Sharing experience, sharing community with Chinese journalists

Jun. 09, 2013 @ 05:02 AM

China, the American political scientist Lucian Pye famously wrote, is “a civilization pretending to be a nation-state.”

I read that statement before our trip to Shanghai, but it took going there — gaining a sense of its history, interacting with the amazing Chinese people, sharing with them what life as a journalist and as a citizen of the United States was like, and then shedding tears upon our departure — to fully understand what he meant.

Pye’s observation was that culture and tradition are so deeply imbedded into the DNA of the Chinese that the notion of community — at least the way we Americans see it — is an unfamiliar concept. The many levels on which we as Americans identify with each other are not just foreign to the Chinese, but in some ways barely understandable.

By the end of our visit, though, we learned the world is small enough, and our DNA similar enough, to have richly enjoyed shared experiences with our Chinese counterparts during the too-brief week we were there. Hopefully we imparted a little “community” along the way.

This requires a rather long preamble, but ostensibly, Jock Lauterer and I went to Shanghai (with my wife Lee Ann, a much more experienced international traveler than I) as guests of the Chinese government to talk about newspapers.

The genesis of the trip came from a connection Jock made with Chen Kai, an associate professor of journalism at Beijing’s Communication University of China, about five years ago. Chen Kai, or “Karen,” as we call her, spent a year at UNC in 2009 as a Visiting International Scholar,

See sharing/page c7

shadowing Jock — who heads up the community journalism program there, having written a widely-used textbook on the subject.

While in North Carolina, Karen visited more than a dozen newspapers across the state as research for her own textbook, “Small is Beautiful: Introduction to Community Newspapers in the USA,” published in 2011 and now used in colleges across China. She included a chapter on The Sanford Herald in her book, and Karen’s and Jock’s ultimate collaboration with Zhou Chen, president and chief editor of a group of more than 20 community newspapers owned by the Wenhui Xinmin Press Group, ultimately led to our visit.

For Jock and me, even with a year’s preparation, the prospect was daunting: come to China, a nation without a living, breathing First Amendment, and share with journalists from across that country how our free press functions in our American communities, specifically in its role building “community.”

And why community journalism?

Jock said it best: “Because even with a state-controlled media system, community newspapers are being launched, under the radar, illegally and in something of a shadow media ecosystem. And with the burgeoning growth of the Web and blogs, there is much interest in the development of local news reporting — as a new revenue stream for existing newspapers, as a way to generate new interest in local affairs, and most importantly, as a way to achieve that old and elusive Chinese goal: the Harmonious Society.”

Based on the reaction and the stirring questions generated by our presentations over a period of four days, we get the sense we had some successes. During our visit, Jock wrote on his “Blue Highways Journal” blog: “After one workshop, a young reporter thanked us, saying that before the conference he and his co-workers felt like they were ‘stumbling around in the dark’ and that the workshop had been like a ‘bolt of lightning’ to show them the way.”

The experience was eye-opening for us, as well.

The People’s Republic of China is, of course, a single-party nation governed by the Communist Party. Newspapers there are government-controlled, but saying that requires explanation. It doesn’t mean all content is approved by a party official sitting somewhere in the newspaper’s offices. Rather, it means the government has a financial interest in “official” publications (a license is required to publish a newspaper, and they’re hard to get; some unofficial, unlicensed newspapers do exist) and, as an extension of the government, newspapers do help promote the literal “official party line.” Probably the simplest — but by all means not the most accurate — way of describing it is to say most, but not all, of the censorship among Chinese newspapers is duty and fear-based self-censorship.

Newspapers are widely-read there, even as Chinese nationals understand that “the truth” is sometimes a slippery, elusive prize. It was a bit of a paradox: Chinese devour their state-sanctioned newspapers, even though they question the mission and relevance of the party-promoting content they see in print and online. Websites like Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Yahoo are blocked in China, but some Chinese find work-arounds to access those and other news websites from outside their borders to get differing viewpoints and perspectives on Chinese and world events. They are addicted to American TV dramas, but fiercely defend their own heritage and loyalty to their motherland.

We came to understand this as Jock and I spoke to three different groups during a four-day span in Shangahi.

The first conference was a two-day affair at Shanghai University called the “Workshop of Sino-US Community Media,” and officially sponsored by our host’s newspaper, the Xinmin Evening News, along with the School of Film, TV Art & Technology at the university. We were billed as the “keynote” speakers, but there were actually about 15 presenters altogether over the two days — journalists, scholars and others given 20-minute slots to present research about the question of how newspapers can contribute to the sense of community China lacks.

Among the attendees there were practicing journalists, students, college professors and a number of notable government officials — in fact Chen Baoping, the president of the Wenhui Xinmin United Press Group, is also a deputy party secretary in Shanghai; he also spoke at the conference. (A side note: it’s my understanding you have to be invited to officially join the Community Party; it’s interesting to learn that based on research I did prior to the trip, there are more Christians in China than actual party officials, but that’s another story for another day.)

Both Jock and I prepared PowerPoint presentations. His was a general look at how North Carolina’s community newspapers function and execute their missions based on his long career in the field and his travels across the state; mine was a look at The Herald’s function and role in the community and a more detailed look at our newsroom’s mission, goals and obligations.

There at Shanghai University, we were each allotted 40 minutes — twice the length of other presenters, because our presentations had to be interpreted for the Mandarin-speaking attendees. A day later, Jock and I spoke to about 200 journalists and answered delightful, thought-provoking questions in a two-hour meeting in Zhujiajiao, a 1,700-year-old section of the city known as “Shanghai’s Venice.” And our final two days were spent meeting with a small group of 40 or so newspaper reporters and editors in a community building near one of Zhou Chen’s offices — Jock lecturing most of the day on reporting and other elements of community journalism and me speaking for three hours to an eager group which not only posed great questions, but took pictures of nearly every slide in my presentation and made quick work of the two dozen copies of The Herald I had for their consumption when I was finished.

It was an amazing four days.

Our sessions with Chinese journalists were highlighted by our own learning and the development of friendships which have strengthened since we returned. But if there was a “signature” event for us, it occurred at the second set of lectures in Zhujiajiao. Here’s Jock’s take on it, from his “Blue Highways Journal” blog:

“The issue of press freedom was everywhere in this room, an uninvited guest, the 600-lb. gorilla,” he wrote. “During a Q&A session, a Chinese journalist asked Bill Horner, ‘Do you have to obey the orders of the regulator?’ I could see Bill taking his time to compose his response. Then he said evenly, ‘In our country, there is no regulator.’ You could hear the proverbial pin drop.”

It was a moment we had prepared for. In China, the “regulator” is the government’s official tethering to its newspapers. Later that evening, one of our hosts told us the gentleman who asked the question would likely get some kind of visit or inquiry from the government because his question was clearly a form of protest. That, of course, troubled us, but we knew going in that persecution is an active practice there.

I later told Jock I’d thought of a slightly better reply to the question: American newspapers do have a “regulator,” and it’s simply this: the truth. We pursue it and try to report it; sometimes it’s elusive and sometimes we fail at conveying it or fully expressing it, but never intentionally. Still, we seek it, and in this country we’re not punished for seeking it. (Although the IRS/Tea Party/media scandal surfaced while we were in Shanghai, which, again, is another story for another day.)

All in all, it was a grand experience and caused each of us to think deeply about what community means to us — which always took me back to Pye’s statement about China pretending to be a country.

Pye’s philosophy came to life as we toured Shanghai early in our visit, then got to know — and developed deep friendships with — the small group of Xinmin Evening News employees who were our handlers during the trip, and others we met along the way, and then as we shared with our newfound colleagues.

We know China has borders, has a capital and is ruled by the Communist Party. But those are more modern affectations. In the truest sense, China’s borders are not, as former secretary of state Henry Kissinger noted, political or territorial demarcations, but rather cultural. China has the longest continuous civilization in the world with the most intimate link to its past. We learned not to talk to the Chinese about American tradition — they’ll laugh because China has had civil wars last longer than we’ve been a country.

What that means is that the sense of “identity” and community the Chinese people have is rooted in their culture and civilization — it’s the foundation, the bedrock, of the way they see themselves. China’s self-imposed confinement of its people has deprived them, as Kissinger wrote, of the opportunity of making comparisons. They’ve traditionally expected others to relate to them, but not to relate to others.

More than 150 years ago, a British observer wrote of the Chinese: “They are thus totally unable to free themselves from the dominion of association, and judge everything by the rules of purely Chinese convention.”

It’s a much smaller world now than it was in 1850, and technology is helping shrink it further. But many of those notions are still true. As Jock wrote by way of explanation in his blog, “Of course it is 2013 now, and China has joined what we call the ‘community of nations,’ but the residue of the past is never far away here... And then factor in that the Chinese have no concept of ‘community,’ as do we in America. For the Chinese, ‘community’ connotes only a statistical geographic area. There is no warm-fuzzy inclusive connotation to the term, at all. So even the term, ‘the community of nations,’ has a very, very different meaning to the Chinese.”

But that’s part of what we were there to teach, and we did it through people.

When Jock asked me on our last morning there what I liked most about China, there was no hesitation in my response: “The people.” The daily journal entries I e-mailed to family and friends were as lengthy as this story, but the length was necessitated by the quality of the relationships we were developing: the story was the people, not just the conferences, the food, the architecture or the immensity of Shanghai.

Lee Ann and I spent most of our time in the company of “Miss Zhou,” Zhou Xiuyi, a delightful reporter and editor who served as our traveling interpreter and confidante, and “Mr. Lui,” a graphic designer at the newspaper who served as our driver. Three weeks home, and we’ll still chatting daily with Miss Zhou by text and have hopes of seeing her when she visits America.

Dr. You Jie, a lecturer at Shanghai University, became my emergency presentation interpreter when a cold Karen brought to Shanghai from Beijing caused her to lose her voice. Dr. Al — his American name was Al, after Al Pacino, his favorite actor — became a close friend. He peppered us with questions over the course of our two full days together and we grew to love his brand of humor, and we also enjoyed the company of his fiancée, Dr. Lynn Yuan, also a university lecturer. Another newspaper colleague, Angela, helped guide us and took us on an adventurous shopping trip. And Mr. Zhou’s wife, Jacqueline Lu — a busy career woman herself — gifted us with a spectacular nighttime boat trip on the Huangpu River, giving us amazing glimpses of the famous Pudong skyline.

The tears we shed during our farewell dinner and at our airport departure were heartfelt. And they made us reflect on the question we were posed with most often during our days in Shanghai: curiously, what we were asked most often was, “Do all Americans demonize the Chinese?”

No, we said. Especially those Americans who get to know them.

Thanks to Zhou Chen, Miss Zhou, Dr. Al and the others, we are blessed to be counted among that lot. Their sense of community was a gift we still feel.