Conversation with a Chinese editor-in-chief

Two years ago, I interviewed Wang Yao, a Chinese journalist at China Youth Daily, who was then on a one year fellowship at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, in Oxford University. Now back in Beijing, Wang has become editor-in-chief of the paper’s website, China Youth Online (中青在线). China Youth Daily was not long ago praised by Bill Bishop at Sinocism for publishing a bold article (translated by China Geeks) on the housing crisis.

At the time of the interview, Wang was reluctant for me to publish. But I’ve just asked him again, and he’s fine with it now. When reading his comments, bear two things in mind: a) he was speaking in March 2008, and b) we were speaking in English, a language Wang wasn’t 100% comfortable in. I’ve corrected little grammatical errors which don’t impact on the meaning.

Although I find his first two responses below interesting counterfoils to Western views, Wang said nothing controversial. His concept of a good journalist was the same as mine: a “watchdog … protecting the public interest”. Chinese journalists are not so different to British journalists, he said: there are the good and the bad, and “all good journalists have the same values”:

If you are a good journalist, you should get the respect of the public. The Chinese way, we always say: don’t lose face. It means, if you’re a journalist, you do some bad things, you will lose your face, lose your reputation.

I asked him about censorship. He told me:

In China, I think it’s difficult to translate the word ‘censorship’. It’s the same thing, maybe, in some Arabic countries. Last month, some of my fellows made a presentation about blogs and internet in some Arabic countries. … There is an email [address] for the public to report some bad things on the internet to the government, the email name is censorship@something something. Personally, I don’t know Arabic, but I think censorship is not a very very bad word in Arabic culture. It’s the same thing in China too.

And on another big word, ‘democracy’:

In Chinese, we always say ‘democracy’ or ‘human rights’ are big big words. But personally, I think ‘democracy’ is a kind of life style. I find a very interesting thing when I attend the seminars in Oxford University. And the British way is so many people should ask questions, and the chairman of the seminar should point ‘you, first’ ‘he, second’ and ‘another guy, third’, depending on what time you rise up your hand. Personally I think it’s kind of democracy, it’s kind of democratic lifestyle. And in China, maybe who is the biggest guy, who is the the guy with the highest rank, he might be the first to ask a question.

Earlier in that same month we were speaking (March 2008), Lhasa and other ethnically Tibetan regions had rioted. The Chinese government forbade foreign journalists from entering the Tibetan Automonous Region. I asked Wang for his reaction:

Personally, speaking as a Chinese, if [China] lets all the journalists, including foreign journalists and Chinese journalists to cover what is happening in Tibet, it might be a good way to let the Chinese people, let the people in the world know what’s really happening in China. So I don’t agree with some guys who don’t hope journalists will cover the news in Tibet. There are so many journalists, maybe like you, like me, who can cover the news about Tibet now. I think it’s a good way to reduce misunderstandings.

Wang closed the interview like this:

Chinese media now is totally different – no, can’t say totally different – it’s different compared with five years ago, it changed so quickly. Compared with ten years, it changed very very quickly. And if compared with the media thirty years ago, I think it’s totally different. … It’s true, the editor-in-chief of People’s Daily or China Youth Daily was appointed maybe by the Party leader, but I don’t think all Chinese media is propaganda. I think the best way, like you, is to learn Chinese, to visit China, to talk with the Chinese people, [then] you should know what’s real China, what’s real modern China.


Update: here’s an interesting read on Wang’s website, China Youth Online – a bitingly honest appraisal of Beida and Qinghua’s non-status in a recent Asian university rankings list. China Geeks has a translation up here.

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