A sudden flourishing of investigative journalism in China has created a Wild West atmosphere – crusading reporters and editors blazing away at the powers that be. But this is taking place in the authoritarian East, where communist party officials make examples of news organizations deemed too quick on the draw. That inherent conflict is apparent in the teaching of journalism in China. Bob speaks with Xiguang Li, dean of the School of Journalism, at Beijing's Tsinghua University.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is away this week. I'm Bob Garfield. A sudden flourishing of investigative journalism in China has created a sort of Wild West atmosphere – crusading reporters and editors armed with lurid accounts of corruption and official malfeasance blazing away at the powers that be. But this Wild West is taking place in the authoritarian East, where communist party officials have made examples of newspapers and websites deemed too quick on the draw. Such repression points up the difficulty – and sometimes absurdity – of establishing a free press in a fascistic society, and that inherent conflict is also apparent in the teaching of journalism in China. Xiguang Li is executive dean of the School of Journalism and Communication at Beijing's Tsinghua University. He joins us now. Professor Li, welcome to On the Media.
XIGUANG LI: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Periodically in China, papers or websites are closed down, journalists are fired or jailed for doing their jobs. How does one teach journalism in that kind of environment?
XIGUANG LI: As a dean of journalism, I teach my student to present balanced, fair information to the public, not to lie, not to present biased opinions, not to present one-sided opinions.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, understood. Fairness, obviously, is a value you would want to embrace. But, at least in the West, an important part of the function of journalism is to shine light in the darkest corridors of power where sometimes people are up to no good. Are you teaching your students to be muckrakers, to investigate what the government or other institutions do not wish to have investigated?
XIGUANG LI: There is a difference between the central government, and the provincial and the local government. The central government, in the fight against the widespread corruption of the local government, encourage journalist to write expose of the corruption. But the local government are very much protective of themselves and of their power, so there is a conflict between the central government and the local government in dealing with journalists.
BOB GARFIELD: I guess it's not uncommon for local governments to be more like local mafias, no?
XIGUANG LI: Not only the local government, but also the media itself, it's becoming a news mafia in China. I'm talking about a news mafia in China in a sense that the government control of the press is a visible hand. Everyone see it. And sometime you become a hero journalist overnight if the government criticize you by name or if you are fired. But another control from the invisible hand. That's the market, the business side, and that also creates a lot of problems. So the Chinese press freedom is being suppressed by both the visible hand of the government, and increasingly and more powerfully, by the invisible hand of the market.
BOB GARFIELD: What you're describing is two extremes – on the one hand, government repression and on the other hand, an irresponsible press. Which is the bigger problem?
XIGUANG LI: An irresponsible press is the biggest problem. I can give you example - would you like a press like this? Last summer, all the Chinese press, newspaper and the television, are telling a lie that a vaccine for hepatitis is a poison. Eventually, scientists found it's not a poison. But the Minister of Health fear of telling the truth to the journalists that it's not a poison because he didn't want to say something different from the press, because the press is identical with the public sentiment. So under such tyranny, or tyranny of news mafia, the Chinese government official is very much afraid of telling truth. So is this good for the public interest?
BOB GARFIELD: On the other hand, there have been cases where the press has discovered pollution of rivers, where the press has discovered the SARS virus was spreading and the government was the one doing the lying, denying that there had been outbreaks of SARS and denying that water supplies had been despoiled. And it was the press that broke through the official lies.
BOB GARFIELD: In China, there is a low threshold for entering the career of journalist because of the tendency of commercialization. The editor and the owner want to hire low-paid journalist, so they hire high school students instead of college graduates. And these high school students don't have a good knowledge of medical science or environmental science, so whenever an environmental or medical issue take place, they only pay attention to the scandal involved but not the scientific aspect. So, as a result of the river pollution a couple of months ago, the mayor of that city, under the pressure, killed himself because of the media. So do we want to see people kill themselves under the pressure of press?
BOB GARFIELD: You said one thing that was interesting, that journalists who are targeted by the government and fired or jailed or something become heroes overnight. Well, for example, in the Freezing Point case, the – [OVERTALK]
XIGUANG LI: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: - editor was fired and Freezing Point was shut down. This is a weekly supplement to the China Youth Daily. It will be allowed to reopen but without that man as the editor. He has lost his job. What good does being a hero do him?
XIGUANG LI: He did not lose his job. That's not true. The truth is that he has been shifted to the research department of the newspaper. And the government did not dare enough to fire him.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, what's he doing in the research department? Is he still running the newspaper and deciding what content will be printed and what stories will be pursued?
XIGUANG LI: I don't know. [LAUGHS] You may ask the editor of China Youth Daily.
BOB GARFIELD: Very well. Dean Li, thank you very much for joining us.
XIGUANG LI: Thank you for your question.
BOB GARFIELD: Xiguang Li is executive dean of the School of Journalism and Communication at Tsinghua University.