Sunday, October 14, 2007

A Summer in the Local News Business

Ever wonder how journalism works in China? I am not sure if this story is representative, but it certainly touches on some interesting problems. Emma is a student of mine from a nearby city.

A Summer in the Local News Business
By: Emma Lu

This summer holiday, I interned for the Guangzhou Daily's Shantou office. I went to Chaonan, Jieyang and downtown Shantou with Ruan Xiaoguang, a journalist from Guangzhou Daily. We went to Chaonan to report on a boy who drowned in a sandpit filled with water; we were invited to Hualixi Village to cover an event with little newsworthiness but met with lots of strange things; and we went to Jieyang to investigate an underwear collecting activity. Yes, you heard correctly, underwear!

The event that we first covered was a boy who drowned in a sandpit filled with water days before in Chaonan, a district of Shantou.
When we got to the boy's home, his parents and his aunt talked with us about the details of the drowning. That day the boy went to the sand beach to play with his friend and his little sister. A factory was using sand from a beach for construction, and they had left a few sandpits full of seawater. The boy was catching fish in the sandpit but he was so careless that he fell into the water. He tried to stay afloat because he couldn't swim. His little sister also jumped into the water and tried to pull him up. However, he drowned in the end and his sister also nearly drowned. An old fisherman was called by the boy's friend and came to pull up his sister.
When I was talking with the parents, I could see their spirits were broken. They didn't cry because they had cried so much. I couldn't recognize what they said in Chaoshan dialect although I am a Chaozhou native. The dialect of Chaonan is very different from other places in the Chaoshan area. So we had to talk in Mandarin.

After the talk, we went to that sand beach. We could see several sandpits lying on the beach, each of which was at about 60 square meters. As the boy's father had told us, the water in them was over 2 meters in depth. Nor far away was the sand processing factory, busy with many trucks going back and forth to take the sand out of the village. Some villagers told us that several factories had collected sand on this beach for about 15 years, had destroyed the wood near the beach, and had left many dangerous sandpits on the beach. As the factories did nothing to keep people away from the sandpits, there had been about 8 persons who had died in these kinds of sandpits. None of the factories had sent any compensation to the drowned persons’ families.

Why did the government allow the factories to exploit sand in their village and bring such serious safety problems? When we asked the party secretary of the village, he refused to say anything about it, and even more he denied that there were sand processing factories existing in their village. It didn't match with what we had seen on the beach.

The boy's parents wanted to sue the sand factory and the government. But they also knew it was very difficult because the factory and the government were very powerful and rich. "We still want to try, for the sake of the safety of other people," said the boy's aunt.

My second report was to cover the renovation of an old temple in Hualixi in Chaonan. Hualixi was a village in which the business of selling plastic flowers had boomed in recent years. We were invited by the village officials to cover the temple renovation. They sent a local journalist to take us there.

When we got there, the party secretary and some other officials were very kind to us. But they could hardly tell us the history of the temple which was very important to our report, and even more they could hardly speak Mandarin, a basic requirement for an official.

When the Hualixi secretary drove his car to take us to the temple, I discovered that the car had a steering wheel on the right side. Most cars on the mainland have a left-handed steering wheel. About ten years ago, many people wanted to buy foreign cars because of the high quality and the Chinese government added 100% to 80% taxes on the imported cars to limit the increasing number. But in recent years the tax rate had been gradually decreased to about 25%. But some people still tried to buy these kinds of cars without paying tax. It seemed ironic to me that the party secretary drove such a car to work.

To my most surprise, in the end the secretary gave us 800 Yuan and said that he didn't really want us to report on the temple's renovation, but wanted to get to know us and develop a friendship with us. Speaking frankly, they wanted us to do more good reports on their achievements and not to cover any bad news of their village in the future. 800 Yuan was not a little amount! We were surprised and tried to refuse but the secretary still pushed the money at us.

When the local journalist took us back, he told me that a journalist should learn how to keep good relationships with government officials and rich businessmen -- and only by relying on this could a journalist earn more money. I was very sad to hear his words. I really hoped not to work with this kind of journalist in the future.

My third interview destination was Jieyang, a city neighboring Shantou. We had been told that a series of underwear shops belonging to one company were taking back people's used underwear.
This story really interested us and we wondered what the used underwear could be used for. We went into the shop and looked around. We could see a poster saying used underclothes could be exchanged for 15 Yuan, used underwear for 5 Yuan and used bed gowns for 25 Yuan. It meant that you could buy the new underclothes and underwear in the shop at a discount if you brought in your used things, a good bargain for buyers. But why were they willing to pay money to collect these things? When we asked the shop keepers, however, they went quiet and said they didn't know.

When we pretended to want to buy the used underwear that they had collected, the shop keeper called the manager and with her permission, we gave her call. She said that their purpose for collecting used underclothes and bed gowns was just for investigative research, such as knowing how long a person wore their underclothes and which brand was the most popular. Finally the used things would be burnt up. However, the price they paid for the used things was very high and this made us doubt their answer.

We asked a manager of an underclothes factory in Chaonan, a district of Shantou, about this. The manager said that he had never heard of paying money for collecting used underwear. In his opinion, it was impossible to renew used underwear because it cost too much and it would be a deal without benefits.

Our curiosity was increasing and we worried there were some bad motivations for this deal. Would the used things be sent to some other regions and resold? Or would they be sold to some people who had a hobby of touching these dirty things?

Few people went to change their used underclothes or underwear for new ones. We interviewed some people, to get their reaction to the underwear exchange. Some people said underwear was a private thing and they didn't want to give it to others. Some people said they were worrying about strange uses of used underwear and they didn't want to get involved with this kind of deal.

The parents of the boy who drowned in the sandpit would try their best to sue the government and the factory -- but it would be hard to win. The used underwear collecting just confused me. But the thing that bothered me most was hearing that as a journalist, you have to develop relationships with officials.