Ying Chan: A Chinese American Trains New Chinese Journalists Today
A transcript from Russell Leong's Oct. 9, 2008 interview with Ying Chan, Director and Professor, Journalism and Media Studies Center, the University of Hong Kong
RUSSELL LEONG: Now, you’re an award-winning journalist and a Nieman fellowship [recipient], George Polk award[ee] and you’ve done journalism both in the West and in the East. So what would you say from your professional expertise standpoint would be the differences between the U.S./Western media and the reportage of China and what you’re trying to do here in terms of training this new generation to report on China?
YING CHAN: Well, what we’re trying to do is really for Chinese, for Asians to tell our stories. China is developing, Asia is developing, but who is telling our stories? It’s still very much by the West, by the international media. They’ve done some good jobs, some not so good jobs, but still we should be the authority in telling our stories. I believe good journalism is the same everywhere, but there are distinct perspectives, distinct stories that Asian and Chinese journalists should be able to tell and get it out to the world.
RL: Because your training is bilingual, right, so your journalists are expected to be very proficient in English and Chinese.
YC: Our program is in English. It’s very much an international program. We have a couple of courses in Chinese. We also encourage our students to be bilingual or even multilingual because we need that capacity to cover China well.
RL: Because of your proximity — Hong Kong is part of China — but still, there’s special things about Hong Kong, for instance, the Internet sites are not censored here, like the Wikipedias, Google, whereas in the mainland it would much harder to access, right? In your opinion, just for the typical Western journalists outside of China, outside of Hong Kong, what would be the single biggest obstacle for them to understand what’s happening inside of China today when they do a story, say, on human rights or this type of thing, or on the economy?
YC: Well, what you find [lacking] in international media in their coverage of China is the context. Very often the context is missing, the history is not there, even for the best international reporters. I mean, how much time [do] they spend in China? … Western journalism, U.S. journalism is in crisis. There’s cutbacks, right? The U.S. media is also cutting back international coverage, right? They have their problems to worry about, right? And so, that also leaves a gap that the local journalists should do, is capable of delivering.
RL: And also in the West, you know, it’s mainly — stories about China do usually report about negative aspects, exposés, you know, corruption, problems, rather than positive, you know —
YC: Well, that’s true but that’s also the nature of journalism, right? So that’s fine, but even when you talk about what’s bad or what’s going on, you also need to put it into context. There’s another issue is that you write about the crackdowns or you write about the censorship — how about the resistance, how about the civil society that’s growing at the grassroots level? So often, use of language, use of culture, Western journalists have their limitations. You can’t spend days, weeks in the villages, whereas we can do it. Our students can do it. Because many of them came from China, so they have the local knowledge and connections to do the stories the way they need to be done.
RL: You’re training your students to be official, professional journalists. What I’m curious about also, of course, is the role of, sort of, unofficial journalism, whether it’s bloggers or other types of alternative kinds of communication modes. Is that kind of complementary to what you’re doing?
YC: Oh yeah, absolutely. Journalism is evolving. We have what you call journalism 2.0. You have Web 2.0. You have the rise of citizen journalism. Everyone can be a journalist and can report and write and publish. So we adopted a convergent media approach. That means our students would be trained in filming, in producing Web sites, writing for the Web, in addition for the basic core skills of a good journalist. You need to be able to read, write, think critically, but beyond all that, journalists today need to be able to perform on multiple platforms. That’s what we’re doing.
RL: Recently, of course, both with the Olympics, but really more with the Sichuan Earthquake, a lot of people both in China and Hong Kong, and in the U.S. as well, this has led to much greater transparency, these interviews at the local level, less censorship, human interest stories and so forth, so do you think that the earthquake is sort of a watershed point in terms of the opening of media or is it just a blip on the screen?
YC: Well, I think the jury is still out. The media did do more human interest stories, reported the earthquake and all that with the blessings of the central government and the propaganda department, but that was quite short-lived, in that in about 10 days the government sent orders and reporting became restricted again. And there are also the banned areas. Chinese reporters [were] banned from investigating from the elementary school collapse. About 15,000 students have been killed under the rubble. Why? Who’s responsible? Who’s the culprit? You’re not allowed to look into that. So, the openness that we saw in the aftermath of the earthquake was quite short-lived. We hope it will come back, but it will take effort.
RL: Media is kind of a global thing, I mean in the U.S., of course, we have a lot of problems in terms of embedded journalism, corporate journalism and companies paying off reporters and so forth, and it’s really, these things are pretty —
YC: Right. See, mainland journalists, they also have a romantic view of U.S. journalism because they read from books of the First Amendment, about Watergate — U.S. journalism is their ideal. That’s why they were very disheartened with the coverage of Tibet when they all these mistakes made by CNN. So there was a backlash. What it also means is that we want good journalism in the U.S. Good journalism in the U.S. would also help journalism in China.
RL: No matter who tells these stories, if they tell them well, whether it’s by a Western reporter, a reporter that’s trained by your journalism and media center, or another journalist, if the story is actually told fairly and in a balanced way, I think in the end it actually helps to humanize the Chinese people, which is really important because people tend to have, still I think, a pretty monolithic, stereotypical view of China.
YC: Oh yeah. Actually, we’re getting more investigative journalism out of China, in spite of all the restrictions. Increasingly, you find their stories got cited by the Western media. But we need to do more.
RL: OK, this is great. I hope that the U.S.-China Media Brief will be able to work with you in some shape or form and to advance the cause of journalism worldwide. With of course, a base of trying to portray China in a more balanced way. Just one last question. Since you did live in the States for, what, 20 years —
YC: Twenty-three years.
RL: Twenty-three years. You may not consider yourself a Chinese American, but I’m just wondering, as a Chinese American myself, what could be the role of Chinese Americans in terms of U.S.-China relations?
YC: Well, I see myself very much as a Chinese American because I was a very long time over there. My two sons were born in the U.S., so they are very much Chinese American, Asian American. I think Asian Americans in the U.S. should pay more interest to events on this side of the Pacific. They have a vested interest in the fortunes of China and Asia. They can play a very important role in fostering understanding and exchanges. Also, as we have seen, the fortunes of Chinese Americans and immigrants rise and fall with the fortunes of China, irrespective of our wishes. Doesn’t matter [whether] you are for communists, anti-communists, right? How you’re perceived in society in America is linked to the perception of China.
RL: I think you’re absolutely right. This might sound a little sexist but we’re part of the scattered seeds of the dragon [laughs].
YC: I sure want to see more exchanges, more mutual fertilization.
RL: I think basically part of this U.S.-China stuff, what you’re doing, is actually just to also educate our own people. Chinese Americans are not necessarily more cognizant of what’s happening, actually. We’re just as much in the dark as a lot of other people. You really have to keep your ear to the ground and it’s pretty difficult with the type of mainstream media. It’s just hard to know the stories. So, we thank you and we’ll be hearing more from you and the media center.
YC: Thank you very much.
Ying Chan, an award-winning journalist and Hong Kong native, established the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Center in September 1999. She set up the first professional postgraduate journalism program in Hong Kong, launched Hong Kong's first fellowships for working journalists, and forged extensive ties between HKU and the news industry.
Chan’s honors include a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, a George Polk Award for journalistic excellence and an International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists. She taught at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and was on the board of the Asian American Journalists Association. Chan has a bachelor’s degree (social sciences) from HKU and a Masters from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.