What it means to be a Beijing correspondent

Emily Chan - RTHK Beijing correspondent

[中文][Apr 2011 - The Journalist] For Chinese people, 10th December should be remembered because it was the day when Dr. Liu Xiao-bo won the Nobel Peace Prize. For Hong Kong journalists, especially those covering Beijing, that day should not be forgotten because my colleague, another Beijing correspondent was assaulted. When she tried to visit and to interview the family members of Mr. Zhao Lian-hai, the founder of “Home for Kidney Stone Babies” in Beijing's Dai-xing district, an old lady from the residents committee slapped her.

What did this Beijing correspondent do to merit this treatment? Why she was slapped? To answer these questions, you need to understand the Mainland government's view about news media. They regard reporters as propagandists. They believe reporters should play down the news of natural disasters, man-made disasters, corruption, petitions and incidents over rights protection. If reporters do not follow this rule, they must be stopped from covering events in which this rule comes into play.

But telling the truth is a reporter's duty.

And trying to access news sources to get at the truth is our responsibility. We playing hide and seek games with law enforcers or pseudo law executors (such as security guards, residents committees or unknown men-in-black) in order to gather news. Almost every correspondent has experienced this. As a senior reporter once said, a reporter who has not experienced arrest or written a statement of apology has not fulfilled his or her duty properly.

Of course we do not confront authority directly to prove we are doing a proper job. So how do you hide the microphone, gather news successfully and not get beaten up?

Peer recognition

A reporter should be agile and quick-witted at the scene of a news event. Experience counts absolutely. Beijing correspondents often work independently, without any support or extra resources. Of necessity many are experienced and their performance recognized by their peers. The title “Beijing Correspondent” is synonymous with ability. To be a Beijing Correspondent is the goal of many new reporters.

But this trend has recently changed. As experienced reporters quit or move to other sectors, Beijing correspondents are no longer the symbol of seniority or experience. The news corps in Beijing looks more like an “orientation camp” for freshies. The majority are junior journos, lacking in experience and no longer bringing in the scoops that all other reporters must follow up. They prefer to join the herd going after the same issues so that no one will stand out as the best or the worst. So the Beijing coverage by different media now looks more and more uniform. This is the dominant culture among the Beijing reporters now. I do not blame others but it makes me feel helpless.

I must admit that working with other correspondents has somehow become a must. But anyone immersed in such a culture will find it difficult to improve at the job because of the lack of competition. Brought up in this climate you will find yourself less prepared when required to handle a challenging and important assignment, and one may be easily trapped by circumstances.

A common Chinese proverb says that if you ignore the warnings of an elderly man, you will immediately lose out. I have been a Beijing correspondent for five years and witnessed the transition of a generation of correspondents. I am fortunate that I had chance to learn from senior reporters.

Their wisdom can be summarized as: move in when there is chance, infiltrate in a small group, act as quickly as possible, avoid large groups and don't hesitate for too long. In face of trouble or danger get in touch with your supervisor immediately, stay calm and try to preserve any evidence.

“Seduction” in Beijing

In September, 2009, Hong Kong reporters were beaten up by Mainland police during the Xinjiang unrest. If there was no footage to expose the violence perpetrated on those reporters, they might have been beaten up again and might even have been framed for inciting social disorder. Because of a senior reporter’s intelligence and efforts, the truth was revealed.

Apart from learning to be smart and agile, working as Beijing Correspondent has also taught me the importance of integrity. There is a lot of “seduction” in Beijing. If you are not alert enough you may be easily influenced, brainwashed and turned into a party hack.

In contrast, Mainland reporters have become more pro-active and are trying to be independent. Because of various limitations and constraints, they cannot report sensitive topics.

Two years ago when I attended a press conference of the Ministry of Health, some parents from Shanxi demonstrated outside the building. Their children had been victims of contaminated vaccine. One Mainland reporter told me that if Hong Kong reporters ignored the parents, no one in China would know about the tragedies.

It is true. Beijing correspondents from Hong Kong enjoy more press freedom than Mainland reporters. So we have the responsibility to cover the issues the Mainland reporters cannot report. We should always remind ourselves of our duty and responsibility.