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China's Communist Party

What makes a good journalist in China? Someone willing to go on the attack in defence of Communist Party propaganda, it seems

Audrey Jiajia Li says under orders from Xi Jinping and party bosses, Chinese journalists have been increasingly weaponised to not only spread the party line but attack opposing views

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 October, 2018, 1:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 October, 2018, 3:03pm

While a TV reporter in China, I was selected as a finalist for the China News Award, the highest national journalism prize, two years in a row. The first time, I actually won. However, the award and finalist status were both retracted due to what authorities deemed “negative impact”, meaning my work was at odds with the “correct guidance of public opinion”. I eventually realised I would never make a good journalist by official standards, let alone win a prize. 

In February 2016, when I read that President Xi Jinping had asked for absolute loyalty from state media and demanded they bear the “family name of the [Communist] Party”, I was convinced that the professional journalistic skills and ethical principles taught in international academic institutions would not apply in China.

Against the backdrop of increasingly vehement nationalistic rhetoric in the traditional media and on the internet, an even more demanding performance criteria for evaluating my colleagues has become the new norm: Chinese journalists should proudly proclaim that they are propaganda workers, and are expected to confront anyone who dares not to adhere to the official narrative.

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As a result, I didn’t find the recent news involving a China Central Television (CCTV) reporter, Kong Linlin, surprising. Kong was detained last week in the UK after losing it during an event on Hong Kong autonomy, where she shouted at the speakers, called them puppets and traitors and allegedly slapped one volunteer who attempted to escort her out.

In Chinese politics, reactions afterwards are usually more important than the event itself. The Chinese embassy in London quickly ratcheted up its condemnation of how the incident was handled and demanded an apology from the organisers – Hong Kong Watch and the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.

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The diplomatic mission stated: “In a country that boasts freedom of speech, it is puzzling that the Chinese journalist should encounter obstruction in such a way and even assault at the fringe event when she simply raised a question and expressed her opinions. This is completely unacceptable.” The embassy announced a day later that Kong had been released, “amid stern representations from the Chinese embassy and public pressure”.

Reactions to the incident suggest that the authorities were not only interested in gaining her release, but also appreciative of her actions. On the highly censored Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter, the reporter was hailed a hero by many and some of her CCTV coworkers quickly applauded.

The ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius once said: “What the superior favours will receive excessively enthusiastic responses from his subordinates.” While it might seem inappropriate for a professional press card holder to heckle conference participants, if such incidents can bring career advancement, or elevate the person to role-model status, such an act isn’t so irrational.

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Over the past few years, “traitor hunt” has been a popular game in China’s state media and strictly controlled social media. From journalists to scholars, entertainers and students, “belittling China” is now a serious offence. If someone snitches on a “culprit”, it can result in terrifying consequences, including job loss and even physical harm.

When a perceived offence is committed by a foreign national or organisation, be it a media outlet, hotel chain, airline company, athlete or artist, coerced apologies have become a frequent phenomenon and the passive-aggressive tactics of victimhood are often practised, usually with netizen warriors flooding the offender’s social media accounts with negative comments.

Most recently, a satirical Swedish TV show caused an uproar in China after it aired a segment mocking Chinese tourists. The Chinese embassy quickly issued a statement condemning the programme as a “gross insult to and vicious attack on China and the Chinese people” and demanded an apology.

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Furthermore, in a time of increased censorship, the price for a Chinese journalist to provide critical or simply objective coverage has risen so high that many, including those with impressive pasts in muckraking, have left the profession for safer occupations.

At the same time, in some state media organisations, back-stabbing office rivals for their unorthodox political opinions has become quite common. Self-censorship naturally follows.

Philip Pan of The New York Times, who spent nearly 20 years covering China, posted a few days ago on his Facebook timeline about Kong’s news that, “Over the years, I met many smart and principled Chinese journalists around China. But almost all of them have got out of the business.”

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The state broadcaster Kong is affiliated with, CGTN, was originally CCTV’s English news channel and was later rebranded with increased funding. It is now part of the global propaganda efforts under the project of “telling China’s stories well to the world”.

But with its highly censorious content and thinly veiled propagandist nature, it has not really been successful despite its deep pockets. Nonetheless, for CGTN, just as James Palmer, a senior editor with Foreign Policy mentioned in his analysis, pleasing the party apparatchiks determined to stay clear of any political errors is much more important than attracting international viewers.

In that regard, Kong would definitely qualify as a good journalist who makes “China’s voice” heard. After all, whether a journalist is good or not always depends on who you consider your true audience to be.

Audrey Jiajia Li is a freelance journalist from Guangzhou