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[The following appeared Nov. 18 on The Mantle. To glimpse some of the future faces of Chinese media – my students – please click here.]

HONG KONG – Last Friday, I would’ve been within my right to sleep in and relish a break from Hong Kong Baptist University. For six weeks, I’ve slavishly tutored another 79 of Asia’s brightest journalism students – mostly mainland Chinese women. (They’re worth it, but my right eye has gone blurry.)

Most of HKBU's 2011-12 class, with the author lurking in back. (Photo: Robin Ewing)

Instead, I woke early to hydrofoil across the rocky, sun-soaked Pearl River Delta, back to the English-language United International College in Zhuhai. In a sauna of a classroom, before 20 (mostly) wide-eyed journalism undergrads, I sweat through three hours of my Parachute in! The Adventurer’s Guide to Foreign Reporting lecture: how I broke into freelancing 17 years ago, and how I’ve done it ever since.

All this, for free. For a friend. For the students … Ah, who am I kidding? I did it for me. As I returned home Friday night, thoroughly wiped, I thought to myself: “You may have an addiction to China.” Or, more specifically, an addiction to teaching Chinese journalism students.

The weekend didn’t cure me. On Monday morning, I volunteered to rise at another ungodly hour and represent our Master’s program in International Journalism at the graduation of last year’s students. I’d trained them twice: for six weeks in Hong Kong, then one week in Prague.

On stage, I enjoyed a bird’s-eye view as dozens of beaming young Chinese heard their names called and – before family and friends – marched across to receive the hearty handshake of a pair of HKBU dons.

I can’t deny it: China and her young Chinese have cast a spell on me. This country matters. Economically, diplomatically, militarily. The world’s emerging superpower is so endlessly fascinating, I’m dizzy with all that I want to write about it. Then there’s the teaching. I now hear myself utter over and over again, to anyone who’ll listen: “China matters – which means my Chinese journalism students matter, too.” The apple of my eye today is HKBU’s current crop of students.

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[The following piece appeared Nov. 7, 2011, in Time Out Hong Kong. It was written by my former student -- and published with four of my photos.]

Three months after the Wenzhou train disaster shocked the Chinese nation, Shirley Zhao returns to the scene to speak with the survivors

WENZHOU, China – When a high-speed train crashed into the rear of another train on the evening of July 23 while crossing a viaduct in the suburbs of Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, China, Li Yu was in one of the carriages that plunged from the viaduct. It was the Mainland’s first fatal high-speed train collision, killing at least 40 passengers and injuring at least 191 people. But Li was lucky. The 43-year-old businessman escaped with a fractured right foot, several lacerations to his head and temporary amnesia.

A Chinese railway worker in Wenzhou describes the crash scene. (Photo: mjj)

As news of the tragedy spread throughout China, Li was rescued from the wreckage and taken to a Wenzhou hospital. With blood covering his face and most of his hair singed off, he was ushered into a lift with a doctor, his wife, who failed to recognise him. It was not until 24 hours later that she and his relatives found him through Weibo, where millions of netizens were microblogging about the disaster.

Immediately following the crash, rail officials hastily covered up rescue operations and the government clamped down on negative media coverage. These two incidents created a wave of criticism from both online communities and state-run newspapers, and confidence in both Beijing and the national rail system was severely rocked. It was a decisive moment in a socially troubled year for China.

Now, more than three months after the accident, Li is gradually completing his physical rehabilitation, but he is still putting the pieces together in his mind about what actually happened.

“It may be a good thing that I don’t clearly remember,” Li tells Time Out from the hospital’s rehabilitation room, “because it hasn’t been my worst nightmare every night. My physical wounds will recover, but it’s the psychological trauma that may never go away. Now I don’t dare to go anywhere. I’m afraid of taking planes or trains. Even when I’m sitting here, right now, I fear the walls will collapse. These things happen all too often in China.”

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[The following piece appeared Feb. 10 in The Global Journalist; it was republished Feb. 11 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – From the relative serenity of Central Europe, I’m following events in Egypt like many of you: scan headlines, surf for more and more voices. To watch history being made in real time is a thrilling, if voyeuristic, experience. Virtual ring-side seats to a title fight between David and Goliath.

But beyond the dominant story-line – that the Egyptian revolution may tip the dominoes across the Arab world – is a significant subplot: the triumphalism of Twitter and Facebook as mighty weapons of war. And democracy. No wonder China is watching so nervously.

First Tunisia, then Egypt. All hail “social media and its entry into the mainstream! (Even if it sometimes makes us sad.)

Now, I don’t mean to be a buzz-kill, but let’s pause to examine the limits of social media. Because, I’ll wager my payment for this piece on one prediction: the dust won’t have settled in Tahrir Square before certain pundits, activists and academics point to Egypt and sing the praises of “citizen journalism.”

The phrase makes my skin crawl for how it blurs the lines of serious reportage.

There’s no doubt that for protesting Cairenes and embattled journalists, social media is a lifeline to the outside world. Behold Mubarak’s forces, bumbling in futile efforts to stifle the Internet and modern communication. Then, in full view of the world, a disgraceful crackdown on Egyptian and foreign journalists – including one killed. We justifiably toast journalists like Egyptian Sarah El Sirgany, a sudden folk hero for relying on Twitter to persist with her reporting.

It’s become faddish for true-believers to tout We are all journalists now. Anyone dexterous enough with an iPhone is a potential photojournalist. Any grassroot netizen blogging solitarily from a café, or from home in their pajamas, can produce actual “journalism.”  Effectively enough to supplant the icky, whorish “MSM.” (The mainstream media, of which I’m a card-carrying member.)

What nonsense.

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[Part I of a four-part post. Part II, III and IV are below.]

HONG KONG – And now, some good news about China.

Why? Because, it’s too easy to blast a country with superpower aspirations that chases after its own citizens like naughty schoolchildren, to restrict them from learning about China’s first-ever Nobel.

Sure, it wasn’t the Nobel that China has wanted. But why should anyone in the international community lend prestige to a state that demands the world’s respect, yet cannot tolerate any serious internal criticism of its domestic or foreign policies?

That said, it’s time for a more nuanced assessment of China. By me, especially.

China is obviously a very, very complex society. From my limited vantage point in Hong Kong — albeit surrounded by mainland Chinese students — I wouldn’t want to caricaturize the country, painting too black and white a picture. Which is why I spent time last week trying to see more of the grey. Including a trip to the mainland.

For example, even as Beijing threw a tantrum over the Nobel peace prize for jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao reiterated the need for “political reform” to join the capitalist transformation that has catapulted China to the world’s second-largest economy.

There’s more. (more…)

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[The following appeared Oct. 14 on The Mantle.]

HONG KONG – Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo – while the man languishes in prison – has inflicted humiliation of epic proportion upon the thin-skinned Communist leadership in Beijing.

So epic, it will surely enter the Party’s pantheon of taboos, up on its Mount Rushmore to censorship: Tiananmen Square, Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan and the Falun Gong. At least, that’s what my new sources in Chinese media lead me to believe, since it’s the state-controlled media that ruthlessly enforces Party diktat.

How could this event not join that fivesome?

Liu himself practically ensured it when he dedicated his Nobel to the most taboo of taboos: the “lost souls” of June 4, 1989. On that day, Chinese tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, under the government’s nose, and mowed down hundreds of protesters. The exact number of dead remains unknown.

The Party has since forbade any public discussion of what it refers to as the “June Fourth Incident.” How could any casual future discussion of Liu’s Nobel not lead inevitably to Tiananmen? Leading this blackout will be foot-soldiers in the media.

A young Chinese woman now working as a cub reporter for a provincial city newspaper recently described for me her orientation, during which the chief editor addressed all new editorial staff. With a Party-appointed cadre in the newsroom, the editor referred obliquely to “five landmines” that cannot be touched.

Most revealing is that my young colleague wasn’t surprised. (more…)

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[This piece appeared Sept. 30 on The Mantle.]

HONG KONG – The Chinese government is mighty successful at muzzling its media, threatening them with everything from censorship to arrest. Recognizing those talents, the watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranks China 168th out of 175 countries world-wide.

The Internet, though, is proving much more stubborn to rein in.

Indeed, the Chinese blogosphere – now said to number about 70,000 bloggers – is where journalists and commentators enjoy the most elbow room to speak out. And, even the opportunity to shape Chinese policies.

There’s no stopping those who taste the liberation of writing freely, as one Chinese blogger told Time magazine: “It is like a water flow – if you block one direction, it flows to other directions, or overflows.”

This is why I’m thrilled to be training a small battalion of China’s future bloggers. Here in Hong Kong, the country’s one haven for freedom of expression, a Hong Kong Baptist University colleague and I at are now showing more than 70 mainland Chinese graduate students – a large majority of whom are women – how to launch a blog of their own.

And we’re not talking “silly” blogs, as I told them: Nothing about your walk in the park, with birds singing and sun shining. Nothing about where you ate dinner last night, or what movie you went to see.

No, we’re talking journalistic blogs. (more…)

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[The following appeared May 1 in The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – Peter is a young Slovak journalist, just 21, and splits his time between writing for the financial-advice pages of a leading economic paper and finishing his university degree.

When I was a greenhorn reporter like him – in the inland deserts of Southern California – I, too, could be intimidated by an imperious, tough-talking official. So I wasn’t surprised to hear of Peter’s recent struggle to extract information from a spokesman for the Slovak social-insurance agency whom he says is “famous for answering by saying nothing.” But the flak happens to be close to the ruling party in government, as is the agency boss.

When Peter’s article appeared, the spokesman hit him with five pages full of complaints. Only a few cited minor factual errors, says Peter; the rest read like he was simply irritated with the article itself.

“Don’t worry,” Peter’s editor told him. “I’ll handle it.”

That’s apparently not enough for the young reporter, who didn’t want to be further identified, or his paper either, since the matter is yet to be resolved.

“I want to learn how to speak with people like this, to be sure of what my rights are,” says Peter.

That’s why he was among the dozens of journalists who attended the “Journalists in Conflict” conference this week in Bratislava – to mark World Press Freedom Day. Not war-zone conflict, but the sorts of conflict reporters run into with sources, employers, the audience, or their own self-interest.

The forum, though, opened a window onto the myriad issues affecting Slovakia and its post-Communist neighbors, from worsening economic pressures, to the various forms of political coercion. (more…)

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(The following piece appears in the Spring 2010 issue of Harvard’s Nieman Reports.)

A student from Shenzhen, an industrial Chinese city just across the border, explained why she’ll try to stay in Hong Kong: “Once I’ve discovered all the resources out there, I don’t want them taken away from me.”

Dozens of my Chinese students. (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan

HONG KONG — Just about the first thing my graduate students did when they arrived in Hong Kong was to create a Facebook account. They had come from mainland China, so what might seem like an ordinary act of modern living laid bare the disparities in the “one country, two systems” arrangement between these two parts of China.

This newfound freedom to use Facebook also underscored the absence of free speech they experience back home, which limits their ability to surf the Internet. YouTube and Twitter are blocked from use, along with Facebook and passage to Web sites with information deemed critical of Chinese policy.

For the students I taught last fall in the international journalism program at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU), the prospect of returning to a pre-Facebook era, as one young woman from China’s north told me, would be “like being a human, then going back to being a primate.”

If democracy is in China’s future, then a driving force will surely be younger Chinese who have tasted such freedoms. Indeed, early on in my journalism classes I sensed that by cajoling my 22- to 26-year-old students toward what Western journalists naturally do—challenge authority, probe deeply to find out why a situation is the way it is, and enable readers to make better-informed decisions—I was in my own modest way training China’s future democrats.

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