New Media & Social Transformation Speech

In this session of this conference, the other speakers represent respectively indymedia, ZNet and Ohmynews.  Those are organizations.  By contrast, I am an individual citizen.  To proceed, I must tell you something about myself.  Here are my circumstances very briefly.

I live most of the year in Hong Kong .  I am a media researcher by profession (specifically, in print and electronic broadcast audience measurement), and I have worked as a Chinese-to-English translator in the United States.

In 2003, I moved from the United States to  Hong Kong , and I started version 1.0 of the EastSouthWestNorth blog.  This blog is written in English, and could be characterized as a traditional news blog – that is, I read many news articles, I mark the noteworthy ones and I comment.  The major coverage areas of the blog were Latin America, Iraq and China, with the themes being media, culture, society and politics.

In March 2005, for reasons that are too complicated and irrelevant to go into there, I had to wipe out version 1.0 and begin a version 2.0 of the EastSouthWestNorth blog.  Consistent with the theme of this session, this is my personal attempt to define and implement a project of social transformation.

The Consumer-Centric Approach

My premise is consumer-centric in nature.  I placed myself in the position of an English-language-only-reading person who is interested in finding out about China .

What are my principal resources?

These are easy to enumerate:

I will remind you that these news resources decide how attitudes, perceptions and knowledge about China are going to be formed by English-only news consumers.

Now I happen to also read Chinese.  What are the principal resources for a Chinese-reading person?

In Hong Kong, I wake up in the morning and I have eight online newspapers to read, covering the entire political spectrum.  Every week, I read Next Magazine, Eastweek, Ming Pao Weekly and Yazhou Zhoukan.  That is just for Hong Kong alone.  For mainland China and Taiwan, I use the news aggregators such as Netease, Sina, Sohu and Yahoo! because there are thousands of online news sources.  Then I check the Chinese forums such as Tinya Club or Xici Hutong to pick up the news that don’t make it onto the mainstream media.  Finally, I check the overseas Chinese websites for subjects that are censored within China .

So I have been reading the English-language news and the Chinese-language news on China continuously for two years.  I must say: These are two different worlds.

How are these two worlds different?

It is first of all about the breadth of coverage.  China is a country with 1.3 billion people.  How much does the New York Times tell you about China on a particular day?  One or two articles, at the most.  To quote New York Times editor Bill Keller: “That’s not bad.  But it’s not enough.”  There are many more things happening that the western media can possibly cover.

Secondly, it is about the limitation in space.  The New York Times reporter may be given 800 words to cover an event in China.  Let us say a couple of paragraphs is given to the background in the beginning; one paragraph to interview an expert to give one point of view; one paragraph to interview another expert to give the opposite point of view; one paragraph to summarize any conclusions; and that leaves about two paragraphs for the event itself.  Again, it’s not enough.

Thirdly, it is about the attention deficit syndrome.  The western media do not have the resources, space and time to cover a long-term, slow-developing story with multiple characters and events.  Their readers do not have that kind of patience either.

Fourthly, and most contentiously, the western media have different emphases on what they want to show their readers compared to what people inside China are reading/seeing and care about.  As I said, this is contentious, and I will not elaborate any more on this point.

So EastSouthWestNorth v.2.0 is my personal attempt to bring the world of Chinese-language news to the English-only-reading world.  Maybe an individual citizen cannot hope to bring all the news over.  That would be far too ambitious.  I never pretend that a personal blog could become the replacement of the English-language mainstream media, but my blog can supplement the English-language media. 

My lesser but achievable goals are

(1) to make a difference in specific cases 

(2) to create an awareness that things may be more complex than it seems.

In the following, I will show you some examples of my work:

Examples of Work

Example #1:  “Who is writing these headlines?”

Here is one story in Hong Kong with the following newspaper headlines:
- The Standard: Most want suffrage by 2012
- South China Morning Post: Polls show public desire for democracy – and a timetable
- Apple Daily: 65% of respondents agree with setting a time table for universal suffrage
- Ming Pao: CUHK poll: Almost 60% accept government reform package
- Sing Tao: 60% of citizens accept government reform package
- Ta Kung Pao: 60% of citizens accept government reform package
- Wen Wei Po60% of Hong Kong people overall accept government reform package

This story was about a CUHK poll, and each newspaper gave the same data inside the stories.  But their headlines were radically different, and this reflects their political positions.  So the next time you glance at a headline, you have to wonder what the whole story is.

Example #2: “Could these reporters have been at the same event?”

At a public meeting with WTO Secretary Pierre Lamy,

South China Morning Post: “After protesting before and during the meeting activists blocked Mr Lamy's car when he tried to leave.  ... After he realised his car was blocked in, Mr Lamy got out of the vehicle to receive the petitions from the activists.”

Oriental Daily: See photo of a demonstrator jumping on the hood of Lamy's car and preventing him from leaving.

Why would some reporters not report what they saw?

Example #3: “To make a long story short …”

Why did the people riot in Huaxi/Huankantou?  What was the long preceding history?  What happened on that night?  How was the news reported in the Chinese media?  What information was provided by civilians to the Chinese forums?  What happened afterwards?

No, those questions are too hard for the western media reporters to get to and for their readers to cope with.  It is easiest to show the photograph plus the usual 800-word report with the standard comments about peasant rebellions in Chinese history, and drop the story from view afterwards.

But you can find the sum total of virtually every significant item in the Chinese-language for this story translated into English at EastSouthWestNorth.

Example #4:   “Sorry, but we’ve decided that you don’t need to know this …”

The Shalan flash flood provided an illuminating instance of what Chinese media reporters have to cope with.

Phase 1: Flash flood killed more than 100 school children

Beijing News had this front page with the handprints of the children desperately trying to reach up above the waterline. 

Phase 2:  Major discussion by newspaper editors and reporters about the authenticity of those handprints (e.g. Did they belong to the rescuers?)

Phase 3:  Government shuts down all coverage.  A reporter’s last story was killed, but he posted it on the Internet anyway.

Phase 4:  The reporter then posted his unpublished (and unpublishable) fields notes on the Internet as well.  This covers all the areas that he was unable to cover (e.g. Was it a sudden rainstorm, or did someone open the floodgates at a dam upstream?  He was not permitted to go there).

All these reports have been translated from Chinese into English at EastSouthWestNorth.  The importance of Shalan for the English-reading public is this.  This is an illustration of the development of a culture by which media workers can talk on the internet in a passionate, intelligent and civilized way about their work.  With due respect, you never see the same about American media workers (and I ask you to think about Judith Miller at the New York Times and Bob Woodard at the Washington Post most recently).  Furthermore, the Chinese media workers were willing to post their unpublishable works on the Internet.  With due respect again, you never see the same from American media workers.  Here, I have to step back.  Ten years ago, this is unthinkable.  Today, we have the Internet and all of this is possible.  I am personally convinced that China will have an infinitely superior (in the ethical sense) media workers culture to the United States in ten years time (or even in five years time).

Example #5: “We’ve got to cover this story, but it is far too huge …”

This is that “long-term, slow-developing story with multiple characters and events.” 

The story about the Taishi Village election first appeared in the news in July 2005, and it is still going on.

It has a huge cast of characters (e.g. a village director, a number of villagers most of whom have the family name Feng, a grandmother, a 16-year-old schoolboy, a Nanfang Daily reporter, a rights advocate Lu Banglie from Hubei, Knight Ridder News reporter Tim Johnson, a researcher at Zhongshan University, The Guardian Reporter Benjamin Joffe-Walt, the Taishi Village committee, the Yuwoutou town government, the Panyu district Civil Affairs Bureau, the Panyu district government and party committee, etc).

It has a huge number of incidents (e.g. public speeches by citizens, a petition drive to recall the village director, constitutional debates, public demonstrations in front of the district government office, police arrests, senior citizens and women defending the village account books, police raids, elections, intimidation, beatings, etc).

For the English-only world, everything changed when The Guardian reporter Benjamin Joffe-Walt filed his report when he attempted to reach Taishi village in the company of Lu Banglie.  Previously, virtually nobody knows about this place.  Overnight, everybody had to find out what went on there.

If the usual 800-word report was unsatisfactory, the alternative is to google the name of the village and … lo and behold … there are the massive files of Chinese-language source materials translated into English at EastSouthWestNorth.  The central document was a chronology, which details what happened in Taishi over time.  The supporting documents are the various media-related stories that spilled out of the main event.

It was this particular event that catapulted EastSouthWestNorth to public attention.  It was less about the specific coverage of this one case.  It was more the realization from this example that there was a new form of media out there. 

Here was an event that once again shown that the mainstream traditional media could not adequately cover a “long-term, slow-developing story with multiple characters and events.”  But along comes a blog that was able to patiently collate multiple sources of information (newspapers, websites, forums, etc) in different languages and weave everything into a coherent account that was and still is continuously updated.  But I have to point out a very important -- the blogger collates information, but is unable to verify any of it.

Metric of Success

Has EastSouthWestNorth been successful?  I can start off with the quantitative metric of success.  For the year 2005 up to November 15th, here are the total website statistics:

Converted to a daily basis, the numbers are:

The above are average numbers since the beginning of the year.  My most current numbers are like 15,000 page views and 12,000 unique visitors per day.  These are respectable numbers for a blog, but this is far from mass media.  The New York Times gets 7 million visitors per day (or some such).  I am not and probably will never be mainstream media.

But I don’t care about numbers.  I know how to get huge numbers already (hint: post some photographs of scantily clad pretty girls and the numbers will surge past 100,000 visitors per day in no time), and I don’t care for that.  It is the quality of that audience.  At a minimum, from the recent media attention that I am getting, this blog is well-known among foreign correspondents based in China and may influence their coverage.  That matters much more to me.  In the month of November 2005, I was interviewed ten times by mainstream media, including the BBC World Service and Hong Kong's Next Magazine.

But let me review the lesser but achievable goals that I set up for myself.  My first goal was to make a difference in specific cases.  I can list a number of cases in which my blog has informed and influenced opinion. If you google the terms: Taishi village; Harbin water crisis; Ruzhou; Chizhou; Huaxi/Huankantou; Li Ao; Chen Guidi/Wu Chuntao; Lu Banglie; Lu Yuegang; Li Datong; Huang Jingao; Jiao Guobiao; Wang Binyu; Eileen Chang; … then I am one of the top results and I am the best in fact.  Therefore, I believe that I have made some differences in certain cases that attracted major media attention.

My second goal was to create the awareness that things may be more complex than it seems.  I should think that my regular blog visitors would agree that I am offering a more complex picture of China.  I cannot replace mainstream media, but I supplement them.  I have even created the awareness that blogs can outperform mainstream media in covering certain types of stories. 

As for the larger goal of re-dressing the overall imbalance between Chinese-language and English-language news on China, it is beyond the capability of a single citizen.  However, I seemed to have raised the awareness for this particular model.  If there are dozens or hundreds similar blogs run by individual citizens like myself, there will be a social transformation, both in transnational understanding and media culture.