By Lisa Setyon & Tahseen Rabbi
Welcome to Airstrip One of Oceania, I thought to myself. I was sitting in classroom 105 of the Communication University of China (CUC), listening to graduate students present their term papers on how to present domestic news to the rest of the world. One student summed up the main idea: “We think we should build the national image and protect our national interests,” she said. “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” popped into my head.
My group, American students from Stony Brook University (SBU), had been invited to observe the way international journalism is taught at a CUC. I am learning very quickly just how different it is from the western perspective, which believes the media plays a watchdog role.
The first presentation covered the Kunming railway and discussed how the Chinese media should improve its reporting on subjects that have gained international attention. The students said their guiding principle is to put China in a positive light.
They said that the government has the right to withhold information before disseminating it to the public, because it could interfere with trials or investigations.
After the presentation, one of the SBU students, who comes from China, raised his hand to ask what the Chinese students thought of American journalism. The Chinese students exchanged glances, with confusion and restraint. They seemed afraid of critiquing American journalism, in fear of offending their American visitors.
It was only after our professor, Charles Haddad, said “Americans don’t get offended,” that the Chinese students opened up. One girl, finally, had the guts to say that “Americans think they are the center of the world and the world revolves around them.” Laughter and cheers emerged from the American crowd.
It was strange to see such shy students, because this is not typical of most Americans. From what I have learned while studying at Stony Brook, the average American student is very outspoken, and flattery is discouraged.
Students in the United States often voice their opinions in class. We have been taught to be critical of others and ourselves. It is common to see students raising their hands for clarification or even challenging their professors and critiquing the U.S. government.
But in that cramped classroom, students seemed nervous about answering questions in an unfavorable fashion. It seemed like they did not want to provoke any debate among the crowd.
There was tension in the room while discussing content comparison between Chinese and American newspapers. The Chinese professor constantly interrupted her students, seemingly placing her personal opinion above the others. It seemed like she did not want her students to look bad, so she answered controversial questions for them. Her classmates remained quiet. This made me wonder where the limit of the freedom of speech was situated in China. At what point must the students stop giving their so-called “opinions”?
On the other hand, during the presentations, some of the students look bored; they looked down at their phones as if they were listening to old information. In an American classroom, using your phone during a presentation or performance is considered extremely disrespectful.
But when the class opened up to private conversations, the picture I got was quite different.
A couple of students said that the biggest contrast between Chinese and American journalism is that Chinese coverage focuses on hope and optimism in every situation. The students said that their job is to stabilize the society. A few students argued forcefully for the Chinese approach. “Yes, news media are blocking some information to the citizens, because some information may cause social panic,” Zhao, a grad student at CUC, said. “Terrorist attacks, for example—if Chinese media had shown everything, some Chinese people would have been scared, and terrorists would realize that people were scared, so they would find a way to escape or hide themselves.”
The Chinese students told me they think that American journalism emphasizes negative things, especially when it has to do with China. “People always like to write negative things about China. China is becoming more important in the international market,” a Chinese student, who wanted to remain unnamed, said. “Maybe we are threatening to other countries.”
The students had the same views about journalism in France, where I was born. “Newspapers such as Le Figaro, Le Monde criticize a lot of things about China,” said Zhao. “Though I don’t approve of it, I understand, because as a newspaper you should consider your profit. They will put something interesting in their newspapers so it will attract more people.” The CUC students seemed to believe that western journalists are just working for money or for profit.
Despite their frustration over negative reports about China, however, several students were surprisingly outspoken about how much they admire the technique and ethics of western journalists. “One think I’d like to change about journalism in China is that Chinese media is always trying to give people hope,” said one first year grad student. “It should be more based on facts. Americans tend to be more focused on empirical data. They collect a lot of facts, and have accurate stories. It is good for the understanding of the world.”
She added that the Chinese press sometimes presents an inaccurate view of America. “Chinese media only talks about rich people in America, so the perception is biased because we think all Americans are very rich,” she said. “It is a misunderstanding of the different cultures.”
Zhao added that corruption is a huge problem among Chinese journalists. Some Chinese newspapers attempt to blackmail companies and people, threatening to publish negative stories about them. And sometimes companies pay newspapers to write positive stories about them.
I decided to question the students on their views about communism and their government, since the Communist Party rules China, in hope of getting interesting responses. Oddly, most refused to respond.
After hesitating for a few moments, one student replied: “China is a socialist country more than communist. Communism is far away, we are not in the stage of communism, but in the stage of socialism. What I like about socialism here is that it unites people, their forces, their intelligence, to achieve great things.”
I had to hold back a smile when I heard that, because coming from a socialist country like France, where socialism is based on the idea of human equality, and where we are not afraid to speak our mind, I would definitely not describe China as socialist. From sitting in this classroom, the students’ nervousness suggested to me that their government is somehow watching. What exactly are they afraid of?