Gao Chaoqun, formerly editor of well-known Strategy and Management Magazine in the People’s Republic of China, now edits an academic journal on the history of China’s economic reform. He recently was a guest of the U.S. State Department and visited journalists here to satisfy his interest in the relationship between the American press and the American government and to pursue his interests in American entrepreneurship. He spoke with ANG Newspapers reporter Francine Brevetti, who worked in Hong Kong from 1985 to 1997 and covered mainland China for a variety of publications as a freelancer.
FB: How did you obtain permission from your government to come here and research relationships between journalism and the U.S. Government?
Gao: This trip has no relationship with the PRC government. It’s my personal interest. I think the press has great potential for development in China.
FB: How often do you have to approach a subject that is dangerous for you?
Gao: The journal I work on now has more academic content. Sometimes there are political restrictions.
FB: What kind of political restrictions?
Gao: If we use a contribution from a Taiwanese author, sometimes their interpretation of events is different from ours, and we have to make changes. But China is no longer the same environment (as) when the Cultural Revolution prevailed. Only a very few topics would directly impact the reporter as an individual.
FB: When I lived in Hong Kong, there were several celebrated cases of Hong Kong journalists who went to China and were arrested while doing research. That wouldn’t happen in other countries.
Gao: A lot of American journalists raise these questions. Now 20 years after Mao, it’s very different. In terms of news reporting, there’s been a great improvement. In principle, there have been great changes. Cultural life and society in general are much richer than they used to be.
Reporters’ primary duty is to report on the current status quo, cultural and societal phenomena. The vast majority do. The number of reporters who come in contact with sensitive issues is very small. As for the Hong Kong reporters who were arrested, the cause may not have been political. It may have been corruption. Or they pointed out acute conflicts occurring in society.
The Chinese reporters exposing cases of corruption or societal conflicts, they feel more pressure from interest groups or interested parties.
FB: Our society accuses the media of many sins – of corrupting children, degrading our values, exaggerating the celebrity of certain people. Does the Chinese public support or complain about their press corps?
Gao: The public does not believe or have great confidence in the press. It’s a very fundamental issue. In last year or two, new media have arisen. For instance (the media that cover) computer (technology) or finance, they have a legitimacy. And a certain degree of faith is invested in them by the public because they report on specialized areas. Southern Weekend in Guangzhou also has high support. The Chinese media find it a serious issue when the public reads their reports and express disbelief and is suspicious of what they read.
FB: I believe that. The story is that Chinese reporters are easily corrupted. Maybe not you, but maybe the people on the daily papers in Chinese cities.
Gao: Not all reporters have the opportunity to be corrupted. If you report on village or farm life, nobody’s going to corrupt you.
FB: If you are a business reporter, though, you may. I went to many assignments in China and was frequently in press conferences and seminars with local press. It was common knowledge that they were getting paid by the sponsor of the conference or the product being promoted. And understandably, perhaps, because they’re paid so badly. Is that why people don’t trust the press?
Gao: What you saw in China is a partial explanation. The little red envelope at the press conferences. I don’t think this would really influence the content of their reporting. They take the little red envelope, but they don’t produce biased reports. It would equate to an American tip. The public does not believe them primarily because before the independent Chinese media that left the umbrella of the government arose, they would always talk about good things. It was always positive even in the face of disaster. During the Cultural Revolution, the media did not have the faith of the people.
FB: Do people in China think of the Internet as an adjunct to the normal press or as a way of circumventing the official press and of circumventing the (government) censor?
Gao: The public gets a lot of information from the Internet, a lot that the regular media would be unwilling or hesitant to report on.
FB: Information on the ‘Net is not always reliable. Are people in China sophisticated enough to question the source of information?
Gao: Yes. People would not take it at face value. Many news sources are anonymous. But when a sporadic or major event or disastrous event occurs, very often they (Internet sources) play an important role.
FB: How much do China’s surfers engage in discussion groups, chat rooms, bulletin boards, etc.?
Gao: Very, very active.
FB: Does the press rely on these media also?
Gao: Yes. On the one hand, what happens in chat rooms and the ‘Net is in itself a kind of news, just as in society. A lot of newspapers have special sections that talk about what’s happening on the Internet. Also, when the Chinese report on foreign events, often they cite resources online. Possibly they don’t have the resources to have a correspondent in America. But through the Internet they collect information from American sources.
FB: Do they quote American newspapers online?
Gao: Yes, or it could be U.S. government sources.
FB:How much more accessible is a personal computer these days? I know there are Internet cafes. I’m sure in Shanghai and Beijing, people can easily afford a computer, but explain to me the possession of a PC in China’s provinces.
Gao: In China, as you know, PC use is very high. My impression is that sales jump 60 percent yearly. But when you leave the big cities, it’s very low. In small cities and villages, (PC ownership is) very rare.
FB:In this country and many countries in Central and South America, there are government-sponsored computer centers for the public to drop in and use. In very poor places, small villages, people can just walk into these kiosks and use PCs and go online. So computer literacy is being spread by government funds. In China, is there any incidence of this?
Gao: Local governments don’t have money to do this. A lot of low level governments are experiencing severe financial crises. If they can’t even pay the civil servants, they wouldn’t have the money to do this.
FB: Do you know of any initiatives to increase education by use of computer?
Gao: A lot of enterprises are doing remote education online. A lot of schools are promoting education online. It’s a convenient and cheap way of doing it. In recent years this has been progressing rapidly. For people who don’t have a chance to go to college, the Internet provides that opportunity. There are many computer training schools, very small schools that teach individuals how to use computer.
FB: Do you have a computer in your home?
FB: Do you see parents teaching their children how to use computers?
Gao: Yes, at a very young age, they are using computers. Better than some adults.
FB: You said earlier there are instances of people being arrested for their comments online. Have you yourself noticed any lessening of frequency people posting their comments? Or are people being more careful of what they say online? And how can you know this?
Gao: The government cracks down only in spurts. At certain times, it is very strict; then, after a period of time, it relents. Have you heard about the amendments to the Basic Law (Hong Kong’s constitution under Chinese rule)? They would outlaw people trying to overturn the government or adversely affecting national security. It’s law affecting journalism. Sixty-thousand Hong Kong residents have gone to the streets to protest.
FB: Do you think it will be passed?
Gao: I think so.
A week after this interview, the central government in China closed 3,300 Internet cafes, allegedly because they were violating safety regulations.
Francine Brevetti is a reporter for ANG Newspapers.