One advantage of being on a US government program is access to an amazing group of people. Glenn Mott, who is an editor with the Hearst group and teaching on a Fulbright grant at Tsinghua, put together a fascinating program with the public affairs section of the US embassy on “Law and Journalism: A Fact-finding Session.” I helped Glenn brainstorm this project and participated as timekeeper and back-up moderator. The panelists were Eve Burton (General counsel of Hearst), Jim Fallows (reporter for the Atlantic Monthly), and Mo Xiaping and Pu Zhiqiang, two courageous Chinese lawyers willing to take on high-profile cases defending journalists in China.
Both Glenn and I were able to bring about 30 students to the panel. Renmin would provide law students, Tsinghua would send journalism students. This required having everyone’s name, national ID and phone number in advance for security purposes. In addition, the consulates at Shanghai and Guangzhou were also inviting students to participate via teleconference. Alas, the night before the event the Tsinghua international office withdrew permission – without explanation. This one school got nervous. This simple act of cancelling participation sent a pretty powerful signal. I also realized with some distress that I did not want to get my Chinese host at Renmin in difficulty. I had not even known the names of the Chinese lawyers until the day before the program so he did not know who was attending this program, only that it was sponsored by the US Embassy. Since such programs by the embassy are vetted through the political folks at the embassy, we did not expect controversy. But we assume that the upcoming anniversary of Tiananmen Square has raised the official vigilance.
The actual program was terrific. The two Chinese lawyers made clear that their views were not the views of the Party. They were critical of the Chinese government approach to journalism and the press. The challenge facing journalists in China is daunting. My later discussion with my students who attended was interesting. The most common reaction of the students was embarrassment that China was being criticized by two of their own in front of foreigners. A couple students expressed frustration that the Chinese lawyers did not praise all the progress and provide a more “balanced” presentation. There was strong resistance to the ideas presented. I noted in class that such discussions where we focus on problem areas are quite common in the US. At least the students came away with a hint of the difference in how we think about and discuss problems.