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Notes From an Expedition: Dancing on Knife's Edge

by David A. Andelman

BEIJING—A first impression of China’s capital from the train is of a Los Angeles or Dallas jacked up on steroids—an endless parade of ever more inventive skyscrapers of every conceivable shape and size marching off into the distance. This distinctive, stunningly compelling urban landscape, sprawling outward from Tiananmen Square, Mao Zedong’s tomb, and the Forbidden City, past a succession of six ever-larger ring roads, is relieved only occasionally by a warren of ancient hutongs. These single-story urban communities have become, in only one of many ironies of this nation, at times a desirable encampment for the gentrified Chinese upper class, a prime tourist magnet, and a place where street people ply quiet, sad, and ugly trades.

Which is to say that lurking, only just below the surface, are far more undercurrents—economic, social, cultural, and especially political—than any western metropolis. It is also a media universe at the center of virtually every debate on China and the future of its people—all 1.3 billion of them.

Hu Shuli has spent her entire life navigating these currents, dancing on the knife’s edge. The editor-in-chief of the second major media empire she’s built in her lifetime, she quite literally explodes into a room to greet her guests, a ball of energy that has few counterparts in this nation where every emotion is so carefully measured and controlled.

Two years ago, hounded out of business as head of her Caijin media empire by a sensitive government-party paranoia over the rocks she’d been carefully turning over to uncover the seamiest corruption of Chinese business, finance, and their political nexus, she quickly (at least by Chinese standards) turned right around and debuted Caixin. Like her first endeavor, this also consists of business and financial magazines (one in Chinese, another in English), two websites (same languages), but this time, soon to be launched, an entire television network for which she is busily recruiting anchors in both languages to debut later this month.

“We had two choices, either stay there [at Caijin] and compromise, or go out,” she explains over a lunch where she’s joined by two of her top Chinese editors—both grads of the University of Missouri Journalism School. “We measured the situation, because in China everything is a mess. Even licensing is a mess. The government is managing everything, yet facing market challenges. So there are now 10,000 [media] licenses in the market under different titles with different government activities. Still, there is a very gray area where you can get licenses in different ways—cooperation, rent or buy. So we think there are still opportunities.”

This maze of possibilities indeed represents the new China—tantalizing challenges, lined up cheek by jowl with a host of perils, as the Communist Party leadership seeks to navigate treacherous waters. Today, these are carrying the nation from full state-controlled communism to a free-market capitalism, buffeted at the same time by strong headwinds from a profligate Europe and a conflicted America over which it has little control.

“We were taking the risk, we were taking the challenge,” she says, describing her thought processes over whether to embark yet again on a media venture, filled with risk, but potential reward as well for the 300 or so people who’ve joined her—most  “very young people, 20 to 38, really excited to do something from the beginning.” She pauses thoughtfully. “We can find opportunities,” she continues. “That is China. If you don’t give up, you can find them. You can do it.”

Indeed, Hu’s life has been a succession of efforts to make lemonade out of lemons—a life whose story is that of this nation over the past half century. The daughter of a distinguished family of journalists and public intellectuals, she was inevitably swept up in the Cultural Revolution that engulfed the nation for nearly a decade beginning in 1979. When she was 16 years old, she was sent to the countryside—an experience that scarred many of her generation, but in her case, injected determination and steel into her already determined character. So when China’s convulsion began to wind down, she was able to return to Beijing and begin her studies in journalism.

It’s here that Hu began to make the contacts—and find a husband—that have helped her maneuver the scoops that began almost immediately to come her way. Her husband, Miao Di, the distinguished professor at Beijing’s Communications University of China, has trained many of the luminaries of the nation’s media firmament. Along the way, the young up-and-coming party cadres she met, interviewed, and befriended, came to respect and protect her. At the same time, the corrupt officials she unveiled, the mysterious murders she solved, the explanations behind the tragedies that have engulfed a China struggling to emerge into the modern world all began to attract an audience that could not be ignored.

Still, that’s what many among China’s top leadership would still very much like to do. Which is what another young professor at Tsinghua University is whispering in their ear should not be done. Ignoring such problems can mean passing up enormous opportunities.

Prof. Steven Dong, who runs both the global journalism and public relations programs at Tsinghua University, dances on the other side of the same knife-edge as Hu Shuli. “We need to improve the media literacy of Chinese [political] leaders and Chinese corporate leaders,” he tells a visitor.

While Dong and Hu would appear to be on opposite sides of a very high fence in today’s China, in fact they share so much of the same DNA. Dong, too, describes himself as a child of the Cultural Revolution, though he is a half-generation younger than Hu. “During the Cultural Revolution, my grandfather was sentenced to jail for 30 years,” he recalls, observing that he was just four years old at the time. “For two reasons. One, he was too influential. He’d studied in Japan, and that was the second reason, these people thought he was a spy.” In 1981, his grandfather was released after serving two years in three different prisons, but never returned to his earlier job running China’s largest steel plant.

Still, Dong believes that this horrific convulsion was essential to China’s emergence as a modern economic and political power. “We needed that transition period,” he says. “By the end of the 1960s, which is about 20 years after the organization of the Peoples’ Republic, the companies became very big and were run by the government, by the party.” Ministers in Beijing decided not only what should be produced, but how to produce every widget. The same, of course, was true of the media, controlled, then as now by a shadowy entity known as the Central Propaganda Office. So while some aspects of Chinese business, finance, even the media, are freer than at any moment in this nation’s history, others are most certainly not. 

Indeed, the reason my Twitter followers haven’t heard from me for the past two weeks is that Twitter in China is blocked. Yet microblogs, as they are known here, are the most widely exercised means of communication in today’s China. Once banned as a malevolent form of social media whose servers lie entirely outside government control or even surveillance, the Chinese leadership realized it was a genie that they could not put back in the bottle, so they tried simply to put a fence around it. Voilà Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter that’s already ballooned to a subscriber figure variously estimated at 200 million or 400 million subscribers, while the party’s leading newspaper, People’s Daily, wallows around five million.

Indeed, Hu credits these microblogs as they are known with enabling her to build a sprawling media empire all but overnight. “Microblog is the new way,” Hu beams. “It means everybody could become their own media, individual media. So it is a very good platform to expand our influence overnight, very fast. In the traditional way, building your own distribution system, it really takes years. But in this case it’s different. Right now we are going even faster than we thought possible. That is because of the microblogs.”

As for Steven Dong, he spends much of his life trying to explain to a Chinese leadership still mired in the post-Cultural Revolution age, why social media can represent an opportunity to be seized, not a force to be shunned. But it’s taking baby steps to get there. “The unwary can find themselves engulfed in a maelstrom of criticism,” screamed the front-page banner headline in Monday’s China Daily, effectively an English-language mouthpiece for the nation’s rulers.

“I am on Weibo now as well,” Dong says proudly. “When we say something, people can hear it. And they can help as well” to build a national dialogue or a consensus. The fact is that the new China—the party apparatchiki, the media monitors, those who would regulate control and steer this economic and political behemoth—can hardly ignore any of the forces that are attempting to harness progress as the nation lurches into its future.

“We are mouse, they are cat,” smiles Hu as we wind up our conversation. “Imagine Tom and Jerry. We do whatever we can do. And finally, if Tom comes, Jerry has to run away. Jerry created some things and maybe they forgot that. It’s a learning curve. I think Chinese authorities were not ready in the media sector before Internet challenge was made. It took time for them to get used to that. Finally, it’s a compromise from each side. Then new technology comes, then new compromise.” And the cycle begins again, rings expanding outward.

*****
*****

 

David A. Andelman, editor of World Policy Journal, is winding up the final leg of a five-week expedition through Russia, Siberia, Mongolia, and China. 

[Photo by David A. Andelman]

To read the first nine dispatches from his trip, please visit the Notes From the Expedition homepage here.

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