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For China's Journalism Students, Censorship Is a Core Concept

January 3, 2008

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 31, 2007; A11

BEIJING -- About 200 Tsinghua University journalism students filled a 
classroom one recent Friday evening for a two-hour lecture on the 
political history of Tibet.

The mountainous territory has always been an inalienable part of 
China, they were told, and the Dalai Lama is a sly traitor hiding 
behind his Buddhist religion to promote secession. The lecture, a 
rendition of China's standard government line, put some students to 
sleep, but most listened patiently.

The guest professor, Zhou Xiaoming, a Tibet specialist and government 
consultant, was providing the students with their latest class in 
"Marxist journalism." The course, required for graduates and 
undergraduates, was brought to the elite university by its recently 
founded Research Center on Marxist Journalism and Journalistic 
Education Reform.

The center has in its first year of operation become a vivid example 
of the tension between China's rush toward modernization and the 
Communist Party's insistence on retaining control over the flow of 
information. Journalism students at Tsinghua are taught not only 
about Watergate and the rise of the Internet, but also about the 
restricted role reporters are expected to play under a Marxist 
government such as China's.

In China, that role traditionally has been to support the government 
by spreading propaganda and suppressing news that contradicts policy 
or puts officials in a bad light. But as the country has opened to 
the world in the last three decades, many journalists -- and 
journalism students and their professors--have acquired new ambitions 
for their craft, such as investigative reporting on official corruption.

Against that background, the party's Central Committee in 2001 urged 
Chinese media and journalism schools to adopt the concept of "Marxist 
journalism." The term was broadly interpreted to mean journalism that 
the government views as improving society and taking account of 
Chinese realities, including censorship under one-party rule.

Fan Jingyi, a former editor of People's Daily, the Communist Party's 
official newspaper, set out at about the same time as the Central 
Committee edict to supply Tsinghua journalism students with a 
framework of proper Marxist theory for their studies. Fan, 76, came 
to Tsinghua and began teaching his course, mostly by inviting editors 
and government officials to be guest lecturers. Named dean of the 
journalism department, he started the research center at the 
beginning of 2007 and serves as its director. All journalism 
professors at the university are automatically members of the center.

"It is really significant to strengthen the Marxist concept of 
journalism in education," Fan explained in an academic journalism 
review, adding that the Communist Party's Propaganda Department and 
the Education Ministry encouraged him to pursue the issue.

"Reviewing the reality of journalistic education, one finds many 
inclinations that need attention," he continued. "One is out-of-date 
textbooks. One is the Westernized concept of journalism. And another 
is the abstract research approach in which theory and practice do not 
match. These problems can only be solved by strengthening the Marxist 
concept of journalism."

Tsinghua University, one of China's most renowned institutions of 
learning, would not explain further the center's purpose or mission.

Fan, who is convalescing from a serious illness, declined to be 
interviewed, as did Li Xiguang, executive dean of the journalism 
department, and Li Bin, associate dean and co-editor with Fan of the 
course's main textbook, "Fifteen Lectures on the Marxist Concept of 
Journalism."

Interviews with students and others associated with the center 
suggested unease at what the Marxist journalism courses were supposed 
to impart. Some students said they could not remember what they were 
taught, or that they paid little attention because they were 
concentrating on other subjects. None seemed eager to discuss the 
course.

"Some experts, many of them chief editors at newspapers, make a 
speech, telling their experiences and how to report news in different 
circumstances," said a first-year graduate student, Li Ming. "So far, 
I have not felt any influence on me from the class. But you know, 
this class must exert a gradual and imperceptible influence on 
students. Marxist theory will be reflected in the cases we discuss, 
so I will unconsciously follow the Marxist approach this class is 
trying to teach when I cover stories in the future."

Xu Shujian, another first-year graduate student, said the class is a 
good idea because, when it comes time to get a job after graduation, 
China's mainstream media will be more likely to hire aspiring 
journalists "with a good sense of Marxism."

But an academic with close knowledge of the center and its courses, 
speaking on condition of anonymity, said most professors focus on the 
practical world of journalists doing their jobs under the rule of the 
Chinese Communist Party, not Marxist doctrine on journalism. "They 
teach journalism under Marxism more than Marxist journalism," he 
explained.

The center's name, implying a mission to keep journalism students on 
the straight and narrow path of Marxism, was chosen in part to 
attract support, and perhaps funding, from party officials, he said. 
"That is important," he added, smiling. "Can you imagine what would 
happen if you started an institute of capitalist journalism?"

Visiting editors talk freely of tactics for skirting party 
censorship, he said, and students can get an idea of "the problems of 
the society, how to negotiate with the authorities." Most professors 
urge their students to deal with the censors and try to push the 
envelope rather than revolt against the whole censorship system, he 
added.

One guest lecturer, Yang Zhengquan, former head of China Radio 
International and of the government news office, told students of 
delicate and protracted official deliberations in 1976 over how to 
present the news that Mao Zedong had died. He did not question the 
government's power to control such news.

In one of his own lectures, reproduced in the textbook he edited with 
Li Bin, Fan told students that one of the main tasks of their work in 
journalism would be to "spread Marxism, to report how Marxist 
guidance works in different fields and battlefronts."

"If you want to be a qualified and good journalist, you must 
understand politics, must know Marxism and must master some of the 
basic disciplines of Marxist journalism," he went on.

"We need to use the Marxist position, the Marxist point of view and 
the Marxist method to observe and deal with things," he told his 
class. "What is the position? It is the party's position and the 
people's position. What is the point of view? Dialectical materialism 
and historical materialism. What is the method? It is how to deal 
with conflicts correctly."

Addressing censorship, Fan told students that the government must 
"guide public opinion" because many Chinese are not well educated and 
cannot understand current events well. "The situation of our country 
decided we need to guide public opinion," he said. "We should 
consider the social effects of every report, thinking if it is good 
or bad for our country, society and people, especially for the 
stability and development of the country."

Li Qiang, a graduate student in Tsinghua's journalism department, has 
been spotlighted on campus as an example of what Marxist journalists 
should do. In 2005, while an undergraduate, Li spent his Spring 
Festival holiday in some small, impoverished Shanxi province villages 
and then produced a 40,000-word report on the difficulties villagers 
faced, partly because local officials failed to help them. "Eight 
stories," he called it.

Impressed, Fan sent the report to government officials. A copy found 
its way to the desk of Premier Wen Jiabao, who wrote back saying that 
this was the kind of Marxist journalism China needed, probing the 
needs of the people. The report was widely discussed. Parts of it 
were disseminated on the Internet. But it was never published -- 
because Tsinghua professors found it too sensitive.
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