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.
The bolder leaders in China seem willing to face up to some of the country’s demons and to loosen its leash—to a degree—on the press. Coverage can be extensive on such issues as the health threat posed by air pollution, for instance, or the tough times faced in many fast-growing cities by migrants flooding in from the countryside. Often, these are issues that party leaders are grappling with, as well, and some of them may see press coverage, and the adoption of some approaches from Western-style journalism, as advancing their causes. “They will take what they need,” says Sheridan Prasso, a regional editor-at-large for Bloomberg in Hong Kong. “While, of course, it suits the Chinese government’s interests to periodically use the press to root out corruption, such investigations serve the public interest, as well.”
For journalists in China, the line on what’s acceptable (and when) can be fuzzy. Tibet, Taiwan, and the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 may almost always be taboo, but sharp coverage of Foxconn was acceptable—until, suddenly, it wasn’t. Up until a certain point in 2010, journalists could get away with hard-hitting coverage of the company, a major player in Chinese manufacturing and a leading supplier to Apple and other tech giants with a million-plus employees. But about midway through the year, officials decided enough was enough. “You couldn’t even mention Foxconn, even the name itself,” one journalist familiar with the story recalls. “The government was taking measures to settle things, and the media needed to shut up.” Then, riots rocked a company factory last month, and eventually China Daily could no longer ignore the story.
And yet, young journalists with a taste for investigative work find ways to ply their trade. Liu Zhiyi, with his Foxconn work, is far from alone. Liu Shaohua, another Wuhan graduate studying for a master’s degree at Tsinghua, made his bones with similar undercover work. For a two-page spring 2011 piece in Beijing Times, where he interned, he posed as a technology-institute graduate and contracted with an employment agency that promised him training and suitable work. After fleecing him for hundreds of yuan and telling him to bribe a manager with cigarettes, the agency found Liu a job as a security guard at a building site. “They are just liars, and what amazed me was that it was a common phenomenon in Beijing. There are hundreds of [such agencies],” he says. “After the report, the Ministry of Human Resources went to the places, and some people were arrested.”
Government officials have reason to encourage such hard-charging journalism. “Contrary to the stereotypes abroad, Chinese journalists are pushing the envelope to uncover wrongs, sharing the same sense of mission as their counterparts elsewhere in the world,” writes Yuen Ying Chan in an introduction to the 2010 book Investigative Journalism in China. Chan, who was a longtime New York Daily News reporter, founded and directs a journalism school at the University of Hong Kong and recently retired as dean of the Cheung Kong School of Journalism and Communication at the mainland’s Shantou University. She adds, “In China, investigative journalism plays a dual role as an arm of the government and a watchdog press struggling to be free.”
That dichotomy puts some mainland journalism educators in a ticklish spot, of course. They encourage probing reporting even as they tolerate censorship and the Communist Party’s ever-shifting lines on what’s acceptable. Many are party members and see good journalism as a means to advance party goals. Journalism in China is about “service for the country, for the party, for the government, and for the people,” says Chen Changfeng, deputy dean at Tsinghua’s journalism school. “It is said the people’s benefit is the same as the party’s in China.”
As the school’s executive dean, Yin Hong, describes them, the core values the teachers espouse differ little from those pushed by j-schools in the United States. High on the list are “fairness, objectivity, and a spirit of democracy,” he says. The school also pushes for “constructive criticism,” urging students not to “only complain, but to find a solution” for problems they identify. At the same time, Tsinghua doesn’t want students breaking the rules. “First, we teach them to follow the regulations given by the government,” Yin says. “And we will train them how to fulfill their social responsibility to be good journalists while following the regulations inside the system.... On the one side, they need to be critical, to fulfill their social responsibility. On the other side, they need to be positive to find solutions to solve the problems of society.”
Emblematic of the odd spot the educators are in, Tsinghua exposes students to both “Marxist-oriented” journalism and Western approaches, according to Shi Anbin, the school’s associate dean of international development. Shi, who earned a Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University, points to the aggressive coverage in the U.S. of the sex-abuse debacle in his alma mater’s football program. It is typical, he says, of the Western emphasis on scandal. “Chinese media would not cover it up, especially in the age of weibo, but they probably would choose a more matter-of-fact and sympathetic tone toward Joe Paterno.” (This was before the legendary coach’s statue came down and his reputation was ultimately destroyed.)
The curricula at Chinese journalism schools reflect this attempt to walk both the capitalist and Communist roads. Mandatory political education still buttresses the “Marxist-oriented” approach to news coverage, which defers to the party’s leadership on what the people should see and read. Students take courses such as “Marxist Fundamentals,” “Mao Zedong Thought and Socialism With Chinese Characteristics,” and “Marxist Journalist Studies.” They undergo military training, a boot-camp-like program in their freshman year aimed at building their sense of nationalism and instilling discipline.
But the Marxist message isn’t playing well to a generation that has grown up with the seductions of the West. “They sleep through those classes,” says Peter Herford, a former CBS News vice president who has taught at Shantou University since 2003. “They all recognize it’s a total waste of time.” And attempts to drive Marxism even further into the journalism curriculum have failed. China’s propaganda ministry spent $316,000 to produce a textbook about the Marxist approach to journalism, and the ministry hosted a meeting of administrators to promote the book last December. But not many schools use it, says one administrator in attendance. Few find a dogmatic, political approach worthwhile, preferring to focus on the craft of journalism.
Communist ideology, furthermore, may weaken as Chinese schools reach out to the West. By the tens of thousands, Chinese students attend U.S. universities. At Tsinghua, portraits of Nobel Prize-winning economists, all from the West, grace the lobby of the business and economics school; Mao’s image is nowhere to be seen. The Southwest University of Political Science and Law, in Chongqing, is developing an exchange program for faculty and students with the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska (Lincoln), where I serve as an associate professor. Many schools encourage Westerners to teach on their campuses.
COLORING WITHIN THE LINES
The fuzzy boundaries do make budding journalists uneasy. Some fret that their work will run afoul of censors or thin-skinned advertisers. During undergraduate internships at such papers as the Beijing Times, some reporters had pieces spiked because they were about prohibited demonstrations by buyers of defective Hewlett-Packard laptops. One told of how an editor deep-sixed a friend’s monthlong reporting effort about a hospital’s poor treatment of patients—because the hospital was an advertiser. In some ways, this echoes the worst of Western trade journalism.
Nonetheless, when they don’t threaten to upend powerful fiefdoms, edgy media outlets in China regularly break new ground. Investigations by magazines such as the biweekly Caijing—a crusading publication under founder and former editor Hu Shuli—drove home systemic failings in the 2003 SARS epidemic, exposed fraudulent business practices (once causing a company to be delisted), and laid bare poor government investments. Hu, who quit Caijing with most of her staff in late 2009 in a fight over censorship and financial issues, is keeping her hand in as chief editor of Caixin Media, Century Weekly Magazine, and China Reform Magazine, which the authorities seem to tolerate.
Hu is also sowing some new seeds. She’s training young talent as dean of the School of Communication and Design at Sun Yat-Sen University in the independent-minded southern province of Guangdong. In time, her charges, like the others, could speed even more change in China’s press.
Liu Zhiyi, Liu Shaohua, and other budding investigative journalists hope to blaze new paths in China, just as the country overall increasingly opens itself to Western influences of all sorts. Some routes, surely, will prove to be dead ends. There will be stops and starts. But, perhaps more than ever since the Communist Party took power, their chance to move the borders on what is acceptable is growing.
This article originally appeared in the magazine's Oct. 6, 2012, issue as "Hemmed In."
Joseph Weber is an associate professor at the University of Nebraska (Lincoln) and the Jerry and Karla Huse professor of news-editorial there. He formerly served as chief of correspondents for BusinessWeek.
This article appears in the October 6, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.