Welcome to China – and welcome to journalism

18 November 2009

Written by: Lawrie Zion

After studying in Taiwan for a year alongside his Bachelor of Arts major in Politics and Chinese (language) at La Trobe University, Alistair Robertson took a job in China at That’s Beijing, in a position for expatriates, which he found in the classifieds. Luckily, the magazine had just split in two, “leaving a vacuum of positions to fill”. He was there at a time when minority group unrest threatened a repeat of trouble on a scale similar to the Tibetan riots in March of 2008.

What type of publication is That’s Beijing and what kind of content did you write?

That’s Beijing is a monthly lifestyle magazine for expatriates covering restaurants, nightlife, art, media and travel.  I started by submitting two articles a month to the Arts editor for the print and film sections, then towards the end of my tenure, I wrote features and anything that needed to be filled in, when the deadline was coming around.

Is there a noticeable difference in the way the Chinese report in the media compared to Australia? For example, writing and interviewing styles?

Yes, some of the more gratingly salient differences are in the presentation and content of the news. Editorialising is the status-quo in news reportage.  I think to some Chinese ears, western news can sound uninformed, cowardly and inferior, precisely for this reason.  There is little information that is provided without subsequent interpretation or, at least, presented in such a way that leaves the reader comforted by its implicit message of moral authority.  Also, the news is mainly good.  China does not have a “bad China” news day.  Some of the more polemical stuff is just as ridiculous as the rubbish that gets printed in the opinion columns back home, but the truly nefarious aspect of the media here is in the glaring whitewash of the mundane, daily truth.

Were the skills you learnt at La Trobe University able to be applied overseas?

Chinese helps in China.  I think the BA is an opportunity to write and have your work assessed and in the process sharpen your mind for the future.  I’m not sure if that makes it to the list of ‘generic skills’ though.

You were in Xinjiang at the time of the ethnic riots involving the Uighurs and the Hans. How was that period of time from the perspective of the journalists trying to cover the news?

The first thing the government did during the riots was shut off the internet and phone network for the entire region.  Perhaps, the most obvious difficulties were the frequent arrests of journalists, the destruction of their property and forced removal from the region.  We met an American in Urumqi who spent three nights in a cell after being spotted by police talking to a CNN camera.

To what extent have you and other journalists experienced government censorship and publishing control?

Every square inch of published material in China is first previewed by the relevant propaganda department.  They are quite proactive in changing material, headlines or whatever they consider necessary, without negotiation. That’s Beijing was government owned and we had a staff member representing the censorship bureau at every meeting, voicing her opinion incessantly.  In order to even publish, you are required to have a numbered permit from the government, although a great number of publications run without this official permit, it provides a handy legal technicality for the removal of any newspapers or magazines seen to be offensive to the ‘national interest’.

Do you think there is a greater degree of censorship and publishing control in China compared to Australia?

Absolutely.  It is a badge of honour, not shame that the government so tightly controls the media.  It is headily couched in the rhetoric of national security and interest.  Facebook and YouTube are banned indefinitely here.  Which is no great tragedy.

Has your view on journalism changed after working for a publication?

The finished products are so polished and convincing it is easy to forget their final subjectivity.  Also, I think each month I cut a new corner in the production of my work so I can easily imagine the laziness that could affect the work of a seasoned professional.  That said, I think honest journalism is a very noble profession.

What is next for you in your career?

Well, I shudder at the word “career”.  I’m going to study Law next year and that will take three years, so I’ll have plenty of time to mull over that.

Jessica Rosenthal is a Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University.