My Life As An Activist Journalist

Over the past several days, I have been blogging extensively on the FoxConn-versus-First Financial Daily (aka China Business News) reporters lawsuit.  Here are the six blog entires:

At first, the chatter about this case took place in Chinese inside China on forums and blogs.  The English-language Chinese-media-themed blogs (initially, Non-violent Resistance in China and EastSouthWestNorth in Hong Kong) then picked up the story.  In my case, I just would not giving up pushing the western media to pick up this story.  For example, I wrote in FoxConn Coverage Update:

If I can make this case very simple.  This is not a question of whether the First Financial Daily reporter was right or wrong in his reports.  Either way, FoxConn is entitled to file a civil libel suit against the newspaper, which employs that reporter and her editor.  But since when does a civil libel suit involve freezing the assets of the reporter and the editor, including their bank savings accounts, stock holdings, homes and automobiles, to the tune of 10 million RMB for the editor and 20 million RMB for the reproter?  As the reporter noted, this amount is many more times than that which she can ever expect to make in her lifetime.  By comparison, how would the western media react if a prominent American newscaster such as Katie Couric is sued by a large corporation such as Exxon-Mobile or MicroSoft and have all her personal assets frozen for the duration of the legal proceedings?  The Chinese media workers are of the opinion that if this case were allowed to go through, it will be the end of any coverage of the doings of large corporations.  
So why are the western media and press freedom organizations silent on this affair?  Why is Shanghai Daily the lone voice in the wilderness?  The lesson from FoxConn's similiar attempt in Taiwan in 2004 was that the pressure from international media organizations made them back off.  Where are those voices now?

Clearly, at this point, I was not functioning as a traditional journalist with an objective eye.  I was an undeclared lobbyist!

Now I shall digress.  First, I will remind you that I have a great deal of admiration for the Chinese journalists who keep personal blogs and tell us about what goes missing in their published work.  The two First Financial Daily reporters in this case started their blogs on August 28th to tell us about their feelings and experiences and logged 2.5 million visitors in less than two days.  Naturally, I also lament the fact that most western journalists do not maintain similar blogs, so we do not know why some of them did not cover this story.  But today, there was an important exception at Telegraph journalist Richard Spencer's blog and this is his explanation in What makes news?:

What I'd like to address here though is the allegation surfacing in the blogosphere that the "Western media", that catch-all bogeyman, is somehow acting hypocritically in not showing more interest in this case.

So far, none of the big European or US papers has picked up on the story.

Danwei and ESWN have both pointed this out critically, and I'm not just taking the hump because I've just put them at the top of my blog-roll - they are important because they are the most widely read (I think) English-language, media-focused blogs about China.

Now, as I say, I think this tale is interesting - but then I'm a journalist, and I live in China. On the other hand, all but a fraction of a percentage point of my newspaper's readers aren't and don't.

For ordinary folk, I reckoned this one didn't leap the selection barrier in the way that a human rights campaigner or journalist getting sent down for three or four years does, so I haven't offered it up for their perusal.

Danwei suggests that if Western media are so happy to "crow" about media clampdowns when the Chinese government intimidates the press, it's odd, or contradictory, that we don't do the same when it's a big company doing it.

Roland Soong, the ESWN blogger, pleads: "Why are the western media and press freedom organizations silent on this affair?"

Well, it's true the Western media do often make a fuss about imprisoned journalists, censorship etc, though not nearly as single-mindedly as they are sometimes given credit for (and surely it is still credit, isn't it?).

In the really quite remarkable Zhao Yan affair - the New York Times researcher charged with leaking state secrets over a bit of political gossip, cleared, and then jailed on Friday - my copy didn't get in the paper, for example, while my rivals hardly cleared the pages.

That's to be compared with a double-page spread on the implications of China's increasing business clout in the developing world in the business section, last week.

However, the important thing is just to look closely at the story and see what it offers to a western reader. The basic points are that a company is suing journalists over a bit of reporting it claims is false or unfair.

That's the "intimidation" being meted out. But, while that's a good and important story for China, where Foxconn and the paper are both well-known, it's not so much so for other countries, because libel actions by firms against newspapers happen everywhere. This is just another one.

You wouldn't expect a Chinese paper to report a libel action taken by a big American subcontracting firm against a British newspaper in London, would you? Or a British newspaper - to cite ESWN - to splash one against Katie Couric, whoever she is?

OK, this story has a twist - the freezing of the assets. But wait - while it was Foxconn that asked for it, it was the Chinese judicial authorities that ordered it, illegally, according to everyone.

That's the same judicial authorities (in the general, national sense) whose complicity with bullying local and national Chinese governments we Western media "crow" about, so it doesn't seem to be so much of a contrast to the previous cases as more of
the same thing.

One difference is that in the previous cases, the journalists have been jailed, often accompanied by being badly treated, for long periods, whereas this pair have, by a case that appears anyway freakish rather than part of a pattern, just had their bank accounts frozen.

And if it's so clearly illegal that even People's Daily is saying so, then presumably there's a good chance that that is the worst that will happen to them and even that might be reversed soon.

If Foxconn had succeeded in having them jailed, things might be different.

There are two broad points here. One is often overlooked, in my humble opinion, by the great Roland Soong. It is that what makes a good domestic story, in any country, isn't the same as what makes a good foreign correspondent's story in that country.

A domestic story can rely on being important and relevant to its readers; a foreign story isn't going to be relevant, necessarily, to its readers, so we have to introduce a dimension that's also important to our trade - a story has to say something specific about the country concerned. Libel actions aren't. Freezing assets might be, but not if it's just a one-off.

The other? A second story that shares salient features with a previous one has to be better, by and large, to maintain editors' - and readers' - attention.

To put it another way: in the last week or two, I've reported on Ching Cheong, the Hong Kong journalist facing a long jail sentence for selling state secrets; Chen Guangcheng, a blind, self-taught lawyer who was jailed, virtually everyone agrees absurdly, for four years, after exposing abuses by family planning officials; as I say, after that, even Zhao Yan didn't make the cut.

If you were my editor, and I came up with a couple of journalists who had their bank accounts frozen in a preliminary hearing, what would you say?

For the reader in Chipping Sodbury, I just don't think that makes the grade.

And I totally respect that position.  Reality bites, and that's life.  P.S.  Here is Katie Couric in a newsworthy story ... hehehe ...

Of course, this ends that digression just so I can digress along a completely different direction.  At this point, I can say that I know why I do not work for a newspaper.  As Richard Spencer wrote, a traditional newspaper has space limitations.  It can be very frustrating to a reporter when his/her story does not get published because there wasn't enough space.  So instead, I am a blogger, who can pick his topics and write as long/short and much/little as he pleases.  Of course, I don't get paid but I do get 100% job satisfaction.  And that's life with its myriads of choices and trade-offs.

To get back to the original thread (if you still remember), when I researched the case background, I found out that Hon Hai (FoxConn's parent company) filed a similar case in Taiwan against a female reporter and froze all her personal assets.  Hon Hai was forced to back off after the Taiwan media banded together and threatened a global media campaign against the company.  Hon Hai withdrew the case in consideration of the "social disharmony" that had been caused.

Now I have a choice here.  I could be a traditional objective journalist and simply translate things as they appeared in the Chinese media.  Or I could use everything within my power to increase that media pressure against FoxConn.  I am my own master and I did what my heart told me to.  I began to lobby, persuade and bully the western media to pick up the story.  And I did not mind using hyperbole!  Charging western media with double standards may be over the top, but I will do that without compunction!

Was my effort successful?  That is impossible to identify or isolate.  I was only one of many voices in this spontaneously organized campaign.  But I will say that it gave me a great deal of satisfaction to compile this chronology of media reports as they rolled in ...

- Repercussions of Reporting on Apple 'Sweatshops'  Slashdot
- One country, two systems, and the same method of intimidation  Non-Violent Resistance
- All the news that's unfit to print in China  Andrew Leonard,
- Apple iPod manufacturer tries to muzzle press in China  Jeremy Goldkorn, Danwei
- FoxConn is not dumb, but downright vicious  Non-violent Resistance
- China paper vows to support staff in defamation case  Reuters
- China court freezes journalists' personal assets over iPod story  AFX
- Foxconn sues Chinese media over sweatshop report  Interfax (subscription)
- Ipod subcontractor is suing over article on employees  Agence France Presse
- Chinese Court Targets 'iPod City' Reporters  Deutsche Presse-Agentur
- IPod maker freezes reporters' assets
- Foxconn Sues Journalists For Reporting Tech Labor Issue  China CSR
- Chinese court freezes assets of iPod plant journalists  PC Pro
- Foxconn sues reporters over iPod story  MacNN
- Foxconn sues journalists over 'iPod factory' claims  Macworld UK
- China Court Freezes Journalists' Personal Assets Over Apple iPod Story  SDA India
- Foxconn shoots itself and Apple in the foot  Will Moss, CNET Asia
- Foxconn sues two Chinese journalists over iPod city story  Ryan Block, Engadget
- Apple Computer urged to intercede for two reporters who exposed bad conditions at supplier’s plants  Reporters Without Borders
- Picking on the weak  Tim Johnson, China Rises blog
- Lawsuits and sweated i-pods  Blood & Treasure blog
- Foxconn and the fourth estate  Shanghaiist
- China: chain effect on ipod maker’s legal action against journalists  Oi Wan Lam, Global Voices Online
- La Red : Foxconn demanda al periodista que publicó la historia de las "fábricas del iPod"
- Foxconn will Journalisten mundtot machen  Mac Essentials
- Chinese journalists in trouble for iPod story  San Francisco Chronicle
- Foxconn Sues Journalists For Reporting Tech Labor Issue  China Tech News
- Group Asks Apple To Intercede In Foxconn Lawsuit Against Chinese Journalists  Eric Savitz, Barron's
- Chinese court freezes assets of journalists in iPod exposé  The Guardian
- China IPod Journos Speak  Wired News
- Apple asked to intercede on behalf of Chinese reporters
- Foxconn Sues Two Journalists Over "Sweat Shop Labor" Stories  DailyTech
- iPod Labor Fiasco Update: Apple Contractor Suing Reporters for Uncovering Oppressive Practices  Podcasting News
- iPod sweatshop hits back at reporters  Silicon Valley Sleuth
- iPod Factory Makes Even Apple's Treatment Of Bloggers Look Good  Techdirt
- What was FoxConn Thinking?  Will Moss, Imagethief
- China IPod Maker, Journalists in Dispute  Associated Press
- Chinese media protest Hon Hai suit  Financial Times
- Apple trying to resolve dispute at Chinese iPod factory  Associated Press
- Hon Hai explains accusations against Chinese journalists  DigiTimes
- Some differing views on Foxconn  Joel Martinsen, Danwei
- iPod City : Foxconn attaque les journalistes
- What makes news?  Richard Spencer, Telegraph blogs
- Save us from court action, Chinese ask Steve Jobs  IDG News Service
- Dos periodistas `expropiados´ por hablar mal de Apple iPod  Periodismo
- Company in iPod Labor Fuss Eases Claims  Associated Press
- The Chinese Blogosphere Strikes Back  Simon Elegant, TIME Asia
- Was Your IPod Made in a Sweatshop?  Tsai Ting-I, Asia Sentinel

I would like to think that I made a contribution somewhere to make this happen.

Yes, but so what?  This is more self-indulgence, right?  This is another acrobatic trick to pat oneself on the back, right?

The real question is: Where are the actual results? 

On this night, I read this breaking news item on NetEase (August 30, 22:14:05):

(in translation)  According to the latest news coming from Shenzhen, the Shenzhen Intermediate Court has unfrozen the assets of Weng Bao and Wang You which had been previously frozen through the application of FoxConn.  Furthermore, FoxCnn has announced that the amount of money asked for in the lawsuit has been reduced from 30 million RMB to 1 RMB.

Now I can go and sleep in peace ...

What shall I dream about?  Well, for me, this whole affair was not really about FoxConn or the two First Financial Daily reporters.  The most important outcome is that the Chinese media workers learned how they can band together and create an unstoppable tide of public opinion.  And what new causes will come to their attention tomorrow?  

I can dream ...

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