China grooms new breed of journalists
By Sunny Lee
BEIJING - In the beginning, there was the word. The word was with Deng Xiaoping. And Deng, paramount leader from 1978 to the early 1990s, said, "Let there be economic reforms!" And there were economic reforms. But Deng's reforms didn't stop there. Rummaging through Deng's legacy, one encounters an intriguing footnote. Deng not only opened China to the outside world through economic reforms, he also started a very ambitious pilot graduate program for professional journalists.
The program, which began in the early 1980s, was headquartered at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The instructors were from the United States, including Ted Gup, a legendary investigative reporter who had worked under Bob Woodward of Watergate fame at the Washington Post. Western journalists, who came as Fulbright scholars, taught Chinese students how to write and report news stories. It was the closest thing to China's first bona fide professional journalism school.
The program was abruptly halted following the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) told its journalists to serve as the party's houshe (mouthpiece). With that, journalism in China became entirely state-run. Just like in Germany in the early 20th century, when college professors supported government interests in what they taught, Chinese journalists were obliged to support the party through what they wrote.
Since then, Chinese journalism has drawn the scorn of Western commentators. For example, a host for a popular state CCTV English program once confided to this writer that one of the most disheartening experiences he had abroad was when he introduced himself to a Western host as a "journalist" from China, apparently this was met with a "palpable" silence and disproving look as if such a profession didn't exist in China.
Some 20 years later, the Chinese government, emboldened by its economic prowess and global political importance, is now willing to experiment with the program again. Spearheading this crusade is Li Xiguang, the executive dean of the journalism school at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
Li was among an early batch of students who attended the Deng's Western-style journalism program. "My classmates at that time included people who are now the head of the People's Daily, the head of the State Council's Information Office and the editor-in-chief of the Xinhua News Agency," Li told Asia Times Online.
Anyone who pays attention to the press environment in China pays close attention to Li. He is arguably the most visible and influential media advisor to the Chinese government. Not surprisingly, Li's efforts to put together an international journalism program at Tsinghua are seen by some as a bellwether of China's future media strategy.
But Li's ambitious plans of creating a professional journalism program with international recognition and credibility is seen as a challenging task. "It's a delicate time at Tsinghua," said Glenn Mott, managing editor of the Hearst Group in the United States, who taught at Tsinghua's journalism school as a Fulbright scholar for the past academic year.
"Tsinghua has a very strong Communist Party apparatus. And you have someone there who wants to build an internationally recognizable journalism program that would be respected and would have credibility. I am not sure whether that's a comfortable fit," Mott said.
Li said he had "worked and lobbied very hard" for the program to be given a chance. "This is the resumption of Deng Xiaoping's great idea of professional journalism education," he said.
Under the new initiative, a total of 100 Chinese students annually will enter professional journalism programs nationwide, at universities such as Peking, Nanjing, Beijing Foreign Studies, Shanghai Foreign Studies and Foreign Affairs, in addition to Tsinghua. Tsinghua will welcome 30 Chinese students out of the pool of 100.
These Chinese students will join 30 international students at Tsinghua's global journalism program, another ambitious project by Li that was launched two years ago. The joint program of mixed Chinese and foreign students will be taught entirely in English.
Tsinghua's program has a stated focus on business journalism that grooms students in the fields of economics, finance and public health, but students are also taught about politics and international relations, according to Li. He has said he is determined to use "great journalists" to push "China's social progress".
The new program at Tsinghua is an extension of a journalism program Tsinghua launched two years ago with six international students and 15 Chinese students. Last year, the Tsinghua program grew to 33 international students and 20 Chinese students.
The program is on one hand intended to boost China's international standing in journalism, and on the other hand cultivate a batch of home-grown, English-savvy journalists who can write for the world audience in support of China's attempts to ramp up "soft power".
That fits in with China's long-term plan to improve its international image, which the Middle Kingdom bemoans as being affected by Western media painting it in a negative light.
Journalism with 'Chinese characteristics'
Li believes that the presence of international students will help Chinese students to be "more open-minded". But there is a caveat. The presence of a bunch of free-thinking foreign students, predominantly from democratic and capitalist backgrounds, poses a dilemma to the school authorities.
To prevent this becoming an issue, the school has given international student a list of subjects that they were not allowed to discuss in class, including Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen Square and the Falungong.
An international student who did not wish to be named said international students were regularly reminded of this throughout the year by school staff. "We were told that this is a particularly sensitive year in China. We were told that we can discuss the topics among ourselves but we need to appreciate that Tsinghua is a government-owned institution and in China that means following the Communist Party line," he said.
The school administration's measure my seem over-cautious. But it is also a move to control classroom discourse in an educational program that is supposed to engrain journalists with "the vanguards of free speech". This raises questions about what the program can really achieve. Some defend it as "journalism with Chinese characteristics", saying, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do".
Here, Mott disagrees. "I don't think there is such a thing as 'Chinese journalism'. There is either the journalism practiced with professional principles that we all recognize and understand, or there is not. It's like physics. Physical laws are universal. You can't have 'Chinese physics', or 'physics with Chinese characteristics'," he said.
Mott also points out a "conflict of interest", as the Tsinghua faculty also plays an important role as media advisors to the State Council and the Ministry of Propaganda. "Any time an academic department takes on a role like that, it's even more difficult to separate what is being taught as the practice of journalism and what is the practice of PR [public relations]," he said.
The school's fears about protecting its students from "foreign influence" are probably unwarranted, as the Chinese students are already well-armed with unflinching patriotism. In fact, the tables are often being turned as Chinese students "test" the ideological cover of foreign students in class.
One day, for instance, a Chinese student asked the mixed class whether they considered themselves journalists or patriots first. The Western students all said journalists first, while the Chinese students proudly said patriots first. "That showed a very different mindset in China of what a journalist is. I don't think some Chinese students see the role of a journalist as an independent critical thinker the way that Western journalists perceive themselves to be," said Paul Flynn, a student from Sydney.
"I think some of them are heavily influenced by Communist Party ideology and some are just trying to get ahead within the system they have to live with. I don't think the line is that clear-cut," Flynn said, adding, "There are some really intelligent thinkers but they don't speak their minds in public discussion because they know there are unwritten as well as written rules in China that you need to follow."
In a sense, Li's immediate challenge is to help open the Chinese students' minds in their dealings with international students.
Mott believes that Li's experiment deserves a try. "It's a very young program. We have to give it a certain amount of latitude to find what the program is actually capable of. Li's task is enormous. He has to balance many different constituencies, work with the Communist Party apparatus, the international affairs office at Tsinghua, and the Knight Foundation  that funds the Tsinghua program."
Just like Deng 30 years ago, Li wants to be a reformer. "I am fighting against all the odds in my journalism educational reform," he said. "I want to cultivate good, professional journalists who can make an impact in Chinese social development."
1. According to the Knight Foundation website, "The John S and James L Knight Foundation promotes excellence in journalism worldwide and invests in the vitality of the US communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers. The foundation, headquartered in Miami, was established in 1950. It has always been independent of the Knight brothers' media enterprise that later became Knight-Ridder. Knight-Ridder was sold to The McClatchy Company in 2006."
Sunny Lee is a Seoul-born writer and journalist. A graduate of Harvard University and Beijing Foreign Studies University, Lee has lived in China for seven years. He can be reached at email@example.com