(The Wall Street Journal) The Chinese Interpreter. By Leslie Hook. September 12, 2008.
Beijing officialdom loves to talk about how the Olympics were a chance for the world to "get to know" China. But here in Hong Kong, one man has made it his mission to provide the West with a window into greater China since long before the Olympic Games began. Meet Roland Soong.
His blog, EastSouthWestNorth, receives as many as 26 million hits a month and has been a key driver for stories like China's paper tiger scandal and the exposé of false reporting during the Taishi Village elections in 2005. It's a bit like the Drudge Report, but for greater China -- a news aggregator with an attitude and an outsized influence.
The bulk of ESWN provides links to and English translations of stories in Chinese media. But it is far more than a translation site. "My goal in running the blog is neither fame nor fortune, but it is a personal attempt to bring about a social transformation," he wrote in 2006. I ask him whether that is still true. "I want people to think," he says. "I want for people to decide for themselves. If that is social transformation, you can say yes."
Sitting in his apartment on Kadoorie Avenue in sweatpants and a button-down denim shirt, Mr. Soong says he tries to keep his personal views out of the site. "I don't particularly think that people will be really interested to know what I think on every issue." Yet there are unmistakable patterns in the stories he mentions during our three-hour conversation -- and in the stories that have made his blog famous. These are stories of justice, of speaking truth to power, of journalism gone awry, as well as quirky human-interest tales.
Take the story of the purported photograph of a "paper" tiger. On the surface it seems like the most provincial of incidents: In October 2007 a poor farmer in Shaanxi province faked a photograph of a near-extinct species of tiger in order to collect the reward money ($2,900) for sighting the rare animal. Chinese Internet users, or "netizens," quickly noticed that the picture was fake. But the local forestry department and provincial-level officials continued to promote the "discovery" of the rare tiger in a bid to increase tourism and raise money for a nature reserve. Netizens were outraged.
This may seem trivial, but for Mr. Soong, it touched on a much deeper issue: government legitimacy. "Someone observes that and says, for a simple open and shut case, the government couldn't do a thing. Nobody could do the right thing," he explains. "[The officials] don't recognize the impact is a loss of confidence and trust in what the government has said."
He continued posting updates on the case long after the English-language media had forgotten about it. Some of Mr. Soong's readers even wrote to complain about excessive coverage of the paper tiger incident, he tells me. But eventually his efforts -- and an official investigation -- paid off: In July, nine months after the photo was first released, the photograph was declared a fake. Seven officials, including the local Communist Party Secretary, were thrown in jail, and six were reprimanded for the cover-up.
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Mr. Soong is a media researcher and statistician by training, and he has a passion for reconciling differing viewpoints. "If you read 10 newspapers a day . . . Sometimes you simply have to wonder, what I thought was the same story, how can it be so different?" He asks. This curiosity is part of what gives the site such depth.
There's no clearer example than his coverage of the Taishi village elections in 2005. The controversy began when a reporter for the Guardian newspaper visited the village, and wrote that the Chinese activist accompanying him was beaten "lifeless." But the next day, other newspapers interviewed the fixer, who was safe and sound, at home. The outcry from Chinese citizens -- particularly democracy activists, who felt that their trust in Western media was broken -- was immediate. But much of this might never have reached the ears of the Guardian's editors if it weren't for Mr. Soong's relentless translations of Chinese commentary. "The Guardian was not responding, so I kept doing the translations," Mr. Soong says. He even went so far as to list some recommendations for the Guardian on his blog.
"Freedom of press does not exist in China today, so . . . It is up to the international media to reveal the truth of the matter," Mr. Soong wrote. "[T]he myth of the power of the western media to speak the truth was ruined in the case of Benjamin Joffe-Walt and the Guardian. None of us want to see that happen." Five days later, the Guardian published an editorial describing the circumstances that led to the inaccurate report and defending their journalist.
"It's really from that moment that the blog got some attention," he notes. As the attention has increased, however, Mr. Soong says he has become less likely to use the blog to promote his personal views. "It makes it harder, because I really really should be much more careful about what is it that I do."
Mr. Soong didn't become so influential by chance. His background gives him a keen eye for a story and a deep interest in China. Born in Shanghai in 1949, he was taken to Hong Kong by his family when he was just four weeks old as they fled the impending Communist takeover. His mother Mae Soong worked for the Voice of America there, and his father Stephen Soong was a writer, translator and movie producer. The younger Mr. Soong also worked as a Chinese-English translator for a time, eventually earned a Ph.D. in statistics and applied mathematics, and went into media and market research.
"It's really a habit of thought, if you will," he says when I ask what inspires him to blog. ESWN began in 2003 when Mr. Soong moved back to Hong Kong from New York to care for his elderly mother. It was a way of continuing something he had been doing for over a decade -- in the late 1990s he ran a similar site focusing on Latin America -- as well as an outlet to satisfy his curiosity. "When I got here the first thing I find is that I don't know a lot about this place since I had been away for more than 30 years. . . . Why was there a chief executive?" He jokes, "Whatever happened to the governor?"
Part of what makes ESWN powerful is the dynamism of the Chinese Internet itself. Chinese netizens go online to communicate: via instant messaging, BBS forums, emails or interacting in virtual worlds. There are over 253 million of them, and sometimes this community makes the news itself. It's not uncommon for online vigilantes, or "human flesh search engines" as Mr. Soong calls them, to use the Internet to hunt down and mete out retribution to wrongdoers whose stories are told on the Internet.
There are other sites that do translation and aggregation work similar to Mr. Soong's. One of the most famous, Global Voices, which translates blogs and articles from around the world into English, even used Mr. Soong's site as a model when it was founded at Harvard. But ESWN remains in a category of its own. Not just because of the quantity and quality of its translations, but also because it is values-driven. "It does have a pretty strong personality," Mr. Soong admits. By our account, that's a good thing.
Ms. Hook is an editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal Asia.