The news about the news in China is anything but good. I first learned about it close to 2 weeks ago, when my China mentor, and the former Assistant Dean of the Journalism School at Shantou University where I taught the fall semester in 2008, sent the following news clip, a story by Teddy Ng in the authoritative Hong Kong-based newspaper, the South China Morning Post (SCMP)
“The Communist Party's propaganda authority is planning to tighten its control over major journalism schools across the country and increase Marxist education at the universities,” Ng reported.
“Three people familiar with the plan said senior local propaganda officials would become heads or high-level officials of journalism programs at 10 top-tier universities, in an attempt to ensure their teaching is in line with authorities' directives.”
Leaders of the Chinese Communist Party have hardly hidden their plan, which is to spread soon from 10 elite J-schools to all places where Journalism is taught in China.
The story had actually been reported by Japan’s Kyodo News Agency almost a week earlier.
Kyodo’s story cited a party source on what triggered the J-School takeover. “President Xi Jinping senses a crisis ‘at universities and in the mass media where reformists (who support such values as democracy) have the most influence.’”
Several reports agree that officials from the party's Central Propaganda Department will, in Kyodo’s words, “take over the top posts of their journalism schools, and also beef up the media's role in serving as the ‘throat and tongue’ of the Communist Party.”
Herford, whose long career in journalism education was preceded by a distinguished record as a senior producer and bureau chief at CBS News, was properly horrified.
“I feel for our former students and those who might have been our future students,” Peter emailed. “This latest step cements changes that have been creeping forward. They include the seven "no’s", a list of basics that are no longer to be taught in Chinese universities. These include Human Rights concepts and many of the foundations of literature and history (expunging foreign and particularly Western influences).”
According to SCPM’s Ng, the creeps have been advancing since 2001, when party hard-liners took control of journalism education at Shanghai’s Fudan University.one of the top schools in the country. Back then, Ng reported, “Jiefang Daily quoted then Shanghai deputy party secretary Gong Xueping as saying the arrangement would ensure local propaganda authorities utilized their strength in leading and organizing the mass media.”
And sure enough, today, Ng said, “The current head of the university's journalism program is Song Chao , who is a deputy propaganda director for Shanghai.”
But today, a dozen years after the CCP put its foot down at Fudan, the party propagandists’ plan for control is widely predicted to be ineffective.
Ng quoted Li Datong, a former editor with China Youth Daily: "’The journalists will memorise some lines of Marxist thought but in the end they won't care too much about it,’"
5 days later, Ng wrote that the CCP crackdown would extend beyond Journalism, to everything taught at China’s universities, and to what the Chinese people will see on their major broadcast networks “specific programmes for spreading socialist ideologies, as well as more public service advertisements.”
But will President Xi’s dictates make a difference? Ng cited another skeptic, Zhang Ming, a political science professor at Renmin University, another top university in Beijing, "’The question remains whether the public will buy it. It is impossible to carve them into the brain’."
Xi’s problem is simple: the world of information is complex, even in China, where the government and Party are just 2 of thousands of would-be sculptors, carving away at the public brain. Cracking down on J-Schools or all schools, lobotomizing the content of mass media, is a sad old story, and a lot of the sadness and frustration is inside the government/party power structure, which still feels besieged.
Still, like Peter, and some other former visiting teachers at Shantou, I was pretty disheartened by the news. Until I saw the following response my wife Amy got from a Chinese friend who is both a professional translator, and a volunteer in a 20-year campaign to give all Chinese access to the significant ideas current in the world, by publishing translations on the internet.
He wrote: The crackdown is “routine, rather than news.” CCP policing of the media, “particularly in terms of politic issues,” he wrote, has turned “most Chinese journalists into mere zombie followers who retweet everything the Party says.
“Luckily,” he added, “we are not living in North Korea. The best thing that ever happened is the internet. I don't have a TV and I subscribe to no newspaper. I look out to the world through my optic fiber, in which way I can get information from both sides and make my own judgment.”
Which was, he said, “I am sure the CCP, no matter how hard they try to tighten their grip on journalism, has weaker influence today on intellectuals and the economically advanced areas in this country. For journalists, it is just one more test to pass, for which they have already been inoculated during their school days.”
Which reminded me of my own wonderful experience at Shantou, and left me convinced he’s got it right. Even 5 years ago, the Journalism school, like every school at the University, had a Party Secretary, who was largely unseen and unheard, but could pop out at any moment with some annoying judgment or admonition. I was warned (and had already assumed) every class had an assigned Party snitch.
Kyodo reported, as early as last May, “university officials in Beijing and Shanghai were saying that Chinese authorities had banned the discussion in university classes of seven subjects (Peter Herford’s “7 No’s.”) including "freedom of the press," "citizen rights," "universal values" implying respect for human rights and democracy, and "historical mistakes of the Communist Party."
In 2008, there was no such explicit ban, and I regularly discussed journalism’s role in society using all those forbidden concepts, except the last one, on which my students had nothing to learn from me: they were already experts. Clearly, someone ratted me out to the Dean, who counseled me to “stop talking about China and human rights, and just teach them what you know about journalism.”
I kept to my prior teaching plan, and never heard another word.
Here are 2 things my students taught me (here I paraphrase and combine sources):
(1) “Journalism in China is a regulated profession. To work, you must be a member of the Party and go regularly to meetings on party policy and propaganda. This is true for us as students and will be true for us as journalists for as long as we work.”
“How do you deal with that?” I asked several students. Their answers made for Lesson (2) “It’s all bullshit and everyone knows it. You join the Party. You go to meetings. You nod your head, and go home or back to the office. Then you do your best to give people real information and hope you don’t piss anybody off too much. The whole thing is a pain, and it hurts us and the country, but you’d be surprised how much gets through.”
I was surprised at the results of a game my students and I played every week. I would name a story that had appeared on a portion of the internet which I could see because I was a visiting professor, but which never appeared on a server they could use, and ask them to have read it by my next class. Every time, every student passed the test. For them, as for hundreds of millions of Chinese netizens every day, the news does get through.
Which brings me to another country where the government is trying desperately to control information and citizens alike: Ukraine.
Over the past year, the Soviet-style governance of President Viktor Yanukovych has asserted increasing direct and indirect control over the nation’s news media, and, recently, has stepped up thuggish violence against opposition reporters and demonstrators. But all this wave of authoritarianism has produced is a backlash of popular commitment to opposition, and widespread use of new and old communication networks. Yanukovych, like President Xi in China, is not just failing to cut the flow of ideas, he is failing to suppress the demand for reform.
In Kyiv, the worse the government behaves, the more people know about it. It has now been documented; the government’s own violence produces bigger crowds of demonstrators and more definitive demands for reform.
A recent blog post in the Washington Post by Oxford University political scientist Olga Onuch passed along the results from ongoing polling of demonstrators in Kyiv. They suggest that a lot of journalists and activists have been mis-describing what’s going on there.
For one thing, Onuch reported, more than 1200 interviews show, the protests are not a youth movement. “While many reports have championed Ukrainian students and youths for being the predominant actors in the protests, the majority of the respondents (69 percent) are in fact older than 30. The average age of the Ukrainian protester in Kyiv is closer to 36, with approximately 24 percent of participants older than 55.”
What the crowds are is diverse: students, academics, workers, and retired people; Orthodox and Catholic believers and atheists. One characteristic of the people on the streets of the Ukraine capitol that should be shockingly bad news for the government is how many of those polled are newly declared dissidents.
Onuch reported, “A surprising 38 percent of current protesters did not participate in previous protests, and 37 percent did not participate in the “Orange Revolution” [of 2004.]
“This is, of course, not to say that students, youths and activists are not a significant group,” Onuch reported, “but they do not represent the majority of participants.”
The diverse protesters against the government have, Onuch’s poll revealed, definably diverse goals.
“The students and youth under 30 use more media savvy language of ‘EU accession,’ ‘global human rights’ and employ abstract concepts such as ‘freedom.’
But, Onuch wrote, “The 30 to 45 year-old protesters focus more on practical matters like ‘economic security,’ ‘better opportunities for their children,’ and their desire to live in a ‘normal, European democracy.’ They insist that their presence lets the regime known the ‘voters are here.’
“The protesters over 55 explain that they ‘have lived through many injustices’ and that because they are ‘retired, [they] can protest in the place of the young, who have to work and raise families.’ Thus, they see themselves as guardians of the protests, when others cannot be there.”
And while social media are important, informing people about the time and place of manifestations and framing issues, they are just part of a diverse set of communications inputs Ukrainians draw on, inputs that, as in China, are moving more and more from the policed official media to the internet.
Asked how they follow the protest campaign, 48% of those polled said they watched on broadcast TV; but, already 41% said they have shifted their allegiance and now watched internet news channels instead.
Internet influence could be seen in the way personal contacts outweighed media contacts, including social media. Almost everyone told the pollsters they got political information from their friends, most of it from computers, tablets and mobile phones: 46% by text messages, 30% via email, versus 23% by telephone. Asked if they responded to protest invitations posted on social media, 10.4% said yes, they had responded to an invitation on Facebook, 14% from Russian competitor VKontakte.
It is in a form of “elite communication,” that Onuch said the polls showed important influence from the social networks. “Our analysis of demands (as reflected in slogans and signage), is still very preliminary, [but] it does seem to follow certain patterns of words mentioned on Twitter, Facebook, chain e-mails and internet news sites. We have noticed a pattern whereby a sign or slogan first goes viral on Facebook, and then seems to show up more often in protester signs. While making any serious conclusions from this method is complicated, first impressions point to an “Internet-to-the-streets” directionality of claims and framing of demands.”
In China, this pattern has long been observed, although the word patterns are closer to coding than sloganeering. Although mass media coverage of the Arab Spring was long-delayed and closely-crimped in China, it soon acquired an internet code name, “Jasmine,” which soon became a banished word from the Chinese internet. Banished, but not forgotten.
As the world changes, communication, social and journalistic, changes with it. Usually, it is the repressive government that can’t keep up.
Will that mean political change? The attitude I get from people in China is typically patient and confident. Just as most your people assume it is inevitable that the 21st Century will be China’s (just as the 20th was America’s), they also assume, slowly, the unstoppable spread of popular knowledge about the ideas and options available outside China will force the government in Beijing to serious reform.
Right now, most of the global evidence suggests, the coalescence of public recognition of the realities of the world into greater public participation in political and economic power is a long way off.
Great troughs of information, most of it introduced to the region by Al Jazeera (Arabic), and the implicit imperative for viewers to sort it out for themselves, are what set off the Arab Spring. Today, a few short years later, “people power” in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria is being crushed, the old-fashioned way, under the boot heels of unpopular state force (except in Libya, where the state, as well as the people, are prey to the new-fashioned pandemonium of well-armed, poorly-disciplined independent militias.)
Long-term, I’m betting on information and the innumerable ways people devise to obtain it
The master-pessimist Herman Melville unforgettably wrote: “What like a bullet can undeceive?”
To which I reply, “What like a tyrant can unleash communication?”