Journalism Ethics 101 in China

Teaching a news “ethics” course in the fledgling journalism program at Jinan University in Guangzhou, China, proved to be a challenge, given the restraints on freedom of expression now occurring under the regime of President Xi Jinping.

It was only April, but I could feel the sweat trickling down my neck in the oppressive heat in Guangzhou - a city of 12 million about two hours north of Hong Kong on the coastal mainland. But the temperature wasn’t why I was sweating.

My task was to teach media “ethics” for 10 weeks to 40 English-speaking first- and second-year students in Jinan University’s fledgling journalism program. The program, set in the university’s international school, attracts intelligent and motivated English-speaking native and foreign students from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao

I’d signed on to teach news reporting at one of the country’s oldest universities, and also agreed to teach media “ethics” in a country where the Communist government’s hold on the media is a tight one. (The Committee to Protect Journalists currently lists a record 49 reporters in Chinese jails as well as two high-profile human-rights lawyers.).

But how do you discuss “freedom of expression” and “speaking truth to power,” as well as the nuances and ambiguities associated with each, in a country where such concepts are not always accepted and only rarely discussed in public. “News is what people want to keep hidden; everything else is public relations,” has become a famous definition of journalism often attributed to George Orwell, although there is debate about who actually said it. But the late psychologist Erich Fromm would certainly agree with that description.  Disobedience is “the first step into independence and freedom,” he wrote back in 1963 in his essay Disobedience as a Moral and Psychological Problem, while acknowledging the destructiveness of some forms of disobedience. Nevertheless, the country’s willingness to invite and so graciously welcome visitors such as me who hold opposing views gives pause and makes it difficult to untangle the inherent contradictions.

Background

I arrived in Gunagzhou in February, 2016, shortly after demonstrations in the neighbouring Hong Kong due to Beijing’s crackdown on vendors selling books critical of Beijing political leaders. All five booksellers who had mysteriously gone missing eventually returned to their families after spending time in Chinese custody. But one of those booksellers, who is now living under police protection in a safe house in Hong Kong, said recently that he was asked to report to the mainland on those people who wanted to purchase political books. “I was to be their ears and eyes.”

A few weeks after my arrival, access to information about the Panama Papers, an international news story that broke in early March, was eradicated from Weibo, the most widely used search engine in China, within three hours of the story’s emergence on the worldwide web. Even those fortunate enough to access Western media through a VPN, virtual private networks that can be slow and erratic, but which for a fee allow you to tunnel into Google, Twitter, Facebook and other forbidden and heavily censored websites, were, astonishingly, unable to access any details of an investigative story that garnered news headlines around the world. It appeared the government was quite capable of shutting them down at will, which it did with a vengeance while in session through the early half of March.

“Chinese news groups have been ordered to purge all mention of the Panama Papers from their websites and warned of harsh punishment if they are found to have published material ‘attacking China,’ ”  journalist Tom Phillips reported in April, 2016, in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper. 

While many optimists suggest the internet is too large, pervasive and unwieldy to be monitored, the Chinese government seems to be doing just that and doing it effectively. When President Xi Jinping first came to power in 2013, people anticipated that China would become more liberal, particularly as his father, Xi Zhongxun, was well known as a Liberal economic reformer in former governments.  While invitations to professors like me suggest a willingness to adopt more liberal standards of press freedom, Xi’s current regime also demonstrates a willingness to restrict freedom of expression more than anyone anticipated.

One of the only Chinese papers to carry information about the Panama Papers, a story about wealthy individuals around the world, many in political positions, sheltering income through offshore tax havens, was the Global Times, a newspaper widely recognized as a Chinese government mouthpiece. “Hostile Western forces are behind the Panama Papers,” the paper alleged, and described the story as a “planned attack of ideology from America.” The Global Times also noted that no Americans were on the list of those who were purportedly sheltering their funds offshore.  The story, however, failed to note that there are already offshore investment opportunities widely available in the United States, such that citizens don’t have to seek out a law firm in Panama to help invest funds.

Another dramatic example of the success of the Chinese government successfully restricting information concerned the winning film from the prestigious and annual Hong Kong film festival, called Decade or Ten Years. The film is about an imaginary Hong Kong society 10 years from now that shows the anger and anxiety of local residents about the takeover of general elections and the democratic system there by the Chinese Communist government. The Global Times justified the censorship of the film and all information related to it by calling the film “a virus of the mind” and the scenarios it describes as “absurd and ridiculous.”  Before the film was abruptly removed from theatres, it was outperforming the Star Wars film blockbuster.  

Film night

Although many Chinese students have VPNs, unlike most of the country’s general population, every bit of information related to Ten Years was successfully eradicated from social media by Chinese censors. Interestingly, though, students can access and play just about any other Hollywood film you could want, or remember! During my time there, we spent Monday’s popular movie nights watching old Hollywood journalism films such as: His Girl Friday (1940 with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell);  Sweet Smell of Success (1957 with Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster); as well as newer ones such as the Academy-Award winning Spotlight (2015 with Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo); State of Play (a 2003 BBC mini-series with James McAvoy and Kelly MacDonald); and the goofy Anchorman (2004 with Will Ferrell and Christina Applegate).

Many of these films celebrate individual rights, as journalists are often portrayed as fearless crusaders fighting for justice against powerful, authoritarian, and sometimes corrupt, institutions. A character such as city editor Walter Burns in His Girl Friday and/or The Front Page bows to no authority except his own – he is the ultimate rule-breaker and, as a result, justice ultimately prevails. These and other Western films with similar themes are readily available on the web to Chinese citizens with VPNs.

The students’ familiarity with Western values, their keen desire to learn, combined with the often restricted ability to access information on Weibo resulted in a quandary for me on how to proceed with an ethics class that would have been much easier to conduct in a Western setting.  We started by discussing more seemingly straightforward ethical topics such as privacy and grief, mistakes and plagiarism, while I considered the wisest approach.  It was then that I came across a description of Jinan’s international journalism program in the university’s public brochures, which clearly position it as one designed for students wanting careers outside the country.

In fact, the university’s international wall pictured below at the base of its imposing library and teaching building is a monument to the multicultural community the university has worked to develop. Each panel on the wall lists, alphabetically, the home countries of Jinan University’s international students. Because of the program’s emphasis on preparing students to work in an international environment, I decided to forge ahead with perspectives that clearly reflected those of Western journalists. But I was careful to qualify them by discussing the situation in China and how the priority for students was, and is, to remain safe.

Ask a Journalist

The students seemed to welcome this approach, which worked particularly well in a student exercise I described as “Ask a Journalist,” in which students were required to interview a working Chinese journalist about the most difficult ethical situation the journalist had encountered during his or her career.  The responses that students received indicated that many working Chinese journalists are obviously dismayed by the attitude of the current regime, while others behaved in a way that can only be described as suppressing the information they discovered.

One example: foot-and-mouth disease had infiltrated a kindergarten at an elementary school, but the principal didn’t want the parents to know and the reporter’s editor at the local paper shut the story down because he didn’t want to alienate the school, which spent a lot of money on advertising in the paper. Most interesting, though, was my student’s reaction to the journalist who agreed with spiking the story. In his paper to me describing the incident, the student wrote:

“When the details were told to me (of this story) in a calm voice by a journalist who did nothing to change the circumstance, I was actually shocked and angry. I believe journalists should take responsibility by reporting a problem, but what’s more important is to solve it by relying on the media’s power.  If I were [the journalist], I would do my best to prevent those innocent kids from being harmed by the authorities being so remiss.  It is not the job of the press to show the harmonious scene every day to the public.  We need the truth.”

The flip side of the coin, though, was a dramatic investigative story that received high praise and publicity from both the government and Chinese papers. Liu Jun, a senior reporter at the Southern Metropolis Daily, the third largest newspaper in Guangdong province, described sending one of his team members to join an illegal organization that, for a price, sends people (imposters) to impersonate students and secure them high scores on the crucial university entrance exam. Achieving a good score is critical to getting a position at a university and the pressure on secondary students to do well is extreme. The story, in this case, Jiangxi Province’s College Entrance exam, was published just 30 minutes after the exam had started. The Education Examination Authority and the Public Security Bureau took immediate action to confirm the news story and apprehended the reporter on Liu’s team who was (mis)representing himself as a student just 20 minutes before the end of the exam.

“What we did was completely legal and ethical theoretically,” Liu told my student in an interview. “Although even the Public Security Bureau agreed with our investigative method, there are still some people who argue about it.”

Conclusion

So, it is okay to expose cheating on the national exam that determines student entrance to university, but it isn’t all right to inform parents that a contagious disease is loose in their local school. The duality involved in censoring some information while circulating other kinds of information also seemed to me to reflect the duality of the country’s willingness to expose students to Western ideas of a free press while censoring information the government deems negative to its image.  The duality involved in this willingness to expose students to Western values combined with its fearlessness in suppressing information also suggests the complexity of the multi-faceted Chinese culture as well as the great English poet William Blake’s insistence that contraries are necessary for progress.  “Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence,” Blake wrote back in 1790 in his famous The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

By the end of their second year, many of my Chinese students were increasingly aware of the limitations that might be placed on their reporting and were deciding to pursue careers in public relations or marketing rather than journalism, once their degrees were completed.  Others wanted to pursue journalism jobs abroad, which also, ironically, seems to show the effectiveness of the current policies: Journalists self-censor themselves rather than challenge the existing status quo or the current regime.

“People seem to feel worried and confused about the vast and hazy coming life,” one student wrote in a final paper: “Half of my classmates say they want to continue to a graduate degree in public relations, marketing or law. Someone plans to take the civil service examination and find a stable job in the government system. I see their goals are changing and the gap between reality and ideality (sic) is expanding.”

But some students were still committed to journalism careers despite the challenges to free speech.  “There have been many great journalists with amazing courage, who reported the darkest part of reality to bring light, and got into the deepest part of humanity to find hope. I want to be one of them, rooting into this land and writing for all of the people who deserve attention and a voice,” wrote one student, who said he loved his country too much to seek a journalism career abroad. “I will seek facts and report them honestly and fairly; I will distinguish among entertainment, reality shows and serious reports; I will try to dance with censorship and with our generation becoming more experienced and professional, we will report independently for public interest and may correct censorship from inside as practitioners - or even cancel it.”