Posted by Alice Xin Liu on Friday, May 8, 2009 at 12:56 PM
Richard Burger is author of the China blog The Peking Duck, which has been publishing since 2002. The Peking Duck's posts on hot-button issues generate energetic comment threads from all sides of the political spectrum, and the site used to be a target of nationalist Chinese blogger trolls who criticized Burger for his views on China, which were often critical of the government. Burger recently became an editor at the newly launched English edition of the Global Times, a Chinese newspaper that has a reputation for leftist, nationalist content.
The government recently announced that it was going to put in millions of yuan to give Chinese media an "English voice"; the English Global Times has been just one example of this drive.
Below Burger answers questions about the foreign editor's role, what his daily routine is, the openness of the Global Times and their latest center spread. See also Danwei's earlier posts, Promoting the English-language Global Times, Journalism at the Global Times and Ai Weiwei stays in the news.
Danwei: When did you start your job as editor at the Global Times, and what spurred you to take the job?
When I said I was about to go on a trip to Guangzhou, they asked me to put down the phone and come right away for the interview. I did, and the rest is history. I liked the people, I liked the work they were offering me and I thought it would be a new adventure so here I am. I sent Jeremy an SMS that afternoon saying, "Your tweet changed my life." Which is true.
Danwei: The latest issue has a center spread on Ai Weiwei's collection of numbers of earthquake victims. Is this a sign that the Global Times wants to present an "edgier" version of Chinese domestic news to English-speaking audiences? If yes, do you think that this will be effective?
I saw the article you refer to and several others that push the envelope. My own conclusion is that they sincerely want to present the foreigners and English-speaking Chinese here and abroad with a different type of newspaper experience. Sure, they toe the party line on certain topics, but even on the most sensitive of these, they seem willing to present alternative viewpoints, even if they are directly and outspokenly critical of the government.
I think this will be their signature, a panoramic view of the news with lots of analysis and discussion. As I said, it does tow the party line, but they seem genuine about allowing
Danwei: Could you give us a run-down of your daily routine? Are there meetings and editorial meetings? How do these work?
Most of my day, by far, is spent editing copy and, on occasion, writing my own columns. A lot of the opinion pieces come from Chinese university professors and other authorities, and since they are translated into English they need a degree of polishing. I come from a writing and editing background so this is a natural thing for me. It can be hard work, but it's always interesting and even enjoyable. At least usually; deadline times can be hectic.
Another role I have is soliciting columns from foreigners, and I've been amazed at how successful this has been. These columns appear on the Viewpoint page, and they are mostly by foreigners from all walks of life, from local university professors to business consultants to bloggers. So a good part of my day is spent interacting with them, getting their stories approved and sometimes twisting arms a bit to meet deadlines. It's a well-balanced day.
One other observation about my daily life: I was quickly struck by how different a Chinese newsroom is from an American one. In America there can be a lot of hustle and bustle. Our newsroom is relatively quiet despite the large staff. Most people communicate via MSN, even if you're within arm's reach of them. It's taking me a while to get used to this and is one of the few instances of new culture shock for me.
Danwei: What are the "foreign experts" like at the paper? From what kinds of backgrounds do they hail?
Danwei: Do you think that the Global Times offers a unique window into China for the rest of the world － if yes, then in which ways?
One, for example, said the country officials were to be congratulated for their bravery, since this is what all local governments do every day, only most don't have the nerve to say so on paper. Material like this tells me there is a lot for people to learn about China in these pages, and readers will see pretty quickly that what they assumed would be a monolithic point of view is anything but. That's not to say there isn't a lot of the typical government talking points, and I'm sure there are plenty of taboo topics. But there's also some surprisingly interesting ideas being discussed.
Danwei: In what ways do you think domestic (English and Chinese-language) media will be reformed in the next five years in China?
The next big step, in my mind, is training the Chinese journalists about what it takes to do investigative reporting, to challenge your sources and do serious research. They are getting there, and I know for sure they can do all these things - I've seen them do it when they report on Western companies. I think most understand this has to be part of their routine when reporting on their own government, but there is still a sense that you can only go so far. Let's keep pushing the envelope.
Danwei: Any other thoughts?
The very first thing I told the people in charge when I met them on the first interview was that I write a controversial blog that has a long history of being critical of the Chinese Communist Party. I also told them that in recent years I had tried to see the government from a broader perspective, not as a black and white, good or bad entity, but as a vast group of individuals, most of whom are trying to do what they believe is best for their country. But I was clear, I am critical of the CCP, I believe some of its factions are atrocious, I have issues with them, and I am not afraid to say so. And when I asked them if that was acceptable, if I wasn't too controversial for them, they said it was their honor to have a well-read blogger working with them.
The first day I came to work 10 days later, half the people in my department had the Peking Duck up on their monitors. There's nothing on those pages that I wouldn't say directly to the people I work with, and the fact that they still welcomed me on board says something.
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