For Chinese students, history is personal

“I have a sister who is eleven years older than I. Actually, I heard from my mother that I should have another sister who is just one year old than I. I asked my parents and grandparents a lot times about where did she go or did she die. From my mother’s mood, I guess she didn’t die but she was abandoned by my parents. Why? Because at that time, my family was so poor to afford three children, and boys mean more than girls to a family which I completely disagree with. Thus, I have never seen her in my life. I wish she would live better than I and we could meet each other again. I am looking for her, I hope I can find her.”

Their stories, like China’s history for the last three generations (and longer), are remarkable. Some are heartbreaking. Others are heartwarming. Still others, like those of many of my students in Nebraska, are surprisingly upbeat. The variety in their life stories – again, as is also true of my students in Nebraska – is stunning.

My students in a summer course at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics shared their brief autobiographies as an initial assignment. I assign the task to get a sense of their writing skills and to get to know them a bit. I ask where they hope their studies will take them and what they want to get out of the course. As in Nebraska, I find a blend of young-adult idealism, hopefulness and candor in their work.

Some of their stories are extraordinary, though, and they open a window onto China’s recent history:

“All of the members in my entire family are born in Shanghai, and my grand grandparents and grandparents, they came through the Cultural Revolution, which is also mentioned in the yesterday’s Ted video. During that ten years, it seems like nobody need to work, according to what my grandfather have told me, and the national economy backed off. National income lost about 500 billion yuan, according to the online statistics, and people’s living standards and personal education has been destroyed. While my grandparents suffered a lot because of the chaos in the upper politics, my parents and I have already got the great benefit from the reform and opening policy. All of us are well-educated and have more working opportunities than ever no matter how fierce the competition is in today’s job market. Those who are about the similar ages as me, which are also called millennials professionally, actually enjoy the fruits that the great development in China has brought us.”

Their tales also shed light on China’s present and future:

“I was born in a little village in Zhejiang province. My mother and my father are all local residents in this village, but they came to Shanghai to set up their own business when I was about two … My mother and my father are retailers selling glasses in Shanghai. Their business is successful now. They have expanded their business to eight chain stores now which was unimaginable at the beginning of the business, because my grandfather and grandmother are all farmers with little income and they had little money for the business when they first came to Shanghai, a city full of opportunities and attractiveness to them at that time.

‘My parents lived a tough life at the beginning of their business. My father was once time cheated by his fellow-villager when his business just started to improve, who suddenly disappeared with all my father’s savings… I really admire them for setting up their own business so successfully…. But things aren’t going well these years. The industry has been going downhill since the rise of E-business in Chinese. One of the chain stores has been shut down because it wasn’t able to earn profit. I was asked to help at the day the store was shut down .The store was decorated beautifully and it cost a lot, but at that day they had to be moved out of that store … My parents told me that it was harder and harder to run a business nowadays…. They plan to shrink their business and end it when they retire. This arises my interest in business and economics, and that is why I chose to enter Shanghai University of Finance and Economics.”

Some come from very modest backgrounds, as the children of farmers:

“I know how many people in China are still in poor today, cause I know how many people are still struggling for a better life. Chinese people, especially the farmers, are trying their best to fight against corruption of the government, discrimination of the citizen, destruction of the bad weather, low price of agricultural products, low pay in the factories, the inequality of education.

“There are too many things we need to do, and I want to contribute to the positive changes of my family, my homeland, and my country. I got much help from the society, and I want to do something helpful to society, that’s where my worth lies… I want to get a wider vision. I want to know more about the world I used to hate business as I think that it is just a chase for money, but now I think that only through business can our people get wealthy, so I want to know more about the business world, what’s it like, how does it work, how can we work in the process and make people get wealth through the process.”

Others, hailing from comfortable backgrounds, expect to do even better than their parents in life:

“I come from a well-off family. My father is a salesperson who lacks high-level education but is pretty experienced in marketing in the environmental protection industry. I am very proud of him and he is my hero who built up from nothing and made every effort to offer the best to my family. My mother is the woman who stands at the back of him. She works more than a housewife would do and takes good care of both my father and me. Since I was little, I have travelled a lot with my parents around the country partly thanks to the requirement of my father’s job. In the rest of my life, I would love to walk farther, enjoy more beautiful sceneries and accompany my parents to travel all over the world with the gratitude they brought to me in my childhood. To be a better one, man needs to experience more.”

Their powerful stories make me want to serve them better as a teacher, even of a short-term course. If I can provide some insights into economics and business, I may give them something that helps them long after their school days end. Such is my hope and ambition anyway.

 

Tenure is more than a job for life

TenureMountainThe letter was short, barely filling a page. But the message, for me, was a big deal. The vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln let me know this week that I had successfully run a 5 ½-year long gauntlet and qualified for tenure.

I choked up. I felt like a 17-year-old getting accepted into the college of his dreams. The news about what technically is called “continuous appointment” meant more to me than I had expected. It meant more than just job security; it meant I had been accepted by my peers, my dean and the people who fill the upper reaches of my Big Ten university as someone they’d like to work with for as long as I could command a podium in a classroom.

That acceptance, that ratification of my role as a mentor to young people, that endorsement of my teaching and research skills – it was like getting my first car or going on a first date. It summoned up sepia-colored images of my father – someone who had not even graduated from high school – calling me and an academically inclined sister his little professors. We were the ones who pulled As, the ones he could see in classrooms, occupying places he respected.

I was surprised at my own reaction, though, partly because I’ve been conflicted about tenure. After all, I managed to stay 22 years at my last job, at BusinessWeek, without it, and had worked at three other news organizations before without it. At each place, I was only as good – and secure – as my next story. My job security depended on shifting arrays of bosses and the economic health of my employer. And that seemed fine to me – even just, if one believes healthy capitalism requires dynamic labor markets where jobs must come and go, where there is no room for sinecures.

For years I’ve been sympathetic to a view that a former colleague at BusinessWeek put into writing recently. Sarah Bartlett, marking her first anniversary as dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, complained that the “tenure system can create a permanent class of teachers who may not feel much pressure to constantly refresh their skills or renew their curricula.” Tenure, she suggested, would atrophy programs rather than create the “vibrant academic cultures” that journalism schools, in particular, need at a time of great industry ferment.

SkeletonBut does tenure serve mainly to shield those who would resist change? Does it do little more than protect aging old bulls and cows who should long ago have been turned out to pasture? Does it guarantee that hoary old fossils will dominate classrooms, spouting outdated and irrelevant approaches? Does the pursuit of tenure, moreover, drive aspiring faculty members to do pointless impractical research that doesn’t help the journalism world or the J schools themselves, as Sarah also implied?

Well, I look around at my tenured colleagues at UNL and see the opposite. As one pursued tenure, she wrote a textbook for training copy editors. Sue Burzynski Bullard’s text – “Everybody’s An Editor: Navigating journalism’s changing landscape” – should be standard fare in any forward-looking J school. Because it is an interactive ebook, the now-tenured Bullard is able to – and does – refresh the book regularly. Another colleague, John R. Bender, regularly updates “Reporting for the Media,” an impressive text that he and three colleagues wrote. It’s now in its 11th edition. A third colleague, Joe Starita, produced “I Am A Man: Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice,” setting a high bar for storytelling and research that contributes to an emphasis at our school in journalism about Native Americans. This was Starita’s third book and he’s toiling on a fourth, even as he inspires students in feature-writing and reporting classes.

And that productivity by tenured faculty isn’t limited to written work. Starita teamed up with multimedia-savvy journalism sequence head Jerry Renaud to shepherd the impressive Native Daughters project about American Indian women. Bernard R. McCoy, a colleague who teaches mainly (but not exclusively) in the broadcasting sequence, has produced documentaries including “Exploring the Wild Kingdom,” a public-TV effort about the most popular wildlife program in television history. Another of his works, “They Could Really Play the Game: Reloaded,” tells the story of an extraordinary 1950s college basketball team. And he’s now working on a production about WWI Gen. John J. Pershing.

Tenure doesn’t mean that creative work ends or innovations in the classroom cease. Each of my colleagues has had to adapt to the digital world. Some still prefer to teach in older ways – one quaintly requires students to hand in written papers that he grades by hand, for instance. But even he teams up with visually oriented colleagues to guide students to produce work as today’s media organizations demand it. Charlyne Berens, a colleague, and I teamed up with the Omaha World-Herald just last spring to guide students to produce a 16-part series that boasts print, online and multimedia elements, The Engineered Foods Debate. Charlyne, who recently retired as our associate dean, wrote several works, including “One House,” about the peculiar unicameral Nebraska legislature, and another about the former Secretary of Defense, “Chuck Hagel: Moving Forward.”

tenuretelescopeAs for me, the pursuit of tenure gave me the impetus to write my first book, “Transcendental Meditation in America: How a New Age Movement Remade a Small Town in Iowa.” I’m now working on a second book, exploring the reasons that drive people to join cults. I’m also developing curricula for business and economic journalism instruction that I hope will serve business school and J school students, including those interested in investor relations. The pursuit of tenure also drove me to develop research for academic journals, encouraging me to look into areas as far-flung as journalism training in China, as well as such practical work as the teaching of business journalism, the challenges of teaching fair-minded approaches to aspiring journalists, and the pros and cons of ranking journalism schools – all topics for forthcoming journal publication.

Forgive me for beating my own chest. I don’t mean to. I am humbled by the work that my colleagues at the J school and across the university do. It is an enormous honor for them to consider me a peer and, assuming that the university’s regents in September agree with our vice chancellor, I expect that I will spend the next decade or so trying to live up to that.

Free speech in China — an impossible dream?

tienanmentank-395No one really knows how many people died, were permanently hurt or lost their livelihoods 24 years ago today in Tiananmen Square. The government may have records on the casualties, believed to total more than 155 killed and 65 wounded, but it hasn’t made them public. Indeed, Chinese history books barely acknowledge the event, known in China simply as June Fourth. Sadly, few Chinese have seen the iconic AP photo of the lone man standing up to tanks in Beijing.

This extraordinary moment in recent Chinese history, though, echoes among those aware of the events at the time, both in the West and in China. Rising expectations for democracy and such freedoms as the right to free expression thrust hundreds of students into the streets on June 3 and 4. The country had thrown off the stultifying yoke of Maoism, had embraced the liberating force of capitalism and seemed to be on a road toward wider choice in everything from consumer goods to politics.

And then, of course, the road came to a dead end with tanks, bullets and tears in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The sprawling area of monuments, museums and government offices, which today draws thousands of Chinese and Western tourists, became synonymous with oppression.

It’s hard for us in the West to grasp how disillusioning this massacre must have been for the Chinese. First, many of the pro-democracy demonstrators killed were students at the nation’s top universities; these were the best and brightest in a Confucian system that ranks intellectuals high in the pecking order. I’m sure they were students much like the bright and eager young people I taught at Tsinghua University in the fall of 2011, innocent idealists who love their country and want only to make it better. Thus, their interest in journalism.

More important, the June Fourth protesters couldn’t have been more precious to their families. Because of China’s one-child policy, these students – some still in their teens – each carried the weighty hopes and aspirations of parents and grandparents on their shoulders. Little could be more alienating or tragic for those families, who today still bear the burden of grief and fury.

Ding Zilin, 2010
Ding Zilin, 2010
”Since my son died in 1989, there’s nothing more that can scare me,” Ding Zilin, a retired professor whose 17-year-old, Jiang Jielian, was killed on the night of June 3, told the New York Times in 1999. ”I do what I choose to do according to my own conscience.”

Ding, a retired professor of philosophy at People’s University who had once been a loyal Communist Party member, led a drive then to open a criminal investigation into the events of June Fourth. It went nowhere. Ding, who had attempted suicide repeatedly after the death of her son, wound up leading bereaved parents who have continued to demand the right to mourn their children in public and to end persecution of June Fourth victims. In response, she and her husband, former People’s University Aesthetics Institute head Jiang Peikun, have been constantly harassed. Ding’s nomination for the Nobel Prize in 2003 must have been a major embarrassment for Party leaders.

Since the massacre, some at the demonstrations or — like Ding — related to demonstrators have endured house arrests, loss of work and ongoing medical problems. Qi Zhiyong, a construction worker who went to the demonstrations out of curiosity, not activism, lost a leg, his occupation and any good feelings he had toward the Party, as the Washington Post reported. The paper reported that Zhang Lin, who organized protests in 1989 in Anhui Province, has spent much of the last 20 years under house arrest or in jail, as an advocate for labor rights and democracy. Some protesters who went on to have good careers now stay quiet about their youthful activism, fearing retribution.

Chinese leaders crushed the Tiananmen demonstrations nearly a quarter-century ago out of fear that they could trigger nationwide uprisings. Since then, however, riots, protests and mass incidents have only grown, with some 180,000 in 2010 alone, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Instability, driven by economic grievances or dissatisfaction with corruption, has worsened and is a major source of worry for the government. Chinese leaders today are desperate to manage societal transformation – which includes everything from urbanization to economic growth — while keeping a lid on the discontent and maintaining Party control.

Xi Jinping and other new leaders of China are walking a narrow and treacherous path. As economic expansion slows, disparities in wealth grow and upheaval from the migrations of millions to crowded cities worsens, they will surely find it increasingly difficult to keep order. That challenge to preserve order may underlay recent directives barring discussion of such topics as freedom of the press in universities and concerns in some Party quarters about too much Westernization.

Peter Herford
Peter Herford
Peter Arnett
Peter Arnett

The Party’s worries have hit home for some distinguished Western journalists recently. Peter Herford and Peter Arnett, longtime Asia hands who have taught for years at Shantou University’s journalism school, were just pink-slipped. Ostensibly, this is because they passed a mandatory retirement age of 70 for foreigners teaching in China. Herford, however, finds this puzzling because each of them passed that milestone about eight years ago.

Far less momentously, the government’s worries also hit home for me. In the last few weeks, I wanted to survey Chinese journalism students about freedom of expression and censorship, as well as the biases they see in both Western and Chinese media. I scuttled the project, however, after colleagues in China warned that the students’ answers, even in an anonymous Web-based study, might be tracked by state monitors. The survey wasn’t worth putting the students at risk.

tiananmen_square_original_t_shirts-ra2e852c4ad79491598dbbf9530e70006_va6lr_512Chinese leaders seem to have learned the wrong lessons from June Fourth. Suppressing speech is like clamping a lid on a pot of boiling water. As the heat grows, the chances of an explosion just grow with it. No doubt, the leaders worry that the more apt comparison is to the Arab Spring, and they are determined to avoid similar tumult. Not heeding – or even hearing — the demands and discontents of the people, however, seems like a losing strategy for a government. Certainly, plenty of Chinese dynastic leaders up to Empress Dowager Longyu, ousted in 1912, learned that the hard way.

Suppressing the history of June Fourth, barring free speech and banning even discussion of a free press, won’t keep Chinese people from learning about these things. Even keeping June Fourth off the Internet in China won’t do the trick. Do leaders really not think the 190,000 Chinese now studying in the U.S. won’t hear about it? What of those studying elsewhere, including in Hong Kong or other parts of Asia? Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of the tragic event. An even brighter spotlight will be shone on the massacre then. Facing up to that dark history in the coming year might be a far better approach than tightening the lid on that bubbling pot even more.

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, fakecase.com, 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: sinogogue.org). 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.