Journalism in China: A Memoir and a Future?

by Kanglei Wang:

My grandpa was a newspaper man. He grew up running barefoot near Guilin, a town in southern China known for its thumb-shaped mountains, and studied chemistry at college in Beijing. In the late 1940s, infected by the idealism of his era, my grandpa decided that other pursuits mattered more. He took his notebook and pen into the front lines of the Chinese Civil War and sent handwritten pages of quick, accurate reporting back to Beijing. Later, after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, he continued to write. When the chief of Xinhua — a government-owned news agency and the only officially sanctioned press in China at the time — needed to be replaced, my grandpa stepped into politics.

For a time, he oversaw the press of an entire nation. I still don’t know exactly what happened in those hallowed meeting halls of Xinhua, but I do know that my grandfather’s time was short-lived. A few months after he took the reins, the beginning throes of the Cultural Revolution hit Xinhua. Wealth and power were deemed dangerous emblems of capitalism, and almost everyone in positions of power was ousted. In 1976, my grandpa died of diabetes as a political prisoner in jail.

I interned for a magazine in Beijing this summer, in part because I wanted to learn more about my grandpa, and in part because I wanted to see if I could be a writer, too. Before I left, my mom told me the same thing she always tells me before I go to China: “Don’t do anything stupid.” Shut your mouth, she means. Don’t let your all-too-Americanized self get the best of you. Don’t talk about politics.”

Caijing magazine, where I worked, has been touted as one of China’s most progressive. It reported the truth about SARS when the rest of Chinese media remained silent; it exposes government and big business scandals and interviews people whose communities are being hurt by new Chinese development. But China’s information veil is ever-present. Caijing’s style is carefully rendered; only after the government-sanctioned “facts” are presented are Caijing’s independent statistics or quotes added. While no opinion is stated directly, it is clear the reader — often a member of the upper crust of Chinese society — should think for him or herself.

Yet I was surprised last summer when, during the Uyghur riots in China’s Xinjiang region, Caijing reporting fell in step with all other government-controlled media outlets in China, who were sent scripted facts to broadcast. I was disappointed. Where was Caijing’s purported progressiveness? Its independence? Its voice?

Nowadays, the Xinhua compound in Beijing looks like a fortress, or a jail. It has barracks of apartments for its reporters and steel gates and guards who look at ID before letting you inside any buildings. I don’t work there, so I wasn’t allowed to enter. When I went back to Guilin, Grandpa’s hometown, the people who knew him had died. At the end of the summer, I went back to America, my questions unasked.

Three months ago, I found out that Caijing magazine underwent an upheaval: the editor-in-chief left, and over seventy percent of the staff followed.

It turns out that over the summer, as I wondered why we weren’t reporting on the riots, Caijing had flown correspondents to Xinjiang, only to be told by the magazine’s publisher and funder that Caijing could not risk angering the government by publishing an independent piece on the riots. The reporters were sent home. A few months later, the editor-in-chief left to work in freer spaces, and hopes to found another financial magazine with different backers.

The latest issue of Caijing — now under new leadership — began with a letter from a former party official, commending Caijing’s past coverage of social issues. But the people responsible for that coverage are gone. Chinese online forums questioned if Caijing closing meant “the death of Chinese journalism?” the question mark inserted, perhaps, as a sign of hope.

My mom doesn’t want me to do journalism. Both she and my dad were sent from the city to work in the fields during the Cultural Revolution as part of China’s educating-the-youth initiative; their parents were victimized because they spoke out. Yet, even in America, they are defensive of China and offended by my questioning of Chinese policies. This is the story of many Chinese of their age. How can you convince a generation like theirs that an independent voice is important, perhaps essential, to growth, when all it has brought is punishment? My parents don’t want me to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps, because his disappeared.

Kanglei Wang ’11 is an Environmental Studies major in Branford College.