Censorship in China and journalists who say 'no'

After working in the Middle East for the past two and a half years, one thing that still seems strange to me is reading the UK papers online. The obsession with celebrity, sex scandals and sport raised to an art form is as alien to the locals as popping into the Queen Vic or the Rovers Return.
Don’t get me wrong, celebrity and sport are still popular here but, due to cultural differences, there is much that would slip through a UK subs desk that wouldn’t make it to a reporters’ notebook here.
I had this in mind at the start of March when I attended the Abu Dhabi Media Summit when a group of Chinese journalists were called to discuss a topic called ‘Learning from China’ and was immediately struck by the absurdity of the title. I mean, although the Middle East can at times be restrictive for journalists, it can’t be anyway near as bad as China.
But this 15-minute talk still lives in the memory, especially the contribution from the soft spoken Hu Shuli, the co-founder of Caixin Media, and Yue-Sai Kan, founder of Yue-Sai Kan productions, as it contained lessons in operating under extreme pressure for any journalist in any part of the world.
I was reminded of their words when I learned another of their colleagues, the editor of the China Economic Times, lost his job last week because one of his reporters had linked mishandled vaccines to the deaths and serious illnesses of children in Shaanxi province.
For those that don’t know, Hu Shuli resigned from her post as editor of the business magazine Caijing in November 2009 to form Caixin Media after issues involving her coverage of sensitive current affairs stories. When she walked out of Caijing it is believed 90 per cent of the staff went with her.
Yue-Sai Kan is a television personality, author, entrepreneur, and humanitarian who was once named ‘the most famous woman in China’ by People magazine.
During the Abu Dhabi discussion, what was clear was Hu’s passion for quality and investigative journalism. She said the sea change in her countries economic fortunes presented “great opportunities and hopes”.
Hu seems to be a pragmatist, she realises the censors aren’t going to go away so has to find a way of doing what she wants at the edges of the given framework without getting shutdown.
Asked about her approach to censorship, she said: “I think with the progress we have achieved by pushing the envelope it’s easier to identify what we can do. There are a lot of ways to deal with the regulators. I describe them as regulators, not censors.”
What was revealing was Caixin’s recruitment policy. Working in the media is as popular a career choice in China as it is in the West but Hu practises caution before hiring anyone, with the implication being they may already be working for the authorities.
“I think  journalism is a very popular and challenging job. It’s not difficult for us to hire young talent but we are very cautious to judge whether they share the same values or idealism as us.”
But, she added, “this profession can still attract a lot of young talent.”
Yue-Sai Kan highlighted how far China has come since the mid 1980s.
“When I started 25 years ago there was no advertising, no consumerism in China. I asked the government: ‘You want me to produce a series to tell the people about the world but you don’t give me the money. Why don’t you give me advertising?”
Times have moved on and advertising is now big business in the People’s Republic. Yue-Sai said to see adverts for Nestle, a coffee company, in a staunch tea-drinking land was still “amazing”.
However, she recalled how Proctor & Gamble faced initial problems in the Far East because the authorities thought the business was somehow linked to gambling.
Asked how easy it was to get a project off the ground, Yue-Sai admitted this was still linked to official approval. If a project is “blessed by a higher authority” then it is easier as censors are afraid to touch it. But for smaller local productions, things are much more difficult.
What was perhaps surprising was, although both Hu Shuli and Yue-Sai Kan have both achieved long, successful careers in an industry dominated by state censorship they have opposite views on its future.
Asked what would happen if censorship was removed from Chinese media, Yue-Sai Kan was the most optimistic and said she thought it would happen some time in the next 25 years.
Hu Shuli’s assessment was more cautious: “I haven’t thought about what would happen but I don’t think it’s possible.”
Despite disagreeing on the future of their industry, both women embodied a saying that ran through the whole discussion that could be a wake-up call for any journalist in any part of the world.
It was simply this: “Act first, ask forgiveness later.”
What do you think? Leave a comment and let’s get the debate started…

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