Media

How do Peking University students read the news?

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Newsstand at Beida students — photo by Alec Ash

This article is by Alec Ash, a British student at Peking University (also known as PKU and Beida) and the blogger behind Six, which follows "the lives of six young Chinese in Beijing — stories from the generation that will change China".

Not long ago, I attended a talk in Beida by the Economist journalist James Miles: 'A foreign journalist's twenty five years in China'. The room (too small) was packed, the front row with the latest issue of the Economist out on the table. Students — the clean cut guy standing next to me was studying an odd combination of Economics and Dentistry — listened from the back to Miles' anecdotes of traveling by night to AIDS villages in Henan, and his defense of the Western media's response to the Tibet riots ("Western media, by and large, not only got it right, but got it first").

The event was organized by Beida's translation society, in collaboration with the website Ecocn, which regularly posts Chinese translations of Economist articles. I asked my dentist-to-be neighbor, Zang Pang, if he read the Economist: yes he did, and also The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal (both online), on top of the Chinese media he consumed — but didn't necessarily trust. Like much of the crowd that day, he was a news junkie. At the end of the speech, he asked a question about censorship of the Chinese press.

That's one end of a spectrum: elite students at one of China's top universities, who follow Chinese and Western media, inquisitively and with skepticism about both. If that's the ideal, then the other end is a 'split end': there's those who are apathetic; and those who read the news, but swallow everything they read without question. Students at PKU, like all young Chinese, are all over that spectrum. But I was curious: how did other Beida students read the news?

As I asked around, two things became apparent which were obvious enough before, but still worth stating. Firstly, they read the news online, chiefly on portals like Sina. Even if the campus newspaper stand sees a steady flow of Mao's face changing hands (the lady running it tells me the paper she sells the most of is the well-respected Southern Weekly), it really is all about the web. No one seems to even have a TV, although a noticeable trend is students reading news on their mobiles. What's interesting is that many trust the news on Sina more than that in newspapers - even though many Sina stories are taken direct from the papers. But it's online, so it's OK — netizens can comment below.

Secondly, they read the news in Chinese. Even for those whose English is good, they still digest foreign news through Chinese syndications of foreign media in Cankao Xiaoxi, not the original. (See this Danwei post by Bruce Humes for more on Cankao Xiaoxi's reliability).

Anyone excited at the idea of Zang Pang reading about Tiananmen in the NYT can curb their enthusiasm: he's the exception.

Next up: what news are Beida students reading? In a noodle canteen, I asked a dozen students what news item they've been reading about recently. A couple said 'none' — exams coming up, studying ten hours a day, I don't read the news!

One girl (a lesbian who proudly introduced her girlfriend to me) replied the Li Tuo An, or Rio Tinto trial. The rest, of course, said the Yushu earthquake. In other words, if it's on the front page, especially domestic news, then students are reading it — just like in any other country. (Although one friend I talked to later said he always skipped the front page, as it was the most 'harmonised' and, consequently, boring.)

But do they make that first turn of page or scroll of cursor? What about other stories making waves in China, of the kind that members of the Danwei danwei read about right here?

How many had read, for instance, about Wang Keqin's exposé of the Shanxi vaccination scandal? Of the dozen, just three had. How about Google leaving China, then? That seemed like an elephant hard to miss. But only half of those I asked were certain what the story was; or if they'd hear the the gist, they still hadn't caught on that Google.cn now redirected to Google.hk.

If that surprised you — as it did me — then the answer that stories are reported confusingly, or not enough, in a censored Chinese media is only half-right. The problem isn't that no-one has heard of such stories, it's that they don't know if they can believe them or not. Cheng Liang, or 'Leonidas' (who I write about on my blog), had seen the Google headline on Yahoo.com, but "I don't know whether foreign stories or the Chinese story is true. We don't know what is actually happening."

On this note, allow me a little digression to illustrate how limited Beida students are as a representation of China's youth. I also asked my dozen test-subjects if they thought the press in China was free or censored. Everyone said censored, except for one buzz-cut lad who looked puzzled and said "what does 'censored' mean?" Then in response to the question 'what's the main function of the Chinese media?' He replied "so the government can relay news to the people". I asked him what his subject was. Ah, he blushed: actually I'm not a student here — I work in the coffee shop.

Unlikable as the word 'elite' is, I find students at Beida and Tsinghua more skeptical about the news than others their age; and that skepticism is as strong towards Western bias or 'framing' of stories as it is towards domestic media.

But that doesn't mean they're always better read. That Google's pullout or the vaccination scandal were met with so many blank stares can't be blamed on their sources alone — the news is out there alright, as are the means to guess its reliability. What has also formed is a kind of 'news-as-entertainment' culture. Even political news, my friend Wang Dingnan tells me, is treated as entertainment by his classmates: for instance, Han Feng's lurid sex diary, or netizens exchanging pictures of the suspiciously lavish watches officials wore during the CPPCC.

In his speech, talking of the different generations of Chinese youth he's encountered over the years, James Miles said "I think young people are always the same. They like to have fun, they work hard, they play hard, and they read news in between." As a young person myself, I'm also hyper-sensitive to being patronized - but on the campus of Beida I agree with Mr Miles. Hidden among book pagodas on the huge wooden desks of PKU's library, of those students taking a break from their studies, I invariably see ten watching films on Youku for every one clicking onto the news.

There are currently 18 Comments for How do Peking University students read the news?.

Comments on How do Peking University students read the news?

I'm a Chinese student, as many of them i'm not a regular news consumer either. Sometimes, in particular, when crisis like the earthquake happens, i'll look at portals and overseas reporting. i too noticed that nearly all commercial portals have their news transported from other newspaper websites, which have the official qualification for news gathering. the only difference is titles are changed when they appear on portals.

recently i prefer to read Xin lang Wei Bo (新浪 微博), which is a twitter like service, as i can read comments from some critics in addition to the pure news reporting.

I think its right people are becoming more critical than they were before in china, but few of us are rational-critical when looking at issues. Does this have sth to do with our media? i dont know

what news are Beida students reading? In a noodle canteen, I asked a dozen students what news item they've been reading about recently. A couple said 'none' — exams coming up, studying ten hours a day, I don't read the news!

有时候真的没法判断去相信那一边,也许是能获得的消息源太少了。如果有足够的消息源,我想,大家不是傻子应该会有一个自己的判断的。

Says a lot about China that students at its best universities have barely any idea about current affairs. If you asked the same questions to students at Harvard, Stanford, Oxford or Cambridge, it's hard to imagine getting such limited responses.

Hey, I live in France and honestly, on some delicate subjects, I do not believe completely the French media either.

I am not sure about chinese media (I used to read about as pure propaganda only), but on some recent events in China (Tibet, Xinjiang), I can tell Western media so called 'free press' made a lot of 'unintentional' mistakes that clearly showed how biaised they are when dealing with Chinese matter and especially Tibet. I was kinda shocked when I realized this.

Thus, I am not surprised the 'Chinese elite' doesn't know who to believe. On Google's pullout, who can really tell what really happened ? Chinese hackers seem to be perfect scapegoats on that matter.

Dan hits the nail on the head.

The difference between the Chinese students and students from the Western world is that the Chinese students know enough to realize that both domestic and foreign news are biased, and thus are skeptical to both. Sadly, that cannot be said of many folks from the west who simply cannot admit that majority (if not all) of their journalists are biased against China on the more sensitive (politically correct) topics such as Tibet, One Child Policy, etc.

It seems that a survey of 12 students at a noodle canteen probably isn't very representative. When I attended Beida in the international affairs department, many students were very aware of international events, and especially aware of regional news - even news about Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, etc.

cc is right. A dozen of students can not represent the rest tens of thousands. And honestly I don't believe that Beida or Tsinghua students are too different from those in the other quality universities, in terms of social consciousness.

Yeah, that's right. i agree that the methodology of the inquiry itself is problematic. just a dozen of students cannot be representative of others,and timing is also important,,, if you choose to ask them at the end of the semester, most of students must be busy with exams therefore cannot pay as much attention to news as they could at the beginning of the semester .

Clearly, this study does have a few methodological issues, but I don't think it was attempting to be a definitive analysis.

From my own personal experience, it does see safe to say that the author is probably right in two of the main points: 1) students mainly get their news online, and often from some of the main portals, and 2) they mainly read the news in Chinese. This rings true with my experience. In 2006, I was at Fudan, taking a MA course in IR on Sino-American relations. Despite the fact that all the fellow students had very competent English abilities, it was a bit surprising that none of them followed the mid-term elections through any of the American press outlets. (To some extent, I felt like one of the profs was seen as a knowledgeable expert on American politics simply because he read the Washington Post's coverage everyday, and therefore was way more informed than people reading summaries through 新华 or 环球时报!)

And, I think he's probably also right in saying, "I find students at Beida and Tsinghua more skeptical about the news than others their age; and that skepticism is as strong towards Western bias or 'framing' of stories as it is towards domestic media".

Perhaps this is one positive aspect. Today's elite Chinese students seem to have a good nose for bias, and will probably grow to be savvy media consumers over time.

In the future, however, I think it would be interesting to study the effects that 环球时报 (Global Times- Chinese version) has on young news junkies. It was also my experience, like CC, that many Chinese students were probably more knowledgeable about regional affairs than their counterparts in other countries might be, partly due to the influence of 环球时报. On the other hand, the newspaper has a consistent agenda to pick out stories from the millions out there, present them as typical of the monolithic "Western press"'s reporting (often omitting that the story in question is an op-ed and not reporting per se), and hammering home the point to its readers that the Western press is hopelessly biased. No doubt, the Western press is biased to some extent, but I think it does help create a sort of hyper-sensitivity that can blow certain biases out of proportion.

I have one print subscription - none other than The Economist, but I read a couple of other newspapers online. However, I read for different kinds of stories/articles in different newspapers:

1) For Factual News on China, I mainly read Lianhe Zaobao (Singapore: Chinese) and Sina.cn.

2) For Factual News about the World, I read the major English language publications: Los Angeles Times, Telegraph, Guardian (UK), Straits Times (Singapore: English), etc.

3) For Commentary on China, I read the Straits Times (Singapore: English). Not only are they well written, but most importantly, they do not have the kind of cynical undertone/bias that the major Western newspapers often exhibit in their opinion pieces on China. For this reason, I make it a point not to read the latter for commentary articles that are directly related to China.

4) For Commentary on affairs not specific to China (which I can therefore read in a detached mood), I read the major English language newspapers: The Economist; Los Angeles Times; Telegraph, etc.


I don't want to fan the fire, and what I am about to write is very limited in terms of scope, but I think it is still shocking nonetheless.

I recently started work for a major Chinese newspaper as editor of their English language website. We have three interns helping out, translating news summaries. They are all recent grads. I asked each of them what news do they read, and they all said "before we came here we never read/watched the news". Of course, I am mortified at the company's hiring policy, and I don't know how many other media outlets would do the same.

On the flipside most of my wife's friends are very well read, and so are many of the young Chinese people I encounter.

marriedtochina, since you are working for a Chinese news agency you should probably know how the organization works...the media industry is fundamentally different here...

I am going to tell you something that everyone overlooked:

There are different "importance" of news between the West and China. While you might think everyone in China should know about Google leaving; it is not the case. Inversely the stories people care about in China will mostly likely get the same type of blank stare if you take it Harvard for example.

There for I believe the point express in this article is not completely correct.

Funny that The Economist held this forum. A friend got back from the mainland and showed me her copy of that magazine, where the censors tore out the pages with a story on the Qinghai earthquake.

@ Yeah. Western viewers are way more cynical and critical, because they grow up with conflicting opinions (say, FOX vs. CNN), political satire, and open debate.

People feel comfortable saying, "That NYT story was a bunch of crap." Sometimes they write to the newspaper saying "your story was a bunch of crap." And the newspaper will print it.

Outside of elite students at English-language political forums, most Chinese only know their state-run media. Most really believe conspiracy theories that the Western media are out to get them.

We're not, of course. [Disclosure. I work for the NYT Co., at their IHT newsroom in Hong Kong. Though I am writing this as an individual, not on behalf of work]

You might not like or agree with the media. But trust me. We're busy processing news from around the world. Nobody sits around plotting against China.

China is just one nation among many -- it's not treated better or worse than anyone else. There's negative reporting across the board, whether it's on Iraq, Guantanamo or EU debt.

@ William is right. Censored media + a country obsessed with face = hypersensitivity.

Mainland journalists or journalism students already find a big cultural difference in Hong Kong, where the press is uncensored. And we're not "the West." We're close to home.

Joyce I totally understand your point of view. Everyone's fair game and that it genuinely works like that. I don't think any media company is actively plotting with the CIA to badmouth China.

Nevertheless, does it always have to be negative reporting non-stop? I mean, many people today are already bogged down by work and stress, and we really don't need further negative news, whether it be about China or America, to drag us down. Perhaps you've noticed it already as well, the Economist has never been able to bring a single positive report article about China without making subtle references to China's political shortcomings. Biased? Of course. It's just a little too much when they do it every single week.

I go to college in DC and I sometimes watch CCTV's online news broadcastings. Aside from the usual propaganda repetitions on what the politburo members are doing everyday, I must admit that some of the news items are quite objective and encouraging. In a large country like China, I think there needs to be some kind of stabilizing force among the media that positively conveys hope and encouragement to ordinary citizens.

I wonder what a systematic study will show?

I was once considered as an "elite student" in France, where I was born and grew up, but in 'hard sciences' (maths, physics...; 70-80% of the top managers of the French largest companies nowadays have my profile -lasting remnants of Napoleon's era- !) that at a time when Internet didn't exist; extremely few of us on our elite campus used to read the most well-known French newspapers (Le Monde, etc.) and very few renown weeklies as well; very consumed the news from TV or radio as well; very few knew in fact what was going on in the country in terms of politics, important social debates, etc. -especially with varied and balanced opinions, foreign views, etc.-; and it was far worse concerning the rest of the world... Then I moved to the PRC, ...and started reading the news, all kinds of news !
Besides, much later I used to live a large part of my time in the PRC, and the rest in Asia, especially after 11/2001, especially when the all-powerful US oil-arm lobbies and their infamous puppets launched their global attack on the Iraqi oil bank... and had the same bad feeling, during a few years, of a global "bias" - in the US media (felt abashed, and ashamed for them ! I was in the media business...) than in absorbing daily some of the production of the PRC media.
Nowadays I have the same feeling of a "bias" when I read my only local county newspaper, or watch the only regional TV network, in my average-size hometown, in France; there is a systematic self-censorship concerning everything negative about the mayor and the city hall of this county town. Luckily these media had to have websites -to save their finances-, and then had to follow the trend in allowing comments, and they can't moderate -erase- and modify all these comments !
Conclusion, nothing new under the sun, especially in our modern 'showcraties' -including the PRC- ! At least concerning our modern 'global' consumers of news...
Of course the situation may still be less globalized -or stupidly human-, and more erratic and in fact even dangerous -even physically- for the producers of news, depending on their passports and locations on the globe ! But that won't change soon as well...
Some hope, a true change under the sun, may come -it really emerged in the late 2000's- with the Net and a new generation of powerful, varied, even mobile tools, allowing interactive mass media, with these rather systematic 'attached comments', and universal, even anonymous, publishing by everyone, everywhere,...


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