Ryan Blethen / The Democracy Papers
Media in China: all the news that fits the script
Sohu.com is an impressive operation housed in a sleek skyscraper in the same high-tech park here as Microsoft and Google. The inside of Sohu is as inviting as anything in Redmond or Silicon Valley.
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BEIJING — Sohu.com is an impressive operation housed in a sleek skyscraper in the same high-tech park here as Microsoft and Google. The inside of Sohu is as inviting as anything in Redmond or Silicon Valley.
China's bright young hipsters populate the company's headquarters with its gleaming hallways, glass-walled conference rooms and bright colors. Pictures of what I presume to be employees cover one wall. They appear to be on team-bonding excursions. All smiles. As they should be. Sohu is one of China's leading Internet portals and draws huge, envy-inspiring numbers of hits in the many, many millions. Sohu is at the forefront of China's technological awakening. The young, the rich, or any Chinese with Internet access, are clicking through photo galleries, reading up on Shanghai native and Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, or creating a blog on the site.
All this good stuff was made clear to a group of American journalists who traveled to China in September with the East-West Center, which is based in Hawaii and runs exchange programs that expose Western journalists to Asia, and Asian journalists to the West.
But, China's impressive leap into the club of world powers is tempered by serious issues created by a heavy-handed, secretive government. It quickly became apparent to me that there is virtually no respect for any transparent processes, especially when it comes to journalism and communications.
We sat around a long conference table in a glass corner room. Our handler — yes, we were required to have a handler from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — sat in a chair along the wall.
The Sohu presentation ignited a flicker of jealousy. Not only does Sohu have huge traffic, it pays for the news posted on its site, unlike American portals such as Yahoo! that lift content from newspapers for free.
My envy quickly disappeared when we moved to a question-and-answer session. I half-jokingly asked Yu Wei, Sohu's managing editor, if she wanted to buy news from The Seattle Times.
"I want to buy but I can't do it," she said.
She then explained that all international news comes through Xinhua news agency. Xinhau is a national news service that is very much government-controlled.
The conversation then turned to censorship and how Sohu deals with ideas and incidents the about which Chinese government disallows its people to read. Hidden by the glitz and freewheeling appearance of Sohu is a program that censors forbidden content.
One of my tripmates asked if words such as "Taiwan" and "Tiananmen Square" got blocked. What about sex? he asked.
"Let's talk about sex," Yu said to an eruption of laughter. I have to wonder if her laughter was more a nervous expression because of the presence of our minder.
Yu and her colleagues' situation became clear to me during this funny-yet-serious moment. Sohu is part of China's government-controlled transformation. But, because Sohu is an established part of this transformation, its editors cannot discuss Tibet and Taiwan with a bunch of American journalists — or, even worse, let their users find information about the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Don't break the rules
Within the steel-and-glass headquarters of Sohu, there is a tension between the growth and delivery of ideas and the seemingly impenetrable wall of government control.
At its best, Sohu is a place for people to gather and express themselves. At its worst, Sohu is a place where the managing editor says, "I don't see it as censorship. For us, we call it regulations. We have to obey the regulations. It is like rules, we better not break the rules."
The Chinese Communist Party's reflexes for control have not dissipated since Deng Xiaoping started to open the country. This need to control information could stall China's evolution. If China wants to successfully join the ranks of modern, functioning nations, the Communist Party must create an environment where a free press and independent judiciary will flourish.
The courts, press and a healthy civil society are vital in China because there needs to be a balance to the awesome power of its one-party system. By no means does this mean China will be a democracy. But having some checks against the party would ensure citizens some legal protections, and civil liberties.
Numbing tales of success
Eleven days in China do not make one an expert, especially considering the way our tour was structured. After a day of sightseeing in Beijing, we were shuttled from meeting to meeting. The tour took us from Beijing to Shanghai to Suzhou, ending in Hong Kong.
The meetings, with bankers, government officials, students, professors and developers, were designed to show the best of China. We were bombarded from sunup to sundown with all sorts of huge, glowing numbers. Government officials gave incredibly long, suspiciously uniform, answers.
Many of the meetings took on the form of attention-grabbing bragging — "Look at what we have done" — like a little brother trying to get attention from big brother and his friends.
The tightly controlled structure was put together by our host, The Better Hong Kong Foundation. Not only did we get a handler, we had to have a host to gain entry to the country on a journalism visa. The foundation, which is politically close to Beijing, was created by Hong Kong businessmen, many of whom have significant business on the mainland.
The mind-blowing litany of numbers and tales of success were numbing. I can tell where I lost interest in my notebook. The notes stop after only a page, for almost every meeting. But, there were good meetings. I scribbled frantically while listening to journalism students at Peking University. Problem was, we never had more than an hour regardless of how well the session went.
The result was something The Better Hong Kong Foundation and the government were not hoping for. We were unwittingly presented with the warning signs of government control throughout our hectic trip to China.
Every tough question was answered with a condemnation of the United States, or with inaccuracies. Why should we be asking them questions about their environment when ours is a mess? Why should we suggest that China has not helped the peace process in Darfur when we are the world's largest arms dealer? Why should we judge what happened at Tiananmen Square in 1989 when we shot down our own students at Kent State University in 1970?
What the Chinese we met did not grasp was that American journalists ask these questions of our elected officials daily. It is how our form of government functions. It is one of the protections the public has against government abuse.
The gulf between us and our hosts was glaringly apparent during a meeting with Liu Jieyi, director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Department of North American and Oceanian Affairs. In other words, a bigwig.
Liu is a polished politician who eschewed a translator and, to my surprise, skipped the business-card exchange so prevalent in China. He even used American clichés, such as "I think oranges are oranges, and apples are apples," to deflect questions.
Things became interestingly uncomfortable when Liu was asked about China's aggressive posture toward Taiwan. He launched into a lengthy history of Taiwan and China, a history we already knew. Liu's lecture did nothing to dissuade some of the group from the topic.
At the end of the session, he warmly thanked us and said that these types of interactions were good for building relationships.
"Let me thank you very much for the questions that you asked," Liu said. "The questions are also rewarding for me ... and also how we need to better enable the outside, especially friends from the media, to see our policies — the thinking process behind these policies — in a more accurate and better way."
Dropping the hammer
Ah, there it was. They need to show us, their "media friends," how to better report on China. And, just when I was thinking that the best way to accurately portray China would be through journalistic freedoms, Liu dropped the hammer on us.
"I think the understanding [is] that this is really a close-the-door discussion.... It's off the record," he said.
That was news to us. We had been told everything was on the record. Liu is too experienced to have thought the interview was off the record. I had my tape recorder running, as did others. A journalist from Florida was videotaping Liu, and another journalist from Pittsburgh was taking pictures.
Liming Huang, our handler, was beside himself. He spent the rest of the trip trying to persuade us not to write about the meeting. I am not sure if anybody agreed not to. I never did, but probably would not have written anything because Liu did not say anything different from the party line.
Liu made it a story by flexing his statesman's muscle. I knew I would write something once Liming became near-frantic in his efforts to convince us not to write something.
It must have been tough for the people we met with. Many of them might never have met with journalists free to ask whatever they wanted. I wonder what they took away from our meetings? Did our behavior turn them off? Or, did it spark a curiosity about what it is like to work and live in a free society?
The more China integrates with the rest of the world, the more these questions are going to arise. Web portals such as Sohu will be the natural funnel for these questions and ideas. These Web sites are also where government censors will look to squash questions and ideas.
That puts Yu and others like her in an unenviable position.
Ryan Blethen's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is email@example.com; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to Opinion at seattletimes.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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