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.

"Some experts, many of them chief editors at newspapers, make a speech, telling their experiences and how to report news in different circumstances," said a first-year graduate student, Li Ming. "So far, I have not felt any influence on me from the class. But you know, this class must exert a gradual and imperceptible influence on students. Marxist theory will be reflected in the cases we discuss, so I will unconsciously follow the Marxist approach this class is trying to teach when I cover stories in the future."

Xu Shujian, another first-year graduate student, said the class is a good idea because, when it comes time to get a job after graduation, China's mainstream media will be more likely to hire aspiring journalists "with a good sense of Marxism."

But an academic with close knowledge of the center and its courses, speaking on condition of anonymity, said most professors focus on the practical world of journalists doing their jobs under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, not Marxist doctrine on journalism. "They teach journalism under Marxism more than Marxist journalism," he explained.

The center's name, implying a mission to keep journalism students on the straight and narrow path of Marxism, was chosen in part to attract support, and perhaps funding, from party officials, he said. "That is important," he added, smiling. "Can you imagine what would happen if you started an institute of capitalist journalism?"

Visiting editors talk freely of tactics for skirting party censorship, he said, and students can get an idea of "the problems of the society, how to negotiate with the authorities." Most professors urge their students to deal with the censors and try to push the envelope rather than revolt against the whole censorship system, he added.

One guest lecturer, Yang Zhengquan, former head of China Radio International and of the government news office, told students of delicate and protracted official deliberations in 1976 over how to present the news that Mao Zedong had died. He did not question the government's power to control such news.

In one of his own lectures, reproduced in the textbook he edited with Li Bin, Fan told students that one of the main tasks of their work in journalism would be to "spread Marxism, to report how Marxist guidance works in different fields and battlefronts."

"If you want to be a qualified and good journalist, you must understand politics, must know Marxism and must master some of the basic disciplines of Marxist journalism," he went on.

"We need to use the Marxist position, the Marxist point of view and the Marxist method to observe and deal with things," he told his class. "What is the position? It is the party's position and the people's position. What is the point of view? Dialectical materialism and historical materialism. What is the method? It is how to deal with conflicts correctly."

Addressing censorship, Fan told students that the government must "guide public opinion" because many Chinese are not well educated and cannot understand current events well. "The situation of our country decided we need to guide public opinion," he said. "We should consider the social effects of every report, thinking if it is good or bad for our country, society and people, especially for the stability and development of the country."

Li Qiang, a graduate student in Tsinghua's journalism department, has been spotlighted on campus as an example of what Marxist journalists should do. In 2005, while an undergraduate, Li spent his Spring Festival holiday in some small, impoverished Shanxi province villages and then produced a 40,000-word report on the difficulties villagers faced, partly because local officials failed to help them. "Eight stories," he called it.

Impressed, Fan sent the report to government officials. A copy found its way to the desk of Premier Wen Jiabao, who wrote back saying that this was the kind of Marxist journalism China needed, probing the needs of the people. The report was widely discussed. Parts of it were disseminated on the Internet. But it was never published -- because Tsinghua professors found it too sensitive.

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