CORN November 2014 Edition.
In the Western popular imagination, Chinese journalists are nothing more than stenographers for the ruling Communist Party. Like most commonly held views on China, it’s inaccurate though not completely off the mark. China’s press remains among the most censored in the world, especially following the recent crackdown on journalists initiated by President Xi Jinping. Yet to suggest that Chinese journalists are lacking in any independence from the state is an anachronism. Continuing and pervasive censorship notwithstanding, China’s mass media is more vibrant now than it has been at any time since 1949. Private newspapers and television stations now dominate new stands and airwaves, and even state-run outlets, under pressure from private competition and relentless online criticism, have been forced to tailor their output to shifting audience demands. China’s media long-ago ceased resembling that of their totalitarian neighbour North Korea, and understanding the complexities of China’s media environment is imperative if we wish to begin to understand the complexity of contemporary China.
What better reason, then, to pick up the book Insight (看见) (Guangxi Normal University Press, 2013 – in Chinese) by Chinese reporter Chai Jing (柴静)? A 38 year old investigative reporter and television host for China’s state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) (中央电视台), Chai Jing first gained national prominence following the broadcast of her interviews with front-line health workers during the 2003 SARS crisis. Since then, she has interviewed everyone from Avatar director James Cameron to migrant peasant workers, and covered everything from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake to the murder of two Chinese students in Los Angeles in 2012.
Insight could loosely be described as a memoir, with each chapter focused around a piece of reportage Chai Jing produced while working for the CCTV programs News Investigation (新闻调查) and Insight (看见) (the latter being the show from which the book derives its name). A broad range of issues are covered: rural land expropriation, animal rights, the ethics surrounding the use of the death penalty, changing attitudes towards homosexuality in Chinese society. This may come as a surprise to those unfamiliar with China’s media landscape. In fact, Chai Jing is hardly the only Chinese journalist to tackle such sensitive topics. Rather than an anomaly, her work is perhaps better understood as emblematic of a general trend over the past two decades towards a more investigative and critical (albeit not deliberately adversarial) style of journalism.
For foreign readers, Chai Jing’s book serves as a fascinating lens through which to examine these changes. Her rich descriptions of working at CCTV – both inside the newsroom and on location across China – present a picture of Chinese journalism that is in many ways familiar to Western readers. Chai Jing and her colleagues come across as committed media professionals, sensitive to the demands of their audience and dedicated to ferreting out “the truth” within the admittedly narrow confines of the world’s largest authoritarian state. Chai Jing frequently cites the work of her global peers at US networks like CNN, and the more I read on, the more I sensed that she saw herself as part of a global – not merely Chinese – media profession.
And why not? Western coverage of the Chinese press tends to simplistically present Chinese journalists as either uncritical mouthpieces for the Communist Party, or as lone idealists quixotically railing against the limits of state censorship. It’s rarely acknowledged that Chinese journalists constitute a professional class, and that many see themselves as having achieved a degree of critical distance from the state. How great a distance is debatable. But it’s no longer fair to speak of the entirety of the Chinese press – or even of many state-employed journalists like Chai Jing – as simply a tool of the Communist Party.
Nonetheless, I was surprised at the openness with which Chai Jing discusses press freedom in her book. Without directly criticizing the harsh legal limits placed on journalists by the state, Chai Jing discusses at length her belief that journalists should be the stewards of the public interest and record, as best they can, “the truth”, in all its complexity and contradiction. Like many similarly progressive-minded public figures in China – and unlike noted political dissidents like Liu Xiaobo or Ai Weiwei – Chai Jing couches these opinions in vague generalities, and avoids identifying the Party-led state as the greatest impediment to a free press. Yet her carefully worded reflections on the value to society of a free press do have a certain weight given her status as an employee of the Communist Party’s main domestic propaganda organ.
It is this distinctly empathetic and critical approach to journalism which has over time turned Chai Jing into an unofficial mascot for China’s “cultured youth” (文艺青年), that loose demographic grouping of urban post-‘80s educated white-collar professionals who have come to occupy the liberal-progressive wing of China’s political spectrum. No fans of CCTV’s news coverage, which enjoys a perhaps deserved reputation for parroting Communist Party talking-points, these twenty-to-thirty-somethings have nonetheless embraced as one of their own one of the state broadcasters most recognizable journalists. Why? Surely Chai Jing’s professionalism is a factor, as is her interest in covering human interest stories that speak to the inequities of contemporary China.
However, I suspect that’s not the only reason why Chai Jing, and her book Insight, enjoy such popularity. Perusing the user-generated reviews of her book on the popular online forum Douban (豆瓣) suggests that what draws many readers to her work is far more personal. Commenters note being moved by Chai Jing’s descriptions of her complex relationships with her colleagues, her doubts and anxieties concerning her career as a journalist, and her personal and professional growth as an independent woman. While her work as a journalist may be what initially attracts many to her book, it’s perhaps such identifiable, personal experiences and concerns – often missing behind the pressed suits and neatly coiffed hair of her more staid peers at CCTV News – which has won her and Insight so much popular acclaim.
Recently, Chai Jing’s image online has taken a beating as she has found herself on the receiving end of online criticism for her decision to give birth to her daughter in the US. While part of this criticism reflects a larger debate in Chinese society concerning “birth tourism”, or the trend of wealthy Chinese traveling abroad to give birth in order to gain foreign citizenship for their children, much of it reflects a deeper debate been China’s progressive-liberals and their critics among China’s so-called “new left” (新左派) and nationalist “angry youth” (愤青). It’s beyond the scope of this piece to delve into this topic – I’ll save a larger discussion of this political divide for my up-coming piece on Liu Yu’s (刘瑜) book Details on Democracy (民主的细节). For now, it’s enough to note that, much like media personalities Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly in the United States, Chai Jing (as a public figure) has for both her fans and her detractors become a shorthand for a motley set of political beliefs, many of which she herself, as a journalist for the state-owned broadcaster, would most likely be hesitant to be publicly associated. Discovering the woman behind such debates, and hearing in her own words her nuanced views on journalism in China, is enough to recommend this book to any serious China-watcher.
Emile Dirks is currently a PhD student in Political Science studying Comparative Politics and Development at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on local responses to Chinese hydroelectric projects in Burma/Myanmar and Indonesia. Prior to his doctoral studies, Emile worked in the NGO-sector on the Thai-Burma border and pursued language studies at the Beijing Language and Culture University. Emile can be reached at emile.dirks [at] mail.utoronto.ca