Journalism with Chinese Characteristics

The English language edition of the Beijing-based Global Times recently celebrated its third anniversary after being launched in 2009 at a cost of US$6.6 billion to compete with foreign media on China's domestic events.

I was the first foreigner hired by the publication, which has since earned a reputation for scathing denunciations of pretty much anything not connected to the Communist Party and for occasional calls to arms against the west, regarded as imperialistic hegemonists. The publication recently celebrated its anniversary in a chest-thumping. unintentionally-amusing special edition.

Months before it began printing, I was interviewed and hired by the marmot-bangs bewigged Global Times editor in chief, Hu Xijin, after answering three questions:

“Are you a friend of China?”

“What is your opinion about Tibet?”

“Should China have Western-style democracy?”

That was the bulk of my interview. No questions about journalism per se, or my previous experience as a copy editor and reporter at China Daily, Shenzhen Daily, The Standard in Hong Kong and many more years in the US at daily papers, most of which are now sadly defunct. He wouldn’t have been impressed either with my 12 years as a rock writer interviewing legends like James Brown and Johnny Cash as well as one-off wankers like Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

I lied a bit but wound up getting the gig and, to seal the deal, stole a few other foreigners from China Daily, as well as its style book and contract. To this day, Global Times uses both as its model but has no human relations department save one overworked, eternally patient young woman who was later aptly nicknamed “the doe-eyed Phoebe.”

Initially Global Times (which among its many bold statements has proclaimed: "Amid scant awareness by the public of Chinese prisoner Liu Xiaobo, nearly six out of 10 people polled said the Norwegian Nobel Committee should withdraw the Peace Prize and apologize for the decision to award it to him") shared cramped quarters with its even more ultra-nationalistic Chinese language sister in the vast People’s Daily compound.

My China Daily foreign brothers and one sister hadn’t joined me yet and for about a month I seemed to be the only lauwei – foreigner -- in the compound, which is seemingly larger than Rhode Island, though I’d heard rumors of one or two others toiling faithfully there at Global Times’ mother ship, People’s Daily; kind of like the folktales of rogue GIs who had supposedly deserted to the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.

It quickly became clear to me though that Hu’s new model wasn’t going to be as progressive as he’d initially led me and others later to believe. It was, of course, journalism with Chinese characteristics.

Although I was presented as an “expert” and asked to train and critique reporters, give several presentations on subjects such as interviewing, feature stories, and hard news stories there were moments when I wondered “What the f**k was I thinking?”

This became glaringly apparent one afternoon when I had been told to give a lecture on Western news style. Prepared with notes and a Power Point presentation, I showed up in the appointed room on time only to find it empty.

After waiting 10 minutes I began seeking one of the few English-speaking Global Times-China staff and asked if she knew where the new troops were.

“They are attending a lecture on the history of the PLA!” I was told brightly. My lecture was never rescheduled as other more “relevant” training, such as the history of the Chinese Communist Party began to amp up.

Then there was the massive CCTV Chinese New Year fire of 2009, in which the entire uncompleted Television Cultural Center Building caught fire from an unauthorized fireworks display. One fireman died. The cost of the blaze was estimated at US$23 million. It is still being rebuilt. Some 21 people were later jailed for the fire and ignoring repeated police warnings not to hold the fireworks display.

The fire happened just down the block and shortly after the initial Chinese staff had been hired. This is a brilliant training opportunity, I thought. Although Global Times-English wasn’t publishing yet, I took the initiative to send my eager young trainees out to the still-smoldering site to do interviews with nearby residents and collect as much information as they possibly could and write stories that I would critique.

Several came back with some small gems, such as heartbreakers about apartment dwellers who suddenly had no homes due to the smoke damage and the Beijing government shutting the area off.

I told my immediate superior, a former Olympic Games honcho named Zhang Yong (who had hired most of the staffers, not for their journalism experience but because they’d worked under him for the Olympics) about the exercise and showed him some of the better stories.

Although he had previously shown me his own pictures he had taken of the fire with his cell phone, he appeared immediately concerned and got back to me after a day to tell me that “You do not understand China. This is not news. Please notify me in advance if you plan any further story exercises.”

Yes, the higher ups had put an embargo on the towering inferno, which was clearly visible from our windows and from kilometers away as it happened and then as charred ruins, now still slowly being repaired to this day.

But I guess I don’t understand China. It clearly never happened.

One of Zhang’s brilliant front page story assignments was one on McDonald’s offering cut rate coupons because “foreigners love McDonald’s.”

Never mind that I had never met a foreigner outside of an embassy who reads Global Times. “Mr Zhang, just go to a Chinese McDonald’s – like the one across the street -- and see who the majority of the customers are,” I suggested. But he stuck to it and the result sucked, of course, though it made the front page. Great free advertising for McDonald’s, though.

GT’s comatose-appearing ad sales staff was a whole nother story. None spoke English or had a clue as to how to promote the paper. They spent most of their time playing online games and snoozing at their desks rather than pounding the polluted Beijing pavements for ads.

At one point, even Zhang seemed concerned and asked me and a putonghua-fluent foreigner to give them suggestions. One was that Global Times distribute free copies at subway stations that many foreigners use. The chief ad sales guy considered it for a minute, scratched his head and then replied, “Foreigners use the subway?”

I had a rather “sensitive” working relationship with Zhang as the next two years went by when he eventually largely distinguished himself by firing talented staff and with a mind-blowing hours-long argument with his aggrieved wife who showed up at the office demanding to know who his mistress at the publication was.

The staff, both Chinese and foreign, all wondered too, with several candidates always in the running. But he survived that humiliation thanks to Hu’s support, only to fall victim to Wikileaks when he was reported by the Western press to have given what was rather an innocuous comment about Tibet to someone at the US embassy.

That got him kicked out of Global Times and to somewhere in People’s Daily where presumably he can do less public damage, at least in English.

(Our correspondent is now freelancing somewhere in China.)