Hu Yong interview: the digital age, Orwell's "Newspeak" and Chinese media


Hu Yong (胡泳) is associate professor at Peking University’s School of Journalism and Communication, and a pioneering developer of China's Internet. He has worked for a number of media, including Sanlian Lifeweek, China Daily, China Internet Weekly and CCTV.

A respected authority in his field, Hu Yong has been published widely. He authored Internet: The King Who Rules, the first book introducing the Internet to Chinese readers, as well as several other best-selling books concerning Internet economy.

He is also the translator of several groundbreaking English books on digital technology, including Being Digital and Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age. His most recent book is The Rising Cacophony: Personal Expression and Public Discussion in the Internet Age, documenting the major transformations in the Chinese cyberspace.

A frequent speaker at IT events and management conferences, Hu Yong is active in industry affairs. He is co-founder of the Digital Forum of China, a nonprofit organization that promotes public awareness of digitalization, and advocates a free and responsible Internet. In 2000, Hu Yong was nominated for China’s list of top Internet industry figures.

Hu Yong’s academic honors include China Media Project Visiting Fellow, Journalism and Media Studies Centre, The University of Hong Kong, and China Internet Project Visiting Fellow, Graduate School of Journalism, The University of California, Berkeley. He is a founding director for Communication Association of China (CAC) and China New Media Communication Association (CNMCA).

For Danwei Hu Yong agreed to answer questions about being a veteran China journalist who has been engaged in State media, and as a founder of Sanlian Lifeweek. As well as the current state and hopes of journalism in China, Hu Yong talked about his thoughts on the future of the Internet in China, and how it will shape a healthier society. Translation of the interview is below, and the original Chinese transcript here.

Danwei: You have had a long career in the media in China, previously a senior writer for Sanlian Lifeweek (三联生活周刊), the editor-in-chief of Global Executive Journal (环球管理), the main producer for CCTV’s Economic News program (经济新闻联播), and chief strategist for Dialogue program (对话) for CCTV. You obviously have garnered a very good understanding of the Chinese media. Why did you switch from being a journalist to teaching at PKU?
Hu Yong: In the early days of the nineties, non-government controlled commercial media was rising, and I participated in the founding of Sanlian Lifeweek and wanted to make it China’s Time Magazine in three to five years. Today, some of China’s serious magazines, such as Caijing (财经) and Sanlian Lifeweek, are successful commercially. Even today I think commercialization was a kind of energy or force for the liberation of Chinese media: when media relies more on advertisement and distribution, and not on the financial support of the government, they respond more to audiences and readers. Of course we have to be aware of the negative connotations of commercialization over the past few years too.

I went through all this, from working in the media to teaching at a university. I personally think that media is young people's work, which doesn't dismiss the fact that there are people with a ton of experience working in the industry. Still, the industry is structured around young people. Really the younger you are, the stronger your ability to grasp new technology.

Concerning the professional careers of media workers, my view is that they only have two way-outs: one, if you have accumulated enough experience, you can try to be the leader of a certain media company, or create your own media. In other words you can direct and instruct those who are even younger, in the role of boss, editor-in-chief, producer and such. Other people might vote for going down the professional route; they want to become an "expert" journalist in a particular field, or an editor with a specialization.

I mean they will concentrate their knowledge and their positioning in a particular field, and in these areas they will feel substantial professional reward. We know that expert columnists all start out as young journalists who reported on everything, and then found an individual direction, and on some levels they have transformed themselves. Both routes are excellent homes for good journalists. Apart from these, new blood should be injected into the Chinese media.

As for me, I think I feel more at home to share my experiences in the Chinese media with a new generation of journalists.

Danwei: From your work experience, can you think of a report that has made you most depressed?
HY: The most depressing time during my career as a journalist was the few years when I worked at CCTV. We frequently took challenging tasks; they came thick and fast, but restrictions and limitations for reporting was present everywhere. Sometimes we had to race to make news before the order came down [to censor the news], and sometimes difficult things we’d experienced in faraway locations were immediately made void by one order, or in the process of broadcasting the news the provincial "public relations" people would stop it. The feelings of hardness and pain this caused is hard to imagine for outsiders.

After the May 12 earthquake, I met up with Qian Gang (钱钢). He said that, first of all, we must acknowledge that in the mainstream media there are many news “desperados” (亡命之徒) who are well respected, and we have to express our tribute to them: there are people like this at CCTV, Xinhua… you know this is really really important. There are people in the mainstream media who are trying to get closer to the central values of journalism. Even if they are within a monopoly, isn’t this big effort to get closer [to the core values of journalism] good?

Not only are these “desperados” in the mainstream media brave, but they also try their best to apply a professional attitude to disaster reporting. How many people knew that CCTV’s News Probe (新闻调查) program about the collapsed school in Beichuan was censored? There is one thing that Qian Gang and I both agree on: some people say “Don’t be too CCTV” (“做人不能太CCTV”). We can’t really say that, because the things that appear on CCTV are all different. The final judgment for CCTV cannot encompass everything going on there.


At the end of last year, at the PKU book launch for From Weiming Lake to Media: A Collective Memory (我所珍惜的——30位北大传媒人访谈录), CCTV presenter and PKU alumnus Zhang Quanling (张泉灵) said in the final speech: “I hope you realize we are struggling for survival in a highly pressured environment. Any old comrade who shakes his head at a program that’s up for screening means that it won’t go on air. The programs which we send to be screened, one in three are there to be censored, or taken off.” So, I often feel sad for the outstanding people who work in the mainstream media: they put in a lot of effort under very special circumstances, but from an outsiders’ point of view their efforts don’t mean much.

“Give an inch, progress an inch. Give a foot, progress a foot”, this is Hu Shi's (胡适) famous saying. In the face of a reality that is like the surface of metal, there are actually many ways to keep tunneling. Don’t have hopes that are too high, don’t fantasize, don’t desert, don’t give up. Every step is a footprint, every inch forwards is an inch: this is the real spirit of the Chinese media professional.

Danwei: In terms of the development of Chinese culture, do you think that the Internet is a good tool? Do you think that the Internet will contribute to the erosion of traditional Chinese culture?
HY: Aside from the technology, what does the Internet mean for China? The Internet is a new technology, and a new productive force, but we should also see its deeper and more profound meanings. The thing pushing for the Internet’s fast and vigorous development is its basic structure. Traditional computer systems are hierarchical; this kind of pyramidal structure gives dictatorial power to the system operator. In comparison, the Internet is open to the public and democratic: it does not have an owner or controller. This kind of decentralization is diffusing in society: traditional centralization of power will become stale and uninteresting.

Chinese society has always lacked factors that can help foster independence. The classical teaching of Confucianism dictates, “Cultivate one’s moral character, educate one’s family, rule the State, and govern the world well” (“修身、齐家、治国、平天下”). From ancient times till now, there has never been any strong organizations or factors mediating between state and family. The development of autonomous middle layers has been put under control. During the days of the planned economy this reached an extreme level: under a strong and special force of collectivism, it was as if every single person and every legal organization were enlisted as one unit. As the whole of society behaved like a military system, the middle layer of society just disappeared. Only after reform in the 1970s did we began to see the separation of state and civil society.

Judging from its history, the rapid soar of the Internet happened because of people at the grassroots. Therefore, without question it will, in China as well as elsewhere, motivate creativity from the grassroots, and from there construct a society that is healthier, more lenient, and more mature.

Speaking culturally, we should believe that, just as today we are preserving biological diversity, some day we will also decide to protect cultural diversity. The Internet should be used to expose, to the widest extent, the diversity of human culture. For a country with an ancient civilization, faced with the Internet, apart from learning and utilizing other cultures to the fullest extent, China should also seize this opportunity to spread its great culture. The information and knowledge in the past two centuries have always been passed into the East from the West. The China that I dream about is not only a consumer of knowledge, but also, one day, a great producer of knowledge. Every Chinese person will recognize that the country’s cultural attributes are even more important that its Gross National Product.

Danwei: Do you have any thoughts on “shanzhai” culture (imitation, knock-off culture in China)?
HY: “Shanzhai” is about skill: it reveals a kind of China-style innovation. It means that the development of businesses does not rely on handling key technologies only, more importantly, it is about responding to the market and the speediness of this response. The fact that “shanzhai” phones are prospering the way they are isn’t because the government has given it their blessing from high above, or because multinationals have shown formidable muscles, it’s wholly a choice made by the market.

Culturally the phenomenon of “shanzhai” has a much deeper, and weightier, meaning. It is fashionable to maintain a façade in Chinese public life. This has caused a sort of “public lies” and “private truths”: a strange phenomenon, and the two facets are not mutually exclusive. “Shanzhai” is a typical manifestation of this phenomenon. This is of course because power has controlled public understanding, and people are forced to make a reality for themselves. At the same time there is pressure to guarantee that even if people are cynical towards power, they still have to show themselves to believe in it publicly. Post-totalitarianism has its own set of official jargon. Like George Orwell's “newspeak”, it is the kind of language that’s permeating everywhere, which I have pointed out. But strangely it’s also absent.

When people want to express their real feelings to another person, no one uses “official jargon”. But when they want to produce superfluous talk and blurriness of meaning, official jargon is extremely useful. It is very obvious that “official jargon” is divorced from reality: it’s a contradiction, thus it has become the target for open derision. The jokes circulated via mobile phones and egao (spoofs) from the Internet are evidence for this.

Nonetheless, the influence that the combination of politics and language has on daily life really cannot be underestimated. Orwell succinctly pointed out that “newspeak” not only makes us lose the clarity and elegance of speech, but also creates the blurriness that becomes a key tool for political control, and provides legitimacy for systematic control. A bad outcome is cynicism, which is expressed in coldness towards politics and a loss of faith in reality, and a helpless acceptance of reality. And also “doublethink” appears: at the same time when you perform you are laughing at the performance, entering into a disdained opportunism. “Shanzhai” culture is undoubtedly a resistance against mainstream culture, but this kind of resistance solely is not enough.

Danwei: What are your predictions about the direction for Chinese media in 2009, the rate of development and the level of news transparency (for example if there is a mass incident)?
HY: 2008 was a signature year for the Chinese Internet. After [the power of] netizens reach a certain level, then in breaking situations the power of the Internet will suddenly explode and manifest itself. "Sexy Photo gate” became the peak for gossip [on the Internet], the Tibet riots caused Internet nationalism to reach a new level, in the rubble of the Wenchuan earthquake the light of civil society shone, and the Weng'an case reignited debate and discussion about the mutual relationship between the government and its people.

In respect to real influence that the Internet might have on China, from what happened in 2008, we can see what might happen in 2009. At least three changes are worthy of note:

One, the need to verify the truthfulness of information that is coming out is becoming evermore urgent. Information from the Internet could be hard for verification in terms of those who is involved, or what third party is qualified to verify what had been reported. Even if a certain situation gets partly verified, the effect of verification is dependent on the meaning of the thing that is verified, the intentional ambiguity of the process of verification, and also the specific wishes of the information receiver to record this verification.

People with different interests are fighting for Internet opinions. In China, people in politics and business control news and opinions, and this pretense has reached a stage where it cannot be obscured, and where receivers are turning a blind eye.

Two, when contradictory information is given, society becomes worried and afraid, which then worsens the situation. You can understand why in 2008 so many happenings were shrouded in the shadow of rumors rather than actual truth. These rumors are an echo of ourselves: it reflects the desires, fears and obsessions of a society. In these circumstances, to establish the normal channel of expression, and the mechanism for various interest groups to negotiate, are not only progress towards good governance, but also great efforts increasing social welfare. If a society doesn’t allow or never think about establishing an “exit”, then, Chinese people’s worries will become a huge threat to the stability of society.

Number three, in a society that is highly dependent on the media and the Internet, a new “convergence culture” has emerged in the communications industry. Information that is created within such a culture has become an “information bomb”. Information emanating from the Internet can influence the production of contents in other types of media; new media technology and the commercial valuation that supports it are both focused on speed, thus greatly cutting back the time in which to verify the information produced; there is an exponential growth in the number of users who enter the new media network; the “infotainment culture”, the “marketing of politics” and the public’s thirst for gossips all help to create all kinds of “new media events”.

One can probably conclude, even without the help of an end-user survey, that the impact of such kind of “information bomb” is shocking. In China, when certain web portals give extensive coverage to a certain piece of news, when certain well-known BBS forums build up “high towers” of comments, when hearsays originating from the Internet become contents of the traditional media, when certain political or business hot-shots are forced to spend time and energy to remedy their tarnished reputation, when scandalous stories lead to the dismissal of certain senior officials, we should have some idea how much importance the public attach to such “information bomb”..


Danwei: Can you recommend an essential read on Chinese media, one which you think is important?
HY: I recommend my book, published in 2008, entitled The Rising Cacophony: Personal Expression and Public Discussion in the Internet Age (众声喧哗:网络时代的个人表达与公共讨论).

Danwei: In terms of Western media in China, what do you think are their areas for future improvement?
HY: In observing China, Western media's starting point must be China, and not the West. This so-called "the starting point for observing China must be China" has three deeper connotations: one, when they are observing China, concentrate on the internal factors arising from Chinese society, and don't put the focus on external factors. Number two, the roots for historic change lies in internal factors. Number three, Chinese issues must be studied within the Chinese context. Even though the West has an increasing influence on the Chinese situation, and, in terms of the Internet, China is increasingly influenced by new technological developments, the internal history of China will be it’s own. It has been and always will be in the future.

I don’t mean to say that everyone who is not from China cannot get to know the real China. External observation often arrives at a clear view which internal analysis cannot achieve. Just as Hegel said, it is hard to really understand when you know the subject too well. Chinese poet Su Dongo (苏东坡) said: “I can't tell the true shape of Lu Shan because I myself am on the mountain (不识庐山真面目, 只缘身在此山中)". Whether you are a journalist or a scholar, you have to be able to reach a good sense of distance from the subject, so that you can “see the picture from outside the picture”. Also, insiders and outsiders need to constantly communicate with each other and encourage each other, becoming “external insiders” and “internal outsiders”.

Danwei: Where do the PKU students that you teach media and journalism get their inspiration from, and how do you inspire them?
HY: The difference between my students and I, from my point of view, is the difference between "digital natives" and "digital immigrants". My students were basically born at the same age of new media technology, and have grown up alongside technology. Through the process of assimilation, their lives become entangled with technology. The simple reality is, for many kids, using a computer is as easy as breathing. But for a "digital migrant" like myself, I must go through a learning process that's quite difficult and poles apart from what they have experienced. Just like someone from real life who has gone to a new land, and has to think up all kinds of ways to get accustomed to the brand-new digital landscape.

Therefore, I am spurred on to learn from my students. I learn from them.

Danwei: What qualities do you think it takes to be a good journalist in China?
HY: In China there is a saying often used in a derogatory sense, but this saying is best used on journalists. It is: “Your hands do not match your eyes” (眼高手低). With your eyes you should look towards the stars in the sky, but you are also standing firmly on the ground and doing things hands-on.

As a seasoned journalist, I have a motto:

Pierre Bourdieu once said: “Journalism is one of the areas where you find the greatest number of people who are anxious, dissatisfied, rebellious, or cynically resigned”.

After a career of more than ten years in the news, I hope that I can lose my fear, conquer my greed, maintain my rebelliousness, not curry any favors. The wise are not puzzled, and the brave are not afraid, but, the benevolent will always be worried (智者不惑, 勇者不惧, 仁者有忧).

There are currently 2 Comments for Hu Yong interview: the digital age, Orwell's "Newspeak" and Chinese media.

Comments on Hu Yong interview: the digital age, Orwell's "Newspeak" and Chinese media

“In observing China, Western media's starting point must be China, and not the West. This so-called "the starting point for observing China must be China" has three deeper connotations: one, when they are observing China, concentrate on the internal factors arising from Chinese society, and don't put the focus on external factors. Number two, the roots for historic change lies in internal factors. Number three, Chinese issues must be studied within the Chinese context. Even though the West has an increasing influence on the Chinese situation, and, in terms of the Internet, China is increasingly influenced by new technological developments, the internal history of China will be it’s own. It has been and always will be in the future.”

I find this paragraph fairly interesting. I’d agree that a lot of misguided or unintentionally biased reporting comes from trying to understand a country with respect to how it relates to one’s own country. For example, trying to understand the fenqing phenomenon using American or Western metaphors will inevitably lead to half-true assumptions, partially useful/partially erroneous concepts, or historical analogies. Similarly, the Chinese media often tend to focus on events in Korea, Japan, India, America…etc mainly with regards towards how it relates to China’s interests, or whether it presents a good model to copy or mock, not by trying to understand those societies on their own terms and in with their own rhetoric.

But with that said, I’d suggest that “the internal history of China will be its own” somewhat ignores the immense and profound historical interactions China has had culturally: in the introduction of Buddhism from India, in commerce with central Asian peoples, in devising strategies to defend against northern tribes, and in its profound interact with the West in the last few centuries.

Also, while I’d fully agree with this statement “the starting point for observing China must be China”, and I’d generally agree with those three points, it does seem to me that how China interprets and views other countries (many the West), how it defines itself in relation to the West, and how it wants to position itself in the future are all issues that are perhaps some of the most debated and contentious on the web and in the general media these days, and would thus necessitate investigating external factors (or at least how external factors are perceived). Perhaps another problem for the Western journalist is that the observer almost always becomes a participant in any reporting, and to some degree changes the behavior and attitude of the participants. That’s why I’ve often thought that sites like Danwei are important for English-speaking audiences: by translating articles initially meant for domestic audiences, it’s possible to get rid of the problem of the observer changing the attitude of the story or interviewee.

But in any case, this was a good interview and I hope to get Hu Yong’s book sometime soon.

"participated in the founding of Sanlian Lifeweek"? I've found Mr.Hu's self claim sounds rather extravagant.

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