Monday, February 2, 2009

Old Brown Shoe

I've recently begun a new adventure as the first foreigner hired for a new State-owned English language paper in Beijing - something of a mixed blessing.

Its Chinese language version is somewhat nationalistic, some would say jingoistic,and the parent company and publication, People's Daily, makes Fox News look like National Public Radio when it comes to, er, flag waving. Nonetheless I've been assured my new Commie Overlords are serious about giving China Daily a run for its formulaic, stale and hidebound State money and realize the way to get some foreign readership and serous journalistic respect is not to always completely bend over and beg for more, sir.

I've also never worked for a start-up paper of any ilk and four days into it I'm certainly not regretting it. We've already had a little test of how much the proverbial editorial envelope might be pushed and so far, so good. Currently I'm helping train about 60 young, mostly green reporter candidates in the mysteries and vagaries of western journalism and one of the training exercises has been having them write stories on deadline based on what they can find in the Chinese language press and online western sites.

Two recent assignments included bong-sucking Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps and an overview of Chinese Premier Wen Jiaobao's recent visit to the UK, which ended on a somewhat undignified note with a protester at Cambridge heaving a shoe at Wen as he was giving a speech. Shades of Dubya, of course. I asked my Chinese editors if the shoe heaving had been mentioned in the Chinese media and my question was met with a throat clearing and an embarrassed half smile. Which is Chinese for "no, not really."

"George Bush gets two shoes thrown at him and it's all over the place here," I said, not believing that I was suddenly getting my latent red, white and blue pride up. "Fair play at least for these exercises, okay?"

They agreed and the next day brought two surprises. Chinese media had finally reported - albeit cautiously - the shoe throwing and my trainees had brought in mixed results with their reports. A few had led with it as western media had done and others had submitted stories that barely mentioned it at all, burying it at the end with a brief mention.

Later I discussed the whole affair with seven of them, with one young woman in particular who was still puzzled about the differences. Her report had erred on the side of near-omission but she was truly eager to know "which system is better." She said the Chinese government style was needed in order to stem any social unrest. I replied that things seemed to be leaning now towards adapting a more open approach and asked what harm had been done in reporting it. "There was no unrest. If anything Premiere Wen came out of it respectfully."

"Is it necessary to report it though?" she asked.

"It was all over your Internet also," I said. "People were angry. Chinese students at the talk in Cambridge had yelled 'Shame on you' at the protester. China would have looked silly not acknowleding that it happened. It's no secret. No State secret." She still looked slightly uncomfortable but agreed I had a point she hadn't considered.

I brought up the Dubya example again and mentioned an online game some Chinese netizens had created where players could rack up points throwing shoes at Bush. She and the others smiled. I did too remembering how I'd only scored a few points when trying it.

"No Prime Minister Wen online games, I know, and that's alright. But now the shoe is on the other foot," I said. "It's a Western saying."


Anonymous said...

Please believe me when I tell you that you are not the first foreigner hired there. That is something that Chinese bosses and co-workers tell every foreigner at every job at a Chinese work unit. It is meant to impress them and make them grateful.

Please do not be naive enough to take that statement as truth, or to leave your mention of it uncorrected.

Anonymous said...

Why would you work for an "English language commie rag"? Hot chicks? Lack of ethics? Nothing else to do?

Anonymous said...

You work for the Global Times? I am sooooo eagerly anticipating the publication of the English version of what must be the most vile paper with, judging by most of the comments on its website, the most disgusting readership in China. I'm so torn; one part of me wants to castigate you for being such a sellout (I mean, what self-respecting foreigner works for a paper whose idea of headline news is usually "foreign insult to China of the day"), but on the other hand, I do want you to dish the dirt on this exciting project.

This paper is going to be such a sham. After all, they brazenly lie to their own people every day with their "translations" of foreign news articles- like they're going to be honest with the "barbarians."

Justin said...

Anonymous 1: Well, if there's another here at the moment he or she is a mystery to me, although several more are coming in the next few weeks. And since the Chinese language version had no foreigners, I guess I'm just gonna remain naive and uncorrrected.

Anonymous 2: Maybe to piss off folks like you.

Anonymous 3: Thanks, sort of.

Anonymous said...

Good luck in the new job mate -sounds interesting

Personally i would love to work for a Commie rag as they will definately have the hottest chicks

Is it just me that's noticed that China has way the hottest women in uniform -police,customs,military you name it -the best of the best

Scope for an article there ?maybe to liven up your next issue-sure top get the expat readership up

Anonymous said...

Seriously, mate, don't work there for more than a year. You'll never get them to grow a journalistic spine. I tried it at Xinhua and nearly ended up in a mental asylum. They're all brainwashed automatons, indoctrinated to obey the party.

Justin said...

Re: Sino uniform cos-play idea!

Yeah! A China tabloid PAGE 3 Girl. Miss Guangdong Customs Agent No 1347.

Likes: Long walks in the park, sunsets, and rooting through incoming Hong Kongers' luggage for untaxed cosmetics.

Dislikes: Pushy mainlanders with bad combovers who don't pay enough grease to have her overlook the three cases of pirated Adidas and Microsoft products they're trying to get through with.

Justin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

What the training session really needs is something like this: How to make propaganda look like balanced news reporting?

Anonymous said...

You can't turn propaganda into balanced news. It just doesn't work. In the wise words of President Truman, you can't polish a turd.

Anonymous said...

The government won't spend a penny on any new program which doesn't carry its propaganda mission, be it the People's Daily, Xinhua News Agency or CCTV.

kailing said...

Sounds interesting, I would like to try, but, English is no my mother language. may be I will write some letters to the editr to see how much can the envelope be pushed... hahaha.

Anonymous said...

You might want to ask yourself why they would hire someone who does not speak or read Chinese.

I mean, please do not take your role there so seriously. There is already enough of that going on--foreigners teaching English at universities and calling themselves professors, supervising a play and stating they are directors of drama programs, people having lunch with someone who works at a corporation and saying they are consultants.

You will be polishing English, and foreigners have worked at Global Times before, helping to translate English language articles into Chinese. I was one of them.

Anonymous said...

An American journalist find it helpful to view the Global Times “as a daily soap opera, bringing to life the psyche of the Chinese foreign policymaking community, playing out a rising China’s ongoing identity crisis vis a vis a Westernized global order.” Now this newspaper wants to launch an English edition and so it hires foreigners to do the translation. But do you think foreign readers would like it?

wgj said...

For sure the Global Times is full of nationalistic crap, but its tone of ignorant populist grandstanding is really not much different than that of the daily reporting on China in the "mainstream" Western media. Seriously, why is "foreign insult to China of the day" any worse than "China's evil doing of the day"?

Anonymous said...

In another post on another blog this same writer said he was the only foreigner on a certain floor at the China Daily, and that was clearly not the case.

Justin has a reputation for being flexible with the facts, so he could have finally found a home.

Justin said...

You're right. I do recall posting that and I believed it at the time.
It was the Business Weekly dept, third floor of China Daily. Turns out there was another one in the special sections dept down the hall and to the left whom I wasn't aware of til a little later.
BTW, “Anonymous" I may err some but at least I use my real name. Why don't you and the other Aonoymi clowns grow some stones and at least post a set of fake initials?

Anonymous said...

I simply posted that you "err" because you seem to have the need to be the "sole" or "only" or "first" foreigner for some reason, but that is simply not the case. You are not a cultural pioneer -- in fact you are still a babe on the path that many have trod before you.

And try to stick to the truth without exaggeration, OK? I know its only a crappy blog, but jouralists should have some ethics shouldn't they?

Anonymous said...

Wow...I turn my back for a minute and this turns into Mrs. Wilson's English class with spitballs and paper airplanes flying. Somebody's obviously got a major ax to grind and I'm only sorry that he's using your head as the wetstone.
On a lighter note, you're employed and, I'm guessing, he's got nothing but time on his hands...
You're more honest as a journalist than you were as a bass player Justin. And that's saying something...I'm just not sure what.


Justin said...

Thanks Ben, ha. But I wasn't a dishonest bass player. I just couldn't play worth a damn. I still recall you working me through the arrangement to (I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone - not exactly too complex when it comes to basic musicianship but way beyond me.
And my pal, Mr Anonymous. Good to see you again. So you're a shrink, too? My "need" to be first and all...
This is the third state owned deal I've toiled for. Not inexperienced in these matters.
I really have no delusions or illusions or need for recognition.
If you're also the same Old China Hand who says he worked translating for GT, introduce yourself. Fact is, no Chinese here I've met say they recall any other lauwei here before and I'd say their approach to hiring me and the others who will follow more or less proves it.
BTW, several of the newbies do speak and one also reads Chinese, so that busts your theory about why a Sino illiterate such as I was hired.
And my ethics, such as they are, are really my own business.
Blog's crappy? I know the feeling. Don't read it.

john said...

At least the Global Times had the cojones to hire a real journalist if even for a state owned enterprise.

Beats the US where privately owned enterprises hire entertainers, dowagers sons, and former Miss Ohios and where most of what is pawned off as "journalism" comes from a government press release or a VNR.

Id respect a real journalist reporting for Mao more than a fake journalist reporting for Obama any time.

Anonymous said...

Ya, better help guide those "newbies" you old, month-long, veteran of the inner workings, trail blazer and self-appointed expert.

Justin said...

Uh, actually it's been two weeks here at this place, so, yeah, I'm also one as I've made clear, I believe.
No one will be guiding anyone. We are all guided by the Party and its principles, doncha know?
They all have extensive experience both in journalism and in China, but thanks for the sage advice, anonymous asswipe.

Anonymous said...

Not impressed by the bitching attacks on our gracious host.

The guy can write, and he has none of the ego, agenda, and lookatmeismo of most China bloggers.