Instead … Day-trip to China!
I’ve shelled out about $155 for a single-entry visa to the mainland. All for today.
By noon, Mark O’Neill and I are zipping across the southern Pearl River Delta, past dozens of rocky, uninhabited islands. It’s a brisk, 70-minute ferry ride to Zhuhai, a boomtown “Special Economic Zone” whose marketing department has exuberantly dubbed the coastal city “the Chinese Riviera.”
Maybe so, but I won’t see any of it. I’m here to give a talk to Mark’s 40 students, at a university where he’s lectured for three years – United International College. My topic: “Life as a Freelance Foreign Correspondent.” (Life is good. Any questions?)
By Chinese standards, UIC is a most unusual joint venture, between the prestigious Beijing Normal University and Hong Kong Baptist University, my employer. Apparently, all the Hong Kong universities have been trying to expand onto the mainland; only HKBU has succeeded. One reason, says Mark, is state control.
“If you want to set up a shoe factory on the mainland, you can do it tomorrow,” he says. “But universities are one of the most highly regulated sectors, because it deals with information, knowledge and ideology – and influences people’s minds.”
UIC has somehow finagled, through this relationship with the state-run Beijing Normal, that it’s the only mainland university to operate without a Communist Party committee calling the shots. It’s also private, and one of three English-language universities in all of China.
Not surprisingly, it attracts a certain kind of Chinese student. The kind whose family can afford $6,000 in tuition. Who thinks English may be useful. Perhaps for a job at home. Or if they head West.
Mark discusses serious international issues with them, like China’s relationship with its troublesome neighbor, North Korea. Topics like these are tolerated – so long as there’s no call to overturn China’s political system or the Party that runs it.
“You can be freer in what you say than what you write,” says Mark. “A Chinese friend once said the freest place in China is in the lecture room.”
Well, unless a student turns informant. But that seems to be of no concern on UIC’s leafy campus. Outside the classroom where I’ll speak, in fact, I get my first clue as to how friendly an audience I’ll face: a poster publicizes the “American Slang Club.” (See post IV below.)
Inside, the students – three-quarters of them women, like at HKBU – are a lively bunch during my three hours with them. Only twice do I get the yawn-and-tonsils show. (Both times by the same drowsy young woman.)
They also speak excellent English. Or seem to, chuckling in all the right places. Freelancing’s great … (beat) … if your wife has a full-time job.
Most impressive, they pin me with sharp, if poignant questions.
“How do you separate your emotions from what you’re reporting?”
“How do you stay motivated after all these years?”
“What would you suggest for us, as young Chinese women?”
That last one reminds me of the reaction I’ve gotten before from young reporters in oppressive societies: how can we ever be independent enough to do that? The question leaves me without a good answer, of course. I don’t know the Chinese reality, to advise them on anything. And I’m not a woman.
However, I tell them what I tell my Hong Kong students: If you really want to get a job in journalism, don’t just tell editors that. Show them. Start a blog, interview ordinary folks about their lives and issues, reporting from the streets of Zhuhai. Or the next time you visit your hometown.
“Show editors your passion for journalism,” I conclude. “I’d hope that one of my colleagues in China would take notice.”
In the taxi ride back to the ferry, Mark is actually more bullish than the students on their future prospects. While Western media is in steep decline, he says Chinese media is raking in bundles from advertising aimed at the scores of newly rich. Overseas, Chinese correspondents long ignored as Party hacks are suddenly landing interviews with top political and economic leaders.
“When a country becomes powerful,” says Mark, “its media becomes powerful, too.”