"China Blog" Commentators Influenced American Reporters

(yWeekend)  "China Blog" Commentators Influenced American Reporters.  By Lu Yuan (吕媛).  March 22, 2007.

[in translation]

March 30, TIME's Beijing bureau chief Simon Elegant is interviewed
by our reporter in his office.

Face: Simon Elegant: Born in Hong Kong (China), currently TIME weekly magazine (USA)'s Beijing bureau chief, being mainly responsible for reporting on mainland China.  Prior to coming to Beijing he worked for TIME in Malaysia and Singapore.  Since 2006, he moved with his family to Beijing.

Voice: Someone said, "Why are your subjects so facetious?"  I said, "These contents may be something Americans don't understand.  From the comments left there, many people have the idea to defend China.  I think that is quite normal.  If a Chinese person were writing about things in the United States, Americans will probably do the same.

The China Blog (TIME) writer Simon Elegant posted a photo of a pigeon with an open skull on the blog.  A young Chinese woman left a comment to say that it was inappropriate.  Simon Elegant apologized.

On January 29, TIME opened the China Blog.  The blog was written by TIME's China-based correspondents and the contents included their observations and thoughts about China.  TIME magazine will also publish China special columns on a periodical basis this year, which is evidence of the "China reporting fever" among the global media.

How did The China Blog come about?  Was the point to let more Americans know about China?  On March 30, our reporter interviewed The China Blog's writer Simon Elegant at the TIME office in Beijing.  He said, "I never thought that a comment would correct my thinking."

On the English-language website of TIME magazine, this reporter saw that apart from specialized blogs on technology, health, finance and art, there are only the Middle-East and China blogs for specific countries or regions.

Beijing bureau chief Simon Elegant said that the editorial department agreed to start The China Blog because "China is developing very rapidly and more and more Americans are interested in China.  However, their understanding of China is limited.  The blog could help Americans understand China more fully."

Hong Kong-based correspondent Austin Ramzy said: "The bosses in New York City also know that China is one of the most important countries in the world.  If our blogs have news about China, more readers will be drawn there."

The China Blog has four writers.  Since female correspondent Susan Jakes has returned home to study, the three writers left are Simon Elegant, TIME's Shanghai-based correspondent Bill Powell and Hong Kong-based correspondent Austin Ramzy.

In September 2006, Susan Jakes told Simon Elegant that she had an idea about doing a China blog.  Simon Elegant was interested when he heard that: "You know that many of our regular essays cannot be published in the TIME weekly magazine.  If these unpublishable essays are posted on the blog and if we can decide ourselves what appears on the blog, then that would be great."

So the correspondents reached agreement quickly and told the editors at headquarters.

But the editors at headquarters had ideas that are was different from theirs.  The China correspondents were thinking about blogging for fun -- if you have something to say, you do so; if not, then you don't update.

But the editors believe that the blog must be updated every day.  Apart from daily trivia, the coverage should be broader (e.g. politics, economy, culture, humanities, etc), including things such as the two Congresses.  In the end, this becomes a news blog.

As of March 20, more than 50 essays have been posted on The China Blog.  The blog posts included the overheated Chinese stock market, China's attempt to rectify the improper English-language signage, whether this is the Golden Pig year or Fire Pig year, etc.

Simon Elegant said: "The frequent visitors to the blog will discover that the four people have different styles.  I like to use photographs or videos in my blog posts.  Shanghai's Bill likes to write longer commentary pieces."

Simon Elegant has published the most number of blog posts.  He basically posts a new essay every day, covering subjects such as selling fake merchandise at Xiushui Street, the panda Huamei returning home, food safety problems in China, and even comments on the gossip over Zhang Ziyi and her new boyfriend.

Susan Jakes' articles are more about trivia, such as China rectifying the improperly phrased English-language signage.  Hong Kong correspondent Austin Ramzy tends to write more humorous things.  Shanghai correspondent Bill Powell writes long essays with broader vistas such as Chinese university students encountering difficulty in finding work, foreign investors in China, etc.

Of course, this blog has not shaken off the traditional tendency for the western media to search for negative information in China, and so it included certain negative reporting and misinterpretations.

These blog posts draw comments from netizens.  By this reporter's count, the highest number of comments was more than 100 for a blog post.  Simon Elegant said that there are so many comments because the TIME website is fairly well-known.

"Someone said, 'What are your subjects so facetious?'  I said that these are contents that Americans may not understand.  Judging from the comments, many people want to defend China.  I think that is quite normal.  If a Chinese person wants to write about the United States, the Americans will likely do the same thing."

Simon Elegant reckoned that 60% of the blog readers are Americans and 30% are Chinese.  More Americans read the blog, but they make few comments.  The Chinese readers leave more comments.  "I find the Chinese readers being specially interested in foreigners.  We will definitely pay attention to those comments, and we will publish them as is.  However, we will not change what we write based upon the comments."

Although that was what Simon Elegant said, he immediately narrated an example to show that the comments can influence the thinking of the blog writers.

In early March, Simon Elegant saw a photograph on the Internet about 'the skull of a pigeon being opened up' in a scene in which Chinese scientists were conducting an experiment.  The photograph was repulsive him.  On March 15, he posted the photograph on the blog (see Robo-Pigeon) while describing how he felt.  "When I posted the photograph, I did not imagine that anyone would correct my thinking."

There was a comment: "As a Chinese girl, I am quite sad for the pigeons and for all the animals.  However, I have to say that not only China is doing this.  Scientists from all over the world are doing this kind of researches.  As a teenager, I have no idea what we are going to do with these technology but, anyway, there must be a reason for that."

Later on, Simon Elegant learned that American laboratories also used such animals for live experiments, but the workers are barred by regulation from publishing these types of photographs.  Therefore, Simon Elegant apologized to certain people (see A Reader Writes...).