Posted by Alice Xin Liu on Thursday, April 16, 2009 at 4:15 PM
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?
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?
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?
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)?
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)?
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?
Danwei: In terms of Western media in China, what do you think are their areas for future improvement?
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?
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?
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).
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