A Journalist in China

August 7, 2008 Topic: Society

A Journalist in China

In the lead-up to the Olympics, seasoned correspondents Andrea Koppel and John Pomfret discuss the party-state’s influence on the media in China.

Earlier this week, the New York Times revealed a little too much information about a confidential source. The source, a Uighur Muslim man, was voicing concern about actions of Chinese authorities. He asked to remain anonymous because he feared retribution. When his identity wasn't protected, a mild furor erupted in the blogosphere.

This, of course, isn't the first time journalists have experienced the influence of the Chinese government on the media, or that people have reacted to the degree of control the party-state wields. But with the Olympics kicking off on August 8, the spotlight is shining even more brightly on Beijing. Everyone is wondering if the country has finally opened up. On Wednesday, The Nixon Center hosted a roundtable with Andrea Koppel, Senior Vice President of Communications at M+R Strategic Services and long-time CNN correspondent in East Asia, and John Pomfret, a Washington Post foreign correspondent and former Beijing bureau chief.

Andrea Koppel doubted that anyone, when Beijing won the bid for the Olympics, truly believed the games would result in China's complete opening or the end of the Communist party-state. After all, there has been talk of collapse in the past, too, but China is still going strong. Koppel said she would be "very surprised if the Communist Party is not alive and well ten to fifteen years from now."

Pomfret agreed, adding that the party-state has adopted the "Kung fu masters'" approach-concentrate on controlling the pressure points. It has been intelligent in increasing personal freedoms while still maintaining control over the political side of things.

These days, journalists have much freer rein than they did during the time when Koppel was in China (she was Beijing bureau chief from 1995-1998), which Pomfret referred to as the "Stone Age of reporting." Then, journalists needed official passes to travel throughout the country and were always strictly regulated by a cadre of Chinese minders.

Pomfret had it a bit easier as a rule, though, during his stint in Beijing from 1998 to 2003-the "Bronze Age." As a print journalist he could move more freely than Koppel, who reminisced about less-than-conspicuously lugging video equipment around the country. Plus, Pomfret said, he joined with most of the Chinese population in ignoring most of the rules, like those governing travel.

His successes were also due to the party-state's increased "sophistication" in its dealings with the press. In other words, the Chinese government understood that it could manipulate journalists to a certain degree to make sure the views of the party-state were heard. So, Pomfret noted, they arranged meetings with and meted out information to "people who they thought were useful to them." That meant Pomfret had relatively open access to Chinese officials, frequently enjoying informal one-on-one lunches and interactions without minders.

Today, advances in technology have allowed journalists to go live anywhere in the country, Koppel noted, a great improvement over sending out stories via Chinese-state CCTV. And in the past few months, the government has lifted restrictions, so journalists are now able to travel anywhere they want without official permission.

But with these freedoms has come regulation. The party-state has also recently limited journalists' ability to broadcast stories over independent mobile networks, without the use of official bandwidth. And, Pomfret said, "thugishness still happens." As the New York Times story and others demonstrate, sometimes that thugishness is directed toward the people.

Beijing still engages in censorship and manipulation of the media, too, Pomfret commented. Over the last few years there has been a marked rollback in the government's openness and journalists' access to officials. Pomfret speculated that is a result of a change in leadership styles as power transitioned from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao.

Even though it has increased freedoms, technology has also played a large role in regulating journalists. The government still monitors the news going into and coming out of the country, and technology has allowed the party-state to filter web content more efficiently. Plus, the government has an easier time investigating any rule-breaking reporting that goes on, from the bloggers to broadsheets, thanks to advanced computer programs.

As far as the domestic press goes, Chinese journalists as a whole are both more restricted and more corrupt, Pomfret said. Take news coming from America. A question was asked about the recent critical remarks President Bush made about the Chinese government on his visit to Thailand. Koppel said she would be surprised if any of those criticisms appeared in mainland China's press. Perhaps in Hong Kong, she added, with Pomfret agreeing that the criticisms would not be "prominently displayed" in China.

On top of that, moderator Drew Thompson, director of China studies and Starr Senior Fellow at The Nixon Center, added that more Chinese than English-language websites are blocked in China. And these differences have repercussions within the populace. When it comes to domestic affairs, the Chinese people put more stock in the stories released by the international media than the Chinese-language offerings, Pomfret said. But, alternatively, they are more likely to believe Chinese interpretations of international affairs than those coming from abroad.

This may have something to do with the generally negative perception of China prevalent in the international media. Part of the roundtable conversation focused on these broader issues-should we fear the rise of the dragon or go a bit easier on Beijing?

Koppel, for one, said she always tried to be even-handed in her reporting of Chinese events. Pomfret is convinced that coverage of China in the U.S. media is "spasmodic" and cyclical, not purely negative. And changes in the press's views are generally tied to events, he stressed. So, the reaction after Tiananmen Square was mostly negative. But following the recent earthquake devastation, although the press was wary about how Beijing would handle the situation, there was an outpouring of positive support. Koppel noted that once it became apparent so many of the victims were children, though, criticism of China increased once again. And when the party-state cracked down on uprisings in Tibet, the U.S. and international media were up in arms.

Pomfret suspects that soon someone in the media will start a stop-demonizing-China trend, and stories will be more favorable. He also speculated that China-driven breakthroughs on hot issues like North Korea, Iran or even Darfur could turn sentiments in Beijing's favor.

But for now, the increased Olympics-spurred scrutiny has meant that Beijing has come under fire for everything from human-rights abuses to pollution from its many factories. An audience member wondered what will happen when the spotlight is turned off. Will there be blowback? Will the Chinese government or people become fed up with international criticism and become more xenophobic as a result?

Pomfret thinks that unlikely, and also unwise. There have been trends in China toward more skeptical views of the United States in particular, due to the extent of negative reporting. Citing the "angry youth" as an example, Pomfret noted that the nationalism so visible within this young demographic shouldn't be overestimated. The sentiments will most likely temper as the population ages and gets out of college. Koppel left the issue more open ended. She said that some Chinese see criticism of their government as an attempt to hold them back, and they resent that.

China is going to be center stage for the next few weeks. We'll just have to wait and see what happens.


Rebecca N. White is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.