom and democracy, so that anyone, without any qualifications can have a voice.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons