Lost in translation
By Fang Wenxin Posted Sep 27 2009
For Chinese journalists, it takes a great deal of effort to gain the respect and freedom needed to cover hard-hitting issues, but some have come close.
Wang Feng received a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley. He then returned to China to join Caijing Magazine, which emerged from a number of news organizations and has become one of China’s leading business and financial publications. Four years ago, Wang was a part of Caijing’s reportorial force to expose a scandal involving top state banker Zhang Enzhao, who also ranked high in the Communist Party hierarchy. When Reuters was able to launch its new Chinese-language Web site in 2007, it named the 30-year-old Wang as editor.
Another successful young journalist is Wu Chen, who edited the Chinese-language CFO China published by the Economist Group (it closed in March due to financial pressure). Wu studied journalism at Ohio University and international relations at the University of California, San Diego. Using the magazine as a platform, he questioned whether China’s development model is really better than India’s and discussed the need for fiscal transparency—still largely an evasive subject at this year’s national congress.
“Most of our stories have to do with companies and finances,” Wu says. “On the other hand, we try to make a contribution to China’s development by looking at its bottlenecks—it is of personal interest.”
In a country where news is more of an official government product, a yearning for independence from such has encouraged a generation of young Chinese to study journalism overseas, many at the top journalism schools in the U.S.
While some stayed abroad or shifted careers, an increasing number of graduates have been drawn back to China in recent years, sensing the possibility to attain grace in journalism.
The media in China has been changing just as dynamically as its economy. While the view on the state-control of the news industry is split, many agree that China’s news sphere is unprecedented in its diverse and rich information.
Along with the fast-track economy, the desire for information as well as for outlets of expression that represent split interests has grown tremendously in the past decade. The Internet plays the role of facilitator, as it spreads information faster than attempts to dampen it. A large and ongoing demand is created for reporters who can provide trustworthy information. Chinese reporters with overseas training are seen as having an edge over the market-oriented media.
Foreign-trained journalists are also demanded at financial wires run by some of the world’s most influential business media. Reuters, Dow Jones and Bloomberg have been operating in China for more than a decade, each of them now hiring a platoon of young Chinese reporters who can write in clear English to monitor and analyze markets. These organizations compete with Financial Times and other parts of their own companies, who have all started Chinese versions of their Web sites.
The Chinese media are constantly reinventing themselves to become faster, more accurate, investigative and even provocative; in other words, they are becoming more like their international counterparts.
Then there are China bureaus of the world’s major publications and television channels. With rare exceptions, Chinese journalists who work for these companies are officially restricted from working to the correspondent’s full capacity. They do, however, contribute to reporting broader and sometimes politically sensitive issues.
Increasingly, overseas-educated Chinese journalists opt for local media. When Wang Feng completed his program at Berkeley, he returned to China immediately, eager to understand the situation on the ground. At Caijing’s weekly editorial meetings, he was thrilled to hear senior journalists present information they got from various sources.
“These were things unheard of elsewhere – information only insiders knew,” Wang recalls. “Not all the stuff could be published. It’s really interesting to see topics we discussed today announced as national policies a week later.”
“Foreign media are more objective and freer in what they cover,” says Ji Minhua, a current reporter with Caijing who has a master’s degree in journalism from Stanford University. “The downside is that they are too focused on politics and ignore some very valuable stuff.”
Leaving Stanford in 2004, Ji almost joined South China Morning Post, the Hong Kong-based English newspaper, but eventually she landed in the Chinese magazine and is now pleased with her choice. “You can go deep into the growth stories of China’s enterprises over the years,” she says. “These are actually going to be great reflections of the current history.”
The advantage of working for local media or for the Chinese editions of international press lies in the chance to make a difference to the realities of daily life in China. Because international readers have a limited interest in the nation, the issues repeatedly covered by the world press are less meaningful to the Chinese themselves, Wang says from his earlier experience working for Reuter’s Beijing Bureau as a research assistant.
“I chose business news because I know sticking to politics is hopeless,” Wu says. “Setting your attention on politics alone would be in vain. Adjacent issues could have a great impact on politics. Already there is a big space to debate economic policies.”
Although market-oriented organizations like Caijing have leapt ahead of the competition in their influence and commercial success, they are still a much smaller platform compared to some of China’s massive state-controlled media. CCTV, a monopolized national TV network, has over a dozen channels that broadcast everyday to billions of Chinese viewers. Local media giants like this are also catering to public interest by introducing measurable independent voices in the news programs. But for people with journalistic ambitions, the changes are too slow.
“I thought I should be a journalist because I studied journalism. I had a decent education, but I couldn’t apply it at work,” says Zhang Wei, another Stanford graduate who subsequently spent a year covering law stories for CCTV. “There is a fundamental difference in what is valuable. CCTV spoke in an over-the-top tone. Its perspective and the perspective of the audience are not equal.”
Quickly, she grew tied of it and of doing journalism in China. “Here, journalists are not respected,” she says. “Except for very few media, the image of journalism is going down. Either in terms of income or of social recognition, it is not a decent job you see in the West.”
Zhang moved to public relations and is a successful communication officer of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Beijing. “We never give reporters a transportation fee,” she adds, referring to the cash payment to local reporters as a norm in corporate press conferences.
Many who studied abroad felt their most important learning wasn’t about ideology (freedom of expression vs. guiding the public opinion toward the “correct” direction). “It is common sense,” says Sun Yu, a current journalism student at New York University, “just like those who accept transportation fee know they shouldn’t.” Studying in countries such as the U.S. also provides valuable practical skills in writing and researching. That is where insecurity arises in covering a story: A reporter’s edge could be lost in translation back into one’s mother tongue.
“In China, it is easier for a reporter to get exclusive information and become famous,” says Sun, who has researched for the Financial Times in China. “Success often doesn’t come from good writings, but is based on whether you have scoops.”
“Some of the education isn’t helpful when it comes to China,” Sun continues. “Here, to get information, you don’t rely on public record, you rely on relationship.” He says he regrets not having worked in a Chinese publication, because “that’s where you learn how to deal with a steel company—you drink with them.”
Without experience at local media, some Chinese reporters find it to be a better career choice to be associated with foreign press.
New Wave in the Media
In January, the South China Morning Post reported China’s ambition to expand its overseas media presence. The plan is to spend over $6 billion on state-owned media. What’s more interesting in the news is that Xinhua News Agency, one of the Communist Party’s biggest mouthpieces, might enjoy greater freedom to report politics and culture.
This plan was released after three major events in 2008—the Tibet riots, the Sichuan earthquake and the Summer Olympics in Beijing—sparked harsh criticism of China. Authorities say China needs a more influential media outlet to match its economic power.
As a result, new English publications affiliated with China’s state-owned media groups have started hiring both foreigners and Chinese with overseas experience. But some quickly point out that the real key is not how loud they speak, but how they speak.
“If they stick to the old rhetoric, effective publicity is just dream talk,” Wang says. “They need people who know how to speak the other language—not English vs. Chinese but journalism vs. propaganda.”
“The questions is,” Wu says, “would Xinhua take people like us back in to be editors?”
Regardless of the answer, one thing is clear: Chinese journalists won’t stop trying to improve China’s government-monitored media. For the new students who see independence and hope in Western journalism schools, Wang Feng has a piece of advice before they leave home.
“Your should first get to know Chinese media inside out, to study its weakness. Then you know what’s likely to change.”