For China's Journalism Students, Censorship Is a Core Concept

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 31, 2007

BEIJING -- About 200 Tsinghua University journalism students filled a classroom one recent Friday evening for a two-hour lecture on the political history of Tibet.

The mountainous territory has always been an inalienable part of China, they were told, and the Dalai Lama is a sly traitor hiding behind his Buddhist religion to promote secession. The lecture, a rendition of China's standard government line, put some students to sleep, but most listened patiently.

The guest professor, Zhou Xiaoming, a Tibet specialist and government consultant, was providing the students with their latest class in "Marxist journalism." The course, required for graduates and undergraduates, was brought to the elite university by its recently founded Research Center on Marxist Journalism and Journalistic Education Reform.

The center has in its first year of operation become a vivid example of the tension between China's rush toward modernization and the Communist Party's insistence on retaining control over the flow of information. Journalism students at Tsinghua are taught not only about Watergate and the rise of the Internet, but also about the restricted role reporters are expected to play under a Marxist government such as China's.

In China, that role traditionally has been to support the government by spreading propaganda and suppressing news that contradicts policy or puts officials in a bad light. But as the country has opened to the world in the last three decades, many journalists -- and journalism students and their professors--have acquired new ambitions for their craft, such as investigative reporting on official corruption.

Against that background, the party's Central Committee in 2001 urged Chinese media and journalism schools to adopt the concept of "Marxist journalism." The term was broadly interpreted to mean journalism that the government views as improving society and taking account of Chinese realities, including censorship under one-party rule.

Fan Jingyi, a former editor of People's Daily, the Communist Party's official newspaper, set out at about the same time as the Central Committee edict to supply Tsinghua journalism students with a framework of proper Marxist theory for their studies. Fan, 76, came to Tsinghua and began teaching his course, mostly by inviting editors and government officials to be guest lecturers. Named dean of the journalism department, he started the research center at the beginning of 2007 and serves as its director. All journalism professors at the university are automatically members of the center.

"It is really significant to strengthen the Marxist concept of journalism in education," Fan explained in an academic journalism review, adding that the Communist Party's Propaganda Department and the Education Ministry encouraged him to pursue the issue.

"Reviewing the reality of journalistic education, one finds many inclinations that need attention," he continued. "One is out-of-date textbooks. One is the Westernized concept of journalism. And another is the abstract research approach in which theory and practice do not match. These problems can only be solved by strengthening the Marxist concept of journalism."

Tsinghua University, one of China's most renowned institutions of learning, would not explain further the center's purpose or mission.

Fan, who is convalescing from a serious illness, declined to be interviewed, as did Li Xiguang, executive dean of the journalism department, and Li Bin, associate dean and co-editor with Fan of the course's main textbook, "Fifteen Lectures on the Marxist Concept of Journalism."

Interviews with students and others associated with the center suggested unease at what the Marxist journalism courses were supposed to impart. Some students said they could not remember what they were taught, or that they paid little attention because they were concentrating on other subjects. None seemed eager to discuss the course.

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