HK blogger fills East-West, North-South gaps
Reuters, John Ruwitch, March 1, 2006

More than 8,000 readers a day clicked on Roland Soong's blog last year and the number keeps rising, but he isn't doing it for money or fame.

"I wouldn't know what to do with my time otherwise," the soft spoken author of EastSouthWestNorth ( said in a recent interview over a Cantonese lunch in Hong Kong.

Since Soong's weblog hit the Internet in its present form last March it has become what some China watchers say is one of the most content-rich, reliable and illuminating English-language blogs on Chinese politics and media.

His site demonstrates the power of being bilingual with an eye for detail and a solid news sense. His forte is quick summaries of Chinese news stories and near-real time translations of Chinese Web postings or other documents making headlines.

For instance, when Li Datong of the China Youth Daily first took the newspaper's new editor to task last August for trying to tone down its watchdog reporting. Soong spotted Li's internal letter on a Chinese Web site and translated it within hours.

Li, the former editor of the weekly Freezing Point section of the Youth Daily, was demoted after Freezing Point became a standard bearer for combative journalism in China's heavily censored press.

Soong, a self-effacing 56-year-old media researcher who was born in Shanghai, raised in Hong Kong and spent most of his adult life in New York, is humble about the role of his blog.

"I'm just performing a public service, doing translation because someone is talking about it ... I'm not going to tell you what to think. Go read it."

But Soong's eye for the issues and controversy have made his site unique. ESWN has tracked some of the biggest news events in China of the year, such as the rebellion in Taishi village and the controversy over U.S. Internet giants censoring their content in China or helping the Chinese police bust cyber dissidents.

Bloggers inside China who tackle sensitive topics play a constant game of cat and mouse with online censors, but Soong says ESWN hasn't been blocked in the mainland.

Soong doesn't see himself as a journalist; "That wouldn't be fun anymore," he said. He also balks at the idea that he is "telling" anyone about China.

"I don't have any primary sources. I don't talk to people. Most of the time I can only say: 'This is what I read'," he said.

Many foreign reporters in China, though, keep up with ESWN for story ideas. The site has even started making blogrolls inside China, which Soong sees as a badge of honour.

A blogroll is a collection of links to other weblogs.

The site probably started to gain popularity, Soong says, in October when a reporter for the British newspaper the Guardian was attacked by thugs near Taishi village, then in the throes of revolt. The journalist reported the next day, in gory detail, that a Chinese rights activist with him was beaten "lifeless".

Soong blogged it. When the supposedly dead activist, Lu Banglie, turned up alive with only minor injuries two days later, Soong quickly blogged that, too. He also did fast translations of messages from Chinese bloggers irate over the story and fallout.

"I think I was like a gateway, if you will," Soong said. "My role is simply putting pressure on everybody."

His work has earned him plaudits.

Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley, said ESWN was performing an "extremely valuable service ... His Web site is certainly one of the most information-rich sites on China today on the Web."

Born in 1949, Soong was brought to Hong Kong with his family when he was an infant just months before the Communist Party seized power that October. As a young man, he moved to New York where he lived until 2003 when he returned to Hong Kong to move in with his mother after she suffered a stroke.

Soong started blogging as a way to pass the time, even though he still does some media research for a firm in New York. His site started as a diary of what he read, and it covered a wide range of topics, but in March he re-launched it with a China focus.

"Abstractly speaking, you read my stuff and it's not about a specific political message," he said. But after reading it, he added, "next time you read something, you maintain a critical mind".