Between East and West
Justin Mitchell, The Standard, November 14, 2005.
A SAR blogger is becoming an authority on China for reporters from both sides , writesJustin Mitchell
For China watchers, one of the most influential Hong Kong and mainland media figures is a 56-year-old blogger and non-journalist who lives with his 79-year-old mother and a maid on Kadoorie Hill in Kowloon.
His blog is essential reading for reporters, ranging from those from the New York Times, Washington Post, the Guardian and Interfax News Agency to, yes, The Standard. China Daily has recently given partial credit to his work.
What makes ESWN the uber blog for China news is the combination of his intellect and his ability to quickly and accurately translate myriad Chinese-language newspaper, blog and Web site articles into English.
"I know that most bloggers are in awe, and that reporters look on in envy before pilfering his material [usually without attribution]," said David Stanway, an Interfax journalist based in Shanghai.
So who is this guy?
His name is Roland Soong. Born in Shanghai in 1949, he and his family fled to Hong Kong four weeks after he was born. "I'm a little bit older than the People's Republic," Soong said wryly.
He has a PhD in statistics, and when he isn't blogging, Soong is the chief technical officer for KMR, the world's second-largest media research firm.
He has also freelanced as a translator and interpreter for the US Drug Enforcement Agency's investigations of Chinese triad operations in New York.
Soong's blog, EastSouthWestNorth (http://zonaeuropa.com/weblog.htm), gave hints of where he's been and reflects what Jeremy Goldkorn, editor of Danwei.org, a Beijing-based Web site on mainland media, calls Soong's "catholic [which he spells with a small `c'] and voracious reading habits."
"East and west because I was maintaining two homes, one in New York and one in Hong Kong," said Soong. "South because my job involved a lot of work in Latin America and I also lived in Australia. North for North America because I spent 32 years in the United States before returning to Hong Kong."
Soong's wide-ranging interests are reflected daily on ESWN. The occasionally quirky China-related content covers a spectrum from avian flu and Hong Kong polls and politics to mainland demonstrations, heartbreaking suicide stories, press freedom, artificial hymens and the Super Girl competitions.
"I have lots of time to read because of my work arrangement," said Soong. "I read newspapers in English. I read newspapers in Chinese. And it is obvious that they are two different worlds - sometimes more than that within the languages and papers themselves. I also thought that because there was so much interest in China that Western readers would want to know more."
ESWN is a no-frills affair that Soong began in 2003 as Version 1.0 when the Iraq war began.
Now in Version 2.0, running since March 2005, it has no advertisements or graphics save news photos. When Soong comments on stories, it's often with an open-ended question or a skeptical jab.
A sensitive soul, he does not solicit comments due to crank e-mails he received when he established his first (non-news) Web site in 1996 for the Central Park Track Club in New York and shortly after the first version of ESWN debuted.
"I can't deal with it," he wincingly said of negative comments. "It's kind of like being a reporter. You worry about criticism."
Though Soong's personal life and thoughts are applied sparingly throughout ESWN, he does seem to wrestle with whether what he does is truly journalism.
In a rare essay entitled Am I a Journalist? posted on October 29, he first answered the question with a question and then came down firmly in the middle.
"Do I practice journalistic investigation? No. Do I work for a media organization? No. Do I belong to a journalist organization? No. But this is the Internet age, and a better test might be - if I am arrested, will the journalist organizations come to my assistance?"
Then he wrote: "If pressed into making a simple Yes/No choice, the answer is Yes/No because nothing is ever simple ... I certainly did not start off to be a journalist. I started ESWN from the viewpoint of a news reader."
"I have a very strange relationship with China," Soong mused. "With one small exception, I have never been blocked. But they steal from me. Not everything, though. They steal selectively."
Soong made a bigger journalistic impact for his ongoing work in compiling, organizing and translating diverse and often conflicting online, e-mail and media accounts of the recall election in Taishi village, Guangdong, and subsequent protests that began in July.
Those events climaxed last month with a hysterical and ultimately false eyewitness account by Guardian reporter Benjamin Joffe-Walt that an activist named Lu Banglie was beaten to death.
Joffe-Walt and the Guardian were harshly criticized by both pro-Beijing and pro-democracy media voices in a rare case of mutual agreement despite differing agendas.
Soong's evenhanded and comprehensive archiving and updating of the Taishi village events, however, has drawn nothing but approval from the Western media - and a tacit thumb's up from China Daily.
Following Joffe-Walt and the Guardian's debacle, former CNN Japan and China correspondent Rebecca MacKinnon summed it up on her blog, RConversation:
"So when it comes to the Taishi information situation, we have the following picture: the Chinese media hasn't been allowed to report on the details of the fight over the Taishi village elections.
"Chinese Internet bulletin boards discussing the issue have been forced to shut down. Chinese blogs are angry about how the Western media has let them down, and the Chinese foreign ministry is making statements about how foreign reporters have been going around [flouting] the law.
"But the foreign mainstream media hasn't been following the story in any real detail either.
"The only people following it closely and fully outside of China have been HKInMedia, a Hong Kong Chinese- language independent media Web site, and when it comes to English coverage, no other source beats the Hong Kong- based media researcher and blogger, Roland Soong of ESWN.
"As [a colleague] pointed out the other day: `.. this is a case where bloggers and citizen journalists have been running circles around formal journalism."'
There are other English-language bloggers who approach ESWN's depth, such as Australian Simon Masnick of Simon World. But Masnick (an occasional contributor to The Standard) happily defers to Soong.
"Roland was one of the first to provide good interface between the Chinese online world and the English- speaking online world," said Masnick.
"He's got a Western eye and a Chinese eye. He really is in a class of his own. Eventually there will be some imitators, but he was the first, he's the best and will be for a long time."
For his part Soong said he's pleased with the acclaim, but he'd welcome some collaborators and would like to expand his coverage.
"Maybe the time has come for Version 2.0 to go to Version 3.0," he said. "To find some like-minded people to do a group blog. For instance, I don't like global politics such as `Will China invade Taiwan in the next six months?' I don't have a clue.
"But if I have a group blog someone else can do that. If it becomes big enough maybe it can make a real difference."