Posts Tagged ‘China’

Bratislava by night. (Photo: mjj)

Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. — Ralph Waldo Emerson


BRATISLAVA – This blog leaves a trail.

As a journalist with a long-time base in Central and Eastern Europe, then on to Hong Kong in the Far East, and now back and forth again.

The pendulum continues to swing. My dispatches and photos below aim to open a window onto these unique societies.

Many are third-person serious; some, first-person humorous. (At least they try to be.) When you invest nearly 18 years of your life in an exotic locale, you have to take a step back and appreciate what’s around you, in a more intimate way.

All are produced from the perspective of an American foreign correspondent, journalism teacher and freelancer raising kids overseas.

Spliced in are my recent articles. I’ve been a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor since 1995, and contributed more recently to Foreign Policy, Harvard’s Nieman Reports, Global Post, Ms. Magazine, The Mantle and other publications listed to the right. I also pitched in with two chapters to the newly published book on the Roma minority, “Gypsy Sexuality.”

Thank you for reading! … mjj


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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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[The following post appeared Jan. 20 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – It’s not the daily grind. More like a monthly juggle.

Juggling projects, that is. When I “penned” the first two entries of this soul-baring, me-as-guinea-pig blog last spring (here and here), I was writing about a different book. Which I hold off on publicizing, to spare myself the shame. It’s been shoved to the back-burner, along with other half-baked projects. And ideas for projects.

Instead, teaching in Hong Kong leapt to the front-burner. It meant a golden opportunity to return to mainland China and launch the book project I hatched in Fall 2009, the first time I taught in Hong Kong. Since Slovakia is a long way from China, I knew I couldn’t visit my subjects too often. It made sense to join forces with an HK-based colleague.

So, with the support of my long-suffering wife, I pull cash from our savings and pay for a one-week reporting trip to the mainland, prior to my HK teaching stint. A train trip, two flights, nights in a hotel. Now that’s what we call in the freelance biz an investment. Will there be a return? Damn straight.

But that was just the cash. Then came the time and effort. From the time I returned home to my family in Bratislava, end of October, it took me almost two full months to complete an introduction and sample chapter. For me, a staggering 12,000 words. At 250 per page, that’s about 48 pages.

Had to do it, though. One cardinal rule of journalism, and of life itself: to convince readers, or any audience for that matter, it’s better to show, not tell. I’m only an Aspiring First-Time Author. (A snazzy title I may soon print on my business cards.) I have little to stand on, beyond those thousand-plus newspaper and magazine articles.


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[The following piece appeared Dec. 9 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – After a second sampling of Chinese culture, I’ve returned to Slovakia with a fancy for drinking tea. Straight. No honey or sugar. No lemon or milk. Just the tea, thanks.

In fact, that’s just the way I order it from Slovak waiters and waitresses: “Len a čaj.” Only the tea. Most nod and bring me two packets of sugar anyway.

Pure tea is the Chinese away, the original way. For five millennia. Savor the taste of the leaves. The medicinal benefits. Even the spiritual benefits. To Chinese, it ranks among the “seven necessities of life.”

Now, I’m not a spiritual kinda guy. Back in Budapest when I gave yoga a whirl, I was less interested in the chakra than the lycra – worn by the limber woman beside me. For me, tea is about flavor and authenticity. It’s like sipping nature.

Similarly, earlier this year, I drastically altered my drinking of espresso. No milk, no sugar. Cold turkey. Len a kava. I figure I ingest enough fats and sugars every day. (As we speak, a half-devoured bar of dark chocolate beckons from my coat pocket…)

In related news, I’m not getting any younger. So why not eliminate one tiny vice from my life?

While patting myself on the back, though, I concede an unseemly side-effect: without that milky filter, espresso has stained my teeth the color of ripe sunflower fields in Hungary. Say chee-ee-eese!

Wait a sec. I’ve been victimized by something called “Hong Kong Foot,” due to carelessness in the tropical clamminess. Why then, in the heart of café culture, can we not anoint another geographic-specific affliction: “Central European Teeth”? From what I see around here, I’m not the only sufferer.

I even have the makings of a definition: The unfortunate consequence of a daily addiction to espresso, consumed without the amelioration of dairy – or lactose-free dairy – products. (Note to self: first copyright “Central European Teeth,” then start a support group.)


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[The following post appeared Nov. 8 on The Mantle.]

Thrill of the Hong Kong hunt: the shop where I bagged my trophies. (Photo: mjj)

HONG KONG – A big fat discount. That’s what I wanted on my last day in Hong Kong – a reasonably priced memento of my seven weeks here.

So, I stalked my prey: an antique store in the heavily Chinese neighborhood of Yau Ma Tei. I’d already visited twice and was sufficiently impressed by the layer of dust on their paintings, carvings, calligraphy sets and other crafts.

Maybe these things are truly old … not just scuffed to look that way?

I spotted two small pictures in my modest price range. The larger, an elaborate peacock painted on porcelain (for my burgeoning peacock-themed collection, naturally), had a sticker price of 1,800 Hong Kong dollars (US$232). The second, a father and two children painted on glass, was HK$650 (US$84).

I wanted both. Life’s too short to choose between tchotchke. Better to snag both. Yet, not at these prices. Which is why I needed a strategy. Since everything in such places is marked up exponentially – as if shopkeepers are giggling at the thought of gouging suckers like me – each price-tag is negotiable. Despite any Oscar-worthy protest by the proprietor.

Worse, though, is the nagging fear I’ll be ripped off. Or in China’s case, it’s the inevitability of being ripped off. After all, the Chinese are world-class forgerers of purported “antiques.” According to some estimates, as much as 95 percent of the antiques peddled are fakes.

And it’s not just the antiques, of course. (more…)

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HONG KONG – Last fall, I whined about how tough it was to deliver essentially the same lecture to four separate classes, over a two-day period.

Today, I scoff at 2009 me. Scoff!

I just staggered through a journalism-training equivalent of the hallowed 26.2, an Athenian marathon of teaching. Over six weeks, I cycled through 77 students, most of them mainland Chinese. Divided into 16 groups. Three times each. Forty-eight tutorials. One or two per day, every day. (Did I mention the six-weeks part?)

Not just to chew the fat about journalism. For four weeks solid, I’ve commented on their brand-new blogs. Two posts each, or close to 150. Only a wicked few plowed past the 400-word limit. Then, I critiqued each one, showing how to do it better.

That’s a lot of talking, even by my windy standards.

What made it particularly torturous – for them, too – is that I needed to cover the same journalistic points and principles for each round of tutorial. The same explanation of reporting strategy, interview technique or story structure. Accessorized with the same profound analogy or mirthful anecdote.

Sixteen times. I got sick of listening to myself. But I couldn’t shut up.

Whatever comment came to mind, tumbled out. When they had questions, even better. Tutorials are 90 minutes, but I consistently rambled on for two, two-and-a-half hours. I had the stamina of Hugo Chavez, with just as captive an audience.

If nothing else, I gained a whole new appreciation for Broadway. Evening performance every night, fine. But three matinees per week, as well? How to get the adrenaline going for each show?

Tricks of the trade, I’ve learned. There’s no business, like teaching business.

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

Mark O'Neill (Photo: mjj)

HONG KONG – In 1897, an Irish missionary named Frederick O’Neill set sail on a two-month journey to China to spread his Presbyterian gospel among Chinese countryfolk.

Reverend O’Neill remained in remote northeast China for 45 years. In fact, so devoted to his mission were he and his wife that they withstood the loss of two of their five children to childhood diseases – diseases they contracted from their living environment.

“Meaning, they wouldn’t have died if they’d been in Ireland,” says the reverend’s grandson, Mark O’Neill.

When Mark told me he was writing a book about his grandfather, I figured the man had inspired his grandson’s lifelong fascination with China. Wrong.

(See, dear students, this is why we journalists should never assume.)

In fact, Mark stumbled onto it in 1978, when an acquaintance in London suggested he try reporting from Hong Kong – a British colony where he’d have a leg-up getting hired. He eventually latched onto Reuters, then on to the South China Morning Post.

Thirty-two years later, Mark is best described by that charmingly antiquated term for veteran reporters, diplomats, scholars and spies with geographical expertise: “old hand.” Sounds so Cold War. “Old Soviet hand” … “Old Vietnam hand.” (How long before I graduate to “old Central Europe hand”?) (more…)

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

It was so hot that day in Zhuhai, few UIC students ventured outside. (Photo: mjj)

ZHUHAI, China – It’s a hot and sunny Thursday, like so many others. I really should be tutoring my students in Hong Kong, in the same bloody café I’ve planted myself every day for the past five weeks.

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.”


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Until the late 1970s, Shenzhen was little more than a Chinese fishing village, and nearby Shajing Town was known for its shuckers of “Shajing Oysters.” Then, China anointed Shenzhen – strategically situated just north of Hong Kong – as its first “Special Economic Zone.” The population exploded, swamping Shajing.

The mass of humanity in Shajing, now one of 18 districts in Shenzhen, a city whose population is officially listed at 9 million. Shajing is considered a surburb -- but a one-hour drive from downtown.

Perched over freshly shucked Shajing oysters.

Three decades later, Shenzhen is a manufacturing powerhouse fueled by millions of migrant workers from across China, with a glitzy financial district that’s one part Las Vegas, one part Wall Street. Factory workers now dominate Shajing, as I saw one weekend, though remnants of the oyster-shucking tradition remain.

For more photos … (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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HONG KONG – My tutorial-chat today in the crowded campus cafe began innocently enough, with me asking one Chinese student from the mainland why she wanted to come study journalism in Hong Kong, and not stay back home.

After listing several reasons, she punctuated her response with: “My father says China is no good. He says the Communist Party will collapse.”

That set the other group members atwitter, in Mandarin. I asked what the buzz was about. “Oh, you can’t say that publicly in China,” one explained. Never know who may be listening.

These students have only been in Hong Kong three weeks, but quickly discover the essence of what makes this place, as I call it, “China with an asterisk.” This unique policy of “One Country, Two Systems” makes Hong Kong the one sanctuary for freedom of expression in all of China.

My student’s comment about the Party seemed to embolden her colleagues. The floodgates swung open.

A second young woman lamented that the central government “concentrates efforts on big projects, but nothing for the people at the bottom of society, who lag behind. They say all of China is in harmony, but there are so many voiceless people. I want to give them an opportunity to be heard.”

A young man who worked a short stint at China state television chimed in. “The problem is that they try to hide the reality,” he said. “One viewer criticized our station: ‘You tell us everything but the truth.’”

Then why return, asked the one Hong Konger in our group.

Hope. That’s why, explained the fourth mainlander.

“You have to believe it will get better and better,” he said, earnestly. “Even if you don’t believe it sometimes.”

From my front-row seat, I listened … in awe.

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HONG KONG – I arrived here having to wait one week before my short-term rental was ready. So I accepted a colleague’s generous offer to spend the week in her village, in her family’s empty apartment. Most interesting for me, it was located in a part of Hong Kong I’d never explored before: the “New Territories” region that borders mainland China, which Britain first acquired in 1898.

One hour northeast of downtown, the village of Yeung Uk Tsuen (pronounced just as it looks!) is hardly rural. The urban sprawl of Yuen Long encircles it. Yet the village retains an architectural style and layout I’ve not seen before in HK.

What may be Yeung Uk Tsuen's oldest home, located on its main square.

Doorways with character.

To view more photos … (more…)

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HONG KONG – Teaching journalism in a free media environment like Hong Kong, to students who mostly hail from the un-free media environment of mainland China, it’s easy for an American carpetbagger like me to prattle on about high-minded issues like democracy, press freedom and state control.

Many Chinese students I come across, though, have more mundane – but universal – desires. Like access to Facebook and cyber-connection to the rest of the modern world, as I’ve written before. Last night, a new one came to light.

I was eating out with a former grad student of mine, who’s now 24. Rather than return to the mainland, she’s trying her luck in Hong Kong. While we munch on barbeque pork and crispy duck, I ask her what she likes best about living here.

“The films,” she replies.

What a banal response, I think: That’s the first thing that springs to mind? She continues, explaining the mainland’s quota policy that restricts how many foreign films are allowed in.

“I love film, and if I want to see a French movie, or Malaysian, or Indonesian, or New Zealand film, I can see them here,” she says. “I don’t recall any French film coming to my city in China.”

It dawns on me that this mirrors the banal yet symbolic aspect of daily life that I love about New York City, but miss in the Slovak capital of Bratislava: the huge spectrum of ethnic restaurants.

My student, too, wants freedom of choice, diversity of tastes. Which multi-ethnic Hong Kong delivers.

“Here they’re more tolerant of different cultures and do more to expose people to those cultures,” she says. “It’s not just that I’m interested in different cultures, but that I can choose from among them.”

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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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Tradition meets modernity at a Naxi wedding in Lijiang. (Photo: mjj)

In mid-December 2009, for one last memorable week in China, I travelled solo to one of the most fascinating corners of this vast country. My friend and colleague, Robin, sold me on Yunnan province with three compelling details: curious ethnic tribes (and their embroideries!), the preserved ancient cities of Lijiang and Dali, and a short but intense trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Sure it was just one week, but I made the most of it — as you’ll see in the photo essay that I’ll soon post here. Please check back soon!

A Bai woman cultivates lakeside crops in a village outside Dali. (Photo: mjj)

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Before arriving in Hong Kong, knowing I was to teach young Chinese in an “International Journalism” program, I pondered: “How can I teach them international reporting without the travel?”

With that, I returned to a course I hatched almost seven years ago, an International Reporting class for two New York City universities – again, no passport required. The essence: simulate the overseas experience by having each student explore an ethnic, immigrant or refugee community.

In New York, of course, that’s no problem. In Hong Kong, too, I saw the potential: with its historic British and South Asian communities, plus recent waves of Southeast Asian migrant workers.

One obstacle, though: the department chairman, Huang Yu, had a reasonable point. He noted that while many from the mainland had some journalism experience, or studied it as undergrads, others didn’t. “Our students must first learn solid fundamentals,” he explained. I pledged to. But I wanted to blend that with my master-plan: serious reporting of non-Chinese communities.

I wanted to force students out of their “comfort zone”: to meet, understand and write about people unlike them. From there, it’s actually a short leap to travel to another country and write about others.

The first day of class, I introduced this semester-long project, reassuring students that I’d walk them through, step by step, the entire research, reporting and writing process. Well, the results are now coming in – and I’m awed by what I’m reading. Exploitation of Indonesian and Filipina maids. Cantonese-language rules that limit university enrollment of Hong Kong-born Indians, Pakistanis and Nepalese. Discrimination against minority athletes. Survival prospects for the tiny Zoroastrian community. And on and on.

I’d put into words how proud I am, but I wouldn’t want them to hear. After all, I’m just now editing their first drafts, which are still flawed in significant ways. The final draft looms. So let’s keep my delight between us, OK?

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If you were to ask my students, they might describe me as one part Jekyll, one part Hyde. (So would my sons, but that’s another story.)

Sure, the students sometimes chuckle at my classroom shtick, whether it’s a self-deprecating jab, voice impersonation or the crook of an eyebrow.

But they also see a nastier side. Especially when I repeat myself for the umpteenth time: from their failure to proofread an article before submission, or consistently quoting fact, not paraphrasing, to larger issues like plagiarism (see Oct. 20 post) or ignoring my prescribed story structure. The venom really spews when I edit their work, inserting comments in red-hot caps … with lots of exclamation points.

This week, though, I apologized. To all 70 of them. I’m so used to hearing them speak English, my mother tongue, that I easily forget this is their second, third, even fourth language. I may dabble in Hungarian, Slovak and Cantonese, but can only dream of writing in a foreign language as well as they are right now.

So, I taught them the idiom “can’t see the forest for the trees,” to underscore how I’d lost perspective. Theirs is actually a double degree of difficulty: writing in English, but also in a completely new writing form, this American-style news feature I’m teaching them.

Recognizing the need to balance praise with poison, then, I wrote on the board another new expression: Tough Love. “It’s because I care too much,” I explained. More chuckles.

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Thousands in Hong Kong lined the streets for a parade to celebrate China’s 60th National Day. (Photo: mjj)

[This piece appeared Oct. 1, 2009, in The Global Post.]

In Britain’s former colony, now China’s property, the mood is mixed.

By Michael J. Jordan — Special to GlobalPost

Editor’s note: Oct. 1 is the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. To mark the occasion we have two dispatches from two very different corners of China — Tibet and Hong Kong. And from Beijing, Kathleen E. McLaughlin looks at the event’s unique security arrangements.

HONG KONG, China — One month ago, Chinese journalists flocked to cover renewed violence in Xinjiang province, as ethnic Chinese blamed the Uighur minority for a rash of mysterious hypodermic-needle attacks.

China’s media is among the most restricted in the world, so it wasn’t entirely surprising when reports emerged that police had beaten and detained three of the bolder television journalists, accusing them of inciting inter-ethnic violence.

Except, this trio hailed from Hong Kong, the one beacon of democracy in all of China. So news of their treatment struck a nerve in a territory that London returned to China 12 years ago, after 150 years of British rule. Hundreds of Hong Kong journalists took to the streets to demand not only an apology from the Chinese authorities, but even an investigation of the event.

“Press freedom and rule of law are core values of Hong Kong society,” said Yin-ting Mak, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. “That’s why people were so angry, because this was the most vivid, most extreme example of violating these values.”

The incident exposed ongoing tensions within the “One Country, Two Systems” policy that underpinned the British handover and lies at the heart of China-Hong Kong relations today.

This helps explain why this week, as Beijing celebrates 60 years of the “People’s Republic of China” and Communist Party accomplishments, the reaction is far more mixed in politically polarized Hong Kong. After all, Hong Kong has shared only one-fifth of that history, and many locals descend from the Chinese refugees who fled since the 1949 Communist takeover. (more…)

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We’d kept it a surprise, asking all the students to bring to class: a) a print-out of their transcribed interviews (see Sept. 23 post below); and b) their laptops.

Surprise! Today we want you to write; turn your interviews into articles. Some students gasped.

My partner and I strategized ahead of time, creating a basic story structure that we insist they follow. First, one sentence to summarize what your range of street sources told you about the Oct. 1 anniversary, with some indication why they’re saying what they’re saying. For example, if sources are excited, indifferent or of mixed opinions about the anniversary, include a few words about why.

Then, a deep, meaningful quote that SHOWS, say, the excitement or indifference. As I always tell students, you’re free to write whatever you want, but you must back it up with facts, statistics, anecdotes, quotes … anything to make your point credible.

Then a paragraph to explain the big picture: what the anniversary is, what Beijing is doing, why the authorities are doing what they’re doing. Then, a “reader-friendly” transition that brings us back to Hong Kong. This is story-telling, after all, and we can’t jerk the reader from idea to idea, without some connective tissue to smooth the ride. Here I introduce students to the wonders of the word “meanwhile” – as in, “Meanwhile, back in Hong Kong …”

Finally, we want more real-people perspectives. On paragraph to introduce a new character, explaining a bit of their story, where they’re coming from, what their views are. Then a supporting quote that explains why exactly they feel the way they feel about the anniversary.

That’s it: story structure in four parts. Three hundred words. In 90 minutes.

Meanwhile, my partner and I circle the room, coaching them individually when they hit a wall.

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Time to pound the pavement.

My teaching partner and I have devised the first reporting assignment for our 70 students, pegged to the Oct. 1 commemoration of 60 years since the founding of the People’s Republic of China – or in Western short-hand, six decades of the Communist regime.

The story out of Beijing is two-fold. First, a security clampdown borne of anxiety about anti-government protests: public celebrations will only be tolerated in the capital. Second, a show on par with the Beijing Olympics that will showcase China’s gleaming new military hardware, signaling both the country’s economic and diplomatic emergence on the world stage.

Reaction in Hong Kong, though, is mixed. The British handover in 1997 only hardened the pro-Chinese versus pro-democracy factions. Since most of our students are from the mainland – and hearing open criticism for the first time – we figured it’d be interesting for them to go gauge public opinion.

The benefit is manifold: build confidence in approaching strangers; understand what it means to collect a “cross-section” of public opinion – across socio-economic class, gender, age, etc; and hone a skill I’ve found to be the great weakness of a young journalist: the ability to dig deeply, beyond WHAT people feel or believe, to explore WHY EXACTLY they feel what they feel, or believe what they believe.

Moreover, we required them to find and email me English-language news links describing various anniversary activities planned for here and Beijing. This emphasizes the need for advanced preparation, to impress interviewees with their seriousness and enable them to ask smarter questions.

How will we measure how deeply they’ve dug? We’ve asked them to transcribe their interviews.

This should be interesting.

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Easy For You To Say

I started Cantonese class today, expecting to learn vital phrases like, “Please help! I’ve suffered a splinter from your disposable wooden chopsticks.”

What I didn’t expect was a singing lesson. But there we were, eight faculty in our free 10-week lesson, belting out the doh-ray-mees of the Canton dialect: six basic tones with names that conjure images of urban housing – high level, high rising, mid level, low level, low rising, mid low level.

Without even introducing ourselves, a collection of strangers was immediately forced to mimic the teacher’s peppy sing-song. Voices cracked, cheeks flushed. “There’s no judgment made,” she reassured us. “Make your mistakes here.”

The beauty of learning obscure languages, I’ve learned, is how much more the locals appreciate the effort. Understandably, they take it as a sign of respect, of cultural appreciation. I already have utterly impractical notches on my belt: conversational Hungarian and survival Slovak. I also know some niceties from a bunch of other East European countries — an essential for a foreign correspondent who asks for a lot of favors. So whatever I get out of this class, I know I’ll garner grins galore on the streets of Hong Kong.

On this day, my pitch was surprisingly good, catching the teacher’s attention. “How many years have you been here? Months? You must have a singing background?” Uh, not even in the shower.

Sure, I was flattered. But it also ratcheted up the pressure to replicate the feat on ensuing swings around the room.

Finally, she taught us a word, a phrase: How are you? “Dim-a?” (Don’t forget the high-rising tone on the “dim”!)

Again, I pulled it off. Which led to more individual praise from teacher: “Maybe you were Cantonese in a previous life?”

That threw me off. Rather than follow the last minutes of class, I day-dreamed of being a 19th-century opium smuggler, steering a waterlogged sampan

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While Eastern Europe celebrates 20 years since Communism’s collapse (see post below), the Communist Party is alive and well in China. This will be on display Oct. 1, as Beijing commemorates 60 years since founding the “People’s Republic of China” – in Western short-hand, the Communist regime.

The Party today uses more than heavy-handed suppression to prop up its regime: patronage is just as invidious and effective. One of my students from the mainland, May, matter-of-factly explains that her parents are small-town Party members, with a Mao statue in their home. Their faith is buffered by disgust with the materialism and corruption flourishing since the opening of China’s economy.

Her parents hope she will join the Party; May, 25, shares that sentiment.

Joining, however, is a highly competitive, drawn-out process. By May’s estimate, if a class has 30 to 40 students, only three or four will be selected. You need a high GPA, write an essay “about how much you love Communism, and what you’ll contribute to the Communists,” then a committee of senior Party cadres will interview the candidate to gauge their loyalty.

May, though, admits her motive for jumping through these hoops is not quite idealistic. “You sometimes feel hopeless,” she says. “Unless your family has connections, you can’t get a good job.”

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The Hungarians deserve credit for courage.

In 1956, a puny country of 10 million stood up to the mighty Soviet Empire, demanding reforms and an end to Stalinist repression. Moscow ordered in troops. More than 2,000 Hungarians were killed, another 200,000 fled into exile. (Including my father and his family.)

Then in 1989, as my Christian Science Monitor colleague Colin Woodard recently highlighted, the Hungarians literally snipped the first hole in the Iron Curtain.

I was delighted to be reminded of this tonight, way out here in the Far East. Walking through a campus lobby, I stumbled upon a Hungarian exhibit, connected to a symposium that’ll be held at HKBU later this week to commemorate the end of the Cold War twenty years ago.

I was struck, though, by the exhibit’s very first sentence: “The Red Army occupied Hungary in the Second World War.”

Well, that’s only partly true. In fact, it was the Nazis who occupied Hungary first, in Spring 1944, which suited some Hungarians just fine. The Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators cleansed the countryside of hundreds of thousands of Jews. A Hungarian Nazi-puppet regime then continued the blood-letting – until the Soviet Red Army liberated the capital, Budapest, in January 1945.

That the Soviets then stayed on is another story.

I can imagine why the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, co-sponsor of the symposium, wants to keep hush-hush what else happened during World War II. And, why it prefers to paint Hungary as only a victim. Thousands of miles away from Hungary, the ministry will likely get away with this distortion.

But at least one observer has taken notice.

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Now that I’ve begun blogging, I headed into the weekend consciously looking for a blog-able Hong Kong moment. Perhaps I was trying too hard.

Friday night, for example, I got together with a colleague, Tim Hamlett, and his friends to sample a dying breed of local dining: the open-air restaurant. In a working-class district, in the parking lot of a busy bus station – but amid festive neon – we tore into juicy roasted pigeons with our hands, batted our eye-lashes at the “beer girl” who encouraged us to refill our beer bucket, and enjoyed a nice chat. Good time, but not a full blog post.

On Saturday afternoon, I met with another colleague, Robin Ewing, for a tasty Pakistani lunch inside an HK landmark: Chungking Mansions, immortalized by the film Chungking Express. The “mansions” bit is tongue-in-cheek. It’s actually a notorious tenement in downtown Tsim Sha Tsui, at once hailed for its vast ethnic diversity and decried for drug-dealing, prostitution and fire hazards. Maybe next time, blog-worthy.

Around midnight, I headed home, walking through the Temple Street night market. Inspired by the scene, I sat for a beer at one of the sidewalk eateries. To my left, an old-timer gorged on three dozen snails, using a long toothpick to pry the suckers out. To my right, a younger fellow noisily slurped oysters from the shell. As the vendors packed up their Chinese knick-knacks (a painted Mao plate for just 20 bucks!), off-key karaoke escaped the nightclub behind me.

I pulled out my laptop, as I often do. This peculiar behavior drew the eye of my waitress, wearing a Mickey Mouse t-shirt. Smitten with my gear, but speaking only Cantonese, she jotted something on a piece of paper: $1,000. She wanted my computer for the HK equivalent of U.S. $125. “No, no,” I said. But she took this as my opening gambit in “the haggle.” She wrote another figure: $3,000. (U.S. $375.) Again, I refused. She thought I was playing hardball: $8,000!

I then realized that on the street, I’d somehow picked up wireless. Lo and behold, my wife popped up on Skype, asking if we could try the camera she’d just gotten. Within seconds, I was seeing my 8-month-old daughter for the first time in three weeks.

I wasn’t the only one delighted. The waitress grew so animated, a crowd gathered. With my daughter looking befuddled, half a dozen Chinese waved excitedly at her: “Hel-lo, bay-bee! Bay-bee!”

Now this, I thought, is a blog-able moment. Even a great ad for Skype video.

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Some things I’m learning about China aren’t just eye-opening for me, but even for students from the mainland.

Emily, who hails from the southern city of Guangzhou, says she believed official propaganda that portrayed a unified, harmonious China. Then, just before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she came across an article in Foreign Affairs, describing the unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang.

“I started to doubt if we were getting the truth,” she explained Wednesday.

This past weekend, she visited her hometown, not far from Hong Kong. Even there, her parents hadn’t heard about the issue that has dominated news in Hong Kong for more than a week: recent aggression by mainland police against HK journalists. (See posting below.)

I then asked our small discussion group if they thought mainland journalists admire the HK journalists for their spirited street protests, or are perhaps envious of HK colleagues who feel empowered enough to defend press freedoms they themselves are denied: one facet of the “One Country, Two Systems” policy that has reigned here since the end of British rule in 1997.

The question, it turns out, may be moot.

Sherry, a mainlander who last year interned at China Central Television (CCTV), says she recently emailed her former boss, asking what she thought of the HK protests.

The response: “What protests?”

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Outrage still smolders over police beatings of three Hong Kong television journalists covering inter-ethnic tensions in Xinjiang, China – providing me plenty of conversation fodder with my students.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association and Foreign Correspondents’ Club jointly protested Sunday, with the FCC calling for not only a formal investigation, but an apology from Xinjiang officials.

Yet the story behind the story was debate among journalists over if they should ever join a protest, forsaking their “observer” status. HKJA chief Yin-ting Mak addressed this Tuesday in a letter to association members:

Some journalists are concerned the younger generation may adopt such protest actions when they get blamed, assaulted or come under investigation in order to win glory … In principle, journalists should not be involved in news event so as to maintain objectivity in reporting. However, press freedom can and is also a news issue. When press freedom is trampled upon … reporters naturally become the main focus. I see no reason for holding back on involvement just because journalists are involved. It is like telling yourself to stop eating for fear of choking.

I always emphasize the need for reporters to be a neutral “fly on the wall,” detached from what they’re observing. But when they themselves are targeted, is silence tantamount to consent?

This sparked lively discussion among the half-dozen students I met Wednesday. As Carol put it, “If they beat my colleague and I do nothing, I may become afraid for my own rights and lose passion for telling the truth.”

It’s not black-and-white, yet there are consequences for speaking out. At first I thought, “Well, I suppose if they limited their protests to ‘their rights,’ but not criticize the government explicitly, that might work.” As our chat proceeded, though, I realized how naïve that was: How could Beijing not view the journalists’ protests as implicitly critical of an entire system that emboldens police to pummel them?

The “neutral” tag is tarnished regardless.

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The Chinese students here can be effusive with their praise.

Like the student who last week emailed the faculty: “Dear my teacher … Today is the Teachers’ Day. Happy Teachers’ Day! Please allow me to acknowledge my great thanks to you for your hard work. I hope I can be the first student to say ‘Happy Teachers’ Day’ to you.” (He was the first, in fact.)

The students can also be effusive with their apologies.

During my Week One lecture, I’d unveiled a “zero-tolerance” policy regarding spelling errors. I know English is the second or third language for my students. But just as I’ve told students in New York, Central Europe and elsewhere, in this day and age – with built-in spell-check – there’s no good excuse for an aspiring journalist to turn in typo-ridden work.

It’s a question of professionalism. What kind of impression would it make on an editor if you miss such easy-to-catch mistakes? Pick your poison: lazy, careless, unprofessional, lack of self-respect for your own byline. An editor’s job is to improve your copy, not clean up the mess.

Therefore, before you hit “send,” take FIVE more minutes to a) spell-check; and b) read the piece aloud, further improve the language and submit it in the best possible condition.

Today, one student emailed me to say, among other things: “Hi, Michael. My name is XXX XXX. I come form Shandong Province, east China. I’m your student … and I like you. Especailly you making faces … Have a nice day, sir.”

Twelve minutes later, a second email from her: “I just realized that I forgot to spell check my E-mail before I sent it out. I checked and find two mis-spellings: ‘from’, as in ‘I come from Shandong’; and ‘especially’ as in ‘especially you making faces’. I know, it is unforgivable, and you have every reason to think that I’m irresponsible, disrespectful, lazy, and incompetent. I just want to apologize and promise this would never happen again. I promise. And I’m so sorry.”

Unforgivable? Quite the contrary, I wrote back: I’m gratified to see my message hit home.

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