China Ink: The Changing Face of Chinese Journalism by Judy Polumbaum with Xiong Lei; Rowan & Littlefield; US$24.95
There is plenty of vilification of Chinese media out there. Much of it comes from those with only a passing interest in China who fail to appreciate the detail and simply assume that television, newspapers and the internet are controlled by a single, all-seeing entity.
The Chinese media can also be something of an enigma for foreigners with a deeper connection to the country who, more often than not, rely on a handful of English sources of information. The danger with this approach – often the only one available given the difficulties of reading Chinese – is that it ignores the vast majority of the journalism being done.
Another (incorrect) assumption, writes Judy Polumbaum in her recent book, China Ink, is that only vocal dissidents are working to change the nature of media controls in China. Prone to make short-lived headlines abroad, these “dissidents” are rarely effective in promoting any sort of change, Polumbaum argues.
The larger, more successful, but generally overlooked group are the Chinese journalists working in the system. Many of them break stories on a regular basis and see themselves as the front line of change, or last line of defense, of a society in flux. They work in a complex and sometimes politically sensitive system that is often not that different from some Western ones.
In a series of 20 interviews with a varied group of successful journalists, Polumbaum explores the subtleties of working within the Chinese media establishment, following their careers, interests, successes and failures.
China Ink is presented as transcriptions of these interviews, conducted by Polumbaum with the help of Chinese journalist Xiong Lei. They include conversations with reporters from the country’s biggest organizations – Xinhua News Agency, People’s Daily, China Central Television (CCTV) and even the English-language China Daily – as well as smaller publications with defined interests such as Nationalities Pictorial, which focuses on China’s minority groups, and sports publication Titan News.
Degrees of control
The end product is both surprising and, in retrospect, obvious. The idea of a monolithic Chinese authority is useful for China hawks, but, on closer analysis, makes little sense. No group of hundreds of thousands of voices (that’s just reporters) read by more than a billion people can be truly controlled by a single authority.
China Ink is a work of editing and translation more than a work of literature. The translations are well done in a narrative format that is generally easy to read. There are some liberties taken with the text, but one has to trust that they don’t alter the facts.
As Polumbaum notes, there are certainly journalists who “do their jobs perfunctorily,” but there are also thousands who “do not just repeat the information provided to them; they look for ways to check its accuracy and to pursue sides of the story that may be neglected.”
What most of the profiled journalists have is a subtle political sensibility. They know that the right approach can ensure the publication of sensitive stories that would otherwise not see the light of day. They are also aware of a danger far more insidious than central control: self-censorship.
Throughout the interviews, one issue emerges time and again – the need for facts. China is full of opinions, orders and self-serving theories. Facts, however, are irrefutable. All of these journalists know that the acquisition and dissemination of facts is at the heart of their trade.
All in all, an attitude that many a reporter in the West would do well to emulate.
Excerpt: Wang Jun
The greatest challenge in journalism is self-censorship. When you write you ask yourself if this and that are okay. During your first year, you think about it. By the second year, you begin to censor yourself. Even when no problem exists, you presume it does and kill it yourself. This is the most dreadful thing.
… After I’d wised up, the Beijing branch wanted me to write about how great Chang’an Boulevard was, but I resolutely refused; I absolutely could not write that, because Chang’an Boulevard was a complete failure. Looking back – how should I put it? – I did a lot of things against my will. At times, my wife would say I might as well quit a job that sometimes seemed both meaningless and tiring. But as I later told a younger reporter, this is an imperfect world, so one must pay the price to live in it. However, when I pay the price, I need to know specifically what I want and must have.