A real journalist needs to do real research and as a foreign correspondent [in China] you need the help of a Chinese assistant. The risk you take is not only on your hands but on the side of the Chinese assistant. I worked for the New York Times for four years as a senior assistant and advisor for the chief of the bureau, Joseph Kahn. And I’m very happy to know that today Jo Kahn has become the foreign editor of the New York Times. It’s also good news for me.
We share this kind of risk as a reporter in China. If someone asks me “why do you report China to foreign news? Why do report dirty things? Why don’t you just tell the success story to the world?” I answer, “Because I have no problem with that”. Before I was a journalist for the New York Times and reported in English what happened in Chinese civil society, I was a Chinese journalist. Actually, Chinese journalists report more dirty things than any of the foreign correspondents. And I think some of them deserve a similar award.
I did some research on this award and I found the names of the winners before me and I hesitated a little bit. I find it is not the role that I should have. Because my Chinese colleagues are facing a more risky environment than me and they deserve this kind of award more than me. But I also think it is a chance for me to have more channels and more spaces to continue my cause. That means to continue to report about China to the world. To communicate to the Western audience what really happens in China. (…)
Also congratulations to Lord Weidenfeld of Chelsea. You continue to fight for freedom of speech and it is an example for people like me in China, people in Tunisia and Russia who are still fighting for something. In China we have an idiom saying “The fire will always be passed by generations”. The idea is that even in China, someone will always pop up, like me, who speak in a clear and direct language without self-censorship to tell everything happening inside China.
I always had a problem when I used Chinese to tell stories from China. Our voluntarily use of self-censorship, our changing of words makes me more comfortable because that kind of culture really rooted in my childhood. You already know my story; I held a pre-membership of the communist party when I was 14. I really loved the communist idea. I really thought that communism is a great dream for us.
Before I gained access to the internet in 1998, I was a nationalist. I though all the problems in our society were based on the Japanese invasion. Without enough information we still have this kind of bias. But internet is a gift given by god to Chinese people. (…) Since 1998 I suddenly knew a lot of things; not only about the world also about our history. So I tried to understand why I thought in that way and why my mother’s generation still thinks it is right. In that year I changed my job from being a programmer to being a commentator. (…) I really want to advocate and fight for freedom of speech and information. Your mindset can only be changed when you have enough information. (…)
The Internet has changed China profoundly. We have about 500 million Netizens. We also have 200 million micro blogs. Part of the reason is that the Chinese cellphone is very cheap. A smartphone costs less than 40 Euro. The voiceless now have a chance or at least a channel to talk and speak out. If your case is luckily picked up by the media or a professor in Beijing it might become the headline in tomorrow’s newspaper.
Last week there was a train crash. In the first five days we had ten million comments about this case. This led directly to a reform of the railway ministry and the sacking of their spokesman. And the train speed was slowed down for security reasons. We all say that China grows too fast and we should slow down; not only the trains but also the people. But we can’t set our hopes too high about micro blogs and social media events in China because the Twitter or Facebook phenomenon is different in the United States or in Tunisia and Arab countries because their social media was less subjected to censorship. When Tunisian people posted something on Facebook I don’t think the Tunisian president could delete that. But our servers are in Beijing and if a company wants to apply for a license it has to match the governments criteria otherwise you won’t get the license. It is a cooperation of censorship and because of this censorship these kinds of social media phenomena can’t lead to political change.
If you want civil society change you should build up long-term civil connections. You should trust in what someone says but [at the moment] you don’t because their word was always censored. But I would say that the great numbers of micro blogging in China are really changing the Chinese mindset. Now people start to think that freedom of speech is not a privilege from the United States. It is now a basic right because we practice freedom of speech every day with the help of our cheap smartphones. Now we also think that we should have a say before any national policy is issued. That means we are participating in national policy making.
And it is also good for the government. The Government can use micro blogging and social media as a public opinion collector. Because we don’t have elections we don’t have public opinion polls. So you need this kind of information collector to understand more precisely what the people really need. In that sense it is also positive for the Chinese central government. It is not a fundamental reform. I would say that it is like a self-evolution in the internet era.
But another important point why the Chinese central government doesn’t want to shut down micro blogging is because it helps them monitoring the local. Local corruption is a very hard issue for the peasants. [Social media] can become a tool for the Chinese central government to monitor the local because China is such a big country.
Technology is always neutral; it matters who uses it. For example, civil society uses it because we learn more things faster. But the government is also learning how to manage the new technology.
Whether the self-censored social media in China is completely good or completely bad, I can’t say. But I would say that the brighter sides of social media in China outweigh the darker sides. Because this world is very pragmatic, we should calculate the result. I support the social media phenomena even if it is controlled by the Chinese government. We are entering a turning point in history. Not only China but also India and other Asian countries are rising. It is not because these countries are stronger but because of the financial crisis you are weaker. This turning point doesn’t only confuse Western people but also Chinese people.
150 years ago we had an invasion by the British, the French, the Germans and the Japanese and the Chinese communist party always used that story in textbooks. Even now, as a child in school the only thing you learn about Europe and Japan is the invasion. We didn’t talk a lot about post-war democracy or nation building. Basically, we talk about the Chinese suffering during the invasion. So you can’t blame Chinese for nationalist ideas. So information change is important to change the victimized mindset. (…)
For me this is a great chance to continue to tell the West that Chinese society is very diverse. It is not only the official government but also civil society including many fractions and different ideas. I don’t think you can help the Chinese people. But please stick to your own values! don’t compromise because our civil society should be following your way. If you walk away, we don’t know what direction to go. Always stick to your value. Google stuck to their values. Get the respect of the next generation of China! I do think our generation and the next generation are very bright