Sunday, May 25, 2008

Fakin' It

"What did you think of the story in our section by Xiao Xing?" a reporter asked me. I drew an immediate blank. To my eternal shame and mortification after four years in China I still have the recall ability of a wilting house plant when it comes to remembering most Chinese names unless they have an "English name" attached to them. (One of the first tests C gave me after we'd more or less become an item was one day to casually ask me if I knew what her Chinese name was. Heh. I kinda mumbled a reply that sufficed, yet did not immediately inspire her confidence in my undying devotion and long-term memory capabilties.)

"Uh...which story?" I asked, still flailing for a clue or cue. "It was by me," he said. I was still somewhat clueless as I couldn't remember his byline but now remembered one of his stories I'd edited. I waited for the punchline.

"Xiao Xing is not my name," he finally said, smiling.

"Er, yeah. Right," I said. "Anyway, it was a good job. Solid, flowed well, was easy to edit. No jargon. " I was honest there. He's one of our best reporters and is a second generation staffer. His father, now retired, was a chief editor.

"So, why the fake byline?" I asked. "You guys can do that?"

He's also modest and said he'd used a pseudonym because the story had been generated by a press release. "It was a rubbish story," he said. It wasn't apparent from the content, at least to me, and it had even had some less-than-positive things to say about an industry issue on his beat. Overall it was quite balanced, informative and not the usual sycophantic lick job some editors and reporters here regard as "journalism."

I told him I didn't think it was rubbish at all and said I didn't think a fake byline was needed. "You want to see a rubbish story?" I asked. "Look at this on page one."

It was a report about an issue here that's troubling many foreign barbarians. The Chinese government has cracked down on its visa regulations, essentially making business and tourist visas much more difficult and expensive to obtain. I have a half dozen friends or acquaintances currently in limbo wondering if they're still going to be here in the next month or two. Some have been working in China for several years and none can be remotely described as a "security risk."

The rubbish story I referred him to quoted a high level govt wanker at length as saying that the visa policy has not changed an iota. His quotes were completely unchallenged and whoever wrote it had essentially served as a stenographer. No foreigners were quoted, though a vague reference was made to the American Chamber of Commerce-Hong Kong's "allegations" that the policy has indeed changed and it's a problem.

"It's lies!" I said, beginning to froth a little. "Complete garbage."

He read it without comment and then laughed. "This reporter also knows it is rubbish," he said. "Look. This is a fake byline too."

Shore 'nuff. Same surname: Xiao, though the given name was different than what my friend had used. Then he explained the code to me. "Xiao" means young but it is essentially also the equivalent of America's "John (or Jane) Doe." He said reporters who feel they're reporting crapola will often use "Xiao-whatever" for stories they're not exactly thrilled to be writing or even feel are dishonest. It's not exactly a fullblown protest, but it's a statement nonetheless.

"We are not new to this," he said. "You know, my father's generation did it also and the press was much more controlled then. My father told me they used a term that means 'boring' for the same reasons."


Spike said...

In Hollywood, there's a long standing tradition that when a film director is unhappy with the finished results of his film, due to meddling by the producer or the studio, he is allowed to use the alias "Alan Smithee" instead of his real name for the screen credit. Perhaps you could use that when you have to write some propaganda piece, get Mr. Smithee well known in China too?

Xiao Peter said...

Whoa – looking sharp on that picture… And the dude in front a bit too :-)

Matthew said...

I'll have to start checking the news for pseudonyms now. So, what is the standard for garbage in the newspapers here? I certainly wouldn't consider much in the Shenzhen Daily to be quality.

John said...

I'm glad to see that the Journalistic profession is at least alive in china. To bad it died in the States years ago.

Oh my gawd - what is Brittany doing today - she is with Hillary.....and by the way Sex and the City is opening....

Ernie said...

Sort of like Punch Line!