In a time of peace a crisis is brewing...

Candy Chan - Producer for a foreign media

[中文][Apr 2011 - The Journalist] The reporter had a story. But she had no outlet to carry it. She asked: “Can you help me find a foreign media to run my story?”

Reporters the world over strain every fibre in their bodies to get their exclusives. But in some corners of the world getting the exclusive is less of a problem than getting it into print.

China is one of those places.

So here we were, in a cafeteria that is decked out in Victorian décor, talking about getting her story out. She held tightly to a copy of her company's newspaper as she told me her travails in getting her story.

Her reports are regularly censored by her editor. Sometimes she gets beaten up by security guards while working on a story. At other times she is threatened. Still, she firmly believes that journalists should voice out for the people even though the space for freedom of speech in China is inconceivably small.

According to a study conducted by the International Federation of Journalist last year, the Chinese government banned the media from reporting on issues of public health, natural disasters, corruption and human rights activities. Even the final say over relatively liberal newspapers like The Southern Metropolis is now under the Propaganda Department of Guangdong Province. In this case the check and balance system under which the Guangzhou-based newspaper could supervise and report on “black jail” cases in Beijing and vice versa no longer exists.

Even though Hong Kong and foreign media have more freedom reporting in China, their reporters often encounter what are euphemistically known as “good” obstructions. Last year, when I was on a trip to Xishuangbanna to report on the large-scale rubber plantation that destroyed the environment, officials followed me, supposedly for “my personal safety.”

Much worse, when I reported mercury poisoning cases in a foreign-invested lighting equipment factory, I received an anonymous phone call. The caller told me that it was better “to discontinue the interview or else the interviewed workers would be in trouble.” At that moment, I was sitting by the door, bemoaning: human nature is indeed more poisonous than mercury. And each time I was confronted by such “big brothers” I asked myself the same question: Did my work help those I interviewed?

Despite the fact that local governments keep clamping down on reporting in various places, the biggest enemy of the China journalist is, ironically, the reporters themselves. While phones of foreign correspondents are usually tapped and the definition of state secrets is very ambiguous, reporters have little sense of security and easily fall in the abyss of self-censorship.

As the Southern Metropolis founder Cheng Yizhong puts it: “The real taboo of reporting in China is to shake the rule of the Communist Party.” It includes any reports that are in favour of splitting the Party or disclosing in advance any government policy that would lead to losses for the country.

One hidden rule of reporting in China is that, foreign correspondents can report anything that have been published in the local media. Those who are not familiar with the Chinese media, however, may have a wrong perception that the public is fed media propaganda. It is not true. The food safety problems and the mysterious death of Qian Yunhui, an eastern Zhejiang province village head who often petitioned against alleged abuses by local government, were first reported by the local media. That's why Cheng reminded journalists in China: “There is still a lot of space for reporting in the country and journalists have the duty to maximize the space.”

Some Hong Kong businessmen based in Shanghai once said to me: “You, the post-80s generation, cannot criticize just for the sake of criticizing. You have no clues about what's happening China. Can you tell me which developing countries have no problems? Please be objective when you write anything.”

I'm sorry. I have no idea what objectivity is. I only write the truth, the truth that I believe people should know. After all, there is no such thing as completely objective reporting, given the fact that A and B are facts, choose A over B or choose to say A then B have already offered a preference. In all, it is understandable why they have such a thought – they are the chief beneficiaries of China's economic growth.

Not long ago I met a former Hong Kong correspondent who had covered the June Fourth incident in 1989. He told me: “All these years, China has exercised direct elections in some villages. What's more, the changing attitude of the government towards the case of 'My dad is Li Gang' is a solid evidence of social progress. I agree there are still lots of problems, but I am optimistic about the country.”

His statement left me puzzled. It is surprising to hear a former reporter, who witnessed the bloodshed in Tiananmen and knew the current situation of human rights activists, holding such an idealistic view. Am I too pessimistic about the country? Have I “read” this country in a comprehensive view? I kept asking myself.

That night walked by myself through the People's Square, contemplating his statement. I am confused. At that moment, I recalled the evening when Charter 08 drafter Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I had sat on the sofa, watching all channels “harmonize” the news. This was expected, of course. But a few days later 20 retired Chinese Communist Party officials published an open letter calling for reforms. I was surprised. I felt like something was transforming the country.

I also recalled a night at the Hyatt on the Bund. I was talking to a member of the Shanghai bourgeoisie, who was holding a glass of red wine in his hand. He told me: “Tomorrow will be even better (in China).” But once I shifted the topic to the movie Let the Bullets Fly, he told me the movie conveyed the naked truth about China. He even told me he planned to apply for a citizenship of another country – “just in case”, as he put it.

All these contradictions occurred in the same space, at the same time, in a place called China. Yet, you have no clue how to unravel all these contradictory views. You are locked up in the world of confusion.

Still, upon my return to Hong Kong, I wish I can “read” China in a new light, that is, to understand the complexities of China and to reject the either/or fallacy of most Hong Kong people who believe that there are only villagers and parvenus, brainwashed citizens and human rights activists in China.

The only way to eradicate this false dichotomy, however, is to read more and think deeply. Not just talk to government officials about the new policy directions but also chat with the owner of the newspaper stand in the neighbourhood about what's going on in the city. What you hear, indeed, would be multi-faceted. It does not matter – just embrace whoever comes along with interesting insights. But remind yourself the importance to uphold certain values - basic human rights, press and religious freedom and etc. I believe time will take me away from this state of bewilderment.

Before we said goodbye, my companion in the cafeteria said: “I hope you can lead me to another world, a world with fresh air.”

Stepping out of the cafeteria, I saw a beam of light shining on the garden. It gave me a sense of serenity. I then closed the eyes. But all I could hear was the oppressive sound of pile-driving from the various construction sites all around, and the smell of diesel. I realized, while we believe we are in a time of peace, a hidden era of crisis is brewing. And this ability to see an emerging crisis in the midst of tranquility, after all, is our forte.