A journalist in China

Tim Hathaway writes about his experience reporting and writing for state-run 'Xinjiang Economic Daily'

By Tim Hathaway
Contributing Writer

Friday, November 9, 2007

New Jersey --- Under a crystalline sky in western China in 2006, I sat in a black sedan with Zhu Youke, one of China's most prominent journalists telling him about an illegal coal mine threatening endangered species. A foreign scientist had explained to me that this mine would directly impact the animals and he wanted news coverage. I decided to share the situation with Zhu for several reasons. He was a senior editor at state-run Xinjiang Economic Daily (XED), considered to be one of the most dynamic newspapers in China; he was a good friend; and he was also my mentor, having given me a job as an XED columnist earlier in the year.

He asked me to let him think about the coal mine story because revealing illegal activities is extremely risky in China, including Xinjiang, which is located directly north of Tibet. It is a politically-sensitive region because of tense relations between minority Turkic Muslim groups and Han Chinese. Newspapers are supposed to be the mouthpiece of the government and someone with Party connections most likely had a stake in this mine. Publishing this story could have repercussions for XED and Zhu personally. But a few hours later in the same black sedan, he said, "I want you to do it. You can interview the supervisor of the coal mine."

Between January 2006 and July 2007, I was given spaces of freedom in Chinese journalism that no other foreigner has been afforded. I maintained a semiweekly column in English and Chinese and wrote nearly 30 feature articles and photo editorials in Chinese. The majority of my writing focused on people and culture rather than politically sensitive topics such as illegal mines. I interviewed award-winning writers and poets, Pakistani gem traders, Filipino musicians, Malaysian and American entrepreneurs, German scientists, and government officials both on and off the record. I also wrote about Mongolian nomads, Uyghur farmers, and other minorities in Xinjiang.

I saw Chinese journalism from the inside and witnessed the struggle reporters have finding significance in their work. It is the rare journalist who is able to achieve a successful balance between censorship and significance. XED has several successful writers because of its editorial vision, emphasizing cultural exchange and understanding. On May 20, at the first ever Central and South Asia Media Summit, XED's editor-in-chief Su Jishang said, "The closer person-to-person relations are, the deeper economic exchanges will be." He also believed "mass media is under obligation to introduce foreign cultures, which requires broader vision."

The primary reason XED allowed me to write for them was the cultural perspective I brought. Prior to working there, I had lived in Colombia and Japan as an English teacher. My teaching career continued in China for three years before becoming a writer in Xinjiang. It was during my tenure as a teacher at a local university in the capital city of Urumqi that I met Zhu. We had met at the local Catholic Church and became good friends. After I quit teaching in 2005 to study Chinese full-time, he began lobbying the leadership of XED -- without my knowledge -- to let me write a column. I had no experience in journalism so in January 2006, when he offered me the job, I nearly turned it down.

I had many fears at the time, not the least of which was my less-than-fluent Chinese. I could barely read a newspaper at the time, let alone write for one. The column he proposed would be a paragraph-for-paragraph translation of English and Chinese. He assured me he would help clean up my translation.

My second fear was censorship. I did not believe I could write anything of significance for a Chinese publication. Zhu simply said, "Write anything you want. Just don't write about politics or religion."

He coaxed me into writing two sample articles for the other senior editors at XED. I struggled to find topics with meaning; my two sample articles ended up being on table manners and long underwear.

To my surprise the other editors at XED said they had value. For XED, they were a way to differentiate the newspaper from other publications. For readers, they were a chance to study English and to see their culture through the eyes of a foreigner. Though my first articles may seem trite, I used personal experiences to draw out cultural contrasts and the reasons for them. I showed readers how a westerner feels when a Chinese host uses his or her chopsticks to put large pieces of smoked horse meat, dog meat or even bovine intestines on a guest's plate and why, to the consternation of locals, westerners like me do not wear multiple layers of undergarments in the winter like they do.

In the beginning, even extremely simple articles took over 10 hours to write and translate. I slowly learned how to construct articles of more significance on education, morality, economics and cultural bias and improved my writing time to three or four hours.

Throughout the course of my year and a half at XED, I produced over 160 column pieces, and I remember only six were rejected due to censorship concerns. Just after I returned to the United States, Zhu wrote in a July 30 article, "The column 'A Foreigner in Xinjiang' printed in Xinjiang Economic Daily's culture section received praise from readers all over China. Among them was the former editor-in-chief of New China Daily in Nanjing, Mr. Jin Jingzhong. In a letter to the editor to XED he specifically praised this column. It has become one of the trademarks of this paper."

Because of the success of the column and the working relationships I had, I was given greater latitude during my time there. The investigative piece I wrote on the illegal coal mine was published in two parts in the fall of 2006. It included interviews with the mine supervisor, government officials, and Chinese and western scientists. It named the organization responsible for the incursion into the nature reserve and detailed the direct impact it had on the endangered animals. There were no repercussions for the newspaper. But it did nothing to improve the lot of the endangered species in the area either.

The spaces of freedom I was given at XED were a result of a strong desire to develop journalism in China. I was technically a freelance writer, but I gained the trust and cooperation of XED and members of the Ministry of Information. I was allowed to participate in some state-sponsored activities for journalists and listened to officials talk on and off the record. Government officials, editors and readers I spoke with all want a freer press just as much as they want a government free of corruption, but reform is a slow process -- glacially slow. I was fortunate enough to be given a chance to see Chinese journalism from the inside and how difficult it is to find ways to be significant as a writer in that society. But it can be done and is being done, by organizations like XED and individuals such as Zhu.

Click here to read one of Tim Hathaway's Xinjiang Economic Daily columns.

The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.