By Ryland Barton
Lee So Young talks with an American visitor in a Tsinghua University campus coffee shop on the northwest side of Beijing that’s buzzing with students chattering in multiple languages. A citizen of South Korea, she’s come here to study in part because it’s less expensive than her home country’s university system, but also because of the complicated media climate.
“On the surface, everything is quite open,” she says. “But underneath, it is still controlled.” That gives her the opportunity to study the gray area between the tolerated and the forbidden in China, a realm that is often times undefined by the authorities, but implicitly understood by the journalists who work around it.
“Things that used to be good to talk about are not good to talk about now,” says Jeremy Goldkorn, editor of Danwei.org, a website that translates China news into English. Drawing a bead on where that line is at any given point takes some skill and experience.
In China, news that challenges the conventional narrative or maligns officials is generally suppressed. Many social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter continue to be inaccessible behind what some call the “great firewall.” Those that are available can be heavily monitored for troublesome discourse. This can be a forbidding environment for a journalist to operate, but journalism students still enjoy a relative amount of freedom.
According to Zhen Wang, a post-graduate student at Tsinghua University, students are briefed on a variety of “hot-button” political issues, including the popular uprisings in North Africa. But there are limits to what professors are willing to discuss with students. Censorship, for example, is discussed in class, “but we don’t discuss it at length,” Wang says.
Lee says that although censorship can inhibit the practice of journalism, it’s a particularly interesting topic to study as a journalist in China. Stories like the ongoing censorship of Google, Facebook, and Twitter are particularly salient, she says. In one of Lee’s classes, her professor encouraged students to conduct a survey of what fellow students thought of Google’s possible retreat from mainland China in January, 2010. Results were submitted to the professor but not published.
“Because most of the professors come from abroad, their minds are quite open,” Lee says. “The things that the professors teach them are also quite open. But the professors can’t tell this to the government, because [the authorities] wouldn’t be happy.”
When asked how students learn to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate content, Wang says it all comes down to the publication.
“If I’m writing for a state media, I will not touch those such as the legitimacy of the government,” Wang says. “But if I’m writing for myself, I’m at more liberty to discuss ‘sensitive’ issues on, for instance, a microblog. And in our classroom, censorship varies from case to case.”
With features similar to Twitter or Facebook, microblogs like Sina Weibo are often more up-to-date than the news. But still, microblog content that is perceived to be inflammatory is routinely taken down, sometimes right before readers’ eyes.
Like professional journalists in China, journalism students have to watch what they report. And although Lee points out that a censored journalism field might be an interesting one to study, she still faces limitations on what and how she can learn.
“We learn by ourselves, intentionally, subconsciously,” Lee says.