Aug 03, 2012 11:40 AM

The 'Paper Tiger' in China’s Journalism Schools

For some years, American journalists have been bemoaning that "dead-tree journalism" is on its last legs. But coming to teach journalism in China, the classroom magically transforms them to something larger than life. To a captive audience of Chinese students, they can teach the gospel of independent journalism.

Sadly, at a time when progressive journalism educators in China are struggling to minimize dogma and establish professional standards, ideology is still writ large among foreign journalism teachers.

A recent article in The New York Times portrays a group of happy campers: American teachers hang on because they see hope of change in China; some schools are adopting the same educational norms as the West despite one-party rule; by threatening to quit, an American teacher succeeded in warding off interference. It is a mixed bag of pragmatism and bravado. In any case, the rank of foreign journalists teaching in China is said to be growing. More disturbingly, journalism school is likened to an ideological battlefield.

For Chinese journalism schools, reforming curriculum is to stay relevant in a rapidly changing Chinese society and evolving news media. The role of journalists, according to China's political orthodoxy, is still as the mouthpiece of the Communist Party. But market-oriented news media have long embraced the practice of gathering and disseminating news to reflect reality; they need journalists who can report and engage their audience. Foreign journalists are hired to improve students' English proficiency and writing skills.

Chinese educators, in fact, are quite relaxed about foreign teachers' influence. A Chinese professor quoted in the Times shrewdly put it to his interlocutor: "… you can talk about your values, but the question is whether the students will accept it or not."

Students born in the 1980s and 1990s grew up in an era when the Chinese economy was taking off. Pampered as the single child in the family, they have a mind of their own. Many know how to "leap the wall" of internet censorship to put the outside world at their fingertips. If they are somewhat cynical about authority, the same skepticism applies to Western journalism.

Foreign journalism teachers only rarely mention the professional crisis brought on by technology and the changing economy. One anonymous source in the Times article bragged how he opened the eyes of Chinese students to the shining examples of the Pentagon Papers and covering genocide in Rwanda or the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Actually, discussions of these facts are available in China. A quick keyword search on Google or Baidu bears me out. Curiously, this teacher failed to mention that in 1971 Daniel Ellsberg needed the New York Times to get the Pentagon Papers public. Four decades later, Julian Assange needs no journalists to disseminate the leaked documents.
Foreign journalists often snigger at the mandatory Marxist journalism course as if students have been turned into patsies. They ignore the fact that these smart kids know actions speak louder than words. I recall a fellow American teacher, eager to please a guest speaker, handed out fawning questions to students in a stage-managed Q&A. No wonder the gatekeepers of the journalism school chortled knowingly.

Three years ago, I was on the faculty of a program to teach how to cover business subjects when the journalism school received a mandate from the Central Propaganda Department to train "external publicists" and drastically altered the curriculum. The American partner of this joint program raised no objection. What was there to fear about the American "paper tiger?"

To be sure, some foreign teachers are models of integrity and dedication. But many others have their own personal agendas. The least that can be said is that teaching journalism to the Chinese rekindles the dying idealism of their youthful days as the news industry crumbles in their home countries. A paycheck is also a nice thing to have. They will do a great service to the students by being less preachy and laying bare the fact that the news industry is in a moment of painful transition. The nature of journalism is to tell things as they are, no matter how disturbing.

I use the term "paper tiger" advisedly, mainly poking fun at my fellow American teachers, not repeating Mao Zedong's attack on imperialism. At the end of the day, an unblinking eye to report the facts fulfills our mission as a journalism teacher better than phony media evangelism.

The author is a visiting professor at the School of Communication and Design at Sun Yat-sen University


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