When a free press becomes a reality in China — and it surely will — it will come after countless small victories and even more tragic sacrifices by brave, persistent souls. This is a story about one of the small victories.
Just as I was wrapping up the 2004 spring semester at an elite government university in Beijing, where I taught media and foreign policy to prospective diplomats, the phone rang, and I got a shock.
Professor Sun Youzhong was on the line. He introduced himself as dean of the journalism department at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, venerably known throughout China as “Beiwai.” He asked if I would like to teach “First Amendment, free press, American-style journalism” at his university.
After almost spitting up a jaw full of tepid coffee, and a goodly amount of stammering, I blurted out, “Yes, sir. But … I mean … why?” He knew exactly what I meant and answered, “Things are changing. Every day.”
He was right. Shortly thereafter my wife and I had a new apartment, and I had a new faculty position. In September, I started teaching practical American journalism to enthusiastic Chinese college students — they’d had enough “theory” to choke a goat.
Come October, Dean Sun Youzhong not only allowed but encouraged me to put online the first English language, university-sanctioned, student written news blog in China. It is called, WOW: We Observe the World, and has enjoyed a modest but warm reception from all areas of the globe.
WOW’s intention was never political; it is a quick and easy online “newspaper” by and for student journalists. During the semester, the students reported (and I edited and posted) on movies, music, books, sports, travel, culture and hard news — both national and international.
Come early December, in lieu of a final exam, I assigned an op-ed on the arrest last fall of Zhao Yan, a noted Chinese journalist working as a researcher for the Beijing bureau of The New York Times. The State Security Bureau charged Zhao with revealing state secrets.
It was a big story in the American press. My students, though, knew nothing about it. How could they? Not a word on it was published in China. Frankly, there was a lot of stone disbelief in the lecture hall the day I delivered the facts of the case and opened it up for discussion. There was strong resistance from many students for even the facts as published in The Times. For many, reflexively, it was just the anti-China Western press preaching and spanking again.
It was a lively couple of weeks in class. The 60 students got all of the links and resources they needed to dig into the case. I told them the best-written and best-argued essays, regardless of politics, would go up on WOW.
In January, the op-ed pieces began arriving; I was thrilled. They had researched the case and come back with a stunning range of informed opinions that ran the gamut from a nationalistic but elegantly indignant, “Who does (Nicholas Kristof) think he is?” to a razor sharp, “Zhao is a victim of (a) political power struggle!” to a poignant, “When can we be free to tell?”
I was excited, but I was also troubled. What I had in my hands was metaphoric dynamite — any number of Chinese have been punished for writing less. The students were scattered all over China during the winter break. I had hard decisions to make on my own.
The students knew they were writing for prospective publication, and I had specifically asked if anyone objected. But should I let youthful fervor risk harm to future lives and careers? A very real possibility, as a couple of Western colleagues warned before flying off for the holiday.
I stayed in Beijing and rolled the dice — with their futures. The very worst that could happen to me would be an escort to the nearest tarmac. There are a dozen Zhao Yan op-ed pieces on the site; in each of them, there are sentiments expressed that have not heretofore been tolerated in China.
Many people were flabbergasted that the series was not only allowed up, but also left undisturbed by the Great Firewall of China and its Internet “blocking” inside the country.
We are now well into the spring semester, and we’ve had reports and meetings about the content on WOW. The students are campus heroes, and the series remains up for all to read, officially, with the blessings of the deans and Party cadres I work for. I won’t pretend to know why. I know a truly free press is coming to China, as well as they do, but it is a process as slow as it is unstoppable.
It is widely believed in the West that the Chinese college student of today is apolitical, peculiarly materialistic — in love with national economic growth itself — and a mindless drone without an original, nonpropagandistic thought in her head.
The proof against that stereotype lies in the Zhao Yan series on WOW. Could that be why it was not censored?
Joseph Bosco, author and journalist, is currently a visiting professor of journalism at the Beijing Foreign Studies University.