When editors at China’s Southern Weekend wanted to tell the story of Foxconn, the iPad-maker lambasted for worker suicides and harsh conditions, they turned to Liu Zhiyi. At 22, the spiky-haired, boyish-looking student could fit in among the young crowd that Foxconn preferred to hire. More important, the newspaper’s intern had shown promise as a journalism major at Wuhan University. He could look, listen, and write—and do so discreetly.
Hired at the company’s Shenzen plant, Liu joined in the factory workers’ rough banter and listened to their dreams. They wanted money and sought precious overtime, eager to work more than the 36 extra hours per month allowed by law. They wanted their own businesses and yearned for BMWs. Instead, Liu wrote, they became servants of the machines they ran, losing their youth to them. For 28 days, Liu toiled alongside them, troubled by the gulf that separated privileged college students like him from those who could barely pass school and seemed trapped in dead-end jobs. “You’re like a component,” he wrote, with “no way to escape.”
Liu’s spring 2010 series about his undercover work, part of which is available at Engadget, shows much of what is right about the Chinese press and Chinese journalism education these days. Gutsy, intelligent, and critical of power (at least some power), journalists and aspiring journalists can—at carefully chosen times—produce hard-hitting pieces that shine a light on troubled areas of life in their fast-changing country. On the job, reporters write about local corruption, zeroing in on such topics as dishonest retailing practices, shoddy construction, and overcrowded school buses. At university, many master the five Ws behind every news story—what, when, who, where, and why—and write fact-based pieces.
Beijing’s leaders see the press as an investigative tool that can help them attack corruption they would not otherwise see, and they have given reporters a surprising amount of leeway—on certain kinds of stories. Journalists pressing for more openness are helped by a thriving Twitter-like Internet system, called weibo, where netizens routinely find ways to outmaneuver censors on stories ranging from train crashes and natural disasters to political intrigue. The official media are even pulled along sometimes, forced to join the national dialogue. Moreover, a handful of journalism schools are opening their doors to Western instructors to teach aspiring media sleuths how to work, and some are swapping students and faculty with universities in the United States. The same drive toward the West that is giving the Chinese access to Apple and Walmart (sometimes with products tailored to local taste) is serving up a Chinese form of Western-style news coverage.
To be sure, China is not birthing a high-minded Fourth Estate that will hold the Communist Party elite or powerful companies accountable the way Western reporters do. Some targets clearly are off-limits. Chinese journalists took a pass, for instance, on covering the mysterious disappearance for a couple of weeks in September of Xi Jinping, China’s next president, even as Western reporters lavished much ink on the story. And the undoing of Bo Xilai, ousted leader of the megacity of Chongqing, merited extensive coverage abroad but little at home. China-followers can expect little, if any, coverage of Tibet, Tiananmen, the harassed Falun Gong religious sect, and other sensitive topics.
The flaws are glaring. Government censorship occurs daily, is unpredictable, and, in this year of leadership transition, seems to have muted much of the press. The propaganda ministry issues regular edicts on what is acceptable and what is not. Self-censorship is rampant. Chen Guangcheng, the blind self-taught lawyer who won asylum in the U.S., got precious little attention from China Daily. Moreover, blogging about freedom of speech and political reform netted activists Chen Wei and Chen Xi nine- and 10-year prison sentences. And, as The New York Times reported, some media organizations demand payments for flattering coverage. Reporters routinely take cash, in familiar red envelopes, for attending press conferences.
Still, outsiders are wrong to assume that all is barren in the Chinese journalism world. The story is more nuanced than most Westerners might imagine. I got a close look at China’s journalism education for four months last fall as a visiting professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Journalism and Communication in Beijing. Under the auspices of the International Center for Journalists, a Washington group that promotes quality journalism worldwide, I was among a sprinkling of Westerners teaching in China. Our master’s degree students, who included Liu, see journalism as heroic. It’s a vehicle to right wrongs and to assist those sidelined by seismic social upheavals. China is in transition, their teachers say and they echo, and part of that is a more aggressive role for the press. Teachers at Tsinghua held up Liu’s work at Foxconn as exemplary.
This article appears in the October 6, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.