That Chinese media face a certain amount of censorship and limits in reporting is well known abroad. But perhaps less well known is that there is meanwhile a well-established tradition of investigative journalism in China. In a series of events, Germany’s Heinrich Böll foundation recently invited experts to discuss media freedom in China ahead of the Beijing Olympics. Thomas Bärthlein attended one of the debates which was held last week at Deutsche Welle in Bonn.
Looking for more diversity - newspaper readers in China
After the recent earthquake in Sichuan province, the Chinese media have been very open in their coverage. They have shown grieving victims and have discussed sensitive issues: Why did so many schools collapse, even as buildings in the neighbourhood were still standing? This sudden openness comes only a few weeks after the state’s clampdown on Tibetan protesters was echoed by all the media without a hint of criticism. It seems that the Chinese media are showing two entirely different faces. Wang Keqin from Beijing, one of China’s leading investigative journalists, tries to explain the difference:
"When we studied journalism our teacher gave us this rule: To become a good journalist in China you should become a politician first! Which means: If you do journalism in China you must judge and analyze the current political developments."
So are there concrete limits to what Chinese journalists can do, and what they cannot? "Mostly not," explains Wang Keqin, "they are rather vague. Of course, there are clear limits, too. Normal financial or city newspapers cannot as a matter of principle cover the following topics: The military, religious or ethnic issues, or foreign policy."
But more often than not, the only way to find out what is possible is: Start your research and see where it takes you! Wang Keqin estimates that only half of the work of China’s investigative journalists finally gets published.
Testing out the limits
Li Wenkai from Guangzhou agrees that it can be quite a challenge to get the political environment right. A senior journalist at his "Southern" newspaper group has developed a catchy metaphor for judging the political environment, says Li Wenkai: A traffic light. "If the signal is green, go on smoothly. If it turns yellow, you still continue, but hurry up. And if you see a red light, you make a detour and continue your journey."
It is this spirit of always testing out the limits which has earned Li Wenkai’s "Southern Metropolitan Daily" its name. His paper is read all over the country for its investigative reports – painstakingly researched by a whole team of twenty journalists. Exposing corruption or bad governance, discussing social problems such as poverty – all of these are no longer taboos in China’s media.
Olympics might help
Are the Olympics actually going to help the liberalization of the Chinese media? Professor Zhan Jiang, a leading researcher in journalism from Beijing, is cautiously optimistic:
"In the past, there have been more and more opportunities for Chinese journalists to meet with foreign colleagues. With the Olympics taking place in China, this interaction is bound to increase. Of course we shouldn’t believe either that just because of the Olympics the opening of Chinese media will get a dramatic boost." Besides, it isn't sure how events are going to unfold this year, he argues: "We all know how much has happened this year in China already. Take the Tibet problem, for example, where we were very concerned. But later the Chinese central government changed its stance and decided to have talks with the Dalai Lama’s representatives. If the Olympics are held in a peaceful way, they’ll certainly contribute to a further opening of the media."
Chinese journalists have experienced a slow, but continuous process of liberalization for the last thirty years – which might be why they seem more confident about their own situation than some of their Western colleagues.