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International coverage from Beijing

BY MEGAN THOMAS

John Liu from Bloomberg's Beijing bureau

This trip has been a whirlwind of new people and experiences, and two notable people we had the opportunity to meet were Bloomberg News Bureau Chief Jon Liu and Thomson Reuters North Asia Editor Phil Smith. Both provided an insider’s perspective of what it’s really like to practice journalism and China.

Some Americans view China as an oppressive journalistic environment, but Liu and Smith said while practicing journalism in China has its constraints, the newsgathering and producing process is pretty much the same.

At Bloomberg News, Liu gave us insight into how operating a news agency in China is different than in the states. Bloomberg initially got their license to operate a news bureau in China from Xinhua News Agency, a competing Chinese news agency, Liu said. Licensing is now overseen by State Council Information Office, which somewhat removes the conflict of interest.

Liu also said state-supported publications like Xinhua News Agency and the People’s Daily are given reporting advantages from the government. He said they often receive information from government agencies ahead of their scheduled release, giving them the opportunity to report on it first.

Chinese laws also impact reporting schedules. In China, workers have to be paid overtime after eight hour work days. So when Liu and his staff are waiting for a critical news release and have to have staff on alert all hours of the day, it comes at greater cost to Bloomberg News.

While reporters in China don’t have to do anything like submit their work to a censor before publication, Liu said government officials will contact news agencies if it is displeased with an article. He told us a story about how one of his reporters traced a missile used by Lebanese militants to fire upon an Israeli ship back to the Chinese government. He said after the story was published, government officials contacted them and said there was no proof the missile came from China and that the report was unfounded, but no other punitive measures were taken. He told us about another Chinese journalist who once obtained the script for the Chairman’s speech to China’s legislative body and released it in advance. Liu said the reporter was arrested and sentenced to life in prison, but his term was later cut down to 15 years.

Liu told us that at the Beijing branch of Bloomberg, they primarily hire bilingual journalists. He said while there are often more Chinese than American bilingual journalists, this trend was starting to change. Typically, Liu said, China has had more students going abroad than it’s had foreign students coming into the country to study. But recently more foreign students have been coming into China to study than the number of Chinese students going abroad.

Cyber culture was also touched on during our time at Bloomberg. The Internet is freer in China than most people know, Liu said. Online bulletin boards that were popular in America in the earlier days of the internet are still extremely popular in China. Liu said that these boards acted as collective journalism, with people sharing information more freely and linking to other news sources.

Along with online collective journalism has come cyber vigilantism. He told us two stories to illustrate the power of the Chinese Internet. In one story, he told us about how a crush film of a woman killing a kitten with stiletto shoes spread across China’s Internet community. The video created so much outrage that Chinese Internet users tracked down the woman who killed the kitten, the cameraman and the person who posted the video and harassed them mercilessly (and, if I remember correctly, made them lose their jobs). Another story he shared with us was about a woman who posted a long letter on the Internet describing how her husband had gone off with another woman and how cruel they were to her before she committed suicide. This too created outrage on the Internet community, and online users tracked down the man and his new wife and managed to get them fired as well.

In regard to the Chinese economy, Liu said that he believes that the current volatility in the Chinese economy and markets will eventually dissipate over the next 10 years. While some people argue that the Chinese economy is either going to become a giant bubble or the greatest economy in the world, Liu said he thinks it will fall somewhere in the middle. While the United States has been pushing China to revalue its currency, Liu said he doubted that it would happen anytime soon or as a result of the upcoming Strategic and Economic Dialogue. He said it was more likely that trade disagreements like the tariff conflict between America and China would be addressed at the SED and acted upon.

At Reuters, Smith gave us greater perspective on covering news in China. Reuters, like Bloomberg, initially got their operating license from the Xinhua News Agency before the SCIO started regulating bureau licenses. He said one of the most frustrating restrictions he dealt with on a regular basis in the newsroom was that Chinese nationalists are unable act as reporters for foreign news agencies unless they work alongside a foreign reporter and share a byline, making it difficult to send them on some assignments. He also said his reporters have to be careful about what financial numbers they report on, because any economic number can be considered a state secret by the Chinese government.

Smith said his phones are tapped and that he and his journalists were often followed. He seemed unbothered by this, saying that if you’re not doing anything wrong you don’t have anything to be afraid of. He told us he and his reporters play a game when they return to China from reporting trips. They write down the license plate numbers of black Audis (a common car of government workers) around them and see how many of them end up at the same location they’re going to, which often ends up being most of them.

In discussing the Chinese economy, Smith said he believes revaluation of the Chinese yuan is a long time off. When the revaluation does take place, Smith said he thinks the revaluation will only be somewhere between one to five percent. He also told us he thinks Japan and China will build more nuclear power plants in the future because more environmentally friendly power options don’t generate enough power to meet the countries’ demands.

Smith said that most of the reporters at Reuters’ Beijing bureau were bilingual, but that language expectations with editors weren’t quite as strict as they were behind a desk editing most of the day, allowing some of the editors to have only basic Mandarin language skill.

Getting to talk with these industry experts really opened our eyes to the reality of Chinese reporting, and we greatly appreciated their time and willingness to speak with us. They showed us that journalism in China isn’t necessarily good or bad in comparison to American journalism, just different.

We’ll be meeting even more fascinating people during our time at Shanghia. We’re all excited to see what the World Expo has to offer.  Haibao a.k.a. “sea treasure”, China’s World Expo mascot (whose appearance and name are somewhat controversial http://www.boston.com/news/world/europe/articles/2010/04/28/shanghai_expo_designer_denies_mascot_copy_of_gumby/) greeted us as we arrived at the Shanghai airport. I’m sure we’ll be seeing lots more of him in the following days.

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Comments (2)

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  1. Linda Austin says:

    Wonderful to hear about your travels, Megan. The comments from Jon Liu and Phil Smith shed a lot of light on how journalism is practiced by Western news agencies in China.

  2. Laura says:

    I don’t think I realized how one-sided my assumptions about Chinese media, censorship and journalism practices were until I read this. In the States, we assume that all journalism in China is edited directly by a government official with a black marker. Clearly, it’s not so simple.

    Thanks for writing. I look forward to reading more!

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