One artist reflects on another: Klayman and Ai Weiwei

Sometimes, the world seems astonishingly smaller and filled with more wonder than one can imagine. Take the case of filmmaker Alison Klayman, whose documentary about a famous dissident Chinese artist, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” debuts July 27 in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C

Alison’s film has garnered a ton of praise. It won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, was an official selection of the Berlin International Film Festival and was an opening night film at the Hotdocs Film Festival and the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. “The Chinese art-star emerges as a stirring symbol of antiauthoritarianism – and also as the kind of magnetic, irreverent prankster you’d want to dine with, not to mention follow on Twitter,” the Village Voice said. “Ai Weiwei is captivating on camera, and the film makes the case that there is really no separation between the artist and his work,” crowed Toronto’s Globe and Mail. “Chinese activist Ai Weiwei combines the chutzpah of Michael Moore, the antic iconoclasm of Duchamp, and the humility of Gandhi,” observed the Boston Phoenix. “Let’s hope Klayman gets to make a sequel,” added The Guardian of London, giving Alison’s work four stars.

There are many more paeans to her work. Details and a trailer are available here. There’s also a Facebook page for the film here.

Much to the consternation of Chinese authorities, Ai Weiwei continues to generate attention. The Wall Street Journal just this morning ran a piece about his battle with authorities over a $2.4 million tax bill. Once celebrated for his work on the Bird’s Nest for the Beijing Olympics of 2008, Ai has riled Chinese officials with persistent criticisms. He was detained without charges for nearly three months in 2011, and state media reported he confessed to tax-evasion, though he has challenged the tax case at every turn. He set up a website,, to chronicle his battle.

So what does Ai Weiwei have to do with the world getting smaller and more wonderful? Well, this is personal. Last fall, a short time after I arrived in Beijing to teach journalism for the semester, I chanced upon a group that held weekly services, Kehillat Beijing (cleverly named website: On my second Friday night service, who should walk in but Alison Klayman, who I hadn’t seen for an absurdly long time. Alison, dear reader, has been a good friend of my eldest daughter, Becky, for about 16 years, since both girls were 12 years old and we lived in the Philly area.

In a coincidence no fiction editor would let an author get away with, Alison had rushed to services from the airport, bags in tow. She had long before become a fan of the delightful Jewish group — a havurah for expats and visitors — while living and working in Beijing. She happened to be back in the city for some final work on the Ai Weiwei movie. Needless to say, we had a fine time catching up over a rather nice, western-style dinner that followed services.

So, count me among those eager to see the film. I can’t make the NYC premiere, but will catch it here in Lincoln, Nebraska, where it will be shown at the Ross from Sept. 7-13. It will be a highlight of the fall.

Ying Chan discusses budding Chinese journalists

The Columbia Journalism Review online ran a Q&A I did with Yuen Ying Chan, one of the foremost journalism educators in China. By turns steely and gentle, smart and tough, she was a delight to talk with. It was a privilege meeting her.

After 23 years working in New York City journalism, including a seven-year stint at the New York Daily News that netted her a Polk Award, Yuen Ying Chan returned to her native Hong Kong. There, in 1999, she founded the Journalism and Media Studies Centre, and as its director began turning undergrads and grad students into working journalists through Asia. Soon after that, she turned to mainland China, where she set up the Cheung Kong School of Journalism and Communication at Shantou University, which now serves some 640 undergrads. Chan spoke about journalism and journalism education in Hong Kong and China with Joseph Weber, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who recently taught in the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University, under the auspices of the International Center for Journalists.

One impression I have about China is that students don’t ask, ‘Why?’

It’s rote learning. It’s endemic. They don’t challenge authority. They are taught to listen, to follow. So that’s part of the culture, the system. It’s the worst of Confucianism, plus Communism—the authoritarian respect for authority and not challenging authority. Students in mainland China schools cram in too many courses. They have had top-down teaching—the antithesis of critical thinking—for 12 to 14 years before we get them.

Are schools of journalism on the mainland changing that, by inculcating critical thinking?

In Shantou we do. Students are very outspoken. We were able to host a lesbian activist, Helen Zia, for a week. She’s a civil-rights activist and a former executive editor of Ms. Magazine. We had an open debate on lesbianism, where Zia showed a film about relationships and talked about her own marriage. The room was packed. Shantou is different. We try to teach journalism the way it should be taught.

Which is how?

Which is critical thinking, seeking truth from facts, challenging authority, discipline, good reporting and writing. We do it. It’s not easy.

Do you get official pressure?

It’s not so much official pressure, but more the Chinese bureaucracy. In Shantou we can get away with more. It’s a public university but it’s funded two-thirds by Li Ka-shing [a wealthy Hong Kong businessman]. It’s almost like a privately funded public university.

What about the rest of journalism education on the mainland, in terms of promoting critical inquiry?

It’s very uneven. At Shantou, we have students doing investigative reporting.

What are the limits in investigative reporting?

You can’t talk about Tibet; there’s no exposing the Politburo or their sons’ and daughters’ business interests; no discussion of June 4 [1989, the Tiananmen Square massacre]; no Taiwan; no Xinjiang protests [a 2009 uprising in a region in western China]—those are drop deads. And then you have room to navigate. The space is opened and closed. There are no set rules, but there is a system of censorship in place, and also self-censorship. For instance, the rebellion in the village of Wukan [an anti-corruption protest that began last year] is all over the news in Hong Kong. It’s censored on the mainland but Wukan was all over the weibo, China’s miniblogs. That was despite government efforts to censor. Reporting the Bo scandal has been banned in Chinese papers. But students can climb the so called Great China Firewall to access international websites. I can read students cynical comments in their own weibo. This is a generation of digital natives who are savvy with using information to get the information they want.

I’ve been surprised at how much the China Daily discusses pollution, which is a great embarrassment.

They have to compete for the market. There’s a tension between the market forces and the forces of authoritarianism. But it’s not just China Daily. Environmental stories, such as pollution, are on the official agenda.

What are the differences in your approach in Shantou in mainland China and here in Hong Kong on the issue of censorship?

Most of the students [in Shantou] will work in the [mainland China media] system. If they work in the system, they will have to know the rules and the boundaries. We teach them that they need to equip themselves as much as possible to push the limits. You need to be good. The better you are, the better you can deal with the limits. We try to let them know where there are limits. It’s very challenging. China is in transition. It’s full of good stories and for them to report and write about that, that’s their job. The challenge is to deal with reality, not to succumb to it, and the keep the North Star, the values of journalism. We try to do that.

There seems to be more life left in print here than in the US.

We are facing the same digital transformation. Students have to understand digital. But in a country of 1.3 billion with a long newspaper-reading tradition, even a tiny percentage of newspaper readers can sustain print longer than it can in smaller countries.

What are the prospects for your students?

It’s an exciting time to be in journalism in Asia now. Our students go into internships all over the world. They go into international and local media, Chinese- and English-language. They also get internships in media companies across Asia and around the world. Many internships grow into jobs.

What kind of work do your students do?

They do grassroots reporting on community issues. You know the scandal about overcrowded school buses? They went to do a story on school buses in Shantou. They found a 19-seat bus that was packed with 46 students. It’s on the website. Isn’t that a good story? They did another story on a flood in the city. It speaks a lot about municipal management. They do profiles. They do multimedia. That’s why they are getting jobs.

As for investigative work, when I taught a course on “enterprise reporting” at Shantou, students investigated the e-waste dump nearby that was killing the river in the area. Students worked in teams and do a lot of shoe-leather reporting up and down the polluted water. Their article was published in a leading daily in Beijing. This year, students reported on stories such as the plight of the children of migrant farmers or overloaded schools buses in the area.

Chinese students go into journalism with a lot of idealism ad a strong sense of mission. They want to speak up for people and to fix the problems in society.

Christmas in Beijing — Bah, Humbug!

Isn’t there an ancient myth about an oracle that reflects different images of the same event to different viewers? Celebrations of Christmas seem like that to me, especially after watching the buildup to the holiday in China.

China, of course, has little history to make Dec. 25 any more than just another day. For modern China, where atheism is a requirement for Communist Party membership, celebrating Christmas is odd, to say the least. Mao would spin wildly in his grave at the idea. And Buddhists, who practice the dominant religion in the country, would have little use for marking a foreign god’s birthday. And yet, the Chinese have rushed to embrace the day – though in their own peculiarly non-religious way. They see in it what they want to see, just as many Americans do.

Celebrations of the day abound in China, at least in the cities. It’s a big day for young people, especially, who wish one another Merry Christmas. Some, particularly lovers, give each other presents. One of my teacher’s aides at Tsinghua, a bright young man going through the grueling yearlong process of applying for membership in the Party, was fretting over what to get his girlfriend, for instance. (Let’s not tell his Party sponsor about that). And Wei Wei, a delightful grad student, just sent me an electronic Christmas card on the Tencent system, a Chinese email system.

It’s a bit of a mystery, this adoption of the holiday. Certainly, it’s understandable why the department stores in Beijing would deck themselves out for the day. Like American retailers, they’ve found that carols on the PA systems, twinkling lights and images of Santa, reindeer and decorated evergreens help drive people to buy. It’s a retail holiday in the States, too, of course. There’s a buck (or a yuan) to be made. Plus, in Beijing, there are Westerners to cater to.

But there’s more to it in China. The Chinese seem to see Christmas as part of what it means to be like the West. They have a manic drive under way to teach English to all school kids. They have taken to capitalism in ways that would stun Adam Smith and are worrying demagogic American politicians. Some 120,000 Chinese are studying at American universities, including my own school, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where we are forging exchange alliances with Chinese schools.

China is going through a headlong love affair with all things foreign, a feeling of being smitten that is almost adolescent in its passion. A saying in the country holds that the moon shines brighter on foreign lands, and the American moon in particular has the Chinese in full swoon. Indeed, Beijing, Shanghai, and even inland cities such as Xi’an, along with British-dominated Hong Kong warm to anything American. Just look at the proliferation of outlets for Starbucks, McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut, not to mention American-branded clothes and other products (even counterfeit ones). Steve Jobs was mourned in ways no Politburo member could expect to be (counterfeit copies of the new biography graced peddler’s carts seemingly in minutes after it was issued; I got one for the equivalent of $3).

The odd thing, of course, is that it’s Christmas without Christ. The imagery gracing the stores – which, you can be sure, is Party-approved or at least not opposed – is all about Santa Claus, trees and reindeer. One does not see crucifixes, crèches or pictures of Jesus (not that there are many of these in American malls either). A friend says her nine-year-old daughter has been practicing to sing in a school Christmas pageant, though there won’t be any religious elements in it (I’m not sure how many non-religious songs there are beyond Jingle Bells and Frosty the Snowman. But, even if Silent Night is on the list, the religious words would be sung without any divine intent).

Many of my non-religious friends in the U.S. take the same tack, of course. Even some Jews have Christmas trees (“Hanukkah Bushes”), arguing that such pagan-derived symbols are part of the non-religious character the holiday has taken on. It’s just a cultural thing, they say, and what’s wrong with giving presents and offering one another good wishes? Then, of course, there’s the idea that no occasion for a party ought to be passed up.

Still, there’s something shallow about the Chinese celebration of the holiday. It has a hollow ring. Along with stripping out the religious elements, the Chinese have no traditional basis for the day, nothing that links it to anything Chinese. Far more important, of course, are the Chinese New Year and other holidays where it seems the whole nation is on trains and planes to get home. Those days, far older than anything we have in the West, are all about the warmth of family.

For now, Christmas in China still is no home-and-hearth holiday. People work on the day. Schools remain in session, at least when the date falls on a weekday. And present-giving hasn’t become the potentially bankrupting affair that it is for so many American parents. Oddly, perhaps, that’s heartening. Sure, it’s funny to see pictures of smiling, white-bearded, red-nosed St. Nick (of course, one wonders if the Coca-Cola-fostered image has anything to do with the saint). But, Scrooge-like as it may sound, there’s something pathetic about it. China has plenty of traditions to mark, after all, and many have been around longer than the couple thousand thousand years Westerners have been marking the mid-winter holiday.

China looks outward and upward — but for how long?

As I sat entranced by Tchaikovsky performed by Russia’s Gergiev and Mariinsky Orchestra at Beijing’s sprawling and ultramodern National Center for the Performing Arts this weekend, I was struck again by the country’s stark contrasts. By the thousands, people here delight in orchestras, dance troupes and theater companies from across the world. Demonstrating its scientific prowess, China just last week launched a rocket carrying the Tiangong-1 lab module into orbit, a step toward a manned space station. And, economically, China’s robust growth is making the rest of the world pale.

And yet, China is also a place where indoor plumbing is a dream for squatters and the poor who live in ramshackle houses, including some still scattered about the Tsinghua University campus. For all its openness to people and companies from around the world, the country still shuts out such powerful communication tools as Facebook and Twitter and muzzles its own knockoffs of such social networks. And university graduates who go to work for foreign companies in their offices here – whether media such as Bloomberg News or global manufacturers such as Procter & Gamble – can’t get needed Beijing residency permits, crucial papers that give them to right to do everything from buy cars to send their kids to public schools.

I suppose such contrasts – and contradictions – are nothing new here. Emperors and empresses lived in opulence so lavish that long canals were built to let them travel in comfort between palaces (this weekend, we visited one such canal linking the Summer Palace with a central Beijing spot). At the same time, peasants starved in the countryside. More recently, as a middle class has surged into prominence, residents in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities have been able to snap up spacious gated-community apartments, cars and other amenities they could scarcely imagine when they were young. Flashy shopping malls, many stocked with pricey western goods, fill architecturally fascinating towers that have risen by the hundreds in the last decade in Beijing. And yet, some of the poor in rural areas attend schools with cinderblocks for seats, no books and no real hope for the future.

Economists measure disparities in income in societies, and China’s ranking is surprising. While the U.S. looks worse, at 39th place in terms of distribution, thanks to all those zillionaires President Obama wants to tax, China isn’t far behind, at 52nd place. This ranking, the Gini index, is based on fairly old data (from 2007 in China’s case), and I suspect the measure will worsen when newer numbers come in. But already it suggests that China’s flood of new wealth hasn’t lifted all boats. Indeed, China’s leaders are so concerned about disparities that they have banned certain words in advertising – “supreme,” “high class” and “luxury,” for instance – apparently believing that such terms only spawn dangerous envy.

As for its ambivalent dealings with the West, China has long alternated between periods of openness and times of circling the wagons. Its leaders have adopted Western ways only to shrug them off. They have shut the borders when they felt the contacts were hurting them. These days, China is pushing its promising youngsters to learn English – teaching it from the earliest years – and facilities from the subway here to signs on school buildings, in stores and on major locations boast English. I am teaching in the Global Business Journalism program, an example of China’s openness, as Western journalists teach their techniques to Chinese graduate students. This sort of openness would have been unthinkable only a few decades ago.

Like any developing economy, China’s system has a long way to go. It has come remarkably far since it set out on the once-reviled capitalist road in the early 1980s. Even as it pushes ahead technologically – as symbolized by Tiangong-1, its gleaming towers in Beijing and the bullet trains that zip around the country – it will continue to grapple with problems spawned by income inequality. Growing – and sharing — the wealth, and opening the doors more to the outside are unlikely to proceed evenly. The march forward may be marked by occasional steps backward – as with the government’s attitude toward Facebook. But, unlike earlier times when China’s leaders sought to close the country off from the rest of the world, it may be that such insularity proves impossible in a globally integrated economy. For hundreds of millions of Chinese, the open door will lead to a dazzling future.

China: land of contradictions

As we walked to lunch with faculty and a couple administrators the other day, we passed demonstrators holding a sit-in outside the Tsinghua administrative offices. Their placards told of how they wanted more money for the destruction of their homes, which was planned to make way for faculty housing. Our hosts, chagrined by the protest, nonetheless noted that this was an example of free speech. These people, it seemed, had a right to make their grievances known.

It seemed a lot like home. But, then at lunch, we got some friendly advice from a Party official who is a fellow academic. Be mindful of what we say in class, we were counseled. Chinese students, especially those from the countryside, give teachers enormous deference in this Confucian society. Moreover, with social media alive and well in China – through local knockoffs of Facebook and Twitter – anything we say may find an audience well beyond the classroom. Privately, say what you want. Publicly, be discreet. There’s a difference in China between the private and public realms.

We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. But, what a perplexing country this is. On the one hand, it has embraced so much about the West. Just look at the soaring skylines in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. And consider the recurring 10 percent-plus annual growth rates that put the U.S. and the rest of the economically turbulent West to shame. The Chinese are setting the pace for the world.

School of Economics and Management

Their passion for capitalism is obvious. The school of economics and management here is a towering modern compound fronting on the strip of stunning buildings that adorn a stretch near the main gate. Inside one of the several buildings, portraits of Nobel Prize-winning economists make a long line in the lobby – seemingly, all are Americans, including New York Times columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman. By contrast, the university’s school of Marxism is tucked off in a less impressive quarter of campus, housed in a small, older building. I’ve heard Marxism is regarded as a matter of philosophy, nothing quite so practical as economics and management. Certainly, there’s no doubt who these folks want their students to look up to.

Merit is also prized here, whether in school or in government. To join the Communist Party, our colleague explained, one must be in the top of one’s class academically. The Party is for the elite, those who can lead the country, and getting through the application process is tough and time-consuming. Only about six percent of the 1.3 billion people in the country qualify for Party membership (a surprising share, even if that amounts to 80 million folks).

Indeed, the Party leadership is composed of practical men with impressive academic backgrounds. Some have graduated from Tsinghua, with degrees in subjects such as water engineering. The current president, Hu Jintao, is an alum. The children of some of these men now study at Western institutions such as Harvard. These are bright people who, it seems, take seriously the need to intelligently manage a country where vast numbers still live in poverty a world apart from privileged city-dwellers. They seem to want to spread the wealth and manage the growth of their country well.

And yet, there is a limit to how far western approaches go here. I bumped up against it the other day, when I wanted to shoot some photos at a central athletic field on campus. Large numbers of students paraded about the sprawling field in military uniforms. Military training, a student here told me, is required of all freshmen. Indeed, days earlier I saw similar troops of students marching around campus and singing songs of loyalty to the nation. It was reminiscent of years ago in the U.S., when students had to go through ROTC training on many campuses.

Struck me as interesting. But a fellow in a black athletic outfit thought otherwise. “Delete,” he told me politely — but firmly — as he appeared out of nowhere. This was arguably a public place, and certainly would have been considered so in the U.S. Further, he was not in uniform and didn’t say who he was. But I was in no position to argue. I am, after all, a guest in this country and must behave as one. I certainly don’t wish to offend my hosts, whose graciousness has gone above and beyond.

School of Marxism

Odd thing is, other military events on campus seem to be fair game. For instance, I was able days before to photograph a flag-raising ceremony conducted by young people in front of the main administration building. Chinese people were similarly taking photos. That, it seemed, was acceptable even as the larger parade was not.

So, every once in a while, I expect I’ll run into reminders that the rules are different here. As long as I am a guest, I will comply. Anything else would be ungracious, to say the least.