The Financial Times had a good story last week by Mure Dickie and former China Economic Review editor Jamil Anderlini on the institutionalized payoffs for journalists at media events in China – euphemistically known as “travel money” or “hongbao” after the red packets of lucky money children receive at Chinese New Year. This quote made me chuckle, though:
“It’s awful. It’s an embarrassment for Chinese journalism . . . and it’s corruption,” says Ying Chan, director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong. “It’s not that journalists endorse this – people live with it knowing it is wrong.”
Those poor journalists, practically forced to compromise their own morals time after time!* What choice do they have? Not taking the money? As if!! The article notes, however, that upstanding Chinese publications like Caijing and Economic Observer have policies forbidding their reporters from accepting the envelopes, usually found in media kits at the PR booths of press conferences. Most papers don’t have similar policies, it is argued, because competition is so stiff they can’t afford to raise salaries – so the RMB200-300-per-person envelopes become an assumed supplementary income. The crazy thing is that the rates appear to be fixed (though not “encouraged” or “discouraged”):
Esmond Quek, managing director of the PR company Hill & Knowlton in Beijing, says payments – which can reach Rmb1,200 for TV crews, since they have to “lug a lot of equipment around and usually have three crew members” – are at rates agreed with China’s Public Relations Association. “The amount given is standard and specifically for transportation,” Mr Quek says.
Other industry executives dispute whether any formal industry agreement exists and a representative for China’s Public Relations Association says: “You cannot say we encourage or discourage this practice.”
It’s not just for Chinese journalists, either. Erstwhile CER contributor Kaiser Kuo, who now operates in the PR/advertising world, wrote with some surprise a few months back that it is becoming common practice for foreign media as well.
I was asked about basic differences between foreign reporters and Chinese reporters, and with some equivocation spoke of the “ethics gap,” citing as a mild example the “travel money” any business throwing a press conference is expected to cough up to attending Chinese reporters–usually 300 RMB. Foreign reporters, of course, have rigid ethical standards: most won’t even let you buy ’em lunch, and will certainly refuse the hongbao, right?
Wrong. A couple of the women in session piped up: “What do we do when the foreign media demand red envelopes?” Apparently, in more than one instance, reporters from western television news stations (who I’ll prudently avoid naming) hounded these poor PR women for money at press events.”Why do they get them and we don’t?” they demanded. The women were pretty worked up as we discussed this.
I can confirm this – at least the part about hongbaos being distributed to the foreign press. I’ve certainly been handed cash envelopes before. After sending a recent one back (it had been mailed to my office after an interview), the marketing manager at a nice Shanghai hotel, to her credit, sent the following response, here edited to exclude embarrassing praise:
Saw the returned mail on my desk this morning. Hope you are not offended in anyway. I don’t normally do this but had been pressured into it for this particular [event]. … To be honest, with this rather ‘standard’ practice in this industry, many non-local media have ‘localised’ themselves. I was appalled when I first heard of it; have not grown to accept it and still do not condone it.
(Then again, that could be the standard response for reporters who refuse payment to get back on their good side.)
*Disclosure: I am guilty of accepting travel money on one occasion, when I was an inexperienced young(er) writer doing a puff piece for an in-house hotel magazine. It’s not that I endorse it – I guess I’ll just have to live with it knowing that it was wrong.