AJR  Columns :     ABOVE THE FOLD    
From AJR,   February/March 2007

East Greets West   

A traveling dean and Chinese journalism students

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.     

Guangzhou, China, is a bustling and burly port city a few hours up the Pearl River from Hong Kong and the South China Sea. Much better known by its pre-revolutionary name, Canton, Guangzhou is a megalopolis of 10 million or more, sort of L.A. by way of Detroit but on the scale of Mexico City.

It is a southern, subtropical place, where people live life out in the open. It has little of Beijing's stuffy authority or Shanghai's airs.

Oh, you can still get yourself a Beamer there, to be sure. There's plenty of money in Guangzhou, as there is all along China's dynamic coastline. But rather than head to your exclusive golf club or the trendiest art gallery, in Guangzhou chances are you'd drive that shiny new ride straight down to the riverfront and your favorite seafood restaurant, where you'll be tempted to pick your meal from all the potential entrees still swimming around in huge tanks right along the sidewalk.

One recent night there I checked out the eels, the giant clams, the spiky lobsters, the catfish, the turtles, even what looked alarmingly like waterborne roaches. What really got my attention, though, was the cage containing three very alive, six-foot alligators. I opted for the shrimp.

But then this, too, is Guangzhou. A few years ago, with the city's established universities effectively landlocked and the region's college-eligible students being deprived of opportunity, Guangdong Province reclaimed a big island in the Pearl River delta on the edge of the city (bouncing hundreds of luckless villagers in the process) and erected a gleaming new University City of 10 conjoined campuses--in two years! I mean, to put that into a little local context, it's the equivalent of building three full University of Maryland-College Park campuses--over 120 major buildings in all, including half a dozen big-time sports stadia--almost overnight.

It's tempting to say a feat like that is all you need to know about China today.

But that's not true. You need to know what's going on inside all those glittery new buildings, too.

I spent a rainy afternoon meeting with several hundred journalism students from the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies. Their journalism instruction is in English, and their command of the language is impressive. So is their sophisticated grasp of today's media landscape.

In my talk, I had emphasized how the media world is shifting because the Internet has in effect made them all publishers. Then came their questions, and it only took one to make me realize what a thoughtful group it was. "If we're all publishers on the Web," said a polite but confident young lady, "what can we do to get noticed among all that competition?"

I tap-danced a little trying to answer that. Then many other hands shot up:

Why do big American cities have only one newspaper?

In an age of bloggers, what is the role of traditional journalism, where stories don't carry an author's explicit point of view?

Were the American media propagandists for the war in Iraq?

One young lady even asked me about the efficacy of the Newspapers in Education program! I think that was a first for me on any continent.

Sitting in the audience, smiling at the media literacy of the young Chinese, was my host, Arnold Zeitlin, a visiting professor of journalism at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies. A highly respected foreign correspondent for both the Associated Press and United Press International, Arnold ran the Freedom Forum's Asian office in Hong Kong before heading to Guangzhou about four years ago.

He is passionate about his kids, and he manages to be both encouraging and sympathetic as they go on to try to practice journalism with an enthusiasm that their government matches in its attempts to repress them.

"The Chinese you me--administrators, faculty, journalists and student--are all reaching out, anxious to bring themselves and their country to what they consider its rightful place in a contemporary world," Arnold e-mailed me after my visit. "I've never enjoyed myself as much anywhere else in what has been a long and eventful life... I am extremely lucky to be..the fly on the wall, watching the students and this country, with all its flaws and restrictions, grow."

One night in Guangzhou Arnold arranged for me to have dinner with a half dozen of the city's young journalists. In keeping with Guangzhou's more open nature, the city's media have earned a reputation in China for being more aggressive and ambitious than their northern counterparts. But even they have been tempered the past few years by the government's pushback.

Over our tea, one editor in his mid-thirties told me the most frustrating thing about the current climate is that journalists are never really sure where they stand. The government at least used to be clearer about what it would, and wouldn't, tolerate. Today no one is quite sure, which of course has the effect of increasing self-censorship.

Still, they struck me as a determined bunch, and four are new parents. No one has to tell them what is at stake.