Global Times: The Implication of its “Split Personality”

Simon Elegant at Time Magazine’s The China Blog made some interesting observations about the new English edition of the Global Times.   His concerns are shared to some extent by my co-blogger Ned Kelly, even though Ned is writing exclusively about possible dilemmas facing American journalists who choose to work for the CCP propaganda machine.

There is nothing wrong with a multi-lingual newspaper (or broadcasting service) wanting to adopt a slightly different editorial focus for each of its different language editions.  Major European national broadcasters such as the BBC (as a commenter “bylooker” has correctly pointed out) have similar arrangements for their Chinese language services.  After all, different language editions appeal to different audience groups.  However, what would happen if different editorial policies result in major ideological conflicts?  Or if there is a complaint from a bilingual Chinese patriot who is adamant that certain topics should remain taboo for national interest?  How are these differences going to be reconciled? 

Before anyone accuses me of fear mongering, I want you to have a closer look at the Zhang Danhong incident.  Zhang Danhong’s experience at Deutsche Welle serves as solemn reminder that disputes resulting from two language editions of a single publication adopting different editorial policies can have devastating effects for the parties involved, particularly those in the firing line.

JR from JustRecently’s Beautiful Blog has covered the Zhang Danhong incident in great details.  I don’t intend to reinvent the wheel.  So I am referring you to JR’s Blog for a detailed coverage.  Below, I’ll just give a quick summary.

Like the BBC, Deutsche Welle’s Chinese Service operates under the principle of editorial independence.  A while ago, Zhang Danhong, the deputy manager for its Chinese Department, was suspended.  The entire Chinese Department was subsequently under review for allegedly violating the national broadcaster’s policy of promoting democracy and human rights.  The case had been referred to a parliamentary commission for hearing.  There were allegations made against Ms Zhang for saying that China had succeeded in lifting 400 million people out of poverty during the past thirty years, thus contributing more than other nations to Article Three of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  She was also accused of sugar-coating original German reports in Beijing’s favour when she translated these reports into Chinese.  She had allegedly translated “Tibetan protests” into “violent riots”, and “protesters” into “separatists”.  Thanks to the German legal system’s respect for freedom of speech, Ms Zhang was finally acquitted of misconduct.  Her professionalism, however, was under strict scrutiny and she was subsequently suspended from working in front of the microphone.  The Head of Department Matthias von Hein was also removed from his position and transferred elsewhere.

Should a similar dispute break out at the Global Times, I doubt very much parties in the firing line would be treated with such leniency and fairness.  After all, any scandal of such magnitude will constitute a loss of face for the newspaper’s management board.  We all know how well Chinese leaders respond to complaints and criticisms.  Last but not least, will there be circumstances in which reporting “stories on topics that are taboo in the Chinese media” can be construed as “leaking state secret” or as “foreign agents conducting espionage activities in China”?  Yes, Simon, it’s a good suggestion.  I’ll keep a keen eye on further development.


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9 Responses to Global Times: The Implication of its “Split Personality”

  1. justrecently says:

    Thanks for your link to my story on the Deutsche Welle. Actually, Zhang Danhong works for the Business / Ecoomics editorial department now. She wasn’t fired, even though she had an interview with herself on the Deutsche Welle website – scripted by herself. She was under rather unjustified pressure then, but she didn’t act professionally, to put it carefully. Obviously, there was no coverage on this incident, although Chinese media such as CRI kept coming back to the original story.
    That said, I think the Deutsche Welle shouldn’t try to have people forget the whole story, but rather communicate the backgrounds – if the protection of its employees allows.

  2. Ned Kelly says:

    Re, “Should a similar dispute break out at the Global Times, I doubt very much parties in the firing line would be treated with such leniency and fairness.” …

    …Such a dispute will probably never occur, because China’s thought-police are expert in cultivating a regime of self-censorship, and in identifying and recruiting Westerners who are likely to self-censor according to the unspoken rules. And the fact that those unspoken rules are considerably more liberal for Western servants of China’s propaganda organs than they are for Chinese, does not mean they don’t exist.

    I am reminded once again of the case of Walter Duranty, the New York Times correspondent in Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his putatively “fair and balanced” coverage of the political show-trials of the Great Terror (crested in 1934-1938 and finally ended when Stalin died in 1953) and of the food situation in Ukraine in the early 1930s. His reportage on the latter situation earned him a place in Hell, unless perhaps he repented when he died and met God face to face; he consciously, deliberately told outright lies about what is now known as the “Terror Famine” in Ukraine, through which the state murdered around as many people as perished in the Nazi Holocaust. For THAT work in the New York Times, he received a Pulitzer Prize because he was perceived BY MAINSTREAM AMERICAN INTELLECTUALS as being more “fair and balanced” than honest and righteously indignant Western journalists such as Malcolm Muggeridge who were marginalised, mocked and scorned for being perceivedly “biased” and emotionally unhinged.

    So, how did Stalin’s thought-police manage to persuade Walter Duranty to toe the Communist Party line in his reportage for the New York Times? First of all, they did NOT pressure him to conform to the same strict rules that applied to Soviet journalists; he was permitted to write critically about the Soviet government, and to expose SOME embarassing facts in the American press which were NOT permitted to be published in the Russian-language Soviet press.

    So first of all they allowed him considerable liberty to keep up the superficial appearance of being “critical” about the Soviet government and “fair and balanced” about reporting the facts. Thus, he was enabled to “save face” as a Western journalist.

    But those were “negative” incentives. What was his main POSITIVE incentive for toeing the Party line? Money and prestige and under-the-table creature comforts. By writing strictly within the (relatively liberal) unspoken limits of what Stalin wanted him to say and not to say, Duranty preserved his job as a NY Times correspondent in Russia, which he certainly would have lost if he had ever pissed off Stalin. That position was well-paid by his American employer, and highly prestigious worldwide. But then Stalin’s government gave Duranty a few extra “informal” incentives, including but not limited to providing him with a steady supply of prostitutes.

    And once Duranty fell into that honey-trap, there was no comfortable way for him to climb out of it. Consequently, his integrity drowned and died in Russia’s honey-trap. And there are many different kinds of “honey” for a journalist to drown in when he chooses to serve the propaganda organs of a state which is at best neutral and at worst hostile to his own.

  3. C.A. Yeung says:

    In a way, I’m a bit sympathetic with Zhang Danhong. The pressure on her during the investigation must be unbearable. The saga of her interviewing herself and her breaking down in tears on air all indicated that the pressure was getting to her and was making her act irrationally.

    Yes I can see how Chinese media in both mainland and HK will leech on the scandal to give credibility to their claims of national humiliation.

  4. andygettingbored says:

    Hi I just spent half an hour unsuccessfully tryin got leave a comment on Elegant’s blog. As the background editor fighting censorship, driving forward articles likes this and working with the author to improve and polish the petition story and similar groundbreaking articles, I don’t really mind at when the international media cock a snoop at various efforts. But what bothers me is how often you all speculate and get things so totally wrong.
    Elegant says the petition story found the one petitioner in a million who had sucessfully filed a petition. Even a cursory glance at the original article will show that this is simply not true. Worse, it is 180 degrees wrong. the petitioner was beaten several times and still has not received any justice.
    When mistakes as crass and misleading as these are madethe Chinese media, we all have a good laugh, but when it happens the other way around, the silence is deafening. i am always lecturing the reporters here about international jounalism standards and they delight in pulling out bullshit like Mr Elegant’s to show me that there is no real difference in professionalism or bias between east and west.

  5. zhwj says:

    In the caption to the first image at the top of the first page of the Global Times article:

    Yang Xianfen from the city of Liupanshui in Guizhou Province displays train tickets and receipts from nine years of petitioning in Beijing. Finally in 2007 her father Yang Zongfa (15-year sentence), mother Li Mingying (10-year sentence) and husband Xie Hua (five-year sentence) were cleared of all charges in the murder of her grandfather Zhang Huaxiu.

    Simon Elegant is pointing out that the newspaper has the seemingly impossible task of spinning even the bleakest story in a postive manner. Despite the tale of woe that fills the rest of the article (and the 0.2 percent statistic quoted), the newspaper leads off with a vindication.

  6. C.A. Yeung says:

    Thanks Joel. I was having problems trying to access that particular Global Times article. Some of the links there don’t seem to work very well.

    It looks as if “andygettingbored” may have misread both Simon’s blog post and the Global Times report.

    For me, the English Global Times is nothing more than another piece of advertisement disguised in the form of journalism. The discrepancy between the Chinese and the English editions says it all. If the editors at the Global Times really want the world to understand the “real” China, they should advocate for the Chinese government to lift censorship and to allow both domestic and foreign journalist adequate space to do their work.

  7. zhwj says:

    They seem to be in the process of implementing a sub-site for features at the moment, and it’s broken navigation. To read the rest of the pages, follow the article number with _2 _3 etc (here’s page 2).

    What I find fascinating about the GT is that we now have two English-language government mouthpieces competing for the same audience. It’ll be interesting to look back in a few months and see how it and the China Daily have staked out their own positions/reporting style to justify their existence (or, failing that, who they’ve signed up for exclusive distribution deals to give them the guaranteed circulation that party newspapers traditionally enjoy).

  8. andygettingbored says:

    Hi Zhwj
    I take your point. The story was designed for a centrespread of a newspaper, not for online use where the photo moves up to the top.
    I accept the photo’s at the top of the online story, so, yes, a fair point. Just happenes to be wrong to imply there was a conspiracy beind the photo selection and my key point stands: the photo is not of the petitioner in the story.
    The photo was picked for a double page centre spread by a foreign designer, a Hong Kong editor and a laowai collaborator. There was no clever conspiracy. They were trying to pick a powerful photo that illustrated petitons. They were not vetting it for spin.
    If you (somebody please!) read the story, you’ll see it has no connection to the petitioner. Let me repeat: The story is about a FAILED petitioner, who we reported was beaten in a black jail and we name where. It was her FAILED story. The photo is NOT CONNECTED to her. It is a totally different person.
    Sometimes there is no conspiracy. This photo is not a lede. It is just an eye-catching photo of a woman crying that the editors felt powerully illustrated suggested the tragic story of petitioners. Tears seemed emotive.
    Believe me there were some epic struggles over this story, not including my personal insertion of the 99% stat you mentioned. The censors at GT found the story unexpectedly strong for their taste and made some small cuts, but the substance remained.
    I’ll concede it’s a fair assumption that the photo is of the petitioner in the story. But it’s not.
    Unfortunately, the reporter’s photos from the petition office were awful, totally unusable and so a decison was made to find better photos for a colour centrespread that best illustrated the petition process: ie a crying woman with a pile of papers etc.
    So while your reply does a neat job of mitigating my frustration at this crass error, I think it’s still a serious error to tell your readers that this story was about a successful petitioner.
    It’s not. Never was. So just admit it and move on.
    We all make mistakes. I
    The failed petitioner in the story received a piece of paper directing her to the Beijing Petition Office. “This paper is about as useful as a peice of toilet paper,” she said.
    That great quote was cut. that’s censorship.
    The photo? The photo was just a photo.

  9. justrecently says:

    What I find fascinating about the GT is that we now have two English-language government mouthpieces competing for the same audience.
    Probably too early to tell, but I could imagine that China Daily will write friendlier stuff than the GT. In that case, they could be for somewhat different readership. Could become a bit like the USSR’s Radio Moscow on the one and Radio Station Peace and Progress, the Voice of Soviet Public Opinion on the other. The latter was more belligerent than the former, more “official” broadcaster, although they used the same broadcasting facilities.
    Anyway, time will show. If they’ll have to compete, I believe it will be tough business for China Daily.

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