The View From the East

Politics and the Press in a Changing China

"To seek the truth from the facts," is a popular slogan in China now, explains Ching Chang Hsiao, a special reporter with the Wen Hui Daily in Shanghai and currently a Nieman fellow studying American history and foreign policy. "During the last ten to 20 years we emphasized the truth, but somehow the truth is not the facts, it's produced from people's minds," he says, referring to the Cultural Revolution. "Now we must pursue the truth; we must do everything according to the objective will."

Hsiao joined the Wen Hui Daily, the second largest newspaper in China, in 1957, covering arts and literature. His wife, Mei-Rong Yang, who is also a reporter in Shanghai, works for a competing newspaper called Liberation Daily Hsiao distinguishes the two papers by the fact that "my newspaper is unofficial and hers is official." Furthermore, Wen Hui Daily's readers are the intellectuals, while Liberation Daily attracts mainly workers and cadres.

According to Hsiao and Yang, the Chinese press functions on principles entirely different from American principles. Hsiao says that in America "you write anything you like," citing the articles published in The Washington Post and The New York Times about the Pentagon Papers in 1970. If an incident of a comparable top-secret nature occurred in China, "we can't issue it," Hsiao says.

The main consideration for a Chinese journalist is whether an article is profitable for the government and for the people. "If it's good, then we can write it," Yang says. Moreover, the primary duty of the press is to explain Chinese policy and to convince the people that the policy is right, she continues. "Of course, we only say the truth, not the false," Hsiao adds.

According to Yang, the Chinese papers cover the same sorts of political, international and social news as in America, but with one major difference in their purpose. When writing about crime, the paper will not include all the minute details, but rather will focus on "educating people not to do such evil things," she says.

The four--page limit of most Chinese newpapers also limits the breadth of an article. Hsiao laughs when thinking about the 90 pages of The New York Times. "Here, a reporter can write a long article about the background, details and even his own opinion," he says. In China most writers must concentrate only on the news.

Yang points out such similiarities to American newspapers as the Chinese equivalent to letters to the editor, a page entitled "the readers' letter box." She said that people--both readers and reporters--criticize the government in order to provide help and benefit the people. For example, during a serious vegetable shortage in Shanghai in 1982, reporters wrote articles questioning the government's competence and prompting officials to find out who was responsible for vegetable production.

But behind the differences in newspapers exists a difference in attitiude between the two nations. One characteristic that both Hsiao and Yang find lacking in the Chinese is the American aggressive spirit. Hsiao says, "How can we modernize such a huge country with one billion people? If we want to go forward we must have that kind of spirit." Traditionally, the Chinese wait. He explains that especially in the 1940s aggression was not a very good word in China because the Japanese were aggressive, and that meant war.

Hsiao also comments on another American characteristic symbolized by "a word on the Harvard shirts--veritas," He adds, "At Harvard there is a special spirit, in everything you pursue the truth." Not only do teachers and students seek the truth, but everything they want to say, is said. Hsiao, who is taking "The American Presidency," commented on Professor Richard E. Neustadt's criticism of President Reagan in class. "In China if you have some opinion like that, you better keep it to yourself," he says.

However, Americans can also learn from the patterns of Chinese relationships between people, Yang says, "In China, we're not so selfish as in America, we can take care of our neighbors, do housework for them..." Although Chinese are not as open as the Americans, "we Chinese are shy," Yang chuckles, but "our heart is very sincere."

In terms of ideologies, Hsiao and Yang both prefer socialism since "It is more equal in China, there isn't a part so rich and a part so poor." The obvious disadvantage is the lack of work incentive--"whether you work hard or you work lazy, you get the same in the end," Hsiao says.

Precisely because of this issue the Chinese have embarked on very recent economic reforms involving the expansion of a free market. "In the past all the benefits you must give to the government, the rest you keep," Hsiao says.

Neither Hsiao nor Yang think that the social system will of necessity also change. Only relations between government and factories will probably be changed, they believe.

Regardless of the momentous changes China is launching, both Hsiao and Yang are concentrating now on America. Yang is taking journalism courses at Boston University in preparation for launching a second career as a part-time lecturer on reporting. Hsiao is attending four courses including Government 1500, "Bureaucracy", as well as regular seminars for Nieman fellows. So far his favorite speakers have been authors David Halberstam '55, whose book The Best and The Brightest is very popular in China, and Bob Woodward.

Ching-Chang Hsiao says that he wanted to be a Nieman fellow because "we must get more knowledge about America and about the world. We can't confine ourselves to China or to Shanghai." Certainly, in his own life Hsiao has not confined himself much. After graduating from Nanking University in 1951, he taught Chinese literature in middle school in Shanghai. After joining the Wen Hui Daily on 1957 he covered the arts--especially music and foreign artists--for about ten years.

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