A Chinese Century  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    TOP OF THE REVIEW    
From AJR,   December 2002

A Chinese Century   

The world?s largest nation rouses itself.

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


Though it was still early in November, all of Beijing was lit up like Christmas. The 16th Communist Party Congress was about to convene, and this great city, at once ancient and utterly up-to-date, seemed to have hung every strand of lights it could find. After all, this event comes around but every five years, and this time a festive, self-confident Beijing wanted to put the party back into Party Congress.

If to outward appearances the Congress was business as usual--these guys make U.N. plenary sessions look like Delta House keggers--there was nothing usual about it. Outgoing President Jiang Zemin outlined his vision of a more inclusive party--inclusive enough even to welcome private enterprise. "All legitimate income, from work or otherwise, should be protected," Jiang declared.

The message of change has gotten through. Beijing today is entrepreneurial, bustling, building, more gaudily commercial than anything this side of Times Square. The new national symbol is the crane--the construction crane. Western interests are here in droves, and everyone is on the make in the last great market frontier. A billion consumers can't be wrong.

Media companies are no exception. Just two days before the Congress opened, Jiang found time to welcome representatives from Hearst, News Corp. and more than a dozen other global players, pointedly emphasizing his desire that they engage China in more partnerships. Needless to say, that was precisely what they wanted to hear.

This new China also poses tremendous opportunities, if more than a few risks, for Chinese journalists, which in a roundabout way was what brought me here.

I came at the invitation of Ying Chan, director of the Journalism and Media Studies Center at the University of Hong Kong. A Hong Kong native, Ying was a longtime reporter for New York's Daily News and a Nieman fellow. In addition to running the JMSC, a professional graduate journalism program she launched in 1999, Ying also has undertaken to help build up an even newer J-department at Shantou University, about 200 miles up the coast from Hong Kong, as well as a journalism center in Beijing that aspires to be a kind of Chinese Poynter Institute.

The Shantou-Beijing initiatives are at the behest of Chinese billionaire Li Ka-shing, who was born in Shantou--a country cousin to Hong Kong and nearby industrial center Shenzhen--and who has grown Shantou University with hundreds of millions of dollars of his own money.

Ying is a dynamo who appreciates that Chinese journalism is at a remarkable turning point. She wants to cultivate and train journalists in a country with little tradition in fact-based reporting practices and values, but who now see opportunity all around them. In cities like Guangzhou, newspapers, magazines and Web sites are springing up nearly as often as Audi dealerships, and honest-to-goodness investigative journalism has even been spotted. These new outlets are stunning departures from the old party propaganda sheets, and Chinese consumers definitely get the difference.

So much is at stake. The largest nation on Earth is rousing itself, which means this will almost certainly turn out to be a Chinese century. But how will that power manifest itself? The Communist leadership is trying to strike a delicate balance between openness and control. To a great extent, the outcome will depend on the interpreters of these seismic events, a long-repressed but emboldened news media.

The new Chinese journalists definitely have a sense of the moment. In a whirlwind week, I was able to interact with hundreds of students, educators, editors and media researchers. Of the many impressions I carried away--how dynamic the young Chinese are, how remarkably conversant in English, how politically sophisticated--one was overriding. This is the widespread belief that China's change is so profound, and so far along, that there is no turning back.

On my final day in Beijing I walked to the Forbidden City, the immense walled compound from which five centuries of emperors ruled China. I then crossed back to Tiananmen Square and the tomb of Mao Zedong, joining thousands of Chinese filing in to pay their respects to the Great Helmsman. Lying there, the red flag of the People's Republic pulled up to his chest like a blanket, he looked as if he might simply have dozed off.

But I can reliably report that Mao is still dead. From the looks of the new China, he will stay that way for a long, long time.

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