Foreign Reporters With Chinese Characteristics

By now, you’re probably aware of the kerfuffle over “foreign reporter” Andrea Yu, who lobbed a few government-friendly softballs at Chinese officials during official 18th Party Congress press events. She was later featured in a CCTV segment on how “foreign reporters” are covering the congress. The only thing is, she isn’t really a foreign reporter — she works for a Chinese-owned company with government ties.

(Incidentally, the other media outlets in that CCTV report are also pretty suspect. The Hong Kong newspaper (Wen Wei Po) mentioned and interviewd is a plant, as it was founded in Shanghai and is pretty well known for toeing the Party line. And Sinovision, another media outlet interviewed during the segment, is a US TV station imports almost all of its programming from CCTV.)

All this has been hashed out in the press and in blogs, but the discussion has mostly centered around Yu herself and her ethical and journalistic standards (or lack thereof). That, I think, is missing the forest for the trees. While I don’t condone Yu’s behavior, if she had refused, I am sure that her company would have found someone else to do the same thing she did. Refusing would still have been the right move on her part, but Andrea Yu is not the most interesting part of this story.

Instead, let’s consider that (a) Andrea Yu was taking time allotted for real foreign reporters to ask questions and (b) featured in a segment on how the foreign press was covering the Party Congress. It seems that in the absence of a cooperative foreign press pool, Beijing may be looking to replace them with lookalike “foreign reporters” who can be trusted to ask the right questions. It’s a brilliant two-birds-one-stone move: it insulates Chinese citizens from hearing the more critical questions of the actual foreign press, and it prevents the actual foreign press from asking those questions in the first place by giving time allotted for them to a government shill who is posing as a journalist.

Is this a 18th Party Congress desperation move, or a new tactic we’re going to see more in the coming years? There’s no way to know. But I think it is important to note this in case it does become an important precedent for future “foreign” “reporters” with Chinese characteristics.


Incidentally, for those interested, there is also a new 2Non.org story up today called “Why Rural Chinese Kids Don’t Go to College” that you should check out.

And while I’m talking about 2Non.org, what topics would you like to read articles and/or see documentaries about? We write articles like this continuously, but we’re also in the planning stages for our next documentary, and still considering topics, so if you have thoughts or requests for either, feel free to throw them in the comments here. Thanks!

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29 thoughts on “Foreign Reporters With Chinese Characteristics”

  1. I think these stand ins are strictly for domestic consumption. The China Watching crowd love to dig up all sorts of intrigue so don’t take anything at face value, while the back home sofa munchers take their news from BBC, CNN, Fox et al.

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  2. Like you say, if it’s not Andrea Yu, it would’ve been someone else. No shortage of people willing to sell their soul. And it’s the next logical step for the CCP. What better way to control the “foreign” media than for them to create their own.

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  3. @ SKC. Totally agree. There is no shortage of western journo catamites and, it seems that after they realise their mistakes, they open blogs.

    Pathetic response on Sinostand, Custer.

    Anyone who puts signing up with CCTV or any of its derivatives down to newbie in-country innocence should be treated with a large grain of salt yesterday, today and into infinity.

    Better to remain a cynical ESL teacher. At least its honest, and you know the little shits are going to cheat their way thru each and every exam.

    Selling you soul for 8,000-10,000rmb pm. God, that’s cheap to put it mildly.

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  4. An opening softball or uselessly general question from a CCTV or Xinhua or People’s Daily reporter is the standard for nearly every PRC media event, whether at a G20 meeting in Mexico, the United Nations or the Great Hall of Pancakes. Anybody who’s worked in this space has witnessed this countless times. These reporters can also step in and throw the government spokesman a helpful rope when the questioning gets contentious. Broad questions make it easy for officials to burn up the clock with boilerplate, 9-part answers that require long translations.

    I’d put the Andrea Yu stunt down as part of China’s United Front culture of preferring stooges to the real thing, be it foreign reporters, Tibetan or Taiwanese groups, the Potemkin non-communist parties that suckle at the CCP’s teat or the various domestic “human rights experts” trotted out when needed..

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  5. Pathetic response on Sinostand, Custer.

    Anyone who puts signing up with CCTV or any of its derivatives down to newbie in-country innocence should be treated with a large grain of salt yesterday, today and into infinity.

    Better to remain a cynical ESL teacher. At least its honest, and you know the little shits are going to cheat their way thru each and every exam.

    Nonsense. Although it’s naiive, many people sign up for those jobs with the idea that they can do some good journalism and maybe even have a little bit of impact — changing the system from the inside. Obviously, no foreigner’s ever going to really change CCTV, and that’s why everybody ultimately quits. But I’ve seen foreign reporters in Chinese media push or sneak through good stories that might not have made it into the domestic press otherwise.

    Sure, it’s naiive, but they’re young, and at least they’re trying to do something instead of just drinking, bitching, and taking their frustrations about China out on toddlers the way some “English teachers” do. That is what’s really pathetic.

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  6. @ Custer. Okay, that was a bit harsh, but my views on Chinese media were formed after one week when CCTV used footage of the University of Lancashire when waxing eloquent about the experiences of Chinese students in Australia.

    FYI. I went to a bar exactly once in seven years. Didn’t experience teacher frustration. Did the best job possible and scootered home. Ran a household, watched squillions of great movies for a pittance, read books and all that other typical loawai behaviour. Oh yes, completed a non-degree course in horticulture.

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  7. Okay, that was a bit harsh, but my views on Chinese media were formed after one week when CCTV used footage of the University of Lancashire when waxing eloquent about the experiences of Chinese students in Australia.

    But that’s just evidence of incompetence…why would that dissuade a young journalist from trying to get in there and fix things?

    FYI. I went to a bar exactly once in seven years. Didn’t experience teacher frustration. Did the best job possible and scootered home. Ran a household, watched squillions of great movies for a pittance, read books and all that other typical loawai behaviour. Oh yes, completed a non-degree course in horticulture.

    …..OK? Good to know…

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  8. Okay, my lifestyle sounded like a saintly pain in the bum, but it fitted nicely at the time.

    That was not incompetence. It was a sleigh of hand and SOP in official Chinese media. Just about all the English-Sino blogs would die on the vine, if they didn’t have a daily diet of pratfalls like that to jeer at. Custer, I’m sure you’d have to agree with this point.

    “But I’ve seen foreign reporters in Chinese media push or sneak through good stories that might not have made it into the domestic press otherwise”.

    Were you referring to the Ask Alessandro column?

    No seriously, can you provide a good example of an edgy young western reporter getting a good piece of reporting on a critical issue past their editor. A bit like the unicorn, sometimes written about but never actually sighted.

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  9. Sorry Custer, but I have to agree with KT here. If you believe that people who join CCTV/CRI/Global Times/China Daily are naive if they think they are justified in working for the state media of a dictatorship since they can change things from the inside, then you have to admit that you think their reasons for joining were wrong. I have more respect for the people who join insisting that they’re only going to do sports/cultural stories. I have even more respect for the people who eschew these outlets entirely.

    Personally, I don’t think that most do join with this kind of idealistic motivation anyway. Instead my feeling is that they do so with an eye to getting a start in journalism. The fact that a time with the Chinese state media is not exactly regarded as a badge of quality, and very few make the transition from Chinese state media to semi-serious journalism, may indicate that even this self-interested motivation may be somewhat naive.

    I was also going to bring up Ask Alessandro as about the only example of foreign journalists working in Chinese state media acheiving anything of note, however I see KT has beaten me to it.

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  10. I agree their reasons for joining are misguided, and that’s why most of them don’t stay long. With a few exceptions, I find it hard to condemn anyone for initially making a mistake, especially when that person doesn’t fully understand the situation (which is generally the case; even people who know China is a dictatorship don’t necessarily really understand what that means and how the state-controlled media plays into and facilitates that until they’ve been in-country a while).

    I also think it very much depends on the specifics. If, for example, I could get the Global Times to republish every article on ChinaGeeks verbatim, do you think that would be wrong? They’d never do it, of course, but if they did I would be totally fine with it. Similarly, I have no real moral problem with people using state media to publish stories or op-eds that (as I see it) erode the legitimacy of the one-Party system. Now, in reality it’s hard to do that more than a few times before the editors start actually reading your stories, so the stories start getting gutted, and that’s when people often choose to leave. But if the propaganda arm is there either way, why not try to use it to spread a little truth? I can’t fault anyone for having that attitude before they’ve spent some time in the system to experience firsthand how that doesn’t really work.

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  11. @ Custer. Forensic analysis. Crossing every I and dotting every T when discussing other folks sins eg you latest by Anthony Tao is all very well,….

    However, the above is little more than exceptionalism based on your aspirational reasoning. For someone who is generally so hard-headed about the China generally, the above response is (respectfully) laughable.

    On par with the view that if folk in China can visit Starbucks, use twitter and fb in an uncensored manner, they will automatically embrace western liberal democracy.

    I. You fail to cite one example of a western reporter getting one serious report past their editor. Keeping in mind that Chinese media has been employing loawai for well over a decade now.

    2. My University of Lancashire example was not incompetence as you argue, but sneaky sleight of hand/usual SOP ie the suckers who read our stuff won’t notice our clever editing. And Chinese media reporting is all about the editing process, what is mentioned and what is elided or passed over when constructing the required narrative.

    As FOARP noted: I have even more respect for the people who eschew these outlets entirely.

    And as I also pointed out: Better to remain a cynical ESL teacher. At least its honest, and you know the little shits are going to cheat their way thru each and every exam.

    Rushes of blood to the head in China always end in disappointment.

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  12. Rushes of blood to the head in China always end in disappointment.

    Probably true. But I have more respect for someone who tried anyway (even if in a fundamentally misguided way) than I do for someone who didn’t. Why should I respect the English teacher who sits on the sidelines judging without actually trying anything? It’s very easy to hold the moral high ground if you spend your whole life on the sidelines.

    With regards to examples, there are plenty. If you’re honestly going to make me go digging through the GT archives, you’re gonna have to wait until sometime when I have more time to dedicate to pointless shit because the GT search function is fucking awful and Google doesn’t seem to have anything (maybe the GT deletes older articles?), but a couple years ago there was a period when the Beijing Metro section of the Global Times was running some pretty edgy stuff both in reporting and in editorials. (Mostly all written by foreigners and let through by editors in on the joke when the higher-ups weren’t paying attention).

    But, to cite a personal example, our film has been mentioned in several different articles in the GT and also in the China Daily, and in searching, I discovered it turns up here too (I wasn’t even aware of that one). I would argue that that’s a net positive; anything that gets people to pay attention to the film or the issue in general is good in my book, and all of those articles have been written by foreigners. It’s [kidnapping] not a topic that’s discussed all that often in state-run media aside from wishy-washy take-no-position editorials. The last time the state media really engaged with the topic was when they (including the GT) were condemning Yu Jianrong’s campaign as harassing beggars, kidnapping being the job of the police and something people shouldn’t get involved in, etc. So the fact that foreigners were able to get references to our film through is, I’d say, at a bare minimum a more positive step than doing nothing but watching year after year of ESL kids cheat their way through life. Our film is pretty critical, but even if no one follows through and watches it, at least mentions of it and the issue encourages discussion and questioning of the official numbers (as evidenced in the op-ed I linked above, among others. Note the end where the author basically suggests the Beijing PSB is lying. How often do you see that in state media pieces by Chinese authors?)

    (I should clarify here that I have nothing against ESL teachers, and by that I mean those who take the job seriously and actually attempt to teach. Both my parents are teachers and I consider teaching perhaps the most noble profession on earth. But I don’t get the impression from your description that that is the sort of ESL teacher you are talking about.

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  13. 2. My University of Lancashire example was not incompetence as you argue, but sneaky sleight of hand/usual SOP ie the suckers who read our stuff won’t notice our clever editing. And Chinese media reporting is all about the editing process, what is mentioned and what is elided or deliberately passed over when constructing the required narrative.

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  14. Stop being so literal Custer. Expect better of you, okay.

    The example and “the rest of the comment” form one comment. Different sides of the same Sino coin, if I have to nail it down for you in fine print.

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  15. RE: Naivety – it’s not just 20-something wannabe journalists that fall into this trap. Those with long memories will remember big things being said about Clinton’s speech during his 1998 visit being broadcast unedited on CCTV and an editorial piece by Tony Blair being published on the front cover of the People’s Daily. In retrospect, the impact of both of these acts appears to have been precisely zero – with the niggling concern that they may have loaned People’s Daily and CCTV some undeserved credibility.

    For myself, when I arrived in China I was aware that,if I wanted to, I could probably get something published in China Daily or a gig editing for CRI or maybe even a job at CCTV. This is not excessive self-flattery since this was, after all, 2003 when you could still see pretty much any garbage published/said on these outlets. The idea stuck in my craw then and still does now – the entire purpose of these outlets was and is to act as mouthpieces of a dictatorial regime. I was not then fully aware of the kind of compromises people make when living and working in a dictatorship, but you did not have to be a genius to work out China Daily/CCTV’s reasons for wanting foreign journalists to front their programs and wirte for them was to lend credibility to an overall message that was not very palatable to foreign audiences.

    I watched these people aghast. A particular low-point was the announcement by an Australian journalist working for CCTV of the attempted assassination of Chen Shui-bian in perfect CCP-ese. When I later read in an interview that he essentially saw himself as not being responsible for the words that came out of his mouth, it was hard not to think that here was someone who was entirely morally bankrupt. I do not think the majority of foreigners working for these outlets are like this, but this kind of compromise is the only way I can see anyone working long-term for them. People are also responsible for who they associate themselves with, and should avoid giving the impression of endorsement.

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  16. “Why should I respect the English teacher who sits on the sidelines judging without actually trying anything? It’s very easy to hold the moral high ground if you spend your whole life on the sidelines.”

    Why should you respect someone who forsees the negative consequences of doing something ahead of time and avoids doing it? This question answers itself.

    As for the achievements of foreign journalists working for GT, I’m sorry, but I don’t see it. At most, you’re trading an occasional mention or hint at something against government repression and wrong-doing sneaked past the censors with the cache that having foreign journalists lends the rest of their mind-bendingly bad content – as well as the editing that makes it marginally more palatable to foreign readers. This does not appear to be a trade worth making.

    Custer’s film, on the other hand, I heartily support and look forward to seeing when it comes out. This is the kind of journalism that offers some chance of seeing the issues it highlights come to greater prominence.

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  17. FOARP. That Australian journalist working for CCTV you referred to was probably Edwin Maher. News anchor for ABC in Melbourne for many years, but he actually came from News Zealand. True.

    (I fell off the bloody sofa in Fuzhou when I first encountered his presence reading the news. Probably topping up his super as he had a major falling out with his co-anchor news bitch Geraldine Doogue who is still polluting the air waves here, and one of the reasons why I only listen to BBC.)

    I simply picked ESL teaching as one example of loawai employment in China. It could equally be working for a trading company, running a resturaunt or even operating a shady ktv. In all four, you offer some sort of service whilst maintaining your moral-ethical boundaries, which is not so when drawing a pay check from CCTV or similar.

    And I similarly look forward to seeing Custer’s documentary.

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  18. I simply picked ESL teaching as one example of loawai employment in China. It could equally be working for a trading company, running a resturaunt or even operating a shady ktv. In all four, you offer some sort of service whilst maintaining your moral-ethical boundaries, which is not so when drawing a pay check from CCTV or similar.

    What is it that makes any of those other gigs any better? You think just because you’re not working for state media you’re not contributing to the CCP’s perpetuation? Let’s be frank here: anyone who is working and spending money in China is, at a bare minimum, contributing to the economy, and economic growth and international economic engagement has been far more effective a form of pro-government propaganda than any state media outlet.

    And that’s just at the bare minimum. Any successful trading company in China is — let’s be honest again — perpetuating corruption and probably putting foreign money directly into the pockets of CCP officials (either that or quickly going out of business). If you run a KTV, you’re probably paying girls to be taken advantage of by creeps like this hideous fucker. English teacher? If you’re at a private school, you’re probably contributing to the education of China’s oppressors of the future, not to mention supporting the corruption that’s likely happening at your school on an administrative level and beyond. (For example, I eventually learned that the school I worked at was owned by a high level provincial police official and probably used for money laundering from bribes, among other things. I highly doubt this is uncommon).

    I’m sure not receiving a paycheck that says CCTV on it is comforting, but it’s possible (and probable) to be just as much of a servant of the government in many other non-government jobs. Anyone who sets foot in China in the first place is cooperating to some extent, and giving the government some legitimacy by making it clear that you trust in the state enough to work and live there. I don’t think there’s anything morally superior about choosing not to work for state media on principle, or anything eternally damning about working for state media in the short term before figuring out what’s what and getting out. I like a good holier-than-thou rant as much as anyone, but I think you’re on very shaky ground here.

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  19. Thanks Custer. Lets leave it here. Probably what exercises me about this whole thing is how Chinese CCTV media edits their narratives, and that probably has little to do with the employment of young Western journalists.

    And yes, I handed over an envelop when in China to hasten along an important family document.

    And while on about KTVs and private schools, It was sometime after I’d finished my second contract that I/we found out how the college obtained one of the three provincial clearances required to employ foreign teachers. The senior school manager (who barely missed out being hauled before the local court for bank fraud in his previous employment) photographed a key local official in a KTV in Mawei (Fz’s nearby port.)

    BTW. The “we” mentioned above consisted of about a dozen of the best educated (2 degrees min) and most interesting multi-cultural individuals Ive ever meet. A barrister/sex crimes prosecutor, a former curator of the Tower of London, an Indian PhD on pommy poets and best of all, a Russian linguist who formerly worked for the National Security Agency (barking mad, I should add). Never had so much fun and laughter in my whole life. We almost got deported en masse over an teaching hours issue with management.

    Finally, you haven’t lived until you’ve attended a SARS crisis-staff meeting, and had a cadre inform you in all seriousness that the local military hospital had just finalized a vaccine. (We were then all given bottles of vinegar to sprinkle round our apartments and told to avoid buses.)

    And the less said about Party surveillance and influence within the college the better.

    War stories for a lifetime.

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  20. @KT – Yes, it was Eddie Maher. I try to avoid using names when discussing foreign journalists working for CCTV/GT/China Daily/CRI because so many of them seem to do nothing but Google their names all the time.

    @Custer – I think you can see the qualitative difference between living in the country, paying taxes, or even writing sports pieces for China Daily, and someone who makes this kind of statement:

    “not trying to read into the news, not thinking about what is behind the content. Politically sensitive news, like any other news, has to be read clearly. That is my bottom line. Because I’m in China, some news may be regarded as politically sensitive or whatever, but that doesn’t affect my interpretation of it to the audience.”

    I know that you yourself quite sensibly did not step over the line between being sure that what you’re doing does not cause more harm than good, and essentially vacating any responsibility for the words you write/say/edit. Andrea Yu crossed this line.

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  21. @ KT: I LOLed at the vinegar/avoid buses bit. Reminds me quite a bit of my own year on the front lines as an English teacher. All-staff meetings were always fucking crazy.

    @ FOARP: Yeah, I agree wholeheartedly that Andrea Yu crossed the line, I just don’t think that’s the most significant/important facet of this story. Certainly, she made a huge mistake, but I’m fairly certain if not her they’d have found another white face to do the same thing, so I can’t really get myself into a witch-hunty mood over it. I think it’s more concerning that the government is apparently looking into this tactic to take away what little access the foreign press actually has to the government.

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  22. @Custer – Agreed, but at the same time, if reasonable people refuse to allow themselves to be used in this fashion (and Andrea Yu appears to be reasonable), then the only people left will be crazed fanatics and deadbeat sell-outs, who would be rather less convincing in the role of CCP-friendly ace reporter. Same goes for people who allow themselves to be interviewed on a certain talk-show – no doubt there’ll always be guests willing to appear on it, but it would be good if they could at least be limited to willing stooges rather than serious subjects.

    But you’re right, the real concern is the use of fake reporters to squeeze out real journalists. Thinking back to when the foreign ministry first decided to hold these press conferences (2003-2004 sometime) I remember seeing a cartoon in China Daily that summed up what appeared to be the idea behind the decision: One half of the cartoon was a “before” picture of someone in a dark alley going “Psst, wanna hear the story?” and the other was an “after” picture of the broad light of day shining in a press conference where the representative says “here are the facts and the figures”.

    The idea appeared to be that the press conferences would help China’s government get its message across as opposed to the bad old days when ‘rumours’ (AKA news the Chinese government didn’t want people to hear) washed out ‘facts’ (AKA the government line). Now that these press conferences have singularly failed in their goal (particularly with reference to the ones following last year’s fizzled protests) and Chinese government has, since 2008 at least, gone most of the way towards treating foreign journalists as something akin to the secret agents of unfriendly powers, squeezing them out of the press conferences and getting people to ask questions that will look good on Xinwen Lianbo probably seems like a smart move.

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