In the Hutong
Struggling with November
The monitoring and censorship of China’s Internet is a matter of continuous outrage and fascination for audiences outside of China. And why not? It is superb theater. It pits the world’s extremist information libertarians against a faceless bureaucracy seeking to control information flow, and it provides a public forum to watch and gauge China’s evolving polity. As a result, the topic is of great interest to reporters covering China.
Most of the time, the attention journalists give to this ideological tug-of-war is either good, or at worst harmless. But there is one type of story that, when reporters cover it, they have the potential of doing a great deal of harm: what I call “loophole stories.”
Guess Who’s Reading Your Story?
Recently a reporter for a large global wire service ran a story wherein he/she revealed that owners of Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader devices in China could use the device’s built-in browser and circumvent the systems put in place by Chinese authorities to restrict access to websites deemed unsuitable for local audiences. The story has run, at my last count, in over 150 publications and websites in English alone around the world.
I understand the urges that motivated that reporter to cover the story: the sheer glee that China’s regulators had been foiled again, and the urge to pander to readers who would read the story as a triumph of technology over censorship.
But the consequences of running that story will be something else altogether.
Translators working at the Xinhua News Service, China’s wire service agency directly subordinate to the State Council Information Office, will see the story as they monitor the global news wires to which Xinhua subscribes. They will translate the story and, rather than run it over their own wire, they will include the piece among the stories that will be passed as a part of a daily internal briefing to the senior leaders of the government and Party.
Once the pesky loophole is called to the attention of the senior leadership, it must be dealt with, if for no other reason than to prove that the nation’s regulators are not the Keystone Kops the story implied they were. A way will be found to isolate Amazon’s Whispernet network and block it in China.
Congratulations, intrepid reporter. You will have assisted the authorities in making the censorship lid on China’s Internet all that much tighter. If it was your intention to do so, job well done. Your fellow foreign correspondents will, I am sure, be so proud.
Knowing When NOT to File
The pressures on a modern journalist, especially a wire service journalist, are brutal. Not only do you need to make sure you have every worthwhile story on your beat, you must also ensure that you file before everyone else. There is not a lot of time to weigh the moral and ethical issues around any given story.
But in a place like China, where the unintended consequences of a story could range from the infuriating to the downright deadly, those consequences must be understood and weighed. And when you have a doubt, you must have the courage to spike the story.